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The Nakba: Alonia, Ein Karem, and Deir Yassin Palestinian Cultural Diversity and Ethnocide

Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 04.05.2008:

By Dr. Ali Qleibo

The spiritual nature of Palestinian geography strikes deep roots in all the peoples who have settled the country throughout the past five millennia. The land itself exudes a prescient sense of the holy. Intimations of the Other, the elusive mystical feeling of a transcendent presence through whose grace the miracle of life continues, is inextricably related to the land. From the earliest Canaanite settlements, the human perception, intuition, and interaction with the natural environment structured and conditioned the unique socio-economic system, religion, and spiritual legacy of the Palestinian peoples. It is not fortuitous that the land of Canaan has come to be known as the Holy Land, with Jerusalem, the “holy place” known in Arabic as Al Quds, as its spiritual capital.

On the way to Dura, I dropped by to see my old friend, Um Nassar, in Beit Ummar. Though already April, it was cold and, despite my numerous summer visits, I was led for the first time into the living room. On the wall there was a picture of the Virgin carrying baby Jesus!

“I thought you were Moslem?” I asked. Anthropologists can’t be shy.

The eighty-six-year-old lady smiled shyly.

“We used to be Christian … and it feels good to have the Virgin Mary,” her daughter said matter-of-factly.

“Our ancestors on mother’s side came with the Second Crusade in the twelfth century. They were two brothers. One stayed in Nablus and remained Christian. His brother, our grandfather, came south and became Moslem,” her nephew Walid explained.

“It has been a long time. I was getting worried.” Um Nassar was happy to see me. “My son wants you to visit him in his house. Let’s have our coffee there.”

We drove through back village streets. I saw a sanctuary…

“It is Matta (Arabic for Matthew).” Um Nassar recited the Fatihah, a verse from the Quran, as we passed.

Wherever I travel in Palestinian villages, new horizons of knowledge are revealed. Even an act as simple as entering a room I had not been previously in or a ride past a back village street seems to open endless vistas on the Palestinian ethnic mosaic. The social-cultural pattern that emerges through familiarity with a cluster of neighbouring villages is astounding. Traces of biblical significance, signs of ethnographic interest, and vestiges of historical value keep prodding up to provide insights that reveal the ethnic diversity underlying the rich tapestry into which Palestinian culture has woven its unique identity throughout the past five millennia.

The Canaanites had established the ecological relationship with the land that is still observed by West Bank Palestinian peasants. The first settlers of Canaan had categorised and classified their relationship to nature. The current peasant classification of nature and its use for agriculture and animal husbandry still observes the same Canaanite system; the olive, fig, vineyard, and fruit tree in the orchards, the land for vegetables (mikthat), and the grazing ground for planting wheat. Our ancestors had punctuated the cyclical agricultural calendar with religious myths and ritual that were later incorporated into Jewish religion, traces of which emerge in Christianity. “Baal Hadad,” the great Canaanite epic, encapsulates in symbolic imagery the various cults, sacred sex rites, and human and non-human sacrifices – the mythos of the land.

Both Semitic and non-Semitic later settlers in Palestine adapted to the relationship established by the Canaanite with nature and made peace with the spiritual powers that guarantee fertility and survival. Baal reigned supreme. Until now land dependent on rainfall for irrigation is known as Baal land (ard ba’liyyeh).

Kathleen Kenyon, in her seminal work Archaeology in the Holy Land, concludes: “History and archaeology show again and again how such bands, coming amongst a settled population, tend to adopt the material culture (which alone is reflected archaeologically) of that population.” (p. 209)

Ein Karem has a special magic for Jerusalemites of my generation – the birthplace of John the Baptist and, less than eight kilometres west of Jerusalem, the Palestinian village stands at the entrance of the woods that extend westwards to Beit Shemesh.

“Ein Karem is paradise on earth,” said Yusef, my friend from Ein Karem who is now a refugee in Jericho, as tears swelled in his eyes.

Two imposing monasteries delineate the outline of the city. Between the Franciscan monastery and the Russian monastery, the town huddles around the village mosque that handsomely crouches on the Virgin’s spring, the village’s water source. The houses string like a necklace overlooking the fruit orchards and vegetable patches which cascade to the valley that leads to Deir Yassin.

Mother, Aida, and I enjoy our visits to Ein Karem. Her aunt, el-Sit Naemeh, used to be the village school teacher.

“Alonia was more beautiful,” mother insists.

“Calonia (in peasant dialect) was a well-preserved Roman village, the colony in the foothills of the castle. The Roman army lived in the castle above and their civilian retinue lived in the colony downhill,” my friend Avraham once told me. “Crusader buildings added a special aura and gave it a medieval feel.”

Alonia was famous for its numerous water springs, its apricots, and its various species of plums, prunes, peaches, cherries, crab apples, quince, and pears. Though mother fondly remembers her childhood sojourns in Ein Karem at the Franciscan monastery during the apricot season (her father had the key to the Holy Sepulchre), she prefers Alonia where her family, the Nuseibeh family, had their country houses, orchards, and horses.

