Back to overview

Reflections on Palestinian Identity Al-Nakba: An Open Wound

Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 20.02.2009:

By Dr. Ali Qleibo

Evocative phrases and concrete images bear testimony to the fact that “the love of the fatherland is a chronic condition and not a passing illness.”

“The tent is a wound that is still bleeding,” one reads on the walls of El-Arroub Refugee Camp.” “The refugee camp (al-mukhayyam) is the bridge of return to the land of ancestors,” reads yet more graffiti. A huge key sculpture hangs at the entrance to Aida Refugee Camp. Sixty years after al-Nakba, the dream of the return has not rescinded. The cataclysmic trauma of the Nakba defines modern Palestinian identity. Al-Naksa, the defeat of 1967, al-sumud wal muqata’a (steadfast holding to the fatherland, boycotting Israelis, and refusing to normalise life under occupation), the first Intifada, the Oslo Agreement and the Sharon Intifada, the Siege of Arafat and the Bombardment of Ramallah, the Slow Transfer (the bureaucratic structure that legalises the confiscation of peasant land, the destruction of thousands of homes, and the intensification of settlements in the West Bank), the Wall, and now the Carnage in Gaza are punctuation marks in a frozen moment in time; al-Nakba. For sixty-one years time has stood still.

The Dream of the Return and the Nakba form a single braid that weaves the existential being of the Palestinian. The Nakba is one synchronous moment that extends from 1948 racial ethnocide until now; hence the absence of museums that commemorate the cataclysmic event. We still live the Nakba. The carnage in Gaza is a reminder that the Nakba remains an open wound that delineates Palestinian identity.

Identity in post-structuralism is a narrative. According to Paul Ricoeur, identity is the story I tell myself or others about myself. Responses to the questions “Who am I?” and “Where do I come from?” as well as a corollary reconstruction of the events that lead to the present underline narrative identity.

As a native anthropologist, my subjectivity is compromised on both the personal/collective level and on a theological level. On the one hand, I cannot overlook the role that the Judaeo-Christian culture and its Canaanite predecessor have played in providing the blueprint that structures Palestinian cultural identity. Nevertheless I cannot be insensible to the effect of the various historical influences on the constant reshaping of our cultural identity and our self-image. Arabic culture and the Muslim religion have re-structured our life. Moreover, Muslim Arab historiography traditionally disavows our pagan pre-Islamic culture and religion. The formation of our identity is discursively assigned to the advent of Islam in the seventh century with the Crusades being merely a brief interruption.

Ancient Canaanites had forged the first spiritual relationship with Palestine. Their initial perception of Palestine’s geography – the rocks, caves, water springs, and trees – have come to imbue the holy land with its mythos. Their perception, intuition, and interaction with the natural environment have structured and conditioned the unique socio-economic system, religion, and spiritual legacy that the diverse ethnic Semitic and non-Semitic later settlers adapted themselves to. The dynamic process of ecological adaptation to an ever-shifting environment, the cultural diversity of which the Canaanite nascent city-states were composed, and the influences of the various peoples with whom the Palestinians came into contact have never ceased. These peoples are innumerable and include the Hurrites, Jebusites, Canaanites, Hebrews, Edomites, Arameans, and Arabs. Ancient non-Semitic peoples were composed of diverse Greeks from Crete, Ionia, the Black Sea, Anatolia, and Lydia, and were followed by Hellenic Greeks, Roman legions, Persians, Byzantines, Crusaders, Kurds, and Turks. In modern history, Egyptians, following Ibrahim Pasha’s occupation of Palestine, the Ottoman reformations, the British Mandate, the annexation to Jordan, and the current Israeli occupation, have played an ever-increasing role in reorganising the ecological system, expanding our resources in new directions, and reshaping Palestinian modern social political identity. Heirs to all these peoples and cultures, Palestinians can claim neither racial genetic purity nor ontological cultural homogeneity.

