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Julia Dabdoub, Aliyya Nusseibeh, Nuzha Darwish, Yasmin Zahran

Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 29.03.2009:

Palestinian Women Bright Stars in a Bleak Night

By Ali Qleibo

The Palestinian woman has been discursively constituted as a transcendent victim. On the one hand she is perceived as a valiant freedom fighter against the Israeli chauvinist occupation. From this perspective womens role in the Intifada and the various forms of her resistance of the occupation are highlighted and her bravery is exalted. The discourse of victimization, on the other hand, capitalizes on her problematic economic emotional stature of dependency. Innumerable NGOs have propped up to remedy the grievances Palestinian women endure. Top on the list are honour crimes which receive great attention because of their anomalous nature. Furthermore, these institutes seek to empower women by providing outlets for home industry with the ultimate aim of making them an equal partner in decision making within the patriarchal household.

The two contradictory images as either victim at home or as heroine in the nationalist struggle propagate a highly ambivalent image of women that articulates with traditional folk images against which the women must fight (albeit under the cover of the veil) to legitimize their sense of identity in a male dominated world.

The socio-religious perception of women as the source of mischief and discord (fitnah) is common and the concept is comprised under the category of “keid al nissa,” women’s guile. The mythological stereotype spills over from the margins of “One Thousand and One Night” to negatively condition the understanding of female psychology. Womens guile, triggered by jealousy, is popular. “Lola el ghireh ma hiblet el niswan” (had it not been for jealousy women would not become pregnant) is a widespread saying. And of course, every young man has been warned to beware of women for the common belief that “A womans desire is seven folds that of a man.” Folk mythology to the effect that the female presence disrupts the orderly male world is further supported in narratives from the lives of the prophets, e.g. the fall of Adam, the temptation of Josef, etc. The repertoire of seditious, cunning, manipulative women amongst whom Scheherazade reigns supreme reinforces the image of the female as a dangerous entity. Hence the social need for her total control, i.e. her subordinate position to the man who is viewed as otherwise righteous, rational, pure and wise.

Womans natural place is at home as a self sacrificing mother. Normative aphorisms abound exalting the position of women as good wives and mothers, e.g. “Al janattu tahta aqdam al ummahat” (paradise lies at the feet of mothers, “khalf kul rajul azeem imraáh” (behind every great man stands a woman) and “el sit hiyyeh illi bitibni u heyyeh illy bit-hidd” (it is the woman who builds the home and it is the woman who destroys it).

My knowledge of Palestinian women reveals a much more complex female than the stereotype constituted discursively. The women I know are positive, compassionate, tender, rational, competent and professional individuals who succeeded to create their own vision of themselves and of the world to which they felt strong commitment.

“Tears fell involuntary out of my eyes.” Yasmine Zahran, in her position as a Superior UNESCO Educational Inspector, was overwhelmed when she entered a classroom in Yemen. “The sixth grade students stood up and greeted her with the poem known to all of us, “Bilad al urb awtani min ash-shami li tatwani…” (The countries of all the Arabs are my homeland from Great Syria to Tatwan [in Morocco]).

The images of Palestinian women, gleaned of my personal experience, are underscored by successful, dedicated, professional and independent women at ease with themselves and the world at large. Yasmine Zahrans successful career is but one example.

Among these visionary Palestinian ladies, Mrs. Julia Dabdoub stands out in her singular contributions to the city of Bethlehem. On the personal level, on the other hand, she represents the independent professional cosmopolitan ideal. The striving for a balance between modern independence and traditional sense of duty and motherhood reach a great level of harmony in her persona. At ease in Paris and in the smallest village in the Hebron mountains everyone drifted to her salon; a veritable home of culture.

Julia is an ethnographer with keen perception. Together with her husband Dr. Michel Dabdoub, they intimately knew the pre-Nakbeh Palestinian village. She was the first to draw my attention to the aesthetics of cave culture; the one floor split level living quarters where the Palestinians of the south of Bethlehem lived in caves. She was at her husbands side, a medical doctor, on his village tours at the time when the young barefooted children still tended the sheep. I came to the ethnographic scene quite late and the children had already become lawyers, doctors, teachers, sheiks of mosques, and entrepreneurs and had moved from the cave dwellings and subterranean cave towns to modern villas and suburbanized villages. Julia was there at that pristine moment; at that moment when peasants were still bound by traditional economy and aesthetics before the cataclysmic momentum of the Nakbeh followed by the defeat of the June 1967 War that shook the Palestinian socio-economic cultural foundations.

