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Bedouins and peasants

Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 30.07.2007:

Palestinian Cave Dwellers and Holy Shrines: The Passing of Traditional Society

By Dr. Ali Qleibo

Every village is unique.

Field work reveals that the generic noun “peasant” has no absolute referential value. Moreover the traditional dichotomy of “Bedouin/peasant” totally dissolves when subjected to close analysis. In fact, both communities are “traders” – shrewd enterprisers symbiotically sharing overlapping ecological zones. Whereas the former trades with vegetables, fruits, and olive oil, the latter trades with sheep, milk, butter, cheese, and other dairy products that are indispensable to Palestinian cuisine. Both find their outlets in the market town: Gaza, Hebron, Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Nablus, or Jenin.

Urban centres and peasant and Bedouin communities date back thousands of years – to the early beginnings of the nascent Canaanite city-states. The Bedouins did not suddenly burst forth from the Arabian Peninsula, and the peasants are not simply a step in the social evolutionary ladder to urbanization. Rather through time the Palestinians, who are descendants of the ancient civilizations of the Near East, have diversified economic tactics in overlapping ecological zones. Over the past four millennia, the native Palestinian population has developed socially strategic adaptive tools of survival within an extremely harsh ecological system.

Throughout history a great diversity of peoples has moved into Palestine as their homeland: Jebusites, Canaanites, Philistines from Crete, Anatolian and Lydian Greeks, Hebrews, Amorites, Edomites, Nabateans, Arameans, Romans, Arabs, and European crusaders, to name a few. Each of them appropriated different regions that overlapped in time and competed for sovereignty and land. Others, such as Ancient Egyptians, Hittites, Persians, Babylonians, and Mongols, were historical “events” whose successive occupations were as ravaging as the effects of major earthquakes.

The Philistines fade into oblivion after the fifth century BC. The Nabateans survived through Roman Palestine. Herodia, the mother of Salome, was Nabatean. Like shooting stars, the various cultures shine for a brief moment before they fade out of official historical and cultural records of Palestine. The people, however, survive. In their customs and manners, fossils of these ancient civilizations survived until modernity – albeit modernity camouflaged under the veneer of Islam and Arabic culture.

In the mountains of Hebron, I had my first encounter with social practices that are “fossil” traditions – relics left behind from Nabatean culture.

“Please visit my village,” repeated Zuheir for the seventh time. Zuheir is one of my Ta’amri students from Tuqu’, south-east of Bethlehem. As my students follow the articles I write about Palestinian culture in the pages of This Week in Palestine, the invitations to visit and write about their villages increase.

“My next article is about the cave dwellers in Yatta and Samu’,” I explained. I had the impression that Tuqu’, with its sprawling concrete houses, was a contemporary shantytown populated by Ta’amri Bedouins who have recently shifted from a nomadic to a settled lifestyle.

“We also lived in caves.” he answered. “Not only did we live in caves, but our grandparents used to bury their dead in the same caves.”

I was surprised. I had learned that the people of Samu’, Yatta, and Bani Naim in southern Palestine were cave dwellers until twenty years ago. But I had not heard of this unique funerary custom.

Death and the dead – for both Jews and Moslems – are ritually polluting. The dead are de rigueur separated from the living.

I got in my car and drove to Um Salamonah, the scene of the ongoing, violent anti-Wall confrontations. I headed directly to Abu Nidal, the father of one of my students and my reliable cultural guide, to double-check the narrative. My students often return home and talk of their professor, and the parents become eager to meet this character, Ali Qleibo. Invariably the fathers of my students become my friends. They also become my cultural guides who provide native firsthand information and with whom I verify the various narratives from other sources.

“I was told that Ta’amri Bedouins used to live in caves,” I began. “But the typical image of the Bedouin is closely associated with tents and mobility.”

“From Jabal el-Mukabber, that is, the Sawahreh tribes southward to the fringes of Beersheba, people were all cave dwellers until the nineteenth century,” Abu Nidal patiently explained.

This is hard for a Jerusalemite to conceptualize. Jabal el-Mukabber is barely seven kilometres from Jerusalem. I come from a family of theology scholars who, during the past centuries, have lived in stone houses adjacent to the Dome of the Rock. Our family castle, on the grounds of the Rockefeller Museum, still stands as an eighteenth-century unique survivor of early Jerusalem suburban architecture. The idea that life was totally different outside Jerusalem always comes as a surprise.

“The Ta’amri Bedouins even had their own town, Um el Amad, but they abandoned it many years ago. The entire town is made up of cave dwellings.” Seeing the look of surprise on my face, Abu Nidal added, “This was the way we lived …”

The few classical Palestinian two-floor houses, composed of upper and lower rawieh in Um Salamonah, are relatively recent and do not predate the nineteenth century.

“We all lived in caves,” he repeated. “Do you remember seeing my family house? We went from the living/bedroom to the lower floor where the animals were kept. Well that lower floor is the single-level cave where we originally lived with our animals. The upper rawieh was a later addition.”