My friends in al-Samuu or Yatta consider themselves Qaysi, i.e., pure Arabs from Hijaz. They have genealogical charts that trace their tribal origins in the Arabian Desert. However, they, as well as the majority of pure Qaysi Arabs, are mostly blonde, fair, and blue-eyed – a testimony to the Crusader presence and to the more ancient Greco-Roman occupations. In fact, the majority of the southern Palestinians – descendants of the cave dwellers who, until the last century, practiced cave burials within the threshold of their dwelling places, who celebrate the Thursday of the Eggs, and who punctuate the agricultural cyclical year parallel to and in concurrence with the Greek Orthodox liturgical ritual calendar – are a genetic pool in which the dominant phenotype contains the blonde, fair-skinned, blue-eyed alleles.

In fact, the Palestinian genetic pool is quite diverse. The phenotypes range from Negro African Palestinians of the Jordan Valley to dominant blonde Germanic phenotypes typical of the southern Hebron Mountains.

In order to survive, the Palestinian peasant no longer ekes out a living from his land but has become a “salary man.” From a life of mere subsistence, a constant struggle to survive off crops, the Palestinian now faces the ultimate challenge of survival on his motherland. The Israeli occupation presents an ever-increasing threat to his land, his home, and his family members. The alarming number of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, the building of settlement roads, and the construction of the separation Wall threaten our very existence in the homeland. The West Bank is increasingly becoming a sea of settlements with a decreasing number of Palestinian islands. The field of struggle has shifted from the level of economic subsistence, in which the peasant was embroiled with the mythos of the land, to the contemporary Palestinian nationalist struggle for survival and independence. A new nationalist mythos inflames the heart of the Palestinians.

New economic resources and an extremely wide territoriality that includes Australia, the United States, Europe, and the Arabian Gulf have produced unprecedented cash flow that has altered the standard of living and produced a modernist consumer lifestyle. Running water, electricity, modern kitchens and bathrooms, Internet, and satellite are common conveniences.

Almost every village boasts a community multi-purpose cultural centre. The traditional extended family compound, hosh, once reserved for weddings and family meetings, has now become the garden of the cultural centre and is used as an outdoor concert hall. At a classical music concert that I attended last summer in Deir Ghassan, the scene was impressive. Segregation of the sexes was maintained by personal choice; most of the women sat on the side while the men sat in the centre. Viennese and German musicians played the violin, flute, trumpet, contrabass, and piano. Though the instruments, melodies, and harmonies are totally alien to Palestinian folk music, the members of the audience followed attentively as they enjoyed the music.

In the new Palestine, the family survives as a cohesive unit. The modern extended three-generation family has moved from the single, 16-square-meter room, the cave, or network of caves, in which “man and his animals” shared the same roof, to a modern house. In addition to modern conveniences, the modern house provides privacy. There are separate rooms for sleeping, watching television, and receiving guests. The expansive villa is composed of numerous private apartments for the sons and their children. Father and mother would keep the first floor and the children would, upon marriage, move into their own apartments above. This vertical movement for some is accompanied by a horizontal movement within one large plot of land for others. West Bank village architecture reflects the varying levels of economic status and ranges from simple, handsome villas to huge houses of palatial grandeur. Irrespective of wealth, the extended family continues to function as a social economic unit.

The Palestinian dream is a home in the mountains on the edge of the village… Throughout the West Bank, small villas sprawl around the old village centre, encroaching on the fig, olive, and grape orchards. The ideal villa, which includes a garage, is situated in the midst of an orchard and is surrounded by a rose garden. In the back of the house a small plot of land is reserved for baali, from the Canaanite god Baal – summer agriculture that depends on evening dew as its source of irrigation. The dry, hot days of Palestine have a wonderful, unique ability to become moist with thick dew during the night. Heavy mist races in the night over the mountaintops leaving a wet blanket of dew underneath.