Julia wrote about the passing of traditional culture and documented her observations on traditional dwellings. More significantly, she realized that this way of life on the wane had to be preserved and housed in a museum. Salwa Mikdadi, Julias chronicler, writes: “She did not hold advanced degrees but had the ability to conduct field research with results envied by anthropologists and ethnographers. The trove of objects and data she gathered on Bethlehem’s history is invaluable. To her obstacles were only challenges that were tackled with magnanimity and stamina, she had no time for idle conversations. The City’s heritage was fast disappearing and she was on a mission to preserve it for future generations.”

To truly appreciate Julia one must envisage her in the right company. Throughout the fifties, sixties and well into the seventies, an exceptional generation of pioneering ladies of traditionally urban cosmopolitan families stood out, shining stars in a bleak time. Julia is situated amongst great ladies with the stature of Hind El Husseini, Nuzha Darwish, Aliyyeh Nusseibeh, Yasmine Zahran, Yusra El Barbary. The defeat of the June 1967 War in the wake of the Nakbeh was alarming. These ladies, in a moment of great turmoil and chaos, stood firmly to take responsibility of their world falling apart around them. The great poetess Fadwa Tuqan in her poetry, in her poise and in her lyrical fusion of feminist existential yearnings and resistance of the Israeli occupation, embodied their voice, all permeated by Feiruzs longing for Palestine, Bisan, Jaffa, Jerusalem and a paradise lost.

Hind El Husseini happened to pass by Damascus gate in 1948 and saw a group of children and people sleeping on the street. Upon inquiry she found out that those were the survivors of the Deir Yasine massacre. She stopped her chauffeur and brought them to her own house. “We spread mattresses from wall to wall,” she told me. This modest beginning was the nucleus for the impressive Jerusalem orphanage and school, “Dar El Tiffel” to which Hind El Husseini dedicated her life. Similarly Aliyyeh Nusseibeh single-handedly helped preserve the Palestinian Arab identity through establishing El Nizamieh School to safeguard the Tawjihi curriculum from being co-opted by the Israeli curriculum. Yasmine Zahran, in her effort to stress the ancient Palestinian history and continuity of the Palestinians on their homeland, achieved a career peak in establishing the School of Archaeology under the aegiss of her best friend Hind El Husseini. The school became the nucleus for the College of Archaeology at Al-Quds University. The heroic struggle of Yusra El Barbary and Leila Qleibo in Gaza is a great chapter in the feminist movement fighting for refugee rights and against Israeli occupation. Nuzha Darwish and El Mammunieh School in Jerusalem is another long story. Julias salon in Bethlehem, both in her capacity as head of the Bethlehem Women’s Union Al-Itihad which she had assumed in 1948, and as a society lady was the meeting place for all these great ladies who helped delineate the course our post-Nakbeh identity would follow.

Mikdadi says: “The work ethics of Al-Itihad were infused with Mrs. Dabdoub’s pragmatic approach and indomitable spirit. There are few institutions in Palestine that have served their community with unwavering loyalty over the span of six decades. Their name is the key to their success. They were all united in their devotion to Bethlehem irrespective of their religious or economic background.”

Under the guidance of Julia, “Juju” as we all used to call her, the Bethlehem Womens Union became a cultural community centre. At a time of great void, preceding Mitri Rahebs cultural centre and decades before the Bethlehem Peace Centre, all book launchings, art shows (I mounted two art shows there), innumerable cultural activities, music recitals and bazaars were hosted there. The great admiration and love that Dr. and Mrs. Dabdoub had earned, assured attendance in great numbers to any cultural event Al-Itihad would host. Herself extremely dutiful and gracious, she never skipped a social event but in her own infatigable manner, Julia managed to be present at all events. On the board of trustees of Bethlehem University amongst many others institutes, she was instrumental in legitimizing all major institutes that sought her name on their boards in Bethlehem.

The founding of Bethlehem University is closely linked to Julia in conjunction with the Apostolic Delegate and the College de La Salle brothers. She played a key role in setting up the initial steps in coordination with Jordan.

Notwithstanding her social status, at all bazaars when embroidery products were on sale, Julia would be seen standing by the booth of Al-Itihad next to all the young workers from other women unions in Palestine. With a radiant smile, Julia graciously welcomed the visitors proudly showing off the fine embroidery whose income was a means of empowering women within the peasant household; noblesse oblige.

