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Encounter in Surif Palestinian Peasant Household Solidarity

Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 30.11.2007:

By Dr. Ali Qleibo

The summer has come to an end; the guava season is over, and the olives are harvested. As the sunset shifts farther and farther south, the shadows grow longer and the daylight grows shorter … By four o’clock it is dark. Green oranges, tangerines, and pomelos fill the market. Winter is well on the way.

Um Naser of Beit Ummar was overjoyed to see Aida and me return to her home with “the staircase of roses.”

“Thank you for the beautiful article … thank you for the beautiful picture …” She repeated as she took my hand in both her hands and lead me to a chair in her courtyard. “This is the professor who wrote the article …” she told everyone.

The courtyard was filled with people. Um Naser was surrounded by her sons and her four daughters, each with a spouse and children.

“My son has come to visit from Amman … and we are having a family reunion.”

Daughters, daughters-in-law, and grown-up granddaughters were engaged in the cooking of the festive maftul to celebrate the occasion. Some were steam-cooking the tiny round pasta, others stood by as one bent over to stir the chickpeas, onion, and tomato-based sauce while others huddled in the old taboon cheerfully roasting the chicken.

Um Naser’s face beamed as she surveyed the romping children climbing up and down the stairs, running in and out of the kitchen, and playing in the garden.

She flustered. “You must stay and eat with us.”

Tea with mint, sage tea, and coffee were offered all at the same time by the various daughters.

“Where is your brother from Amman?” I inquired.

“We have five brothers.” I turned around; there was no man in sight.

“They come and go …” another explained.

“All will be here by one.”

The daughters would sit momentarily with us before going off to stir the stew or lift the lid from the maftoul; they would return carrying tea or coffee. One is an English language teacher, another heads the women’s association, another works in the municipality. All are university graduates, unveiled, and dressed in modern clothes.

A merry excitement enveloped the hubbub in the kitchen, garden, pantry, and bedroom.

“Take me to the other family in Kharas,” Aida sulked. The family reunion with the numerous rambunctious boys and shy girls was naturally noisy. In Kharas they have two daughters her age. She wanted to play quietly with them.

“Kharas is more than half an hour away … and I have a story for my next article here.” I tried to reason with her.

“I don’t want to eat maftul,” she muttered and continued sipping the mint tea with one hand and the sage tea with the other. There were over fifty persons. It was overwhelming.

I took my leave, apologizing that friends were waiting farther down the road and promised to return for lunch.

“Anytime between 1:30 and 3:00 …”

I looked surprised. “What is the exact lunch time?” I wanted to take pictures of the family gathering for the article.

“Food will be ready by 1:30, but each group eats as they come. We don’t all eat at once.”

“The men will have arrived by then and you can meet Abu Rashed from Amman.”

We drove down the steep hills leading to the coastal plane past Surif. Along the roadside, men were busy cutting and arranging olive wood in preparation for the long, cold winter nights.

Twenty years ago we would take this road to our orange orchard in Gaza. Now the stretch of land between Beit Ummar and Surif is full of handsome stone villas surrounded by rose gardens.

“In thirty years all that you see will be a vague memory,” I told Aida. “When I used to drive here with your mother, it was still open country with no houses. Surif was a small village with a few stone houses on one side of the road dwarfed by the mountain. Now the mountain has almost disappeared under the grey cement houses. In the future you will read the articles I now write and show the photos to your children and tell them that this is how things used to be …”

At this moment an old peasant woman passed by pulling her donkey loaded with freshly picked olives. The taste of the two-week old olives is exquisite. The sour and salty taste of the brine, in which the olives are soaked, mixes deliciously with the slightly bitter taste of the still-raw olives, doused in olive oil.

I got out of the car and walked towards the old woman in her worn-out, faded field clothes. We exchanged greetings. I inquired about the price of one kilogram of olives. They were not for sale.

“But you are welcome. Take whatever you want. The kheir (blessed bounty) is from God and his barakeh (grace) is boundless.”

