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Shepherds, Grazing Fields, and Recreational Games

Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 30.05.2008:

Palestinian Traditional Sports

By Dr. Ali Qleibo

“Most games took place in the late afternoon, the heat of the day would have abated and the western breeze would have begun to blow.” I listened as Abu Ali Hantash, in his convalescence bed in his home in Dura, recalled his childhood recreational sports. Though barely two days had passed since he had undergone gall bladder surgery, my sixty-five-year-old friend enthusiastically shared his memories of bygone days. “Most of our games took place in the grazing fields after the harvest. Everyone had sheep and cows, and they all took their animals to graze on the harvested fields.”

Abu Ali helps me imagine the scene.

“This is before we started to plant olive trees; before the planting of tomatoes, okra, or zucchini; before the fruit trees. In Dura thirty years ago, we mainly planted wheat, barley, and lentils.”

I am enchanted with the narrative. He continues, “There was no cash flow then. Money was rare and dear. If we wanted to buy corn or tomatoes, a measure of wheat would be exchanged for a measure of corn or two measures of wheat against one measure of tomatoes.”

In my field work I find it unnecessary to control the direction of the narratives. Memories form an intricate web of conceptual associations that underlie a structural logic.

“The shepherds would gather out in the harvested fields. We would choose a flat plain as our playground.”

“What did they wear then?” I interrupted.

He looked surprised by my question.

“These are the days that preceded denim jeans, shirts, and sneakers,” I explained.

“The boys wore djallabiyehs and went about barefooted. We had many games. We could never stop playing. Our favourites were “al manyya, al ash-sharah, and naqus, alhuj-jerieh, el sabaa’ shaqafat…”

“Al manyya was our favourite game. We were barely 13 years old and would form equal teams of three to three or four to four, depending on the number of shepherds in the vicinity. A flat field would be chosen. The boundaries within which we could run and flee from each other would be designated, and the set of rules that governed the game would be clearly stipulated.”

We stopped as his son Ala’ offered me the plate with apples, which he had just peeled and cut into serving size.

“The game derived its name “al manyya” from its basic feature – a big stone that formed the base of the game. The two teams would stand next to each other, and one of the players who had won the right to begin would have to touch the stone, yitmanna, before beginning to taunt, tease, and provoke by diverse gestures the players of the opposing team to catch him. But no one could run after him and catch him unless he had touched al manyya stone.”

He paused as he sipped water from his glass. I nibbled from my apple plate.

“This was our favourite game. It required great physical energy and coordination among the members of the team. We would organise strategies to avoid being caught, to create distractions, and to map our getaway. Once one is about to be caught, a member of his team would run to his rescue. He would touch the stone and begin the game of provocative taunting to draw the attention of the opposing team members who, should the other pursuer be a very fast runner, would begin to chase the new opponent to be taken as a prisoner. But no one could act without touching al manyya stone. Should one be arrested he would be considered a prisoner and not allowed to continue playing. Care would be taken that none of his team, once having touched the stone, would approach him. Once touched by a member of the team, he would be liberated and would join in the game again.”

“These games required much energy and were physically demanding and extremely tiring. We would sleep immediately in the early evening, completely exhausted.”

“Another game,” Abu Ali continued, “was al ash-sharah and el naqus” (the sign and the bell). Two kinds of stones would be chosen: eight stones ten centimetres high, and two not more than five centimetres high. The stones would have to be long and thin. They would be placed upright at a distance of a minimum of ten meters from the players. The game emphasized the skill of aiming and hitting primarily the naqus and the other ash-sharah, markers, and making them fall flat. A special stone, el dahmus – which is round and the size of the hand – had to be used for casting. This is a difficult game. Your arm would hurt since you needed to use your muscles to throw the stone, which could not be rolled. The rules of the game stipulated that el dahmus would have to be cast down from above. To aim and hit with precision was extremely difficult. The need to repeat the effort in order to score made it strenuous on the arm muscles. To score you must knock the naqus (bell) flat. Should one miss the stones, another player would take over. Should one hit one ash-sharah from the set of four, one would have the right to cast el dahmus another time.”

“What did the dahmus look like?”

“It had to be round and heavy but must fit in the hand. The fist must close on it. A ramrum would be too big to carry, but a hasweh is considered too small. A dahmus, from its name, would be a round, smooth stone worn down by rain that we would look for in dry river beds.”

“How do you decide who begins the game?” I inquired.

“There were a number of ways. One is fadi/malan, the “empty-or-full-hand” quiz. You would hide a straw in one hand by closing your fist around it. Then you would hide both hands behind your back. You would present both fists to the players who would then have to guess which one the straw is in, which one is full or which is empty. The player who guessed correctly was the one who had the right to begin the game. The straw method was the easiest way since straw pieces were readily available in the fields after the harvest.”

