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Half a Century of Palestinian Folk Narratives

Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 05.01.2007:

By Dr. Sharif Kanaana

Traditional Palestinian Narratives

Traditional Palestinian narratives can be defined as the types of narratives told by Palestinians who lived in the period of time leading up to 1948, the beginning of the ‘Nakbeh’, in a more or less stable, homogeneous, and settled, peasant agricultural society. This tradition is known to us from at least three different sources. One source is the oral history that was recorded during the last fifty years and, in particular, during the last twenty years, from Palestinian men and women who were old enough in 1984 to know much of the traditional folklore. A second source is the folklore literature published by a large number of European orientalists who did their research in the ‘Holy Land’ especially during the last quarter of the 19th century, and the first quarter of the 20th century. The third source is the folklore record collected by native Palestinian folklorists who were trained by, and worked with, European orientalists starting around 1920 and whose work is preserved in several books and a large number of articles published mainly in English, German, and French.

It is universally true that the types of narratives popular among women in a society differ to some degree from those popular among men in the same society. This division is naturally stronger in a society where there is a strict separation and division of labour between the sexes. Such division is strongly pronounced among Arab-Islamic peoples, including Palestinians. It was stricter in the past, but is still very much in existence today.

Thus, as expected, we find that Palestinian narrative genres are divided according to gender. In general, women’s narratives were associated with fiction and imagination, and men’s with truth and believability.

Women generally appropriated the folktale, which is similar to the fairytale in Europe, and almost all the tales found in the Grimm’s brothers’ collection have their counterparts among Palestinians women’s narratives. Such narratives are usually recognized by tellers and audiences alike as fictitious products of the imagination.

Such tales were usually told in the evening in the women’s quarters within the context of the extended family and often included women and children from other related and neighbouring extended families. Men did not usually attend these sessions; they had their own section of the house for their male gatherings. Folktales told by women usually dealt with issues dear to the hearts of Arab-Moslem women. They gave a picture of the world as seen by women living in extended families in peasant, agricultural, Middle Eastern, Moslem, Arab society. They dealt mainly with issues of reproduction, children, food, marriage, inheritance, and, in general, the internal affairs of the extended family, specifically related to the lives of women. The struggles between co-wives and the whole institution of polygyny played an important role in such tales.

The men of the family, with their male guests, usually gathered in a separate part of the house called the ‘diwan’ to drink black coffee, exchange news and views, and tell stories. Men never told the same fairytales or ‘old wives’ tales’ in the diwan as women did in the ‘harem’ section of the house; to tell, or even listen to the fairy tales was considered unmanly.

Men had their own narrative genres. These were generally narratives associated with truth and believability, at least from the viewpoint of those who told them, listened to them, or transmitted them.

The most popular narrative genres for the men were the ‘sira’, or epic story and the legend. The siras or folk-epics consist of highly coloured, somewhat rambling but skilfully structured, semi-musical panoramas. They usually tell of heroic deeds, escapades, bizarre landscapes, long-lasting love affairs, dire sacrifices, and supernatural forces. These epics were composed during the Mamluk period, that is, sometime between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries. A type of story that is related to the sira and could be called a mini-sira is the ‘Bedouin story’. Bedouin stories are usually much shorter, less ornate, less sophisticated, and more crudely structured stories that tell mainly of blood feuds, honour feuds, long-lasting love affairs, and revenge and counter-revenge among the chief families of different Bedouin tribes.

A wide variety of legends were also told by Palestinian men in the diwan. These included religious stories about prophets, saints, holy men’s tombs, shrines, and sanctuaries. In addition, there were legends that gave interpretations of names of local sites: caves, wells, hills, ruins, and springs; or interpretations of family names and nicknames. Many of the religious legends were shared by Moslems, Christians, and Jews, at least until 1948.

The Disruption in 1948

Folk narratives, like all genres of folklore in all cultures throughout the world, never stood completely still: they always changed and evolved. Both the rates and the direction of change varied from time to time within the same cultures. Slowly unfolding, accumulative change took place during periods of continuity and stability. Dramatic and radical changes took place at times of wars, invasions, and socio-cultural and political upheavals.

Great changes in culture and lifestyle in the Middle East as a whole began with the increase of European intervention in the internal affairs of the Ottoman Empire towards the end of the 19th century. Palestine, for religious, strategic, and economic reasons, was of more interest to Europeans than the other parts of the Middle East, and consequently was exposed to an earlier and stronger dose of European influence. This resulted in a faster rate of change in the culture and lifestyle of Palestinians but did not cause a sudden or radical disruption of Palestinian society.