“Everyone from Jerusalem was there. The Husseini family also had their country houses … and it was a time of great merriment with beautiful walks in the orchards.”

Of Alonia nothing remains except her uncle’s house right under the highway. Israelis have destroyed the village. Even the fruit trees have disappeared … they have reverted to the wild and hardier almond trees (prunes, peaches, plums, and apricots are usually grafted onto almond trunks) that clamber up the mountain towards the modern Mevasseret within earshot of the scene of the great massacre of the innocents of Deir Yassin.

“I was driving past Damascus Gate. There were many crying children and distraught people.” Ms. Hind Husseini many years ago described the background of Dar el Tifel orphanage. “The children were the survivors of the massacre and were homeless.” She stopped her car and brought all of them to her home near the Orient House. “There was no room in my house. We put mattresses on the floor from wall to wall. The children were terrified by the scene of the massacre. I kept trying to wipe their tears, entice them to eat, and calm them. Each of them is my child.”

I only know sad narratives of Deir Yassin’s massacre from the late Ms. Hind Husseini; and I only have joyful family memories of Alonia – the village with the numerous water springs, aromatic apricots, and the sweetest cherries, where the family horses were kept and where every summer all the family reunions took place.

Ein Karem, with its handsome houses, water spring, elegant mosque, and imposing monasteries, stays almost intact, beautifully restored. Every year it drowns in almond blossom. The village, of what has remained of Palestine, is the most beautiful.

I always wondered how the owners had the heart to flee from this paradise?!

“Within view of Deir Yassin, on the opposite mountain, the screams of terror must have been heard in Ein Karem,” Mother reasoned.

In the silence of the night I imagine them overcome with impotence and fear.

“How come they did not take shelter in the monasteries?” I asked Yusef.

“They panicked and ran away.”

“How soon after Deir Yassin did they leave?” I inquired.

“They fled almost the same day. After Deir Yassin they were led to believe that the Haganah was on its way to Ein Karem. They fled in terror.”

We often drive to Ein Karem, now a wealthy suburb of Jerusalem. The village has been restored by Israeli investors who transformed the handsome peasant homes into luxurious villas.

I am always astounded by the callous indifference of the wealthy Jewish immigrants. Liberal and humanistic in all other aspects, their attitude towards Palestinians seems paradoxical. How do they have the heart to live in stolen Arab property? How can they justify taking over – moving into – Arab villages, neighbourhoods, gardens, and family homes, over whose loss bitter tears had been shed by their rightful owners now suffering a life of squalor in the refugee camps?

“The myth of a land with no people for a people with no land strikes deep roots in the Jewish Zionist psyche,” explained Ibrahim in Dhahiryeh, south of Hebron, as he guided me through the qesariyyeh (as any old roman village with a marketplace that dates to the time of the roman Caesars is referred to in Palestinian peasant dialect).

Whereas Dura’s qesariyyeh, an impressive maze of medieval houses and shops bespeaking old wealth, had been bulldozed by the municipality to make room for commercial shops and homes, Dhahiryeh had been well preserved. The Turkish initiative to restore Fawzi Basha’s Ottoman fort set up a model for the local community. Al-qesariyyeh now stands in a state of forlorn abandon, pending restoration.

Ibrahim identified each house. He grew up in Dhahiryeh before the flow of cash in the early days of the occupation enabled almost everyone to leave for more convenient modern homes outside the old city.

The main dusty street is a string of shops with roman arches flanked by typical rural domestic architecture in various states of disrepair. Architectural remains of Roman, Crusader, Mamluk, and Ottoman periods overlap; silent witnesses to what once was a stop for the caravan route leading from Transjordan to Ashkelon and Gaza … some thirty kilometres north of Beersheva.

“Could Alonia have had this type of architecture?” I pondered silently. Mother and Aida had unfortunately stayed behind in the comfort of the fort.

“Here was the jeweller … This was the grocer … There was the café … Here was the cloth merchant…” Ibrahim’s recollections of his old quarter brought it alive in his mind’s eye.

I trailed behind through the dusty narrow lane impressed with the wealth of detail that survives in the architecture. The facades of the houses project palatial grandeur. Inside, the rooms retain the distinct traditional peasant character, the single two-floor chambers; the lower for animals and the upper for the owners.

“I had kept this as a surprise,” he said as he started walking down a staircase that led to a cave.”

I was taken aback.

“This is where most of the people lived.” He pointed to the huge expanse under the shops and houses. “The majority lived underground with the sheep.”

I must have looked incredulous.

“It goes underneath the entire upper town.”

I was overwhelmed. I knew that the ancient Hurrite settlers, the precursors of the Canaanites, were cave dwellers but did not appreciate their pervasive influence. In al-Burj, ten kilometres away, I had asked Mohammad, my host from Dura, about the logic underlying burial of the dead in the same cave – a practice that had continued up to less than a century ago.

“Their dead father and mother kept them company (kannu bitwannasu fihum),” he explained.

