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Family Letters Between Palestine and the Americas (1925-1939)

Contributed by Jerusalem Quarterly on 25.10.2011:

Autumn 2011,47

Jerusalem Quaterly

Trouble with the In-Laws: Family Letters Between Palestine and the Americas (1925-1939)

Nadim Bawalsa


Historians of modern Palestine have generally overlooked autobiographical sources of non-elite Palestinians. For some, however, these sources have proven compelling for larger historical debates. Beshara Doumani, in Rediscovering Palestine: Merchants and Peasants in Jabal Nablus, 1700-1900, argues that Ottoman Nablus has been misrepresented by many historians as socially, politically, and economically stagnant and behind the times.1 He asserts that the “result [has been] a general neglect of underlying socioeconomic and cultural processes and, more important, the exclusion of the native population from the historical narrative.”2

By investigating a set of family papers and oral histories, Doumani recasts the inhabitants of Nablus as active agents in the creation of a “social life” replete with innovativeness, negotiation, mobility, and conflict.3 In this paper I hope to offer a similar narrative of the quotidian lives of ordinary Palestinians during the 1920s and 30s. Using the correspondences of members of the Sa‘ade and Farhat families from Ramallah and Bethlehem to Long Beach and South San Francisco, CA, I seek to rediscover, to use Doumani’s term, Palestinian “social life” during this formative period in its history in order to reevaluate the dominant narratives of this history.4

The letters evince three themes on which I will elaborate throughout this paper. Moreover, each theme will critically address a component of Palestinian historiography, suggesting areas for further inquiry. The first theme concerns the rise of Palestinian nationalism as a sociopolitical and cultural identity in this history. I contend that the letters suggest an ambivalent attitude towards the idea of a Palestinian national identity among these non-elite Palestinians in the pre-1948 period. Rather, family and community matters, mostly finance- and property-related, dominated their correspondence. Secondly, the letters portray a social environment in which gender roles were renegotiated such that women came to occupy positions within Palestinian cities and towns that challenged accepted norms of paternalism and patriarchy.

Finally, I aim to write emigration into this history in order to appreciate the impact of the phenomenon on these individuals’ conceptions of themselves vis-à-vis their communities and the greater world they came to know through their travels.

Perhaps more immediately, this paper presents the story of the authors of the letters, namely, Katrina Sa‘ade, her husband Suleiman Farhat, and his father, Jiryes Farhat. Caught in an exhausting family drama that spanned nearly a decade, these individuals’ letters provide us with a lens into the lived experience of a Palestinian family torn by financial trouble, conflicting desires, and most conspicuously, emigration. Indeed, these individuals were part of a substantial number of Palestinian emigrants to the Americas in the early twentieth century whose hybrid identities and cultural affinities are worthy of nuanced investigation. For example, Katrina Sa‘ade, having emigrated to Mexico at the outset of the First World War (1914) and returned to Palestine over fifteen years later, neither desired to be in Palestine nor felt connected to it emotionally, while her husband Suleiman, who had also left Palestine during the War, longed to return from America to live with his family in Palestine. These conflicting interests drove a wedge between them and their families. For Katrina, however, confidence in her own ambitions trumped adherence to others’ expectations of her, and particularly those of the men in her life. Katrina’s granddaughter, Kathy Saade Kenny, wrote about her grandmother that following a life “shaped by repeated migrations and situations that were largely beyond her control, she transcended these constraints and emerged as an independent woman and grandmother.”5

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