The great rupture in Palestinian life, culture, and types of narration-to get back to our main topic-came in 1948, the year of El Nakbeh (the Catastrophe), when the newly established State of Israel captured about 80 percent of the land, destroyed approximately 450 towns and villages, and turned their inhabitants into refugees. The rupture became more thorough in the year of El Naksa (the Calamity), in 1967, when Israel occupied the rest of the Palestinian lands and turned more Palestinians into refugees.

What is of particular interest to us here is the rupture and dislocation in Palestine folk narratives that accompanied the overall rupture of Palestine culture and society.

Changes in the Narrative Tradition after 1948

Palestinians, of course, did not stop telling stories in 1948, but many changes occurred in the types of narratives they told and their habits of narration. These changes may be summarized in the following broad trends:

A. Traditional narrative genres ceased to be used, totally or partially. The genres associated with truth and believability, that is, men’s genres, went out of use much faster than did genres associated with fiction and imagination, that is, women’s genres.

B. Strong politicization of folk narratives occurred after 1948, and two types of narratives took the place of traditional types. One type consisted of narratives of war and loss of homeland. The other came later and was connected with the immediate political situation under Israeli occupation. The new narrative types are less sharply divided by gender, and more by age, than traditional narrative types.

Women’s Genres

The folktale, or fairytale, which was exclusively the domain of women, has survived but is much less vigorous than it once was. The traditional folktales are now more often heard among women in refugee camps than among Palestinian women who stayed in their original home towns and villages. Two possible explanations for the survival of folktales come to mind. One is that folktales are told within the context of the extended family and deal with the concerns of women within the family. The extended family, despite all the disruption that occurred within Palestinian society, or maybe because of it, has managed to stay very much intact and, among Palestinian refugees, has actually become much stronger. Several studies have shown that solidarity within the extended family has become the most important survival strategy for Palestinian refugees.

Another possible reason for the survival of traditional folktales is that such tales are fictitious and imaginary and connected with basic human needs and desires and thus not highly influenced by immediate changes in the society as a whole.

There are, on the other hand, factors that militated against the persistence of traditional folktales. One of these is the invasion of Palestinian homes by modern mass media, especially the recent proliferation of Arab satellite TV stations, with their serialized soap operas from Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and several Gulf States. These soap operas tend to occupy the same context and settings previously occupied by the traditional folktale. A related factor is the invasion of all Middle Eastern cultures by Western (American and European) standards and values, which have made Middle Eastern people, including Palestinians, look at everything native, local, or traditional, as being by definition, backward, and therefore inferior and undesirable.

In addition to the surviving traditional folktales, women, when they get together in refugee camps, tell many stories about the 1948 war and about the good old days in the lost country. They do not usually tell long, highly structured stories but rather anecdotes from their personal lives and the lives of members of their families, illustrating the destruction, dispersion, injustices, and oppression which befell their people. A favourite theme in such stories deals with the separation of family members during their escape from the original home town or village, the search for the lost members-often young children-and their reunion in the land of refuge. There are usually differences among these narratives according to age, education, and political orientation of the female narrators, but they are all told in the style and structure of the women’s traditional folktales.

Men’s Genres

When we turn to the traditional narratives that were told by men, such as the epics, the romance, and the historical, topographical, and religious legends, we find that these were weakened and ceased to be used quite soon after the 1948 Catastrophe. Their place as men’s narratives was taken by stories about the war and the lost country. We can speculate on the reason for the fast rate of this change. One reason may lie in the fact that the traditional men’s narratives were mostly connected with the immediate environment and geography of the place and the rupture in Palestinian society. Men, on the other hand, being the ones more concerned with war and politics (this is close to being a universal pattern), found any narratives that were not connected with the war, conflict, the dispersion, the Catastrophe, and the continuing struggle for what was lost to be totally irrelevant and meaningless under the circumstances.

The traditional men’s narratives were replaced immediately after the war by new narratives, again associated with truth and believability, namely, stories of war and the loss of the homeland. The new type of narrative emerged among Palestinian men everywhere but prevailed more among refugees than among those who stayed in their homeland. After the Catastrophe, Palestinian women also told stories about war and the loss of homeland, as was mentioned before, but men’s stories were significantly different from those of women. Men’s stories were told more in the style of the epic than the folktale, dealing thus with battles, resistance, and heroism; rather than being personal family anecdotes, they were ‘national stories’ that covered the whole Palestinian question-complete, coherent, and chronologically ordered.

