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The Hebronite Spirit of Enterprise

Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 01.12.2011:

TWIP December 2011

By Dr. Ali Qleibo

المَالُ وَالبَنُونَ زِينَةُ الحَيَاةِ الد نيَا وَالبَاقِيَاتُ

الصالِحَاتُ خَيرٌ عِندَ رَبِكَ ثَوَابًا وَخَيرٌ أَمَلًا

Wealth and sons are allurements of the life of this world:

But the things that endure, good deeds, are best in the sight of thy Lord, as rewards, and best as (the foundation for) hopes. Al Qur’an, Suret el Kahf 46

“You have gone through the expense of building the mosque, so why did you not finish it up with a beautiful facade?” The father of Nadine, a Hebronite residing in Jerusalem, had just built a second-floor mosque that straddles a few shops in Abu Tor, a suburb south of the Old City.

“The mosque is essentially a place for collective prayers,” her father answered. “It is not the external beauty that counts but rather the structure’s capacity to gather people.”

Nadine was explaining the puritanical values that characterise Hebronites and give them their special identity. The interview took place in the waiting hall at the Israeli Ministry of Interior. She had recognised me as the anthropologist who writes in This Week in Palestine and inquired why the Hebronites in Jerusalem have not been one of the topics of my innumerable articles related to rural and urban Palestinian cultural identity.

Jerusalem has forever welcomed immigrants of various ethnic origins. International pilgrims and refugees from Armenia, Syria, Ethiopia, North Africa, Greece, Nigeria, Central Asia, India, Jews from everywhere, and local migrants from Mount Hebron and Jerusalem have settled throughout the ages among us. Christian communities of various sects, Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews, and Arab and non-Arab Muslims have enriched the mosaic of the Holy City.

The success stories of the Hebronites in Jerusalem illustrate the multi-ethnic cosmopolitan character of the city and the Muslim work ethic.

Hebronites are patently visible and run most of the business enterprises and shops on Salah el-Din Street and in the Old City. They infuse drama, gaiety, and joy into our melancholic city. Religious and God-fearing, they animate Al-Aqsa Mosque from sunrise to sunset. Tribal and loyal to their kinsman, they plough the highway between Hebron and Jerusalem religiously maintaining family ties, silet el-rahem, in accordance with Muslim injunctions. These relations expand beyond brothers and sisters to include the father’s and mother’s extended families, namely maternal and paternal grandparents, their brothers and sisters and offspring, parallel aunts, nieces, and cousins.

Bonds of silet el-rahem enforce social obligations, duties, and loyalty. In effect, they structure and condition clannish collective social solidarity and the corollary bifurcation of male/female gender social roles that underlie the production of the Hebronite individual sense of identity along rigid lines of reciprocity.

The sentimental value inherent in silet el-rahem is an intrinsic aspect of the collective social solidarity. Shaher, my Hebronite friend, explained, “A womb relation extends to all the people who have the slightest whiff of either the father or the mother, rihet el-abb wal imm. The love one holds for the parents extends to include all the relatives who knew and loved them and whose demeanour and countenance may partially mirror one’s mother’s and father’s features and mannerisms.” Silet el-rahem visits, to which Hebronites remain staunchly committed, are pivotal and a source of great joy and emotional comfort.

Tenderness binds Hebronite fathers and their daughters. Behind Nadine’s soft rebuke of her father for failing to build a grandiose mosque lie deep pride, trust, and intimacy.

“The gentleness that couches the father-daughter relationship is the basis of silet el-rahem,” explained Shaher. “In his daughter the father sees his mother, grandmother, sisters, aunts, wife: in fact, all the women who evoke in the male the feelings of tenderness, softness, warmth, and compassion.”

The dialectic father-daughter relationship props up the male figure in the role of the protector and magnanimous provider. Furthermore it puts the onus on the man to be economically successful to finance the upkeep of his incumbent social role and image with dignity that, in turn, augments his social credibility and enhances his individual prestige. On the other hand, the financial magnanimity accords with the Qur’anic verse enjoining one to demonstrate God’s grace, (واما بنعمه ربك فحدث (الضحى آية:11.

It is common practice during the major holidays not only to visit one’s female kin, silet el-rahem, but also to give a gift known as the idiyeh. The idiyeh is a monetary gift separate from the sharing of the mutton from the udhieh, the sacrificial lamb traditionally immolated during the major Muslim holidays. Moreover, the father, who is invariably a merchant, puts the male children in his employ as business partners and who, as such, share the capital. The girls, married to outsiders, would be appeased (yujbur khaterhum بجبر خاطرهم) through substantial gifts from the father that would include a Mercedes or BMW or Hummer and could include a nice house and garden.