Palestinians prefer the taste of the traditional baali okra, tomato, cucumber, onion, and cauliflower to commercial vegetables. Our grapes, our tomatoes, our olives, and our cucumbers – all the products that depend on the baali type of irrigation – have a unique taste that people cherish. The little that is planted is for purely aesthetic reasons. The precious baali vegetables are reserved exclusively for home use and as gifts for friends. Despite the Israeli occupation, the confiscation of land, and the Wall, the Palestinian agricultural calendar survives. The relationship of the Palestinian to the land has not been ruptured. To the primordial mythos of the land a new discourse has been deployed: that of national resistance and the struggle for freedom.

The village, the neighbours, and the family remain an infinite source of joy.

The thick description of Palestinian cultural identity encompasses the hermeneutics of dynamic cultural adaptations to an ecological system in flux. But no one can be naively romantic and assume that the present Palestinian is a modern-day Canaanite.

The concept of the “unchangeable east” is a myth. There was never a period of true identity, a genuine moment that encapsulates a “cultural essence” or “cultural core.” Rather, throughout history, each period was merely a fleeting moment that in its transient fragility represented a momentary socio-economic dynamic adaptation of the culture to the available resources, thus ensuring the survival of the family within the tribe. Palestinians remain a tribal people. The locus of the extended family, the sub-unit of the tribe (hamuleh) in the Palestinian village, is invariably the hosh, the three-generation family-living courtyard. Here the high school graduation parties, college graduations, engagements, and weddings are celebrated. The hosh is also the space where the four generations while away their summer evenings.

The overlapping of predominantly Christian and ancient Canaanite rituals in modern-day Palestinian folk culture, which academic work reveals, is partial historical reality. This academic discourse, the search for classical roots, does not change the fact that the modern native discourse provides a narrative of Palestinian identity as “Muslim” and as “pure Arab.” The contemporary political ethnic identity as “Palestinian-Arab” informs one’s position vis-à-vis oneself, one’s community, and the outside world. The Palestinian exists on one level that is subjectively sensed as real, whereas the ancient classical civilisations exist on a different plain to which the Palestinian does not relate except on an academic or political level.

For foreigners, the Palestinians remain an enigma. The mention of the word “Palestinian” triggers ambivalent images that associate the culture with the threatening image of anonymous youths camouflaged with kaffiyehs that mask their faces; in the process, Palestinian cultural identity has been suppressed, distorted, and ultimately falsified. The part – the kaffiyeh as a symbol of our national struggle – has displaced the whole.

As I was drafting this article I received an e-mail message from the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee announcing National Wear-Your-Kaffiyeh Day: 12 January 2009. People were invited to wear their kaffiyehs as a symbolic gesture to raise awareness of the plight of the Palestinian people and to explain the reality of Palestinians during the past 60 years to anyone who asked.

The kaffiyeh plays a highly symbolic role in establishing Palestinian identity and a sense of belonging. Under Israeli occupation, the kaffiyeh has assumed a nationalist value and has become a form of ethnic pride. When wrapped around the head to camouflage the identity of its wearer, the kaffiyeh is transformed into a sign indicative of active resistance.

In contemporary consciousness, the Palestinian, national resistance, and the kaffiyeh have become synonymous. The image of a Palestinian is subsumed by the kaffiyeh; the Palestinian has lost his face and become anonymous. Masked, faceless, and anonymous, his identity has been occulted. Inadvertently the kaffiyeh, our nationalist symbol, rather than expressing our deep roots and rich heritage, disguises and distorts our image.

