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Bethlehem’s Religious Proverbs and Sayings

Contributed by Adnan Mousallem on 27.01.2009:


My Hometown

From: the personal website of Dr Adnan Musallem:

Bethlehem’s Religious Proverbs and Sayings

The Late Dr. Issa Massou of Bethlehem and Bethlehem University

The amount of material ever written on the subject of religious folklore of the Holy Places in general, and that of Bethlehem in particular, is surprisingly small. The researcher in this unexplored field is thus bound to depend largely on first—hand information from local sources, and on close observation by long residence in the District, rather than on scattered writings.

Cultural contacts and assimilation of western values in the area have naturally restricted folkloric tendencies. Besides, the doyens of folklore are rapidly passing away. Perhaps there is no other science which faces this dilemma of rapid decline, and in which rescue work which is not attempted at once will never be again practically possible.

Fundamentally, religious folklore of the Bethlehem District, a main basis of the religious convictions of the unenlightened, indicates the inherently Semitic nature of its inhabitants, their proneness to exaggeration and use of flowery language characterized by its simplicity and vigor, and their persistence — in spite of adverse factors, in keeping Biblical modes of speech and behavior. The overall picture is Christian with a predominance of the Eastern Church lore. The deeply religious nature of the local inhabitant, though within narrow limits, and excluding deep subtleties, is emphasized in his utter dependence on God and in his emotional imagination. The great influence exerted by religion on a community which has been predominantly agricultural, emerges clearly.

The religious proverbs of the Bethlehem District are in many respects reflections of the local culture. But it will be easy to overestimate the importance of proverbs in general, and to consider them a safe guide to people’s character, opinions, feelings and customs. If proverbs as a whole cannot be relied on therefore to afford to us insights to a people’s spirit, religious proverbs — a small portion of people’s total proverbs — can much less afford such an understanding. Westermarck says, “Proverbs can only throw rays of light, never full light upon national characteristics.

If certain proverbs are found among one people and not among another, their absence among the latter by no means proves the absence of the facts they express.”(l)

Westermarck is not inclined to support the traditional view that proverbs are a true guide to a people’s character and temperament (2) — a view upheld by Francis Bacon who believed that “the genius, twit, and spirit of a nation are discovered by their proverbs.” (3) Seiler, before Westermarck has questioned the traditional view which regards proverbs as mirroring the spirit of a certain community. (4) Westermarck’s main claim is that a people’s proverbs cannot be taken as indicative of their character without full knowledge of other facts that the proverbs do not state.

Proverbs in general, and religious proverbs in particular, are not only reflections of life, but they also play an active part in it. (5) One of the main aims of proverbs is to influence people’s course of behavior. Bethlehemites are certainly very fond of quoting proverbs in their talk. An argument might be ended by quoting a proverb suitable for the occasion, and it shows knowledge; besides, they supply ready — made forms of expression which save trouble of finding words.

This influence which proverbs exercise is also partly due to their form. Most of Bethlehem’s proverbs are short, sharp and acute. These characteristics are essential in proverbial expressions. James Howell in his book “Paroimi graphia” published in 1659, said that the chief ingredients which go to make a true proverb are “sense, shortness -and salt.”(6) This compression of the idea is one of the reasons why translation is often such an uneasy and unrewarding task. The condensed cryptic character of many of the Bethlehem proverbs, their tendency to be formal and elevated , their rhythm and assonance, their figurative devices, all have combined to add to the difficulty of translating them, since it is the form that gives the majority of proverbs their “salt” and pungency.

