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The Importance of Genealogy and Family History for the Palestinian People: Part II Community Building

Contributed by Arab Educational Institute on 02.03.2006:

Community Building

by Leyla Zuaiter

Aside from benefits at the individual level, family history and genealogy has the potential to build community at various levels—a community which is in danger of disintegrating. You don’t have to look too far to see what can happen if the social fabric binding the Palestinian people starts to unravel. Look at Iraq, home to rich centuries-old religious and ethnic diversity which is now being arbitrarily reduced to only three groups. As one Iraqi Armenian said on TV several months ago regarding the constitution, “Armenians have been here for hundreds of years and contributed a lot to Iraqi society. Yet we are not even recognized in the constitution. Is there no place for me in my own home?” Will the small but deeply-rooted and fascinating groups in Iraq such as Armenians, Chaldeans, Nestorians, Syriacs, Sabeans and Yezidis survive? What about Palestine, crossroads of civilizations, and home to three monotheistic faiths in their incredible richness and variety? The discontinuity of the Palestinian experience due to the fact that each generation has woken up to find itself under new rulers, and the fragmentation of Palestine physically has adversely affected the ability of Palestinians to develop a proper knowledge of their own rich heritage and deep-rooted shared values. Yet they are affected by them whether they are consciously aware of it or not. The deliberate study of the common history, heritage and values of the Palestinian people—as well as an understanding of the differences between different groups, is important not only at the community level, but also is an essential factor in building a strong, durable and positive national identity which stands up to the pressures Palestinians face in the international arena.

· Bridging the Generation Gap

Every Palestinian generation for the last 90 odd years has come to first consciousness in a world which was radically different from that of his parents—a world of different rulers and different rules. There are people alive today, who if they don’t remember the Ottoman period itself, remember the stories their parents told about it—or their silences about it. Some of those people have lived through three drastic changes: British rule, Jordanian rule and Israeli rule. Viola Raheb at the November Conference at Dar-Annadwa (International Peace Center/Bethlehem) entitled, “Shaping Communities in Times of Crisis” goes further and splits the generations into even smaller coherts. She says that each generation is shaped by a crisis, and in Bethlehem, for example, the last couple of generations have been shaped by the First Intifada and the Siege of the Nativity.

It is the duty of the older generation to prepare the younger one for life. But how can they show their offspring the ropes when the world they were raised in has vanished, when all the rules have changed, when what they know is irrelevant? How can children understand their parents and the context in which they made their life choices?

A study of family history can bring the generations closer together. It can bring an appreciation in the younger generation of their parents’ extraordinary fortitude in the face of relentless adversity. It can allow Palestinians to understand and appreciate the deep-rooted (but increasingly endangered) values which have allowed them to face their lot with dignity. If wounds cannot heal, at least they can be dressed. Finally, it is essential to get down those memories of the older generation before their voices are silenced forever, for who, then, will tell the tale?

· Larger Community

o Geographic Fragmentation

Since ancient times, and for most periods of its history, despite a long succession of rulers, Palestine has been part of a much broader geographical and cultural area, and Palestinians have been able to move freely all over the Middle East. However, the physical world and living space, has become increasingly narrow and fragmented in the last century—and particularly in the last decade– and freedom of movement of Palestinians increasingly restricted. This has separated them from their natural milieu in the Arab world, and progressively prevents them knowing their own country. The people of Bethlehem, our main focus, are literally up against a wall, and often people all over the country are prevented from leaving their immediate area of residence. This geographic fragmentation poses a potential threat to Palestinian identity. In this context, fieldtrips such as those undertaken by the Arab Educational Institute to different parts of the country in are not a luxury, but a necessity. On a trip to Mazra’a al Qibliyeh, near Ramallah in the Northern West Bank, for instance, AEI’s director Fuad Giacaman was surprised to learn how little the school children knew about Bethlehem. Much of the Palestinian population now finds itself in the Diaspora. A study of genealogy, family history and heritage is one way to keep members of geographically separated Palestinian communities in contact.

o Religion

Christian/Muslim tensions in Palestine have received much publicity of late, whether locally or internationally. Sometimes outside parties have an interest in stirring the pot or exaggerating these tensions. Whatever the case, it appears that the constant battering of Palestine and Palestinians is unraveling the tradition of communal harmony or at least modus vivendi, and identities are narrowing. If this trend is allowed to prevail, will the term Palestinian survive as a concept? Will the identity of Palestinian Muslims be confined to that of the Umma? Will the identity of Palestinian Christians simply merge with their religious denomination? Will they give in to the temptation of foreign governments who make it relatively easier to immigrate than their Muslim brethren or will they question the motives of those who grant these visas rather than “helping to improve the conditions so that we can stay,” as one woman put it. Will they prove right those who claim there is “no such thing as a Palestinian” or those who preach about the “clash of civilizations” ?

Or will they take the religious and ethnic diversity as Palestine as part of their identity. Will they rather agree with the person who said that the call to prayer forms part of every Palestinian Christian’s identity, and the Christian church bells form part of that of every Palestinian Muslim. Will they look deep into their centuries-old shared heritage and face the world together, as those do who are involved in AEI’s Living in the Holy Land: Respecting Differences. That is a choice for Palestinians to make—and there is a choice, as was so well demonstrated in the session I attended in the November conference Shaping Communities in Times of Crisis held at Bethlehem’s Dar en Nadwa (International Center of Bethlehem) . The interesting and revealing session dealt with how the texts of the Bible were texts created in times of crisis, and how the inclusive identity in the Old Testament became progressively narrower as a result of these crises. “All genealogy is political,” the speaker told us, as there is always a choice as to which features of the past one selects in forging a national identity.”

The Bethlehem community is a particularly good place to explore this common heritage. And the study of its families also can help overcome common stereotypes—such as those pitting Arabs and Muslims on one side against Christians and Westerners on the other. For many of Bethlehem’s families are Arab AND Christian. Not just Arabized Christians, but Arabs who came before or with Omar bin ilKhattab.

o Diaspora

One of the first things I did in preparation for the workshop was to look for the Ministry of Diaspora Affairs. To my surprise, I learned there was none. But the Diaspora is of huge importance. And here too, there are bridges to be gapped. Sometimes local Palestinians resent those in the Diaspora, who they imagine are living it up and are indifferent to their plight. And sometimes Diaspora Palestinians feel, as one person put it, that “Palestinians only recognize us as Palestinian when they want our money.” But each side has much to offer—and gain from– the other. Local Palestinians can serve as guides into the family history and heritage and cultural and linguistic interpreters for Diaspora Palestinians, many of whom may be of mixed heritage, or separated from the homeland for as much as a century—as is the case of many Chileans of Bethlehem origins. They can search local records and books for them, or interview members of their families. Diaspora Palestinians, with their mastery of various foreign languages, can write books or make films highlighting the history of their family and people, and “ghost-write” memoirs or autobiographies of Palestinians who cannot do so for themselves.

From the discussion concerning community building, it is only a step to National Identity. For the subtext is “Who is a Palestinian?” I hope Palestinians will opt for a broad, inclusive identity and they will not copy those countries which engage in distasteful, exclusive hair-splitting in this matter. The study of family history and genealogy – especially if done as a part of a systematic educational program encompassing various parts of Palestine to which Palestinians may be prevented from traveling– can serve as the basis of an exuberant, confident, inclusive national identity in which the heritage of every Palestinian is cherished.

This is an excerpt of an article which first appeared in AEI’s Bethlehem Genealogy and Family History Website

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