Khater is a rather complicated concept. In folk Arabic psychology, a khater is a fragile, tender, and extremely sensitive component of the individual. The female’s khater, however, is perceived as much more brittle than that of men. Consequently girls cannot be chastised, rebuked, or punished as harshly as boys. Khater is the most private almost sacrosanct aspect of the individual. It must be recognised and respected through gentle words and kind actions. You cannot refuse a person’s request out of respect of his khater, ashan khatroh. Moreover one feels guilty if one says or does something that hurts someone’s khater, kassar khatroh (literally “broke his khater”). And the mother can coax her husband, brother, father, or son to obey her wishes, saying ashan khatri (for the sake of my khater). A woman who is not yet married is treated with utmost care and tenderness because her khater is broken, maksur. And people pay their respects to the family of the deceased bi yakhdu bill khater by attending funeral ceremonies.

Pious and enterprising, devout and adventurous, stanch, religious, restive, resolute, and proud, a Hebronite’s sense of manly dignity will not allow him to settle down for an uncomfortable life constrained by a limited income as a salaried employee which limits his ability to play with panache his social role and its incumbent duties. Resourceful, quick-witted, and practical, he remains loyal, devoted, and dutiful. Resolute and stubborn, he is a pious conformist devotee of God and of his family. Restive and constantly exploring new economic enterprises, he would face the challenge of adventure rather than acquiesce to either routine plain life or to a limited income as a salaried man, a bureaucrat. Economic success in conjunction with dutiful commitment to Islamic precepts of family obligations is a sign of manly piety exemplified by the popular Arab Muslim aphorism El kaseb habib Allah الكاسب حبيب الله, which may be translated: the successful enterpriser (the winner) is the beloved of God.

The Muslim work ethic, to succeed and thereby gain the love of God, provided one of the great Muslim dictums in the Ottoman period that the finest calligraphers competed to artistically illustrate. Following the discovery of photography and the introduction of printing into the Muslim world, and when figurative and personal portraits were still considered heresy, the art of Arabic calligraphy circulated widely. Gateways of covered bazaars, mosques, and homes were decorated with plaques on which finely drawn verses of the Qur’an, sayings of the prophet, or Muslim Arab aphorisms were inscribed on paper, carved on stone, or handsomely painted on ceramic plaques. Printed copies found their way inside each home and shop and onto every wall. Framed elegantly behind shining glass, various maxims and verses from the Qur’an hung prominently. I spent hours trying to decipher the intertwined cursive flow of the words that, in my childhood, were hung everywhere.

El Kaseb Habib Allah, the plaque of Sámi Effendi (1837-1911), one of the greatest Ottoman calligraphers, stands out as one of the finest nineteenth-century works of art that has gained great circulation in its printed black-and-white copies. Imagine my surprise as I strolled for the first time in Old Istanbul, past the old book market behind Bayazide Mosque, made a left turn to join the jostle of the main thoroughfare and found myself standing in front of Bab-i Fesciler, one of the gateways to the Egyptian bazaar, the centre of commerce and trade throughout the Ottoman period. Looking on top of the archway leading into the bazaar I saw the original plaque of Sámi Effendi, with whose copy I had grown up. The familiar white-and-black copy was a deep lead-blue plaque on which the artist had written in gold his finest masterpiece: the wealthy enterpriser is the beloved of God.

Wealth by means of successful venture is a reflection of God’s favour. Throughout the Qur’an, money has positive connotations. Money is mentioned 25 times in the Qur’an as God’s grace and blessing (نعمة) on humanity, 12 times as mercy (رحمة), and 12 times as a good deed (حسنة). Similarly trade in Islam is a highly esteemed means of amassing wealth. The verb “to trade” (تجر) is used positively throughout the Qur’an. The fact that the Prophet himself, the first Caliphs such as Abu Baker el Siddiq, Omar Ibn el Khattab, Ali ben Abi Taleb, including the great Muslim theologians such as Al-Bukhari and Al-Imam Abu Hanifah – even great authors such as Al-Jahedh – were well-to-do merchants conferred positive value on trade. None of the aforementioned earned a living from their exalted religious positions but from their private enterprises in trade. They amassed great wealth from their own work as merchants whose caravans and fleets ploughed the Muslim world, the Mediterranean, and the Indian Ocean.

Wealth and family pleasures are God’s grace to mankind but they disguise God’s test of true faith, for God is the best trickster خير الماكرين. Money, family, and health are heuristic means of testing one’s religious devotion. To turn to God when one is needy, lonely, or sick is not a sufficient sign of true faith. Rather would one still remember God once one is wealthy, healthy, and surrounded by loved ones? To have money is a lure behind which lurks the ultimate test of true faith; would the joys and goods of the earth distract a person from remembering God? The Muslim’s ultimate challenge is the constant struggle (jihad) to maintain grace with God through piety and the constant remembrance of God. (واعلموا انما اموالكم واولادكم فتنه وان الله عنده اجر عظيم: (آية:28) الانفال

“The first Hebronites to settle in Jerusalem came out of piety and not out of economic need,” Nadine continued her explanation. “Because of the great religious esteem in which they held Al-Aqsa Mosque, our grandparents would come astride their donkeys to pray.” In fact, there are only three mosques in Islam where it is meritorious to pray and where one is enjoined to travel to, namely, Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem.