The kaffiyeh has always played a major symbolic role in Palestinian history. Originally, in conformity with the Palestinian “Myth of Origin” and the corresponding division of affiliations between Northern and Southern Arabia – i.e., “Qaysi” or “Yemeni” Arabs – each party used a distinctive kaffiyeh. Whereas the Yemeni wore the red-chequered kaffiyeh, the Qaysi wore the black-and-white-chequered kaffiyeh. In the nineteenth century the kaffiyeh expressed symbolic significance in relation to tribal solidarity and allegiance to the land, i.e. tribal/nationalist. In short, the kaffiyeh has been constitutively constituted as a metonymic referent to a deep-rooted virile sense of belonging and an expression of tribal social solidarity. Once women came to wear the kaffiyeh, it became an expression not only of “women’s liberation” but of the transcendence of the kaffiyeh from intra-tribal male-oriented conflicts to a nationalist, all-inclusive struggle for freedom.

Highly politicised, the Palestinian has become closely associated with the nationalist struggle. The Intifada and the international coverage of the daily confrontations reflect a fragmentary, sensationalist, and distorted image of the Palestinians. At times news clips flash masked youths running in olive and fig terraces, at others they are presented hurling stones at Israeli soldiers. Interviews with anonymous voices highlight great states of anger and rage. Sporadic individual acts of violence by Palestinians against Israelis constitute the impressions that outsiders glean about the Palestinians. These ambivalent images of the Palestinian as a valiant hero or, alternately, as a cowardly villain, undermine and help obscure Palestinian identity.

At times the Palestinian is seen as a heroic freedom fighter, at others as a cowardly terrorist. At one moment he becomes a paragon of struggle and stoic endurance, a tragic hero; at another he is demonised. The Zionist discourse systemically misrepresents Palestinians as violent, fanatic, and irrational intruders. In fact, on the international political scene, the dominant discourse of the Israeli victor marginalises the discourse of the Palestinians. Parallel to the Israeli self-righteous appropriation of historical Palestine, during the Nakba’s ethnic cleansing of Palestine, and the current slow transfer that takes bureaucratic measures to legalise its anti-Palestinian policies, we are alienated from our mythos of the land. Our own cultural heritage, which hearkens to the ancient Semitic cultures of Palestine, is usurped. The legitimacy of our status as the true heirs of the land and ancient Canaanite culture is undermined. In the Israeli narrative, the Palestinian armed struggle for independence is misleadingly presented as an act of terror. The discourse of the victim has been undermined and de-legitimised.

In Jerusalem, the West Bank, the District of Gaza, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, the United States – all over the earth – there are Palestinians. Who are they? What is their experience? The answer eludes us the moment we pose the question. For the generic term “Palestinian” allows for easy reductionist stereotyping of an otherwise extremely complex and highly varied repertoire of individual human experiences. There is no “Palestinian” per se except in metaphysical thought which, by ignoring the ethnographic culture-particular context, overlooks the infinite diversity of the Palestinians that may be grasped only through empirical experience, always subjective in the human sciences.

Anthropologically speaking, it is impossible to qualify scientifically the diverse human experiences in various cultures through the use of collective generic terms such as “Palestinians,” “Americans,” “Russians,” or “Egyptians” to describe all individuals born into these cultures. The notion of “cultural types” is highly problematic. To be more specific, is there a Palestinian ideal type, a national Palestinian character!? Can we ferret out particular cultural features or isolate certain characteristic traits that we may attribute as intrinsic to the Palestinians temperament and thus conclude that the sum of these elements, because of their statistical frequency at a certain level, constitute the typical Palestinian cultural personality?!

We can glimpse ethnographically the features of Palestinian collective identity in the diverse cultural expressions, in the local architecture, cuisine, social structure, and psycho-emotional tone of life. The Palestinian house differs structurally from the Egyptian or Iraqi peasant house. The rhythm within the nuclear family – as manifest in the brother/sister, mother/son, brother/brother, son/father relations and their various shades of rivalry, jealousy, love, and hate, i.e., the basic psychosexual components of social life – has its unique character, in turn different from similar relations in Egyptian or Lebanese families.

Palestinian cuisine also differs from Egyptian or Iraqi food in the degree of its dasameh and hamudah, the mixture of its elements and methods of cooking. Although it resembles Syrian and Lebanese cuisine, it is still distinguished by its own particular flavour. These cultural particularities provide a fertile field for anthropological research.

