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Aida Kattan (6) Traditions from the home courtyard

Contributed by Spirit Of Sumud Tourism Program on 28.08.2009:

Aida Kattan is a teacher from Beit Jala.


Let me tell you about life in the courtyard of the Palestinian house as it still was when I was young, during the 1950s and 60s.

When the women finished their work inside the house – the cooking, the preparation for the lunch and the wash – they came and sat together in the courtyard in front of the house. When the courtyard was large, with several houses around it, there were no tiles. They just sat on the earth, without chairs. There usually was an oven and a well. Maybe some small children played around. The women made bread in the oven outside in the morning, at noon time and in the evening, three times a day.

When somebody made bread in the morning, somebody else said, “I want to do it in the afternoon.” They took turns. They gave each other bread to bake in the oven. Large pieces of bread were put on the stones. While somebody was baking, and it turned out that she had other food, then maybe one of the neighbors said – Look, she has lentils, give me something for the kids or the baby. And then they fed their kids or the baby from the food available. Maybe a woman would say that the baby did not eat inside the house, and now she wanted to try to feed him outside. It all came very natural.

Maybe some eight or ten neighbors who were free came in to sit down on the earth, doing some work like embroidery. They often worked on the embroidery, slowly doing the stitch. They worked a long time on a dress; it took maybe 3 or 6 months to finish it.

They also told each other stories. Maybe they were talking about the men, or the women, the children, the rich people. They learned from each other about the news in the quarter. All the women wanted to hear the latest news from the quarter or from the towns – Bethlehem, Beit Jala and Beit Sahour.

They were happy, there were no quarrels, they made jokes, they enjoyed themselves. They made for each other coffee, or they gave fruits. So while they were sitting with each other, each did different things: one made bread, the other brought fruits, the third made coffee. And then they also read the cup, they read the fortune (bachit), and they were laughing. Is there a groom, would there be children? They invented news.

There was a well, an oven, en maybe a grinder (tachoune) of stones. They grinded wheat, lentils or rice, anything. There usually were no red lentils. The lentils were big and had to be broken.

Often visitors came. For instance, somebody went out and brought for instance the wife of her son, or some small children. No men were allowed in. In winter they did not sit outside, they went inside.

There used to be more visitors coming in than today. There was no TV or computer, so people visited each other. The host could offer raisins, dried figs, malban (a sweet made from dried grapes), and almonds, all from the garden, veranda or courtyard. And they served coffee and tea.

The people were not complicated; they were easy and nice. They did not read and write. They told stories. Especially women of 70, 80 years told stories. The younger women learnt the stories, and told them further to their own children. The stories were about the past, the war for instance. They also did trills when there was a wedding, or when a baby was born, or when there was the chotbe [asking the hand of the bride], or any special happening. They stayed there in the afternoon from two or three until six or seven, until it was dark, as there was no electricity and light. Afterwards everybody went to their houses to prepare for the evening meals. Inside the homes they had lamps working on gas.

They rarely had visitors from outside the neighborhood. For them, life outside the neighborhood was strange, but it was also attractive. The people were extremely generous towards such visitors. They cooked for them. To people from abroad, they gave raisins or dried figs, products not known to people living outside. Until not long ago the people in Beit Jala made dried figs, malban, raisins. Now they buy chocolate and so on, which is not very tasty. With visitors, they used to start with lemonade. Then fruits. Then raisins, dried figs and malban. And then something hot, like a meal. Then the coffee. Coffee had to be offered first to the older men, than to the younger ones. Coffee is more official, tea more informal.

In the past those who emigrated to America came back for some time to look for a bride. They married, and then went back. In the past it took you two months or 45 days to go to the US, by ship. It was expensive. There were many people who never came back, such as those who went to South America. They went and stayed there, you never heard from them anymore.

November 2008

Interviewer: Toine van Teeffelen

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