“Is it true that people used to be buried in the same caves where they lived?” I could not delay my question any longer.

“Yes. Do you want to visit these caves? You dig a bit in the ground, and you will see the skulls and bones. Come. I can take you now.”

Caves as dwelling-cum-burial-ground are common in Petra. Behind the beautifully carved roman facades of the pink city, one walks into a cave. Within the small cave, one sees two holes dug in the ground – a variation on the roman catacombs. Though little is known about Nabatean religion, one can easily surmise that ancestor worship was central in the culture. Deceased family members were buried in the hearth of the living quarters. In life and death they stayed together.

I did not venture into the cave. The caves I had visited in Samu’ had been abandoned quite recently and are somewhat squalid. I could not visualize myself as Harrison Ford in a quest for skulls and fighting off the crawling fleas. Moreover such an expedition cannot be carried out without adequate familiarity with methods of archaeology and total familiarity with Edomite and Nabatean cultures that had settled in antiquity in southern Palestine.

The past twenty years have witnessed the accelerated rhythm of an all-pervasive Palestinian suburbanization. The Palestinian countryside has become an ethnic blue-collar suburb. The caves – the traditional dwellings of Palestinian peasants – are quickly disappearing. The grandchildren of the cave dwellers have benefited from the economic opportunities that were provided by the early years of Israeli occupation. They were born and grew up in the modern villas that ramble throughout the West Bank, interrupted only by the hideous settlements. Various village groupings have clustered into cantons whose boundaries are defined by the Wall that separates the indigenous population not only from the clusters of Israeli settlements but also from the other side of the Green Line.

Fahed, a friend from Tarqumiyah, south-west of Bethlehem and a few kilometres east of Bet Gibrin, confirmed the burial custom.

“We moved out of the caves recently. But most of our cave dwellings have been levelled. As people worked in Israel, they had enough money to build. But the caves could not carry the weight of the new houses. Thus they were destroyed, and new structures were built on the ruins.” He proudly added, “Our family cave is the only one that survives. My father kept it because his father and his grandfathers are buried there, and he wants to be buried with his family …”

“Don’t you have cemeteries?” I inquired.

“There is a modern cemetery; but father wants to be buried with his father … in the cave where they used to live.”

Identity – whether personal or collective, individual or cultural – is fiction; a construction and merely a codification of past events, real or imaginary. Identity is first and foremost a discursive narrative that validates the present by selecting events, characters, and moments in time as formative beginnings.

In Palestine, Moslem historiography has assigned the advent of Islam, seventh century AD, as the beginning of Palestinian cultural identity. Pagan origins are disavowed. As such the peoples that populated Palestine throughout history have discursively rescinded their own history and religion as they adopted the religion, language, and culture of Islam. The diversity of the customs and manners of the Palestinian social landscape bears witness to the multiplicity of the early Semitic peoples’ ancient waves of migration and settlement in the various regions of the land of Canaan.

Research demonstrates that mosques in the countryside are modern phenomena. Until the end of the nineteenth century, in lieu of mosques, people turned to local patron saints, each of whom had his own maqam, the typical domed single room in the shadow of an ancient carob or oak tree. Each village has its own narrative that describes its holy man, his special grace with God (karamat), his power of intercession (shafa’at), and the miraculous context in which the maqam was built … Holy men, awlia’ Allah, were the centre of religious life at a time when the absolute transcendent other was deemed unreachable. These saints, tabooed by orthodox Islam, mediated between man and the Supreme One.

Saints’ shrines and holy men’s memorial domes dot the Palestinian landscape – an architectural testimony to Christian/Moslem Palestinian religious sensibility and its roots in ancient Semitic religions. The holy site may be a modest square room with a melancholy dome crouching in the shadow of an ancient oak tree perched on the lonely crest of a mountain (as in the villages of Anata, Atara, Halhul, and Yatta), or guarding the entrance of a tiny village or city (as in Husan, Bitunia, Jaffa, or Gaza), or tucked away in the labyrinthine alleys of Jerusalem (Al-Qirami or Sheikh Rihan), or simply a cave next to an ancient oak tree on the site of the rubble of an ancient forgotten abandoned town.

Biblical and Moslem symbols and personages furnished ready-made cross-cultural syncretism: Prophet Jonah (Yunes) in Halhul is both a biblical and Moslem prophet; St. George, known to Moslems as el Khader, provided another symbol. Invariably tombs of companions of the prophet became holy places. Even when names and personages were lacking, the local religious sensibility invoked spirits whose mediation kept humanity in grace with God … El-Qwedrieh is a cave that lies in the rubble of an old abandoned hamlet in the shadow of a huge oak tree outside Halhul. It provides yet another testimony to earlier forms of ancient Semitic religious beliefs masked in the symbolism borrowed from the Judaeo-Christian Moslem tradition. Significantly the big modern mosque of Halhul, El-Sheikh Yunes Mosque, was built so as to encompass the old maqam of el-Sheikh Yunes, which survives as a precious relic preserved within the modern construction.