A fundamental question comes to mind: are these cultural traits that characterise our society fortuitous or did history play a part in shaping their direction and form? To what degree have these culture-particular details been determined by horizons of knowledge, by a vision, and by a deep sense of aesthetics that have long disappeared from our consciousness?

My ethnographic knowledge of the Palestinians is of friends and their extended families and, in the course of time, of the hamuleh and the village. “The Palestinian” does not exist as a generic type nor are my friends reducible to statistical figures. I have forged deep friendships with individuals who, through trust and love, have confided to me their knowledge of their culture and vice versa. Through friendship our common humanity was revealed.

The Palestinian, though he may fulfil the conditions of the classical tragic hero because of his unrelenting struggle for freedom, is not merely a symbol of heroism, courage, and struggle. He remains a frail, sensitive human being. The Palestinian loves and hates, is merciful and vindictive, simple, easygoing, but extremely complicated and stubborn. He is subject to dramatic mood swings, is high-strung, haughty, and docile all at the same time. Proud, volatile, and easily irritable, nevertheless he remains extremely gracious and dignified. At times he may be frugal and miserly; at others he becomes ostentatious and enamoured with pompous display of wealth and power. Educated, liberal, and enlightened but also narrow-minded and limited in vision, he becomes compulsive. Deliberate, shrewd, and sly, yet the Palestinian is emotional, overly sentimental, and irrational. Nothing is strange about the contradictory feelings that agitate within the Palestinian; for individuality, the experiential subjective reality of each person, is nothing more than consecutive states of consciousness and contradictory feelings. The Palestinians, just like all other peoples, are complex, sentient, and sensitive human beings.

After years of fieldwork, I am still overwhelmed – as I am upon seeing a flashing comet – by the sudden encounter with a socio-religious ritual, a fossil from antiquity. In its light I am touched first and foremost by the very human complexity, frailty, and pathos of the Palestinian people.

To the Palestinian mythos of the land, the Nakba imparts a tragic dimension. The establishment of Israel required the forced expulsion of the Palestinian indigenous population. Nowadays more than six million refugees concentrate destitute in refugee camps in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, the West Bank, and Gaza. Those in Gaza – more than one million – crowd in the squalid poverty of the camps within sight of their villages. It is tragic irony that the Israeli missiles, launched from their homeland, cascade on their refugee camps, leaving a bloody shadow of death, pain, and misery.

Just outside Gaza, their own villages and towns stretch along the coast. Al-Hiliqat, Barbara, Askalon, al-Masmiyya, and al-Faluja now bear Hebrew names and house their persecutors, adding salt to the wound.

Abandoned to the UNRWA and donor countries’ welfare system, under siege for years, and reduced to having to live off charity, their plea for just restitution remains unheard. History is written by the victorious. Against the background of the internationally dominant Israeli discourse the Palestinian narrative struggles to be heard. Ours, the discourse of the defeated, is invariably overlooked. Stateless we remain hostages in the host countries. For the past 61 years, the lives of all Palestinians have come to a halt, with periodic purges in Jordan, Lebanon, and Palestine. The war against the Palestinians continues in the recent war on Gaza … we have already seen it in Sabra and Shatila, in Black September, in Jenin…

Now that the carnage in Gaza has ceased and the dead have been buried, the social welfare patchwork will resume. The donor countries will help restore the refugee camps… Food, blankets, clothing, and medical aid will pour into Gaza. Justice, however, will not be dispensed.

Sixty-one years have stood still, and the memory of the lost homeland remains fresh. Reality is that of the heart. The forced exodus from Palestine, perceived in Palestinian discourse as the lost paradise, is a trauma of cataclysmic proportions. Palestine – the love of the fatherland – is a chronic condition and not a passing illness; a wound that time will not heal.

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

February 2009

There are no comments. Add one!