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Families in Beit Ummar

Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 02.11.2007:

Beit Ummar: Where Dreams Come True Aging with Dignity in Palestinian Villages

By Dr. Ali Qleibo

As the road meanders among the grape vineyards of the Hebron Mountains, and past el-Arrub Refugee Camp, Beit Ummar straddles the gently sloping mountain. The village, known in the Bible as Maarath, is surrounded by its orchards that are famous for apples, plums, cherries, grapes, and olives. I had barely driven seven kilometres off the main road into the centre of the town when I passed a picturesque peasant home.

It was an old single-room traditional stone house. Flowering plants and lush greenery and roses clambered everywhere in the small hosh, imparting magical quality to the house. By the time the image had formed in my head, I was well beyond the house. The image was hauntingly lyrical, and Fairuz’s song flowed involuntarily.

Daraj el-ward madkhal beitna / Daraj el-ward jannat hama

U bein el-ward tayer beitna / U tah’t el-ward khaimet hawana

Rooh ya bilbol wisa’al a’stooh / Fee beit ya bilbol armeed aám ylooh

Wara’a el-ward yoghmor beitna / Daraj el-ward sahib warana

A staircase with roses is the entrance to our house / A staircase with roses is our sanctuary

Between the roses our home floats / And beneath the roses lies our beloved tent

Fly, oh nightingale, and inquire from the rooftop / You will see a home, oh nightingale, with a red terra-cotta roof

The rose petals cover our home / A staircase of roses leads to us

I stopped, turned around, and pulled up by the house. Camera in hand, Aida and I walked to the house humming the song.

An old lady and a middle-aged man, busy with yard work, emerged from the thick green foliage to welcome us. Their joy at having unexpected guests was overwhelming.

“May I take pictures of your beautiful garden?” I asked.

“Allow me to change into a fresh headscarf …” the old lady apologized. “I just finished sweeping the yard and my scarf is dusty …”

During her brief absence, I learned that she was his mother. They live together. He never got married. He proudly showed me the various plants and proceeded to organize saplings for me to take. The mother returned, happy and delighted with the unexpected guests

Theirs was the ideal peasant home. We visited their bedroom. The pillowcases on the beds and wall hangings depicted dainty floral designs that the lady had embroidered. The son’s small picture was inserted into the frame that held a larger photo of the deceased father. The old two-storey small room was transformed into the pantry (alkhazeen), as is common nowadays. Bottles of oil, dibs (grape molasses), vacuum-packed grape leaves, and sacks full of flour, freekeh (toasted wheat), rice, and sugar were crammed among pots of all sizes.

She took a bottle of dibs, “This is this year’s produce.” She insisted I take it as a gift. Dibs is a traditional cooked grape molasses that, when mixed with tahinah (sesame paste), makes a wonderful winter snack. As we exchanged sweet words she repeatedly apologized that it was Ramadan.

“You must visit after Ramadan so that we can receive you properly.”

As we prepared to leave, she insisted that I also take a jar of vacuum-packed grape leaves and saplings to transplant in my garden; then she showered us with her blessings.

The lady herself is indeed blessed. Her life with her son encapsulates the dream of every Palestinian widow. Short of growing old together with her spouse, the ideal manner of growing old for a Palestinian mother, once widowed, is to live the rest of her days with her youngest son.

In Beit Ummar dreams come true. Her son never married and is totally devoted to her. Together they work the old family vineyard, harvest the olives and fruits, and tend their small paradise.

As we were taking leave, two ancient angels drifted quietly into the courtyard. The lady held her husband tenderly by the hand as they headed to rest in a shady corner of the garden.

“My aunt and her husband,” the lady explained. “They are cousins and have been married for more than eighty years.”

To grow old together is a wish that every couple silently harbours. Reality, however, often subverts the dream. The majority are destined to grow old alone, which imparts a feeling of the sublime at the sight of an extremely elderly couple whiling away the moments peacefully together at the threshold of their house.

Growing old alone is a fear that haunts everyone. As one advances in age, the dynamic vitality of youth begins to fade. As one’s level of energy wanes, the strength and stamina with which one confronts the challenges of life diminish. The fear of sickness and poverty increases. Loneliness is inevitable. Many turn to God and spend much of their time in prayer and reading of the Qur’an.