“People used to pray in the maqam,” Abu Ala’ in Samu’ explained. “We were small in number; the village did not exceed three hundred members, and few men prayed …”

Until the Crimean War neither Moslem nor Christian religious identity was clearly defined. Religion as constitutive of individual identity was relegated to a minor role within Palestinian tribal social structure. Fr. Jean Moretain expressed his surprise concerning Christian/Moslem common practices. Writing in 1848 during the restoration of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, he described his concern that Palestinian Christians could not be distinguished from Moslems. A Christian was “distinguished only by the fact that he belonged to a particular clan. If a certain tribe was Christian, then an individual would be Christian, but without knowledge of what distinguished his faith from that of a Muslim.”

Following the Crimean War, the Latin Patriarchate in Jerusalem was established. Until then the cultural/religious identity of both the Moslem and Christian Arab populations in the countryside remained amorphous. It is difficult to imagine that, until the nineteenth century, orthodox religious life outside the urban centres did not exist.

The Crimean War and its aftermath – the concessions given by the Ottoman Sultanate to its allies, notably France – had a great repercussion on the shaping of contemporary Palestinian religious cultural identity. The modernization of Palestine, the transformation of religion into an element constitutively constituting the individual/collective identity in conformity with orthodox precepts, was a major building block in the political development of Palestinian nationalism. Henceforth it became possible for the state to penetrate, through church and mosque, the Palestinian heartland.

As I drive through the Hebron mountains, I am overwhelmed by the handsome stone villas surrounded by rose gardens amidst vineyards whose well-tended terraces clamber up and down the undulating hills. Signs of wealth abound. Work opportunities in construction sites, restaurants, or factories in Dimona, Eilat, Ashdod, Tel Aviv, and most recently, the Israeli settlements and the Wall have provided surplus cash flow that is reflected in the beautiful, comfortable homes amidst well-laid-out vineyards and gardens.

As the construction of the separation Wall approaches its end, a moral dilemma rages within these homes. The people live in fear that their source of income will soon stop. The money gleaned from previous work has been used up to buy plots of land, to build comfortable homes, to send their children to schools and universities, and to finance a new standard of suburban-consumer lifestyle. Jobs in settlements or the secret crossing over into Israel for work will soon become impossible. The cash flow that the Israeli occupation had provided will come to an end.

“I wish the old days of occupation were back …” confided Abu Shadi. He is a truck driver for building materials. “Even during the first Intifada we could travel everywhere, and there was plenty of work. Only after Oslo did our malaise begin.”

Abu Shadi’s dissatisfaction with the Palestinian Authority is commonplace. I have heard it throughout the West Bank and Gaza. Individual economic interest overwhelms the impersonal historical processes.

As an anthropologist, a participant observer, I keep my distance. I listen but cannot respond. In the same vein, I abstain from giving history lessons; ultimately does it make a difference whether Abu-Shadi’s grandfather was Nabatean or Edomite?!

“We have always survived in this land. Does the colour of the flag matter?” Abu Shadi expressed his personal fears as he displaced them on politics and politicians.

Back in Jerusalem at a dinner hosted at the residence of Maria-Ines and Jose-Miguel, the Chilean representative to the Palestinian Authority, the same discussion came up.

“One cannot underestimate the value of Oslo,” Mr. Zikrur el Rahman, the Indian representative said. “The Palestinian question had almost boiled down to humanitarian aid to the refugees and a class struggle for the Palestinian blue-collar workers in Gaza and the West Bank.”

All side conversations stopped. Everyone listened attentively since His Excellency is a leading specialist in Palestinian affairs and was one of the closest friends of Arafat.

“Arafat transformed the Palestinian Question from the economic humanitarian help given to the refugees into a symbolic transcendent struggle for an independent state. He gave the Palestinians a glimpse and the promise of a national state.”

In Palestine the summer always takes us by surprise. Within a period of two weeks, the lush green spring landscape dotted with colourful wild flowers shrivels, dries up, and dies. Now dusty ochre colours our mountains. Summer is here. The fields have been harvested; the wheat, barley, chickpeas, and lentils have been stored away. The fields will stay fallow until the next September rains. The apricots have already been succeeded by the great diversity of plums, peaches, and prunes that our mountains yield. They will soon be followed by the grapes, figs, and quince … By the time the guavas and dates ripen, green oranges will be back in the market. The days will shorten in anticipation of the olive season, and winter will follow.

Partially indifferent to and partially unaware of the great civilizations from which they descend, our Bedouins and peasants continue to enjoy the turn of the seasons on their fatherland. The summer season provides the ideal time for weddings. I find myself on the wedding guest list in all the villages. As I join in these celebrations, I realize that there is not a single family that is not busy preparing for the wedding of a son, a daughter, a cousin, a nephew, or a niece.

Despite the bleak Palestinian political scene, life goes on as ever.


This Week in Palestine

August 2007

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