In my rendition of these proverbs, I have aimed primarily, and as much as possible, at literal accuracy, without falling into ambiguity. Any attempt aiming at literal accuracy and doing justice to the formal beauty of the original, is apt to fail inevitably. As the- great humanist Erasmus, a student of proverbs, remarked, “Most proverbs have the peculiarity that they sound best in their native tongue, but if they are translated into another language they lose much of their beauty.”(7)

A problem, no less important than that of translation, obtains in the classification of the contents of subject matter of these proverbs. One might, at first sight, think that an easy way out might be to classify proverbs into Biblical or non — Biblical categories, proceeding then to classify each according to certain themes such as “universal wisdom” and “religious morality”. But the bases of such a classification is thereby confused, since “sources” of proverbs are mixed with their “morals”. I have attempted, without much success, to follow a classification, not based on “sources” but on “themes”. Unfortunately, the same proverb may fit more than one theme.

In various collections of proverbs, however, one notices many different schemes of classification — ranging from one based on the order in which the collector had jotted proverbs in his notebook (8), to alphabetical classification according to the first letters of the first word (9), or according to the first word itself, if it consists of one letter only, as is the case of English proverbs beginning with “A” (10), or according to the first letters of the first significant word; or according to subject (11), or according to various headings suggested by the person, animal, object or anything else round which they are woven.(12)

Every such system of classification is susceptible to fault, and is not difficult to criticize. Proverbs are subject to alterations and modifications which make alphabetical classification impractical. The weakness of classification under various headings suggested by the person, animal, or object, is evident when we see Rattray placing this proverb “If you strike a lion, your own hand will pain you” under the heading, ‘Wild Animals”(13) although, of course, the proverb is purely metaphorical.

Westermarck’s classification however, follows a new pattern which seems to me the most satisfactory of all the classifications mentioned. The proverbs which he has collected have been grouped together according to subjects or situations upon which they have a bearingl4) and I am following his method. This does not, however, mean that all difficulties are virtually removed, but it is certainly an improvement on the theme classification adopted by some other writers. The number that could fit under more than one category is therefore substantially reduced.

Bethlehem’s religious proverbs, which form a large percentage of all proverbs in common use, are an indication of the great influence religion exerts on people. In general they may be said (except when used ironically or satirically) to exhort people to the good, to forbearance and mercy, to perform their religious duties and to bear life’s vicissitudes.

Proverbs about priests seem to imply a certain anti — clerical attitude.

Frequent clashes between eastern and western clergy about rights and “status quo” in the Church of the Nativity may account to a certain extent for such an attitude.

In line with the typical oriental outlook, women are not favorably looked upon in Christian and Muslim proverbs — which are closely interrelated in this respect, hence, “He whose daughter dies, Virgin Mary dances in his house,” and “Women are deficient in reason and religion.” Women notorious for their long tongues, and too much interest in clothes are constantly the targets of attack by Muslims and Christians alike, hence, “Hell is paved with women’s tongues,” and “It is neither a feast nor Pentecost, why is the thoughtless woman bedecked.”

Owing to the fixed nature of most of the Christian feasts, Muslims, and especially peasants, employ proverbs containing references to Christian feasts, in the ordinary concerns of their life, since their own feasts vary. Thus we get, “As long as the Christian is fasting, the winter is still going on,” and “Do not cut the grapes to make raisins until the feast of the Cross has passed,” and “On the feast of Lydd * plough and cut open (the ground).” The inter—reaction of Islamic concepts such as predestination with the speech of Christians is evidently seen in the very common use by all of such a proverb as, “You may throw into the sea those whose safety is predestined.”

The proverbs that are strictly derived from Muslim sources are used by both Muslims and Christians, and are comparatively few in number, the reason being that Muslims were — until recently — fewer than Christians in the District. Indeed such a proverb as, “It’s good that it is your fault and not mine, 0 mosque of God’ is more often used by Christians than Muslims, while proverbs with Christian connotations are frequently used by Muslims such as, “Like St. George you are always present and watchful.” The reason for this is probably the great veneration with which Muslims regard Virgin Mary and St. George. Indeed some of the Bethlehem Muslim women are known to observe the Virgin’s Fast (1st — 14th) August).

The following proverbs, having a direct or indirect bearing on religion, are “fair samples” of the proverbs used in the District. They are divided for the sake of convenience into the following sections:

(For the remainder of the article, see:)

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