The presence of a sublime other, the Ultimate provider, is intuitively sensed among the Palestinians. Our daily discourse is expressive of deep-rooted spiritualism. Intimations of the presence of the Other, that we are not alone; a profound religious feeling is reflected in our understanding and corresponding conduct in accordance with the ubiquitous concept of halal and haram. This binary opposition reflects two possibilities of human existence: living in or out of grace. Religious idioms permeate our daily intercourse: el-kheir wil shar (good and evil); al rida wil la’na’ (the blessed acceptance of God and parents and the accursed state of rejection). Living a life in haram, one’s conscience is never clear, saafi. Only by living in halal does one find inner peace, sakina.

We arrived at Kharas. It was Saturday. Abu Ahmad, who works in a Kibbutz near Um Jimal, had his day off and was happy to receive us.

“Sorry. I can’t stay here for lunch, I am invited by someone in Beit Ummar … But I shall leave Aida for two hours with your daughter.”

“Where are you invited?” he inquired.

“Beit Ummar. They have maftul but Aida prefers to be with your daughter.”

“I shall dress and come with you …” he volunteered.

“How can I take you with me? I am a guest myself!”

“It is common practice here.”

“In Jerusalem we don’t do this – bring along uninvited guests…it is totally unacceptable.” I looked incredulously at him.

“Among us peasants it is different. It is quite normal to bring a friend along,” he insisted.

He himself comes from the prestigious Hurub clan. He knows better about their local customs and manners.

At that moment his older son Ahmad returned home.

“At last he has found a job!” Abu Ahmad exclaimed.

Hamdi explained that he works as a statistics officer.

“Today I was with the Bedouins.”

Despite the warm weather, he was dressed in his winter coat already.

“You keep warm,” I said.

“The weather is treacherous up there,” he explained.

By then the father had finished tying his shoelace. I drank the last sip of coffee – a sign that it was time to move on. Among Arabs, a visitor takes time to nurse a cup of coffee. As the coffee is sipped, the conversation is politely stretched out within the polite perimeter of the visit. Once the last of the coffee is sipped, the visit ends.

I stood up. “Yalla … I leave my daughter in your trust.”

“First let’s go up to see the new apartments I am building for Ahmad and Jamil.”

On top of the house, the father had already built the walls for two apartments to house his two sons.

“When they marry they will have their own respective quarters,” he explained.

“Do you build the houses for your children?” I inquired.

“This one has barely begun working … and it is a temporary job. And Jamil has not yet found a job.”

“Is it customary for a father to finance his two children, build their houses, and marry them?”

“This is the situation. Ahmad works but it is more awkward for Jamil who is twenty and jobless. I still give him pocket money for his transport, telephone card, and cigarettes.”

Household economics still baffle me. There is no set formula, and I still feel awkward inquiring about the underlying logic. Everywhere – be it in Beit Suriq, Ramim, Um Salamonah, Kharas, or Sammu’ – domestic economics remain enigmatic. Cash circulates freely and with no apparent restraints between the members of the extended family. The dividing line between private and collective cash has a logic that has not yet been revealed to me. It is not uncommon for a father, once he reaches his forties, to stop working and depend on his children to provide for the household. It is common for a brother, within the extended household, to support his father, brothers, and their families. In Beit Suriq Sarah gave pocket money to Mohammad who was a high school student. Money is a “goods” that flows between the members of the three-generation extended family that shares the same compound.

On the way to the car I looked for Aida. She had already disappeared with the daughters to play on the Internet.

In Beit Ummar we were received cordially. The meal was served to groups of five or six in different parts of the house. We were provided with maftul separately. After the coffee all were excited about the photographs. Everyone had read the article about aging in grace. The five daughters wanted to be photographed on the staircase of roses, in their winter sitting corner in the garden, and in the summer sitting area.

Then they stood for a family photo in front of the old room surrounded by roses.

“This was the village guest room,” a brother said. “The bard would come and recite the epic tales in this room … and everyone in the village came here to listen.”

“Father was the mukhtar of the village,” one of the sons explained. “This room had its days of glory …”

“At one point he would nod his head in a sign … and I would go collect money from those present.”

The bard’s fee.

“Those were the good old days!”

Back in the mountains on the way to Kharas, the woodcutting ritual in preparation for winter continued. Along the roadside, men huddled in various groupings to watch the strong muscular man splitting the olive stumps with a heavy axe.

Summer is over.

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


This Week in Palestine

December 2007

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