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Bet Suriq/Bet Shinneh

Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 30.06.2007:

Love and Life in a Palestinian Village

By Dr. Ali Qleibo

Three huge ancient oak trees huddle closely together, and two younger ones, not more than two hundred years old, stand to their right in the curb along the winding road from Jerusalem to Bet Suriq. The history of these trees dates back more than five hundred years; remnants of a Palestine once famed for its oak woods. In contrast, the history of the Palestinian countryside remains shrouded in mystery. Marriages, deaths, real estate transactions, inheritances, endowments, etc., were not documented. Archives, the memory of the people, are written in the city. History, major events, and historiography took place exclusively in the city.

The myth of Qays and Yaman, the mythological southern- or northern-Arabia tribal affiliation, reflects local prejudices and pretensions as Palestinians sought to establish prestigious lineages with famous Arabian tribes in the Arabian Peninsula. In pursuit of illustrious Arabic lineage, a founding ancestor with claims of descent from a particular tribe in Arabia is invariably invented. In fact, most Palestinian villages are composed of four or five tribes that are allied because of common descent from northern (Qays) or southern (Yaman) Arabia. Clusters of villages form alliances based on this distinction. They are in turn bound by various obligations and courtesies to each other. In general, the Yamanis – with origins going back to the great old ancient civilizations of southern Arabia – consider themselves superior, i.e., more civilized than the Qasi who are mostly sheepherders. The Palestinian sociological discourse reifies the local mythology as the main focus of its study.

Upon analysis, life in the countryside appears to have been quite bleak. Instead of the romantic image we hold of a village with a cottage and a happy extended family, peasants were mostly cave dwellers or those who lived in a simple single-room stone structure built on the cave. The reality was grim. Unhygienic crowded living conditions and homes shared with livestock helped diseases run rampant. Up to ninety years ago, the mortality rate was high. Longevity was low. Few children would have known their fathers. Experiencing a friendly grandfather or a tender grandmother was extremely rare. Poverty kept them chronically undernourished. Older generations were smaller in size, sickly, and physically unattractive – quite different from the tall, handsome young men and women who populate the countryside now.

Peasants were victims to merciless tax collectors, marauding Bedouins, and usurers. Failing crops forced them to borrow money. In these conditions, many fathers simply escaped from the villages, shifted locations, and turned into robbers to survive … Children were often sold into slavery; village life was unstable and insecure.

The nineteenth century myth of pastoral bliss is a bourgeois fantasy.

“Our village was poor and could not pay the levied taxes,” explained Abu Mujahed, my host. “The chief of Abu Ghosh was well-connected to the Turks. To collect adequate taxes, he arranged that each village up here in the rocky mountains have fertile lands in the coastal plane.”

“Do you have lands on the coast?” I was surprised.

“Each village has its own parallel sister village on the coast. We in Bet Suriq have Bet Shinneh; Abu Gosh people had Imwas. Bet Annan, Biddu, and Qattanah have their own parallel sister villages and properties in the coastal area scattered between Latrun and Lod.”

“After 1948 we came here penniless to the old abandoned cave house.” Hajjeh Sarah, his 65 year old mother, who had already made her pilgrimage to Mecca, interrupted her prayers, stopped rounding the rosary beads, and explained: “We had left our lands and homes and took refuge in our mother village.”

“They needed ten tons of cereals to plant their fields in Bet Shinneh,” explained Abu Mujahed.

“But then you are refugees in Bet Suriq!” I exclaimed.

“No, it is our village too; our mother village. We moved between the two villages. Our lands were in the coastal plain village, in Bet Shinneh.”

Sarah is a regal matriarchal lady who smoothly administers the household by her innate ability to command everyone’s respect. In fact, all her male offspring live in a single hosh, a common family-living quarter, recently bought from the lands that belong to Biddu village. Because of its position on the 1948 partition line and the expansion of Israeli settlements into their south-western lands, Bet Suriq could only expand northward into land bought from the neighbouring village.

Though the sprawling architecture in the hosh may be compared to modern condominiums in the comfort provided by their modern conveniences, the underlying social structure is traditional. Each of the three sons lives with his family in his own living quarters that he constructed with his own money on collective property purchased after the 1967 War by the father.

In their hosh, they live communally as they once lived in the traditional single room. In modernity the sheep, chickens, pigeons, and rabbits have been moved to an independent shed separated from the living quarters by the family parking lot. Fifty years ago, the livestock shared the same ceiling but in the cave that served as the rock foundation for the typical domed single-room extended-family dwellings. A small staircase joined the two floors, upper and lower rawieh, and a common doorway led to the hosh outside.

The hosh as a family unit survives.

