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Artas and the Song of Songs

Contributed by Arab Educational Institute on 16.05.2006:

Like in the Bible, traditional Palestinian peasant life took its wisdom from connecting the human universe with the flora and fauna of the land. The body, relationships, and human virtues and vices were given meaning through the prism of the surrounding nature.

For instance, of a house full of children it was said:

“The house is full like the pomegranate.”

Peasant society was seen through the characteristics of plants:

“The vine is a town lady, the olive an Arab and the fig a peasant woman.”

This proverb is from the book on Palestinian plant folklore “From Cedar to Hyssop,” written by the ladies Baldensperger and Crowfoot who lived in the village of Artas in the beginning of the 20th century. They explain the last proverb in the following way: “The vine is delicate and requires care, the olive grows out on the mountains and can protect itself, while the fig tree, which is hardly less important to the fellah [peasant] than the other two, is homely and is planted near the village.”

Palestinian religion has always been close to nature. The ancient nature of Palestine was dotted by sacred places, high above the ground (the “high places” in the Bible, often marked by holy trees), or down under the ground, in caves. During the dry season rain processions were conducted in order to beg the divine for water. During centuries of Christianity, worried peasants carried in front of them images of Canaanite Gods and later on the image of the Virgin Mary. Peasants prayed before sowing, like the peasants in Artas:

“O Lord feed us,

Oh Lord feed others from us,

Thou who feedest the birds

In the dark of the night,

Thou who feedest the worm

In the dark stone.”

Due to the beautiful weather most of the year; it was common to have agricultural festivals in the open air. The Western feast of Thanksgiving can be traced back through the Hebrew feast of Succoth to the thanksgiving celebrations that the ancient peasantry of Palestine held in the open air during or immediately after the harvest. During such feasts, which used to take place near a castle (qasr) in the countryside, it was common to listen to story telling, to share the meal, and to sing and clap in rhythmic harmony with nature. Religion was a modest request for receiving the life-giving elements that peasants needed for their survival. After harvest, religion allowed for an abundant celebration of the gifts.

Trills

Peasants used to sing folksongs when building a house or collecting the harvest. Singing was a celebration of work doing or being done, and it was shared at other occasions of happiness such as a wedding or at the hearing of a joyful tiding. Bethlehemite women still chant formulaic sentences with trills, for instance:

A-yee – Thank God, my heart was patient and did not fail.

A-yee – The rope of estrangement has loosened after its tautness.

A yee – By the Life of Him to whom the night stars are explained.

A-yee – My heart has been anxiously waiting for this day.

When a son would return home after a long departure, village women used to come in procession carrying torches and singing trills in front of the house.

The lyrical Old Testament Song of Songs is full of expressions that resemble Arab folk song traditions, and scholars have detected close parallels by studying the Biblical text sentence by sentence. Here is an example of Palestinian trills that resemble the Song of Songs:

A-Yee – Your face is round containing 18 cities

A-Yee – Your mouth is a gold ring containing a sweetmeat box

A-Yee – Your breast is a garden where peaches and pomegranates grow

A-Yee – The waist is a bunch of silk perplexing people

A-Yee – Oh, your tallness resembles that of the giraffe

A-Yee – Your speech is all full of gentility

A-Yee – Your mouth drops honey seasoned with knafeh [a kind of pastry stuffed with nuts, sugar etc.]

Mahmoud Darwish

Musa Sanad, who started the folklore revival in the village of Artas, believes that the surrounding land is so beautiful that it must have been here that King Suleiman wrote his Song of Songs. Mahmoud Darwish, the Palestinian poet who has recently been awarded the Prince Claus Prize, spoke in a book called “Palestine as metaphor,” about his poetry being influenced by the Song of Songs, one of the world’s greatest love poems. He explained how the poetry of the Songs of Songs is a product of the meeting of civilizations, of the meeting of Sumerians, the Egyptians and the Canaanites. Darwish considers himself the depository of various cultures and cultural works, including the Bible. When he would write his own book of Genesis, he said, he would do it in the form of a dialogue between the cultures that have succeeded each other in the land of Palestine. The holy texts are the propriety of all humanity, and the eastern Mediterranean is the birth place and the infancy garden of the great human civilizations, he said.

Palestinian folk songs and trills are still sung today, and have been revived by modern folklore troupes.

AEI Bethlehem, December 2004

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