Even in relation to children’s games, each village has its own distinct methods of recreation. In Ramim up north near Sebastya, my friend Mashur told me that as children they enjoyed racing on donkeys.

Did you play the ash-sharah/naqus or al manyya?”

“No, we did not have them.”

In Beit Ummar most of the games took place not in the fields but in the village square.

“Where the mosque stands now used to be the village square. All the old people would gather there in the afternoon, and children would play within sight of the elders.” Abu Iyad further emphasized the unique character of each village: “Each village has its own values, customs, and individual features.”

I wanted to know more about sports, but he wanted to talk about the tomato culture…

“We used to dry tomatoes. We would cut them into wedges and dry them in the sun and store them for winter.”

“In Italy these dried tomatoes are a delicacy,” I interjected. “They take a piece of dry bread, sprinkle it with a bit of water and a bit of oil and put the dry tomato on it as a sandwich.”

“As you cut the tomato, you can also let the juice run onto the bread and, with a drop of oil, it has the most delicious taste,” Abu Iyad said. “We also have different ways of preserving tomatoes for the winter season. We sometimes cut and dry tomatoes to be used to make the sauce for food – this is delicious with eggs; we also sometimes preserve them in jars. This way they remain juicy, with pulp; this is used for fresh salads. When you pour it out of the jar and add onions and cucumbers, it is even more delicious than fresh tomatoes. And sometimes we make tomato paste…”

“When did “sports” come to Beit Ummar?” I ask Abu Iyad.

“Only after the Nakba. When the schools were built, sports became part of the curriculum. Football was a big thing then.”

“But that was reserved for the youth, wasn’t it?” I inquired.

“No, we all participated. We organised groups of the khityarieh (the elderly) and groups of youth and competed against each other.”

“How old were the old?”

“Old age refers to anyone between thirty and sixty years old.”

Hamzeh from el-Saer did not share the same attitude concerning the adult male participation in sports.

“Hmm … It does not look dignified for a man to run,” Hamzeh pondered in answer to my question about sports in his village.

“What kind of ball did you use for the football game?” I asked Abu Iyad.

“We had no cash to buy a football. So we either took rags of cloth and wrapped them tightly into the shape of a football or used the skin of a lamb. The piece of flat skin would be stuffed with cloth and then we would sew it closed to give it the typical round shape.”

The most exotic description of a homemade ball comes from Dura. This ball of cow’s hair was essential in the game of el sabaa’ shaqfat, the seven pottery shreds.

“We would pluck the hair of the cow and, hair by hair, we would glue them to each other using our saliva.”

“You glued hairs by means of saliva? Does it hold?”

“It made the best ball.” Abu Ali asserted.

I could not ask whether they played with the ball still wet with saliva or whether it dried, for he continued to describe the game of seven pottery shreds.

“You know,” he explained, “our land is full of pottery shreds. Seven pottery shreds would be chosen and we would put one on top of the other. From at least four meters the ball would be cast at the piled up shreds of pottery. Should one or two fall, it would give the team the chance to run. There was a designated course for running …” He stopped mid-sentence, looked me in the eyes, and said …

“But these were strenuous games. They were not easy. You had to run. You had to carry heavy stones which had to be tossed repeatedly. The losing team’s punishment was also difficult. They would have to carry the members of the winning team from one side of the field to another and climb up the scraggy mountains, each carrying a winning victor on his back. They were made to do physically hard things stipulated at the beginning of the game.”

At the age of sixty-five Abu Ali is in excellent physical condition. Though he works in the ministry of education his relationship with the land continues. He works his land daily. For the past month he has been occupied with planting his seasonal ba’ly legumes, which depend on the moisture of the soil and night dew for irrigation. Ba’ly agriculture imparts a unique aroma to tomatoes, okra, cucumbers….

“But did they have the concept of body building with toned-up muscles?” I ask as I look at his strong, thin, sinewy body.

Health clubs where men go to train and to build muscles have become popular in the Palestinian countryside. I look around me and it is obvious that all the young men who no longer work on the land go to gyms. The biceps and pectoral and abdominal muscles are well defined and are markers of male vanity. In Beit Ummar Abu Iyad’s two sons Iyad and Muhannad are strikingly handsome. In fact, men and women in southern Palestine – be they from Beit Ummar, Halhul, Dura, or el Sammu – are extremely good-looking and are famous for their beauty. With the new concept of body image developed through training in health clubs, a new self-image has emerged.

“What did their grandparents look like?” I ask Abu Ali.