“The elderly suffer from high blood pressure, diabetes, and cholesterol,” explained Intisar, the director of El-Wafa’ Community Centre for the Elderly in Salfit. “But most of all they suffer from loneliness and a sense of futility.”

El-Wafa’ Community Centre is a pioneering initiative in Salfit – a sprawling village in the mountains of Nablus – which is funded predominantly by the Turkish government in response to the expressed local request. Dr. Erkan Ozer, the Turkish consul general in Jerusalem, explains, “El-Wafa’ was chosen as a name in recognition of the debt we owe to the generations that preceded us.”

The referential value of the words al-wafa’ and al-ibn al-barr is found in Muslim precepts that are inextricably embedded in the Holy Qur’an. On the one hand, the word al wafa’ psychologically encompasses the sense of loyalty, consistency, and repayment of debt. The good son, al-ibn al-bar, refers to the son who looks after his parents faultlessly well. The command to look after the elderly as a religious duty finds eloquent expression in a Qur’anic verse.

“Wa qada rabbuka alla ta’budu illa iyahh wa bil walidayni ihsana ima yabluganna indaka al-kibara ahaduhuma aw kilahima. Wa la taqul lahuma uffin, wa la tanharhuma, wa qol lahuma qawlan kariman … (al-Isra’ 23)

Significantly the command to look after the parents is preceded by the cue, “Your God has determined that none is deified/adored but him.” The sentence dissolves into the injunction, “and to the parents you owe kindness (ihsan)”. “Kindness” does not, however, adequately translate ihsan. The word ihsan is derived from the triadic root hasan, which has a dual meaning of good – “beautiful” as well as a positive judgmental connotation of approval. From hasan comes the word hasanah, which is a good deed met with approval by God.

Hasaneh lil lah is a common epithet used by street beggars. Interjecting God into the act of charity transforms the ethical act of individual kindness into a dynamic expression of faith. The social-psychological reality of religious symbolic conceptual structures underlies individual actions vis-à-vis the less fortunate and renders them acts of faith. The religious context of al-birr and al-ihsan elevates the acts of human charity into a declaration of faith. The concept of al-wafa’ encompasses the religious underpinnings of filial piety and extends it to include the elderly members of the community.

“They throw them in a room and lock them up,” Aida, my eleven-year-old daughter, protested. She would not leave the car and accompany me to visit Al-Wafa’ Centre, the home for the elderly in Salfit. She feared that she would have to face the same sad living conditions of the elderly who are in the various homes in Jerusalem.

From the first step inside the centre, her prejudices instantly dissolved. In the impeccably clean, large foyer-cum-living room were small groups of women of various ages talking, embroidering, and knitting sweaters. The scene was totally domestic. There were old women, but it was not a malja’ al ajazeh (a shelter for the elderly).

“El-Wafa is not a malja’ (a shelter). The word ‘shelter’ has terrible connotations.” Intisar proudly explained.

“In Jericho the home for the elderly is extremely depressing,” I commented. “The Shelter for the Elderly and the Vagrants” is its name. “Under the same roof, the mentally ill, the old, and the indigent are indiscriminately locked up.”

“The concept of “shelter” for the “indigent elderly,” she smiled, “cannot apply in the countryside. We all know each other.” She turned her eyes around the room. “These women belong to the generations of my mother and my grandmother. They were probably friends and neighbours. Most of them are in relatively good health. They suffer from loneliness.”

As I drove around the West Bank from Salfit in the north to el-Samu in the south, I met with countless elderly men and women. Advancing in age confirms gender-specific social roles and corollary self-image. Whereas men struggle to keep up their vigour and level of energy, women assume a more passive role. Men, out of male pride, fight for their independence, and women assume the social role of submissive helplessness and dependence; hence the need for and joy of living with or next to the youngest son. A lucky woman would have a good daughter-in-law to tolerate her. Invariably elderly women are segregated from the traditional extended-family household. A small room is built outside the family house. The room would have its own bathroom and small kitchen. The son and grandchildren would then pay dutiful visits. An elderly widow would be fortunate to have an unmarried daughter. Together they would set up home. The unlucky childless widows or spinsters are in a state of forlorn abandonment.

