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Musa Sanad – by Leyla Zuaiter

Contributed by Ibrahim Marazka on 17.11.2005:

Death of a Modern Day Palestinian Folk Hero

Musa Sanad, Artas Folklore Center


By Leyla Zuaiter

“With Musa Sanad’s death, the Palestinians have lost a seminal figure in the field of Palestinian heritage preservation,” says Maha Sacca, head of the Palestinian Heritage Center in Bethlehem. “Artas will miss Musa Sanad the way the Palestinian people miss Arafat,” says one of the 3000 odd inhabitants of this village about 2 km south of Bethlehem.

The fascinating story of how this man came to be so intimately associated with Palestinian heritage and the village of Artas began in 1972, when a lady in her fifties appeared in the village. Encountering a schoolteacher, she asked him his name. “Musa Eissa Sanad,” he replied. “Musa Eisa Suleiman Selim Mahmoud Sanad,” she amended, pulling outhis family tree, and tracing his lineage back to his great-great grandfather.

The woman got her information from the works of Hilmeh Granqvist, a Finnish anthropologist, who in the early twentieth century had written several monographs dealing with village traditions from cradle to grave. Hilmeh was only one of the most prominent of the long line of Europeans who lived in or studied the village from the mid-nineteenth century on, drawn by its breathtaking scenery, biblical associations and proximity to Jerusalem. She is among the several women who themselves became a legendary part of village lore, thus attracting other researchers, foreign and local, and resulting in quite a few books and studies.

It so happens that Artas enjoys an especially rich landscape and cultural heritage. Watered by Solomon’s Pools and several springs, its green valley and lush agriculture belie the fact that it sits on the edge of the desert. Deriving from “Hortus,” Latin for “garden” as in “Hortus Conclusus”– the “garden enclosed” of Solomon’s Song of Songs–or from the Crusader’s “Artasium, or “orchard,” its very name is steeped in natural and historical imagery. In or near the village are found Solomon’s Pools, an Ottoman Fortress, as well as Biblical, Roman, and Crusader and other ruins. But perhaps Artas is today best recognized by its latest monument, a beautiful convent overlooking the valley, which was completed in 1901.

From the moment of Musa’s encounter with the foreign lady, the fates of Musa and Artas were inextricably linked. Ashamed that a foreigner knew more about his history than he did, Musa dedicated the rest of his life not only to collecting, documenting, preserving and sharing the oral history of the village but also to improving the life of the villagers; the keeper of the village flame had passed to a native son.

Musa sat with the old people and wrote down their stories, and through his students he tried to keep up to date on village births and deaths. After soldiers tore up some papers they found on his desk during a school raid, Musa kept them at home, wrapping them in plastic and burying them in the garden; he also hid the 100 odd books he had collected on Artas and other subjects, dividing them between the storage room and his neighbors.

Musa began writing his “book” in 1979. Photos of Artas of varying vintages are pasted on the cover of this large ledger-type book. Inside are pages filled with Musa’s handwriting in several colors of ink. The book, a veritable compendium of Artas, contains the proverbs, stories, curses, family genealogies, politics, events, schools, and just about everything else relating to the village. Musa soon became acknowledged as the village expert so that foreigners or locals who came to the village seeking information were automatically directed to him.

When he finally realized his dream of opening a folklore center in 1993, his work was taken to a new level. “Musa’s fingerprints are everywhere in Artas,” says his niece, Ahlam, who volunteered for six months at the center. This is an apt description in light of the literally and figuratively wide range of his activities and achievements, to which it is impossible to do full justice here.

In 1995, Musa initiated the first annual Lettuce Festival, which took place in the lovely Artas Valley overlooked by the Convent. By inviting members of consulates and local institutions, he generated interest in, and attracted funding for his work, primarily from the French, but also from the Belgian, Dutch, UNDP, the UAE, and other sources. He retired shortly thereafter from his teaching position to devote himself full time to his passion.

By renting rooms in, or by purchasing and renovating historic homes, Musa contributed much to the preservation of the village’s architectural heritage. In fact, he became so knowledgeable about traditional architecture that he was often mistaken for an engineer. One of the rooms houses a museum full of the implements and utensils of Palestinian village life.

Musa did much to enliven cultural life in the village and surrounding area. He organized four international festivals in nearby beauty spots. Participating artists hailed from as far away as Tunisia and Turkey. So engrossed was he in one of these events that he didn’t come home for 40 days, his wife claims. He also led school children or tourists on nature and heritage walks in the area. Perhaps one of his biggest coups was the inclusion of Artas in the Bethlehem 2000 celebrations. He also tried to increase international awareness of the heritage of Artas, by staging exhibitions abroad and initiating a film project.

Aside from collecting and preserving Artas folklore, Musa did many things to improve the daily lives of the villagers. With the help of French volunteers, he renovated Ain Artas, the picturesque spring near the village mosque, where some of the village women and girls still wash their clothes. He brought clean water from Bethlehem to the village, whose water source until then had been the polluted Ain Atan. He initiated the project, only partially realized, to pave the road between Solomon’s Pools and Bethlehem for the benefit of the residents and tourists. Through his efforts, a garbage truck was bought to collect the village refuse, which had previously marred the landscape. He also was responsible for getting funding for two new school buildings.

Father of nine, Musa was fortunate to have the support of his family. His mother sometimes made coffee for visitors at the museum. His wife, Muna, an excellent cook, used to prepare traditional meals for groups of visitors. She accompanied researchers around the village to collect stories. “There was a girl who wrote about the jinn and Artas who lived with me for a year,” she recalls. One son and nephew in particular tried to keep up with his projects. The family shared in the sacrifices, big and small, which Musa made for the sake of his work. Muna says that she used to send him out for vegetables and he would come back with things for his center. “Where are the vegetables?” she would ask. “You can get vegetables anytime,” he would answer, “but you can’s always get things for the center.”

Maha Sacca corroborates this tendency of Musa to spend the family income on his projects. With tears in her eyes, she expresses her great respect for Musa and appreciation for his work in spite of all the difficulties he faced. She recalls their days together as judges of folklore troupes and his attempt to preserve the original steps, costumes and musical instruments of the Debka, the traditional Palestinian dance. “Even from his sickbed during his last illness he couldn’t pass up any chance to contribute to Palestinian heritage,” she says, returning to more recent times. “He died with project documents in his hand. If it weren’t for Musa Sanad a large part of our heritage would be lost,” she concludes.

Though the family stresses that no one person can replace Musa, they hope to perpetuate Musa’s memory and build on his work. His son Fadi has begun typing up his father’s book and the family is looking for an institution or organization that can help underwrite the publication. As for the Folklore Center, they are looking for cooperation with tourist, heritage, educational and cultural institutions.

Despite the uncertainty hanging over his legacy, there is little doubt that Musa Sanad will become one of the most important people who have studied the customs, traditions and folklore of Artas and who have in turn become a larger than life part of them– like a hero in the folktales he dedicated his life to preserving.

Interested parties can reach Fadi Sanad, the director of Folklore Center, at

(972)(2) 276 0533

(972)(59) 938 0887


Some particularly nice captioned photographs of Artas and area can be seen at:

A shortened version of this article appeared in the March 2005 issue of This Week in Palestine (See This Week in Palestine for accompanying photos.)

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