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Surviving the Wall

Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 17.12.2009:

The Roots of Palestinian Cultural Identity in Ancient Semitic Cultures

By Dr. Ali Qleibo

Emersian Publications, October 2009

395 pages, including more than 500 photographs, NIS 130

One of the characteristics of a state is the cultural identity of its citizens. The area of land which the Palestinians consider to be theirs has been reduced to less than a quarter of its original size, due to a concurrence of circumstances. In the process, an important part of Palestine’s cultural and historical heritage has been lost.

What remains of this heritage is in grave danger of being lost for future generations due to the occupation of the West Bank since 1967 and the establishment of Jewish settlement there. For this reason it is especially gratifying to see the efforts that Dr. Ali Qleibo, a keen participant observer, is expending to capture the rich cultural and historic Palestinian treasures. The ethnographic narratives that he brings together in Surviving the Wall present a kaleidoscopic image of the wealth of Palestinian social and cultural life.

Due to the author’s immersion in historical contexts, he is able to show convincingly that certain old Semitic customs and manners have endured from ancient times to the present, albeit camouflaged under a veneer of Christian or Muslim beliefs. Palestinian cultural identity thus begins not with the onset of Islam, but can be traced back to early-Semitic times and the land of Canaan. Anyone who has had the pleasure of accompanying Dr. Qleibo on one of his many journeys, as I have, can attest to the existence of holy trees, holy stones, saints’ shrines, and holy men’s memorial domes, which dot the Palestinian landscape and have their roots in Canaanite spirituality. He also explains that the Palestinians survive in their land against all odds and are steadfastly determined to stay there. His love of Palestine and the pain he feels for the fate that has befallen his country is reflected in every page: “The love of the fatherland is a chronic condition and not a passing illness.”

In this book, Dr. Qleibo, descendent of a prominent Jerusalemite family, displays his versatility as a writer, academic, and artist. Furthermore, the respectful manner in which he approaches ordinary people during his fieldwork has enabled him to compile a frank narrative of their perspectives, even on intimate subjects. This anthology is the result of his extensive fieldwork and presents a very personal view of a great many aspects of Palestinian culture.

In every chapter of Qleibo’s book, he looks at difficult facets of peasant life today in Palestine. Qleibo goes into the villages, drinks coffee, and lets the peasants tell their stories. The stories provide Qleibo with the narratives we find in this book about ancient Semitic religious rites and symbols that are superimposed onto the biblical iconographic figures such as the Virgin Mary, Jonah, Noah, and Lot. The tradition of St. George fits into this “religious rite” as well.

The native discourse provides Qleibo with extremely relevant information about the constituent elements of traditional Palestinian identity, namely the agricultural calendar, traditional sports, the role of women, and economic solidarity of the extended family, as well as the concepts of nature, sexual intimacy, and privacy. Qleibo stresses the great role that the Crimean War and the nineteenth-century Ottoman reforms played in providing the underpinnings of the modernist Palestinian religious identity. As a result Qleibo unfolds a tapestry of life that has witnessed continued adaptations of the various peoples who have lived in Palestine. Each group has brought its own unique tapestry to the land over the last two or three millennia, for example, the ecological adaptations made by the Hurrites, the original cave dwellers of Palestine, the Canaanites and their classification of nature and land use, and the evolution of the original agricultural Palestinian calendar, which was based on orchards of olives, grapes, figs, almonds, leeks, various species of squash and, of course, the main cereal staples, namely wheat, barley, and lentils.

The independent Canaanite city-state has fostered different settlements of the various Canaanite tribes and other Semitic peoples through the ages to Palestine. To this cluster of Semitic towns, waves of immigration from Crete, Anatolia, the Black Sea, and later Hellenic, Roman, Arab, Crusader, Kurdish, Turkish, Egyptian, British, Jordanian, and contemporary Israeli occupation further accentuated the individuality of each village as has been made manifest in different styles of embroidery, sports, and aesthetic values as pointed out in the various chapters of Surviving the Wall.

Through Qleibo’s research, the assumptions we have so often made are challenged – assumptions that we have uncritically assumed to be historical. For example, Christianity, once believed to form the basic symbolic spiritual values of Palestinian peasant society onto which Islam was grafted, emerges through Qleibo’s examination merely as a thin veneer covering a complex cultural religious system that historically precedes both Judaism and Christianity.

Surviving the Wall is a testimony to the silent contribution of the ancient Canaanite tribes in their various city-states, now clusters of Palestinian villages. Qleibo’s ethnological pioneering work provides the space within which the native narrative is written. The customs, manners, and beliefs of the contemporary Palestinians in Qleibo’s book may be viewed as the margin that informs and provides insights into the ethnological context of the Bible. Whether the reader of this book is a practicing Jew, Christian, or Muslim, immersed in his/her own sacred scriptures, a secular historian, an anthropologist, or a reader interested in Palestinian peasant social history and culture, Qleibo opens up the past, and in doing so, he gives all of us a better understanding of who we are today.

Surviving the Wall is a hardcover limited edition illustrated with over five hundred photos that depict various aspects of Palestinian society and culture.

The book is available at the Educational Bookshop and Sharbain’s Bookshop on Salah Eddin Street in Jerusalem. It can also be ordered directly from the author at

Reviewed by the Reverend Canon John L. Peterson, director of the Center for Global Justice and Reconciliation, Washington National Cathedral, Washington, DC.

This Week in Palestine

November 2009

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