El-Wafa’ Centre provides breakfast and one hot meal a day. There are 176 members who benefit from the programme. Meals are home delivered to the sick and feeble. Intisar explained that though many may have relatives or neighbours who may send food to them, the majority are mostly on their own. The food prepared at El-Wafa’ takes into consideration the physical condition of the elderly and as such is healthier for them.

“We also serve traditional food that is no longer cooked in the modern kitchen. This includes the old-fashioned stews, made of either barley, wheat, or lentils and thickened with legumes and vegetables. They enjoy this food more than modern cooking. But they come primarily for the company, to socialize. And yet there are some who can’t come. They can’t afford the cost of the transportation.”

“Most of these women had fathers and husbands. What happens to their inheritance? How do you explain their shortage of money?” I inquired.

“According to Muslim law, they do inherit. But the social customs prevail over Muslim theology when it comes to women and inheritance. A woman cannot ask for her share from her father’s inheritance. The brothers appropriate the land. She cannot ask for her husband’s property. Her male children share it. So she is put out of the big house where she had lived with her husband, and a small room is built in the courtyard for her.”

I had seen this pattern in Halhul, el Samu, Kufur Deek – almost everywhere – but had not given the subject much attention. My mother, grandmother, and aunts – almost all my relatives – live alone in their big family villas. In bourgeois families, privacy and, by extension, independent housing, are the norm. Segregating the elderly in the countryside, though similar in appearance, belies a different socio-economic dynamic.

“The children would be given ten shekels for pocket money, but the son does not realize that his aged mother needs pocket money too. Our solution is to try to raise funds to enable everyone to come.”

At El-Wafa’ the senior ladies are made to feel special and useful.

“Since our traditional way of life is quickly disappearing, we engage the elderly to document the old folktales, poems, children’s songs, food recipes, and traditional crafts. By involving them we are, in fact, rehabilitating them. The activities – teaching forgotten skills – reintegrate them into society. By the way,” she added, “we also provide literacy classes that enable them to read the Qur’an.”

In Kharas I met a recently widowed man in his eighties. The forty days of mourning had barely passed when he remarried.

“It is not because we won’t take care of him. He needed a woman,” his son told me.

In Bet Suriq I asked Mohammad, the seventy-year-old husband of Sarah, “Could sex be the real reason for remarriage at the age of 85?” Mohammad, 74 years old, smiled, surprised by my simplicity. “Of course …” he looked in the direction of Sarah smiling. I felt embarrassed.

Women on the other hand rarely get married again. I asked Intisar about the social phenomenon.

“I am a widow.” She answered. “My husband died six years ago, and I shall not remarry.”

I looked at her in surprise. Intisar is barely 32 years old.

“Our customs and mentality should change. Until then I cannot remarry.”

“But why can a man remarry, and why is the woman not expected to have desires?”

“A man has nothing to lose. A woman, if she has children, would lose the custody of her children to her deceased husband’s family. Should she accept to marry her brother-in-law, the only social option that allows her to keep her children, she would have to forfeit her pride. He has done her a favour that he will not let her forget for the rest of her life.” A moment of heavy silence passed. “I chose to sacrifice and keep my children. I went to college, studied, and became economically independent.”

The grief over the loss of the spouse slowly turns into wistful melancholy. Um Hamdan, an elderly widow and a member of El-Wafa’ Community Centre, lives with her unmarried daughter Saffieh. Together they run a shop for women’s clothes.

“She is a great poet,” Intisar said as we walked down the village alleys, “But I hope that she is in a lucid state today …”

“Is she senile?” I inquired.

“Not exactly; rather, with age she has become forgetful. Sometimes she has no memories …”

I have an old aunt. Sometimes she has full grasp of her identity and of the world around her. At other times the world becomes fuzzy. Senility is like mist sometimes; it settles thick and obstructs the vision. At other moments it thins out, imparting soft edges to experiential subjective reality.