The enterprising father, husband of Sarah, worked hard in Israeli construction sites in West Jerusalem, saved his earnings, and bought twenty dunums in the sixties from the land of Biddu, next to his brother’s newly acquired property. Sarah then sold her jewellery – gold coins that form a tiara embedded in the traditional cap a woman wears under her white head kerchief – and thus built the first rooms on top of the hill.

As the children grew up and joined the Arab labour Israeli market, they saved money, married, and built their own modern additions to the father’s house.

The simple two-room parental structure mushroomed into a rambling complex. These modern apartments took into consideration the urban concept of privacy; separate bedrooms were built, family/sitting/TV room separate from public salon for receiving guests, a modern kitchen, and a minimum of two bathrooms. Unlike urban apartment buildings, these rural annexes ramble around. An internal staircase – a symbolic umbilical cord – spirals between the terraced apartments connecting all the various floors and houses to that of the grandparents and to each other.

In modernity they remain one indivisible family.

Love for each other binds peasants solidly together. This bond – the sense of family solidarity – is almost impossible for us Jerusalemites to conceive. What we may perceive as social pressure, overwhelming obligations, and tremendous self-sacrifice underlies peasant joie de vivre. The joy that permeates village life is integrally related to deeply internalized reciprocal deference and love. Peasant sense of identity and of self-hood is not privatized within the individual body and mind; rather, the individual perceives the “family” as an irreducible part of himself. It is as though the extended family is an expansion of him/her into three-dimensional spaces that take form in the three-generation family members.

The joy is one, and the sadness is one.

As a single body that extends into the various individuals, they cannot savour life without each other. They see each other daily, they eat together, they plan their strategies together, and they work together on the construction sites. In fact, they are categorically one. The children of the brothers do not differentiate between the father and the uncle. Apart from the uncle’s function as genitor, nephews dissolve the category “father/uncle” into one equal to that of “father in our society.”

The young boy or girl who wants to buy a chocolate bar or ice cream or who needs small cash goes to any of his fathers’ brothers and asks for money. There is no differentiation between cousins as to my father or his father … the father as genitor ends as such … the other functions are interchangeable.

Generalizations gleaned from particular experiences, however, may be misleading. As I travel in the Palestinian countryside, field-work experience yields a single inevitable conclusion: there is no such thing as the typical peasant family. In fact, each village has its own character, its own (albeit unknown) history, its own geography, its own customs and manners. Each household has its own character and individuality.

There are no generic peasants. Each family is its own case with its own unique outlook, expectations, and attitude to life.

It is a sociological truism that peasants generally keep sheep and chickens, that they plant cabbages, lettuce, onions, cucumbers, and tomatoes, and that they have olive, peach, apricot, fig, and almond orchards. They also tend vines. They may have Qays or Yaman tribal affiliations. The village may consist of various tribes with varying prestigious pedigrees. The ceremonial food may be musakhan, mansaf, or maftul. But it does not all taste the same. Each family has its own unique flavour.

And of course not everyone has Jamileh as the grandiose matriarch, the great beauty from Bet Shinneh and the mother of Hajjeh Sarah.

Jamileh came to Bet Suriq when Sarah was barely three years old.

Palestine was lost.

The village of Bet Shinneh was lost.

They took refuge in the abandoned cave dwellings around the old water spring. The father, Mohammad, worked very hard as a hired hand in the fields. They suffered bleak, poor days.

The fifties and sixties were very difficult years. Exasperated by his poverty he went secretly to Beirut with a group of friends. He returned a few days later with a visa to Venezuela.

“I want to try my fortune in South America,” Mohammad whispered to his wife, “and I need money.”

He asked Jamileh to sell her jewellery to use as his capital in the new world.

“If I succeed, I will buy you more. If I fail, I shall return and will look for other alternatives. But I can’t bear living this poor any longer.”

For years the great beauty with fair skin, blonde hair, and blue eyes remained working the fields, harvesting the wheat, winnowing and thrashing the sheaths, enduring hardship and waiting for her young husband to return. Mohammad was her cousin and 13 years her junior.

“My mother’s story is well-known. Among us peasants, being extremely beautiful meant that only her cousin could marry her. But he died the day of the wedding, and she could not re-marry for many years. Finally, when she was 25, a cousin came of age and they betrothed her to him ….” Hajjeh Sarah clarified.

“He was 13 years old. Her parents protested. But her uncle claimed her as the “right” of his young son,” Abu Mujahed added.

“He was a young boy,” Sarah resumed. “Mother would harvest the wheat all day long while he played. Then he would fall asleep and she would carry him to bed.”

I did not dare ask for any explanations. Any comment on my side would be inappropriate.

“He went from village to village and home to home in Venezuela selling cloth from a suitcase. He worked very hard until he finally saved a bit of capital to start his own shop. He then returned to his wife to whom he had remained loyal throughout the years of his absence.”

“Maybe we have secret aunts and uncles in Venezuela?” joked Hamdi, the younger son.

