Nebi Rubeen The wedding of sweet water and salt water
Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 25.02.2006:
This Week in Palestine
By Dr. Salim Tamari The Institute of Jerusalem Stu
The celebration of the festival of the prophet Rubeen (Reuven) along the southern shores of Jaffa has had a rich cultural history. Nebi Rubeen was one of two major celebrations (the other one being Nabi Musa) initiated in the twelfth century by Salah Eddin Al-Ayyubi and his lieutenants to mobilize the urban and rural population of central Palestine during periods European pilgrims to Jerusalem. The object was to create a ‘counter-pilgrimage’ during the Easter observance when there was fear that the Crusaders might use European pilgrims as a cover for establishing military outposts in the vicinities around Ramleh, Lydda, Jaffa, Jericho, and Jerusalem.1 Both the festivals of Nebi Rubeen and Nabi Musa continued to combine military and cultural activities until the end of the nineteenth century. Unlike Nabi Musa, however, Nebi Rubeen was a coastal festival and a predominantly urban one.
From the earlier literature it seems that the religious component used to predominate over the worldly festivities in Rubeen until the turn of the century—but it was a popular hybrid ritual rather than a distinctly Islamic one. One writer identifies it with the Phoenician ‘feast of the betrothal between sweet water and salt water’ still celebrated in Tyre by the end of the nineteenth century, and recalling the cult of Baal-Peor.2 In those days the Awqaf of Maqam Rubeen used to yield about Lb140 annual income (1886) which was used by the manager of the Maqam to slaughter a hundred goats to feed the poor during the thirty days of the September festivities.3
There is a consensus among participants during the Mandate period that Nebi Rubeen was a massive celebration involving all classes of Jaffites, as well as peasants from neighbouring villages and visitors from Lydda and Ramleh.4 It seems more probable from the few contemporary accounts that peasants came to sell their wares (and services) while the better off Jaffites treated the site as a summer resort. Abdel Rahim claims that the ‘entire city’ relocates to Maqam Rubeen, fifteen kilometres south of Jaffa. “Jaffa becomes a deserted city during the season,” – a slight exaggeration perhaps, but one confirmed by a number of observers.5 The more cautious chronicler of the city, Elias Rantisi, estimates an annual pilgrimage of 40 to 50,000 thousand Jaffites during the forties—which would constitute well over half the entire population of the city.6
The season began with a huge carnival-like procession (zaffet en-Nebi Rubeen) on the first day of July, launched by musical bands and banner holders near the Great Mosque. The music, dress, and paraphernalia of the procession recall wedding ceremonies. This is confirmed by the language used to describe the event (zaffet—’betrothal ceremony’) as well as the use of the camel Hawadaj for carrying the entourage of the women folk. The parade would tour the commercial district of Jaffa, and then proceed on camels and horses to the southern shores of the Rubeen tributary 14 km from Jaffa.
Jaffites continued to use horses and camels to travel to Rubeen even when busses and cars were available.7
Most families would spend two to three weeks at Rubeen, in elaborate tents that were especially constructed for the occasion by the municipality of Jaffa. Ringing the residential tents were make-shift markets, cafés, restaurants, bands of entertainers, theatres and outdoor cinemas. On the outer ring were the horse and camel races, organized during the day and constituting an important feature of the festival. At night live entertainment competed with radio and phonograph music which were linked to electric generators provided by the city council. Rubeen presented a daily repertoire of plays, musical concerts and motion pictures.8
Performers were local musicians and singers but also included contracted singers and players from Egypt and Lebanon. In the thirties and forties those included the theatrical troupe of Yusif Wahbe—famous throughout the Arab world; the actress Fatma Rushdi; Ali Kassar and his musical company; and the well known singers Fathiyya Ahmad and Muhammad Abdul Mutallib. The latter was extremely popular in Rubeen and was
contracted every July for a Jaffa performance.9
Both Rantisi (a Christian) and Dajani (a Muslim) describe a social milieu that is relaxed and uninhibited. “Old and young, rich and poor, would take off their formal wear and stroll around in white Galabiyyat and Rosa Qanabeez…most people wore sandals or simply walked barefooted….men and women moved around until way past midnight listing to music or attending theatrical performances.”10 Even if one makes allowances for nostalgic license here, there seems to be an agreement among contemporary observers that Rubeen was exceptional in that the normative controls of daily life were somehow suspended in a manner which was unique for Palestine, even for an ‘open’ city like Jaffa.
A unique feature of the festival is that, although launched as a religious festival and presided over by sheikhs, it was nevertheless an extremely ‘secular’ celebration—if one is allowed to use the word in this context. Religious Sheikhs not only participated in these mundane, licentious activities, but also blessed them and gave them public approval.
Rubeen was a family affair. The famous saying attributed to the cunning women of Jaffa was “Ya Bitrawibni, Ya biTaliqni” [‘Either you take me to Rubeen or I will have you divorce me’]. It was not considered proper for single men to go to Jaffa unaccompanied. And although the public spaces of Rubeen involved the milling around of men and women, the organized cultural events, such as the plays, film screening, and musical concerts were apparently segregated, although the evidence here is conflicting. Both Yusif Haikal—the last mayor of Jaffa, and Ahmad Abdel Rahim suggest that some events were mixed.11
Rubeen was an exceptional case of synchrony—displaying the creative adaptation of a popular traditional festival to the diktat of modernity, without either of them prevailing over the other. It was last celebrated in the summer of 1946 on the eve of the partition of Palestine. By sheer coincidence it was attended by the late historian Elias Rantisi who took a series of vivid photographs of the event that immortalized the joie de vivre and innocence of a city that was lost forever.12
1 Said Yusef Dajani, Kayy La Nansa: Yaffa, p. 129
2 Philip Baldensperger, “Religion, Feasts, and Processions,” in the Quarterly Statement, Palestine Exploration Fund Quarterly, 1920, p. 163-165
3 Ibid., p. 164. The Alsacian Baldensperger who attended the feast calls the celebration ‘frivolous’
4 Ahmad Abdel Rahim, “Rubeen,” in Sharabi and Diab, Itr Yafa, 115-118; Dajani, op. cit.; Elias Rantisi “Mawsim Rubeen,” in Itr Yafa, pp. 71- 73
5 Ahmad Abdel Rahim, p. 115
6 Rantisi, p. 71
7 Dajani, p. 131; Rantisi, p. 71
8 Dajani, 131-132; Abdel Rahim, 115
9 Dajani, p. 132, Abdel Rahim, 115
10 Dajani, p. 131
11 Abdel Rahim mentioned that on one occasion (undated) a mixed performance was organized for a play featuring Fatmah Rushdi, and a riot almost broke out. (op. cit, p. 115)
12 The photographs appear in Itr Yafa, a volume of memoirs edited by Imtiaz Diab and Hisham Sharabi.