“They were better looking. The hardship of life made them stronger: rough but polite, tough but obedient.”

“Our life was made up of constant workouts. We had to lift water from the wells, we had to plough the land, and we had to carry the harvest. Field work was extremely demanding and to be fit was a matter of daily life. In fact, we spent most of the year working. We were either harvesting or ploughing. Without modern machinery the field work was physically demanding and time consuming. We would harvest with the heavy sickle and pile the wheat, chickpeas, barley, or lentils into heaps. These in turn would be carried to the threshing grounds. Threshing and separating the hay from the cereals required a few stages to be followed by winnowing and finally grinding the wheat into flour. September rain would begin and people would rush to finish the grinding before the cereals lying in the threshing ground rotted.”

Abu Ali is in rapture with his land. He walks fifteen kilometres daily to work it. Since it is a pleasure and not a task, he rarely takes his university-graduate children along. His only pleasure is to have Um Ali visit him to keep him company as he tends his vegetables. He asks her to sit on a rock and simply be with him. I have never seen so much love and deference after so many years of marriage.

“In fact, we spent most of the year working the land.” Abu Ali’s voice brings me back to the living room in Dura.” Soon after the first rain we would begin to prepare the land for next year’s season; ploughing begins. By the time we finished ploughing, it would be time to sow the seeds. Then we would begin to weed the wild herbs that would turn into thorny plants that would lacerate the hands of reapers if left in the field. Our only leisure time for games was the time after the harvest.”

Recollections have a power of their own. I listened to Abu Ali’s description of the peasant agricultural calendar – a topic by itself. He is fast and attentive. He noticed that my thoughts were drifting away from his words. He quickly pulled together the threads of the story.

“One of the favourite games is the elhuj-jarieh. For this game you need one big round stone – kallash type – and another five or six smaller square pebbles. The kallash has to be big and round but fits within a fist. The name of the stone in this game is jajeh, chicken. So the game is the chicken and its eggs. This requires manual dexterity. One begins by holding the jajeh, the bigger stone, and the smaller stones between the two hands. They are tossed on the floor so as to keep them close to each other. Then with the right hand one picks up the jajeh, tosses it up gently in the air and deftly snatches a baby stone that is quickly tossed in the air and caught without allowing the jajeh to fall. The act is repeated, increasing the number of stones until all the baby stones are successfully carried, which is quite difficult.

Girls have their own games. Aida, my eleven-year-old daughter, describes how they play in Bet Suriq.

“I always enjoy going to visit my good friends in Bet Suriq. We have lots of fun playing many games such as el jajeh el amia, i.e., the blind chicken. In this game one person is blindfolded and runs to catch the others in the courtyard of the house. The game involves the naming of the person who is caught. Another game is ali/wati (high and low). One girl must catch the others who try to flee. She can catch you if you are on the ground. Once you stand on a rock or a chair or anything high (ali), you are safe. We also play hajjar, which is hopscotch in English.”

I am often overcome with the wistful recognition that I have come thirty years too late. The traditional life I glimpse is gleaned from nostalgic memories of peasants who, with the hindsight of the present, enjoy their memories of the way life used to be. This is a privileged moment with cash flow, comfortable homes, cars, satellites, and Internet – all of which impart a great sense of self-confidence; theirs is a success story: from rags to riches. What I know via my interlocutors, the fathers of my students and their relatives who have adopted me as their friend and almost permanent guest, has already been mulled over, analysed, subjected to introspective analysis, and idealised.

Nostalgic memories mediate between me and the lived experience; I am the recipient of a highly codified reconstruction of a life once lived. I shall not know of the quarrels between the boys as they cheated in the game or when they refused to go through with the agreed upon punishments. I have not witnessed the ensuing family quarrels, el tosheh, when a son returned home bleeding after another angry boy threw a stone at his head. I have not seen the commotion of running, the choreography of the taunting, and the body position as they cast the hair ball. I can barely imagine the stirred dust, the dry hay, and the aroma of the taboon. The experiential totality of the game in the fields after the harvest will forever elude me.

Similarly I am aware that the current experiential human condition of the Palestinians, the contemporary political, economic, ideological, cultural conflagration, yields a rich field of study. The dynamism of lived experience, on the one hand, and my temporal proximity to these events, on the other, diminishes my field of vision. My lacunae are structurally produced. My oversights are integral to my position in time, which precludes “perspective.” Many details that I ought to see I fail to see. My consolation is the fact that my daughter Aida, my companion on my field trips, has already been inaugurated into this humanist discourse. What I overlook now will be the field of study and of knowledge for her generation to explore. She is already more privileged than I; she was there thirty years before.

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

June 2008

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