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Exploring Your Personal and Cultural Identity – By Leyla Zuaiter

Contributed by Ibrahim Marazka on 17.11.2005:

Exploring Your Personal and Cultural Identity

Through Family History and Genealogy

By Leyla Zuaiter

Recognizing that the study of Family History and Genealogy has the power not only to enrich lives at the individual and community level but also to serve the interests of the Palestinian people, Arabic Educational Institute-Open Windows in Bethlehem (AEI) recently offered a 15-hour workshop in the subject, perhaps the first of its kind in Palestine. While Family History is a popular hobby in the United States and other countries, there does not appear to be much local awareness of or interest in this subject, much less an appreciation of its particular relevance for the Palestinian people. The workshop, intended as an eye-opener, was very well received by the participants, as their near-perfect attendance attests. Below, the workshop organizer, Leyla Zuaiter, gives a glimpse of the pleasures and potential of this field.

On five days between June 14 and June 28, some 20 members of AEI’s Women’s Group attended my workshop entitled, “Exploring Your Personal and Cultural Identity through Family History and Genealogy.” My challenge was to make the workshop interesting, informative and relevant enough for the women to feel that foregoing their slower summer pace was worth it—a tall order for 15 hours with a group of unknown women.

How to convey the excitement, the eternal state of pleasant anticipation, the greater than average number of surprises, adventures, mysteries, coincidences, connections and intrigue which I had enjoyed during my eight years of family history research? How to prove my contention that family history was like a giant puzzle, a treasure hunt and a detective story rolled into one?

The answer was to design the course as just that—a giant puzzle, treasure hunt and detective story rolled into one– in the hopes that the women would experience some of the excitement for themselves. Yet equally important was to open their eyes to the importance of family history, genealogy, and heritage in general to the Palestinian cause itself.

One only had to look to the real and perceived differences between the Palestinians of ’48 and ’67 to see how rapidly and insidiously externally-imposed labels and barriers were being internalized by Palestinians themselves. How would Palestinians come to categorize themselves in the light of ever-increasing fragmentation on the ground? How soon would the very concept of “Palestinian” start to erode?

Palestine was too broad an area to wrestle with in such a short time-frame, however, so I decided to focus on just the local level, which happened to be Bethlehem. I was fortunate in that woven into the well-known political and religious history of Bethlehem, was the little-known but fascinating history of its families.

I started by showing the women a few samples of the documents, photographs, books, letters, articles, and artefacts about my own family that I had amassed in only eight years, including a tree tracing one of my lines to about 1600. Having demonstrated that given enough determination, one could collect more than one could ever imagine, I shifted the focus to them.

“Who are you?” I challenged them, as a prelude to exploring the factors in identity formation. “Can you prove who you are?” was the next question, a crucial one, for family historians anywhere, but most especially here, where not only the right of Palestinians to exist, but also the very fact their existence was constantly questioned. A few shock tactics were in order, I thought. To shake the women’s complacency, I whipped out a “poster” I had made labelling dinosaurs with the names of the extinct families of Bethlehem—those families all of whose members are now found in Chile or elsewhere—on an imaginary but terrifying map.

The Bethlehem Jeopardy game challenged participants to identify what they already knew about their families and communities– not an abstract, academic exercise in view of the presence of many current Bethlehem families in the area for centuries. Now it was time for an introduction to the principal tools, strategies and techniques for filling in the gaps in their knowledge.

The first step was the exploration of community resources. Armed with photos, lists of questions, and a mission, they engaged in the treasure hunt I had prepared for them. With each institution they visited and guest speaker they heard, their level of interest in the subject increased palpably. It was clear they were making new discoveries about themselves, their families, their neighbours and even their fellow workshop participants. By the end of the workshop, I felt certain that some of them at least, would be moved to read some of the written resources to which their attention had been called.

Perhaps most satisfying was the discovery of one of the women whose work commitments prevented her from attending the workshop. Since I had first introduced the topic, she recounted later, she had started thinking about it and talking to members of her family. They mentioned two brothers who gone down on the Titanic bound for Chile. In an illustration of the routine co-incidences which I mentioned above, her words called to mind the fact that I had just read that many Arabs had been on board the Titanic—79 documented cases—but probably many more. How exciting it was to go back to find the source to offer some confirmation, if not proof, for her family story!

In preparing and implementing the workshop, I was fortunate in the generous help offered by numerous members of the Bethlehem community. They unselfishly shared their knowledge, offered advice, allowed me access to their institutions, provided written materials, and allowed me to take photographs for use in the course. Some agreed to host the participants at their institutions or serve as guest speakers. Although various constraints prevented me from availing myself of all of the kind offers, their generosity and its enrichment of the workshop, is a testimony to the power of family history and genealogy to strengthen community ties. I am sure that the workshop participants will return to them in their new-found quest, as will I, as AEI develops the next phase of its Family History and Genealogy Project.

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