Her passion with culture, identity, memory and the fear of losing our cultural heritage took initial form in the ethnographic museum Baytuna El Talhamy. Mikdadi says: “She donated her personal family heirlooms to Baytuna El Talhamy, the first museum established over thirty years ago by the same group of pioneering women.”

The museum represents a typical Palestinian home of Bethlehem. It is divided into two floors; the living space cum sleeping room area and the kitchen. In the living room the original furniture, which consists of the single wooden brides chest in which a womans trousseau was brought along, is on display. The mattresses for sleeping would be folded up in an alcove in the wall in the daytime. The room is re-arranged for day visitors, with sitting mattresses arrayed against the walls with side cushions to prop up the guest upright as he sat on the floor. In Baytuna El Talhamy, this room doubles as the display room of Palestinian embroidery.

The lower floor reveals Mrs. Dabdoub’s true penchant for memory. A special room is set up to exhibit Bethlehem families’ history through photography. The photographs, dating from the nineteenth century to the thirties of this century, indicate the ceremonial importance of Christmas in establishing the social position of Bethlehem’s families as attested by their presence in formal pictures with dignitaries from the late Ottoman period and during the British mandate. Through the pictures we glimpse costumes, traditional garbs and various manners of presenting a public image in official contexts in addition to vistas of pre-modern Bethlehem.

From a side door in the lower courtyard one ventures into the kitchen to examine various storage ceramic jars for olives, oil, jams and syrups, wooden and adobe silos for the storage of grains and cooking brass crockery. The most interesting items are the various cooking stoves made of clay and dependent on wood and charcoal as their source of fuel. These come in various sizes and are quite interesting.

On the upper floor, the il-liyyeh, visitors are invited to admire the furnishings of westernized Bethlehemites. In this room, one sees the bedding, clothing and toiletries used by women of certain economic means in the early twentieth century. In fact, the furniture in this room was presented by Julia herself and comes from her own family home.

The aromas and the tastes of the traditional Palestinian cuisine survive in Al-Itihads kitchen. Jams, preserves, molasses and a great diversity of traditional Palestinian home cuisine and pastries are prepared there. The proceeds of the kitchen subsidize the publication of books and research on Bethlehem society and history.

In the past ten years Julia became haunted with the idea of building a great modern museum. To this end she employed Salwa Mikdadi, one of the leading museum curators, to execute her dream. Salwa says: “She saw the History Museum as ‘A bridge between the past and the future of the city, a community based project that will insure the continued preservation of the city’s history and culture.’”

Julia Dabdoub passed away last month leaving an indelible imprint on Bethlehem. On a personal level, Juju remains a loyal friend, a devoted mother and a great source of inspiration and spiritual guidance for her grandchildren. Christmas in Bethlehem would forever stay engraved in my memory and that of my daughter Aida at the Dabdoubs where we would gather on December 24th for Christmas lunch. Along the way to the Church of the Nativity, the procession led by the Latin Patriarch would pass in front of her home. Lunch would be timed to finish before the processions arrival at which moment we would go and wait in the garden. The procession would slow down as the Patriarch passed by her home. A greeting smile on his face acknowledged and saluted Julia before the procession picked up through Star Street to the Church of the Nativity in preparation for the midnight mass.

Independent, professional and resolute all the other ladies grew old alone. Totally dedicated to their careers they remained single. Julia was able to break the formula. Articulate, professional and independent, she succeeded in weaving her career with a happy marriage. Again she was lucky to have a magnificently supportive husband and a great family amongst whom she reigned a veritable augusta genetrice doting on the love not only of her family but of everyone that knew her.

Christmas lunch with Julia, Mujadara (lentils and rice and onions) with Hind El Husseini the second day of Eid El Fitr or Eid El Kbeer, and many wonderful hours with Nuzha Darwish, Aliyyeh Nusseibeh and Yasmine Zahran. I am lucky to have known these extraordinary Palestinians. These ladies contributed significantly to the construction maintenance and preservation of the family, the community, and tradition. As repositories of collective memories, and as agents of cultural continuity, each woman presented a case by case legendary myth. This generation of women has shined like stars in the Palestinian community showing their brilliancy and blazing enthusiasm to create a sublime vision in the agony of war.

Dr. Ali Qleibo is an anthropologist, author, and artist. A specialist in the social history of Jerusalem and Palestinian peasant culture, he lectures at Al-Quds University and regularly participates in the cultural programmes of the Centre for Jerusalem Studies. He can be reached at

This Week in Palestine

March 2009

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