Hebron and Jerusalem remained administratively interlinked throughout the Mamluk and Ottoman periods first as a niabet (prefecture) and then in the late-Ottoman period as a mutasarifiyet. The naeb, the sub-prefect, combined the political administration of the two cities and of the two mosques. Al-Haram al-Khalili, the Sanctuary of Abraham, assumed a subsidiary but necessary relationship to Jerusalem’s Noble Sanctuary.

Whereas Hebronites came to Jerusalem to pray in Al-Aqsa Mosque, Jerusalemites, on the other hand, performed the local pilgrimage to Al-Haram al-Ibrahimi to pray, light candles and incense, and give the fidyeh, sacrificial lamb to Seedna al-Khalil, our grandfather, the friend of God. A cave surrounded by rooms to lodge distant travellers stood at the bottom of Abraham’s Mosque. I remember looking upward at the mosque’s ramparts as I was led by the hand through the crowded covered passageways of Hebron market. Blood sacrifice was unthinkable in Al-Aqsa. It was customary to sacrifice at the cave of the sanctuary of the early Semitic traveller, Seedna al-Khalil, who settled in Hebron, known in Arabic as Al-Khalil, the city of God’s friend. Vows associated with the safe return of distant travellers were executed at his sanctuary in the cave. This included lighting candles and incense, and the offering of the customary blood sacrifice. We were invariably hosted by Hebronite family friends who organised the logistics of the sacrifice and hosted us for the day in their vineyard manor houses (qusur).

“After the Ottoman land reform in the nineteenth century it became possible to purchase and register private property. First-generation Hebronites initially built a small room on a small plot of land in Abu Tor along the Hebron/Jerusalem road,” Nadine elaborated. “This way they would travel on Thursday, rest and walk to Al-Aqsa to perform the dawn prayers and spend the entire day praying and meditating.”

The brother would follow suit and buy a plot next door. This parallels the common practice of that generation of Jerusalemites whose ventures from inside the walls and into the suburbs were always tribal and collective.

During the British Mandate the grand mufti, El Hajj Amin El Husseini, enlisted their help to ward off Jewish terrorism. The Hebronites gallantly came to our protection and eventually relocated among us.

“In their puritanical way of life there is no room for ‘frills and trills,’ ” Nadine summed up. The dichotomy of form and function dissolves to pure functional essence.

Hebronite Puritanism conditions the individual relationship with God, oneself, family, and others along pragmatic guidelines that interweave loyalty to the clan on the one hand and the work ethic on the other to produce a singular socio-economic consumer lifestyle within a tightly knit system of reciprocity distinct from that of the relatively secular but highly individualistic indulgent cosmopolitan Jerusalemites.

Within the context of the Israeli occupation and the constant harassment of the local population and in the face of the massive migrations of the Jerusalemites, Hebronites in Jerusalem preserve the Arabic character of our city.

Handsome, industrious, and possessing a great sense of humour, Hebronites are a distinct asset to Jerusalem. They successfully run a great sector of the Palestinian economy. Their indomitable spirit of trade extends to China. Buccaneer fortune hunters, the Hebronite merchants conjure the marvellous adventures of Sinbad the Sailor in One Thousand and One Nights and the fabulous wealth of the merchants of Basra, Baghdad, Isfahan, Damascus, and Cairo.

Al-Khalil has always been inextricably interlinked to Jerusalem and Jerusalem to Al-Khalil: a tale of two cities and two mosques always in symbiotic co-existence.

With modern highways and urban development, Hebron and Jerusalem would have become one interconnected city – were it not, alas, for the separation Wall and the Israeli siege enforced on Jerusalem. The bulldozed sanctuary of Seedna al-Khalil, and the pilgrimages to Hebron have become a distant memory. Bab al-Khalil, the Arabic name for Jaffa Gate, literally Hebron Gate, stands as a witness to the gate from whence the camel caravans ploughed the dusty road connecting Al-Aqsa Mosque with Al-Haram al-Khalili.

Dr. Ali Qleibo is an anthropologist, author, and artist. A specialist in the social history of Jerusalem and Palestinian peasant culture, he is the author of Before the Mountains Disappear, Jerusalem in the Heart, and the recently published Surviving the Wall, an ethnographic chronicle of contemporary Palestinians and their roots in ancient Semitic civilisations. His filmic documentary about French cultural identity, Le Regard de L’Autre was shown at the Jerusalem International Film Festival. Dr. Qleibo lectures at Al-Quds University. He can be reached at

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