Political legends and political jokes emerged at two different stages of the Palestinian struggle against Israeli occupation of the Palestinian lands not occupied in 1948, namely Gaza and the West Bank, which were occupied in 1967. Political legends-to be distinguished from the previously mentioned traditional legends-started to become popular in the early 1970s. Political jokes, on the other hand, made their presence strongly felt only at the beginning of the first Intifada in late 1987. Both genres have persisted, with some fluctuations, until the present. The emergence and persistence of the two genres are connected with the resurgence of Palestinian nationalism and with the political developments that have accompanied this resurgence since the 1970s.

The Contemporary Legend and the Political Joke

The 1967 war strengthened the PLO as a result of weakening the grip of the Arab regimes on it. All Palestinians became unified around the PLO. The fedayin (singular: fedaii, an Arabic term that combines the meaning of ‘martyr’ and ‘freedom fighter’) started to carry out military operations against Israel. Such exploits by the fedayin, real or imaginary, and independent of what others may have thought of them, supplied Palestinians everywhere with materials for legends of adventure and heroism. Some were highly exaggerated, and some were wishful, but all had some seeds of truth in them. Legends that express the wishes, hopes, aspirations, fears, and anxieties of Palestinians have fluctuated in their frequency and popularity since they began in the early 1970s and continued through the first Intifada, the ‘Peace Process’, the establishment of the Palestinian Authority and, finally, the Al-Aqsa or second Intifada. Since the early 1970s, however, the production of such legends has never ceased completely.

Resorting to jokes as expressive means began about a decade after the emergence of legends, but when it did occur, the number of jokes far exceeded the number of legends, especially during the period between the two Intifadas, which was roughly the last decade of the twentieth century. At the risk of making too facile a generalization, we may notice that legends tend to prevail more when either hopes and expectations or anxieties and frustrations reach their highest peaks. Jokes, on the other hand, prevail when the situation is past the state of panic and the problems do not involve the danger of collective survival or death. Jokes seem to be more suited for the expression of ridicule, hatred, or hostility, whether towards enemies, towards one’s own leaders, or among competing groups within one’s own camp. For self-criticism, for social criticism, and for social control, the joke seems definitely to be a better tool.


Hasan-Rokem, Galit1989 – “The Aesthetics of the Proverb! Dialogue of Discourses from Genesis to Glasnost”. Paper presented at the IX Congress of the International Society for Folk Narrative Research, Budapest, June 1989.

Kanaana, Sharif

1990 – “Humor of the Palestinian Intifada”, Journal of Folklore Research, vol, 27, no. 3, Folklore Institution, Indiana University.

1994 – Folk Heritage of Palestine, Research Center for Arab Heritage, Tayibeh, Israel.

1995 – a: “Palestinian Humor During the Gulf War, Journal of Folklore Research, vol. 32, no. 1, Folklore Institution, Indiana University.

1995 – b: “The Role of Women in Intifada Legend, “Contemporary Legend, vol. 3, International Society for Contemporary Legend Research.

Muhawi, Ibrahim

1999 – “Storytelling in Palestine”, Traditional Storytelling Today: An International Sourcebook, edited by Margaret Read MacDonald, Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, Chicago, IL.

Norris, Harry

1996 – “Introduction”, The Adventure of Sayf Ben Thi Yazan: An Arab Folk Epic, Translation and Narration by Lena Jayyusi, Porta Books, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, IN.

Sayigh, Harry

1998 – “Palestinian Camp Women as Tellers of History”, Journal of Palestine Studies, vol. 27, no. 2.

1996 – “Introduction”, The Adventure of Sayf Ben Thi Yazan: An Arab Folk Epic, Translation and Narration by Lena Jayyusi, Porta Books, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, IN.

Sayigh, Harry

1998 – “Palestinian Camp Women as Tellers of History”, Journal of Palestine Studies, vol. 27, no. 2.

1996 – “Introduction”, The Adventure of Sayf Ben Thi Yazan: An Arab Folk Epic, Translation and Narration by Lena Jayyusi, Porta Books, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, IN.

Sayigh, Harry

1998 – “Palestinian Camp Women as Tellers of History”, Journal of Palestine Studies, vol. 27, no. 2.

1996 – “Introduction”, The Adventure of Sayf Ben Thi Yazan: An Arab Folk Epic, Translation and Narration by Lena Jayyusi, Porta Books, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, IN.

Sayigh, Harry

1998 – “Palestinian Camp Women as Tellers of History”, Journal of Palestine Studies, vol. 27, no. 2.

Dr. Sharif Kana’nah is a professor of anthropology and folklore at Birzeit University. He is also editor-in-chief of the Journal of Society and Heritage. He can be reached at


This Week in Palestine

January 2007

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