It was a good day. Saffiyeh welcomed us at the shop. Aida looked at Um Hamdan in awe. The face of the poetess had a radiant glow. Though frail and vulnerable she was tenderly looked after, extremely clean, and well dressed. Intisar prodded her to recite her poems.

Shal el rimmush min indi / ‘alli rhu u ma rij’ushi.

u akli rah ma’ hom u ma shuftoshi / akhadu akli u ma raddu jawab.

My eyelashes have fallen (in tears) / Over the ones who left and never returned.

My mind went with them and I did not see it / They took my mind and gave me no answer.

She became moved by the words … tears swelled in her eyes. She brushed her thoughts away with her hand and apologized … “I cannot remember the rest …”

Intisar is proud of the members of her social club.

“Each one is an individual. Alone in their rooms, although close to their families, no one has time for them … There’s not much to talk about. Here the elderly have things in common. They talk. They become animated. But they are sensitive. They are jealous of each other.” It is obvious how much personal care she puts into her work. “If one does not show up, I call to inquire. I tell them they were missed. Each and every one is made to feel special.”

“Why are there no elderly males?” I inquired.

“They want to join but not at this stage. Men keep an active life; they go to cafés, continue to work, remain engaged in male gatherings of the village … They keep quite busy.”

We stopped the car at a hillside and descended to collect some yellow huwwar soil (kaolin) on the outskirts of the village of Kufur ‘Ein. Yellow huwwar in shiny glass containers has a special place in the Palestinian kitchen. It is indispensable for the recipes in which grapes are cooked as it chemically inhibits the process of fermentation. Dibs, malban, ‘innabieh, and khabisah are different forms of homemade sweets, molasses, jams, and puddings whose preparation – and the fuss that accompanies it – gives the end of summer a special glow.

We had finished scooping up the soil, and the sun was about to set … The hillside provided a natural promontory overlooking the houses of the village, which were piled one on top of the other in a narrow valley between a few mountain peaks north of Ramallah. The day coincided with the fourteenth of the lunar month. The moon had waxed completely full. Aida and I stood admiring the setting sun on one side and the full moon peering out on us from behind the eastern mountaintops. At that special moment of the melting of colours and shadows, the steps of an approaching animal broke the stillness. A peasant directed his donkey to a spring of water through an olive field that was surrounded by spiralling chains of perfectly maintained stone terraces encircling the mountains.

The moon was rising on our right, and the sun had already disappeared behind the western chain of mountains. The silver leaves of the olive trees shimmered over the multicoloured soil … red in some areas, white in others, with the heavy concentration of yellow kaolin around the spring. The natural rock formations and stones spread on the hill opposite us and climbed up the hilltop defying the orderly rows of stone terraces.

The old man dismounted from his donkey and moved towards the spring, which is inside a pit dug in the ground. From one side of the wall a water pipe protruded. A thin thread of water trickled from the open end of the pipe.

I was temporarily distracted from following the movements of the old man. The magnificent view of the olive fields, the stone terraces under the moonlight, and the already bright star of Venus in the west, was overwhelming. The refreshing smell of the evening breeze and the aroma of taboon fire mixed with the green olive and the smell of our dry soil was exhilarating. When I looked at him again, he had dutifully replenished the water of the jourun (stone water basin) from which his donkey had drunk. He moved over to the donkey and began to prepare the saddle. At that moment I heard the lyrics of a folk song that he was singing to himself:

Ba’kate asbuq li farkh el-dheib wal-sheib / Wa anham ala dhuhur el-kheil wa ‘ashib

Da’ani el-yome da’i elkabar wil sheib / Wa ahwajni Ii ‘akkaz el-’asa.

I used to race after the young and old wolves / and prance on horseback and jump

Today I have been called on by old age and white hair / This has made me need the crutch of the cane.

He climbed on his donkey and continued his path among the olive trees in the direction of Kufur ‘Ein.

As he slowly disappeared into the horizon, verses from Tennyson’s poem “Ulysses” came to mind.

Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’

We are not now that strength which in old days

Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;

One equal temper of heroic hearts,

Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Growing old with dignity is the ultimate challenge.

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


This Week in Palestine

November 2007

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