I looked at the vast expanse stretching out of the village. Modern cars and fast roads have dissolved distances. What once was a one-day camel ride is now traversed in half an hour! Modernism has also helped diminish the infant mortality rate. Rural demographic statistics reveal soaring figures despite the extensive immigration of Palestinian professional youth. Indeed, in the eighteenth century the country was sparsely populated. The villages had a far smaller population.

“In the loneliness of being, the dead provided company,” I mused.

I was brought back to the present. Ibrahim’s narrative about the qesariyyeh had a punch line.

“When the Jews came to Palestine in the nineteenth century,” he smiled, “they thought the country was empty. They saw no one, for no one lived on the land; everyone lived in the caves underneath!”

The diverse “peoples” that settled throughout history in Palestine had arrived each with its own developed cultural system that mediated and conditioned adaptation to the Canaanite civilisation. “Syncretism” as a conceptual tool far simplifies the highly individualised process of cultural assimilation that underlies present Arabic Palestinian ethnic diversity. On the one hand, each of these Semitic and non-Semitic “newcomers” had arrived in Palestine already with its own socio-economic religious system. On the other hand, the Canaanites themselves cannot be viewed as a homogeneous people. Rather they were a heterogeneous people in a dynamic process of self-definition through the deployment of their own religious, economic, political discourse.

Archaeological interpretations inform us that the Late Bronze Age witnessed great upheavals in the eastern Levant, a weakening of the Mycenaean civilisation, the destruction of a number of important cities in Anatolia, etc. The downfall of the traditional economic and political powers in the region opened the way for many groups of mostly Semitic peoples – among them the Israelites, Edomites, Moabites, Midianites, and Ammonites – to found a number of small states. The Arameans began to dominate Syria and spread into Mesopotamia. These events were connected to, and at times brought about by, the Sea Peoples who, in addition to the Greeks of Crete and the Greek settlements in Anatolia, may have come from as far away as northern Europe, the Balkans, and the Black Sea.

In fact, these independent city-states, not dissimilar from the early Greek polis, underlie Palestinian ethnic diversity and spark various signs, fossils, and vestiges in Palestinian peasant culture. Hellenic Greeks, Romans, Moslem Arabs, Crusaders, Ayyubid Kurds, and Ottomans provided a dynamic flux further enriching the extant ethnic diversity.

In al-Fawwar Refugee Camp it was difficult to find a man in his eighties. Those in their seventies, mom’s generation, had no memory of the land. They were mere children the day of the stampede. They were snatched by the hand or carried on the shoulders as the parents fled in terror for their lives. Theirs are second-hand narratives and give expression primarily to the heartbreaking longing for the lost paradise. The discourse of the Nakba has become dominated by two themes: the description of the moment of the tragedy – the ordeal and fear that coerced their flight from the homeland – and the subsequent victimisation of the Palestinian.

“What did the country look like?” I ask mother as we drive past lush green wheat fields that flank both sides of the road between Beit Shemesh and Beit Jibrin on Route 6. Cows herd quietly in the meadow, and the scene looks over-manicured with a few moshavs or kibbutzes dotting the horizon here and there. All traces of Palestinian presence have been thoroughly obliterated by the Israelis.

“I don’t know,” she answered.” I was too young…”

We reach the juncture of Beit Jibrin/Tarqumia and are almost half an hour from Gaza.

“We are within range of qassam rockets!” mother warns me. “Let’s return.”

We decide to return home through the West Bank via Hebron. The ride was pretty, but without our people it felt sterile. The crossing of the checkpoint puts us immediately back in traditional Palestine, and the first village is Tarqumia.

“Do I turn right or left to reach Hebron?” I ask a man heading on his donkey to the village.

“Turn to the left through Tarqumia. The other is the settlement road,” he warned.

We drive through the sprawling shabby suburb. The traffic slows down as I pass through the town centre. I stop as a taxi loads some passengers. A young man sees me, smiles, and comes over to the car.

“Masa el kheir, Dr. Qleibo. What a surprise! Please visit us …” my student Omar welcomes me.

“I must reach the mountains before sunset.”

“Follow the road to Wadi al-Quf. It will lead you straight to Halhul.”

This would have been Palestine had it not been lost: familiar faces, our people, my students and their parents … everywhere!

The tremendous loss underlying the Nakba is the overall systematic eradication of hundreds of Palestinian villages within the green line. The primordial mythos of the land is inextricably bound in the traditional relationship of our peasants to their ancestral land. The destruction of the villages, the dislocation and forced transfer of the indigenous people have produced a major lacuna in the field of Biblical scholarship, humanist studies, and the unique spiritual contribution of the Palestinian genius.

North of the Mediterranean, Greek philosophy was founded. In Palestine, on the southern shores, God revealed himself to humanity in the Judeo-Christian, Moslem tradition. The possibility of knowing, feeling, and grasping the ethnic diversity within whose ethnological context the Old Testament was written, Christianity was born, and onto which Palestinian Islam was grafted is now greatly diminished.

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 programs of the Centre for Jerusalem Studies. He can be reached at

This Week in Palestine

May 2008

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