The three brothers teased their mother about the possible infidelity of her father during these years of absence. But Sarah was confident that her father had been loyal and abstinent. He had told her that he was always in love and extremely faithful to her mother. The context did not allow me to delve into father/daughter confidential friendship. Sarah married a cousin from Bet Suriq and stayed behind in the old country.

Her father and mother and brothers live happily in Venezuela. They long to visit the fatherland but it is extremely difficult for Venezuelans to obtain visas to Israel.

Sara, underneath the veil of reverence, is radiant. But she is coquette too. She brought out her fine embroidery dresses.

The grandchildren were instructed to bring the bu’jeh from her bedroom. A bu’jeh is a big scarf in which fine clothes are stored. The four corners of the scarf are tied together in two overlapping knots. Each corner is tied to the scarf’s corner on the opposite side. Then the two overlapping knots are wrapped once again together. The Japanese furoshki brings the aesthetic cloth-wrapping mode to a great artistry. In contrast, the bu’jeh’s simplicity presents discreet, less-pompous storage cloth. Bu’jeh, like the furoshki, is also used to carry various things – food to the field, clothes to the hammam, gifts to friends, and sundry items. Within the folds of the bu’jeh, gold and money are usually hidden.

From between her embroidered dresses, she pulled out her taqiyye, the traditional head cap studded with rows of golden coins, and handed it over for my inspection.

“Mashallah!” I said, using the right formula to avert evil eye and envy. “How do you wear all this gold? It is quite heavy!”

She smiled.

“It is not gold, it is from the suq in Amman. It is false. I sold my gold when we bought the land. This is how we built the house.”

My daughter’s dream of a family – the mythological family with a wonderful grandmother, uncles and aunts and many cousins – finds its realization in Bet Suriq. The native informants helping me in my field work have become our family. The children love the pop singer Massari, Haifa Wahbeh, Shakira, etc.… Shuruq, Abu Mujahed’s 13-year-old daughter, is a poet. In her diary, she daily jots her commentary, her thoughts, and her feelings interspersed with her own poems that she shares only with my daughter Aida. Her mom does not even know about the diary. Back in Jerusalem, in the quiet of the summer night, my daughter Aida is never alone; she is invariably online with her friend Shuruq from Bet Suriq.

During my last visit, my friends were sad. The Separation Wall that is still under construction in Bet Suriq winds between my friends’ properties. Various plots of land, each approximately 80 to 120 dunums, have been lost. It is the season to plough the earth under the olive trees, and for the first time they cannot access their lands; they are either beyond the Wall or incorporated in the Wall.

Ironically Abu Mujahed and his two brothers work as construction workers in the Israeli settlements built on the land of Bet Suriq.

“I live here,” I confided to my friend,” I know and sympathize with you, but the world at large doesn’t share my sympathy. People think of us as sell-outs, corrupt, and collaborators.”

I was referring to the endemic paradoxical moral dilemma with which the Palestinians in their homeland must live. The Israeli settlements in the West Bank have been built by us. And as we demonstrate and denounce the “racist separation” Wall, it is essentially a Palestinian labour force, Palestinian supervisors, and Palestinian entrepreneurs who have helped make the wall a reality.

Food was served, and I was asked to come to the table.

Abu Mujahed did not answer. Instead I learn of Abu Nidal’s fears as he sees his village, Um Salamonah, south-east of Bethlehem, being overtaken by the Wall.

“Before 1967 we lived off the land completely,” Abu Nidal described the present tragedy. “All produce was seasonal. We put salt in the tomatoes, sun-dried them, and stored them. Wage labour with Israelis changed all this, and now we cannot return to the old pattern of subsistence. Employment has already become scarce. With the partition Wall, we will become beggars.”

Bet Suriq is almost ten kilometres from my house in Sho’fat. As I turn off the road left of Nebi Samuel and drive to Bet Iksa, the narrow single-lane road twists and turns through lush peach, plum, and olive groves. At the end of a sharp curve, three huge ancient oak trees huddle closely together and, to their left, another two smaller ones stand providing ample cool shadow from the blazing sun. At their sight I feel as though I am already home. I think of the generations of travellers to Bet Suriq; the coming home of Sarah’s father to take his beloved wife on his return trip to Venezuela. The road was not yet paved. He must have stopped to rest there. His heart must have quickened its beats at their sight.

If he plans to return to visit his offspring in the old country, he should rush back. When the Wall construction is complete, this road will be blocked. Bet Suriq will have become an island that can be reached only from Ramallah.

The ancient oak trees will stand as silent, lonely, forlorn witnesses to the tribulations of history.

Article photos by Ali Qleibo.

Dr. Ali Qleibo is an anthropologist, author, and artist. He can be reached at


This Week in Palestine

July 2007

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