Back to overview

What’s special about Palestinian Genealogy?

Contributed by Arab Educational Institute on 02.03.2006:

By Leyla Zuaiter

Family historians around the world utilize a similar set of strategies in their research. They record what they know, collect documents and artifacts from their homes, search for diaries and letters, seek records and fellow researchers on the Internet, organize their findings with software, and attempt to understand the times and places in which their ancestors lived through local history, literature, and films. A Palestinian family historian has both advantages and disadvantages when it comes to collecting these pieces to his family puzzle.

Documents and Artifacts

The Bad News

Many precious documents and artifacts have disappeared from homes and villages or been destroyed for one reason or another. According to Heritage Keepers I interviewed, previously collectors roamed the Palestinian countryside and snapped up many articles of heritage for a song. But Palestinians are often at fault, they say. Many documents, old books or thobs were deliberately discarded. One of the scenes that sticks in my mind from The First Well, by Jabra Ibrahim Jabra is that of pearls (in the form of books) literally cast before swine!

The Good News

· Fortunately, there are Palestinian heritage centers throughout Palestine, many of which have websites that can help gain an appreciation for various objects formerly in common use.

· Some documents preserved in private libraries may help shed light on other families than that of the owner’s family. (For articles on such libraries check the online issues of the Jerusalem Quarterly File and the article on the Khalidi Library in the January 2005 issue of This Week in Palestine.

· A new website,, will allow Palestinians to contribute their documents to the site for the benefit of other researchers, while retaining ownership of the records.

Palestinian Genealogy Internet Presence

The Bad News

Until very recently, there has been little meaningful Palestinian Genealogy Internet presence, when compared with that of other peoples. Although Palestine is represented on US-based sites, such as, or, as of now, there is little content, and some of the content that there is may come as a surprise to Palestinians. Most useful are the message or query boards, some of which do a brisker business than others. Some of these queries do receive answers.

The Good News

There must be something in the air, as three promising sites, each with a different niche, are being launched almost simultaneously.

· ( will allow Palestinians to submit share their family trees, documents, photos and to connect with others.

· This site, (, AEI’s Family History and Genealogy Page will focus on the Bethlehem area, and the site of Bethlehem Heritage Keeper Andre Dabdoub ( will be a treasure trove for the far-flung members of Bethlehem’s Dabdoub family, the many families it married into and Bethlehem researchers in general.

Archives and Records

The Bad News

Other peoples are spoiled by the ease with which they can now obtain copies of actual records of their ancestors. In the US, for example, it is easy to download forms to send off for Census records or Military Pension records, which offer a great deal of information and clues for the family researcher. The Social Security Death Index helps researchers find birth and death dates for relatives from the 1930’s onward. There are on-line indexes for a large variety of records, including scanned images of census records. There are sites which have collected addresses and information as to what may be obtained at local cemeteries, churches, schools and more.

No such facilities exist for Palestinians searching their roots. Although both Christians and Muslims appear in Islamic Court Records, these records are not easily accessible. Furthermore, at the end of the Ottoman period, the enforcement of registering births and deaths had become lax.

The Good News

· Thanks to the work of Palestinian scholars and heritage keepers from all walks of life, some of the mystery is being taken out of these records. Although user-friendly records do not appear on the horizon, several local history studies have been done using these records, which help the family historian to understand what kinds of information can be gained from them, and perhaps even learn something about his own family.

· Palestinian Christians have it easier than Muslims in this regard as they may be able to find church records.


The Bad News

Illiteracy lingered in many sectors of the society right into the twentieth centuries, particularly among women, so you are unlikely to come across the equivalent of Mrs. Chestnut’s diary of the U.S. Civil War, or even many written by men.

The Good News

· Some educated people did keep diaries—if not always the intimate recording of thoughts and feelings we normally associate with this term, at least records of important events, and some of the Heritage Keepers have brought them to light in their work.

· Also many Westerners and pilgrims recorded their impressions and experiences, giving a bit of the flavor of the times, though often through a Western filter, with all its prejudices and preconceptions.

· There will be many more diaries for future generations of family historians, as people such as Toine Van Teeffelen, Raja Shehadeh and Suad Amiry share their lives with us.


The Bad News

Again, there may not be large collections of letters or published ones in any case. In her 1999 monograph entitled Bethlehem and Bethlehemites in the Travel Writings of the 19th Century, Bethlehem University’s Sawsan Shomali, informs us that “when a man was away from home, he was not allowed to write to his wife, but to his son if he had one even if he might be one month old or to a ficticiuos son. The wife should not be mentioned.”

The Good News

· Illiterate people had recourse to scribes, so could still get a letter home, even it its contents may not have been of the intimate nature one might expect in the West.

· Here is perhaps a chance for someone to break new ground by collecting and publishing letters from Palestine.

Family Trees

The Bad News

In contemporary genealogy as practiced in the United States and other countries, people research both their maternal and paternal families and are interested in the females as well as males. However in researching your Palestinian ancestors, you might find that some of the family trees you come across only include males.

One foreign lady once overheard someone asking a Palestinian how many grandchildren he had. “You have far more than that!” she exclaimed when she heard the answer. “What about so and so? Oh, they don’t count, they are girls. In one village I visited, the mayor stood and recited several hundred years of the descendents of a common ancestor from memory, but ended by saying, “Don’t expect me to know about the wives.” The explanation is that traditionally, descent is reckoned through the male line as girls are considered part of their husband’s family.

The Good News

· . If you hurry and interview your elderly relatives, you may be able to get some oral history on your female ancestors for the last several generations, which you may be able to document later on when records become more accessible.

· Females as well as males are included in Palestinian church records,

Genealogy Software

The Bad News

Although there is a range of genealogy software on the market, much of it is geared for Western societies, particularly the United States. Many of the pre-set categories are irrelevant or do not accommodate the different social structures such as polygamy, cousin marriage or important life events such as the hajj or Arab or Muslim countries in general.

The Good News

· The software can still be used successfully with slight adaptations, such as organizing all of the data on the notes page, rather than using pre-set categories.

· The lack of suitable software is a great opportunity for Palestinians from various fields to come up with software that is just right for Palestine.


The Bad News

There are very few of the candid memoirs that people in the West are used to see coming out at an ever-accelerating pace. There are many reasons for this, ranging from the lack of a Palestinian publishing house and the difficulty in finding mainstream publishers for Palestinian narratives, to the reluctance of Palestinians to bare their lives and that of their families to the public gaze.

The Good News

In recent years a handful or two of memoirs have been added to the bookshelf, including Ghada Karmi’s memoir detailing her childhood in the Katamon neighborhood of West Jerusalem and the pain and aftermath of exile.

Some Special Advantages for Palestinian Genealogists

It might sound as if Palestinians are at a serious disadvantage when it comes to Family History Research. In fact, they start off with some distinct advantages.

What’s in a name?

Palestinians, like people of some other Arab countries have a headstart when it comes to genealogy as they carry at least three generations in their name: their first name, their father’s first name, their grandfather’s first name and the family name. This can be useful in identifying siblings or determining relationships between people with the same family name. For example, if we come across Khaled Yousef Salman Shaheen and Bashir Yousef Salman Shaheen, we are more likely to feel it is worth our time to investigate the possiblility that they are brothers than if we simply came across Khaled Shaheen and Bashir Shaheen. Furthermore, if we then find a Yousef Salman Subhi Shaheen in the right place at the right time, this might be a clue that he is the father of Khaled and Bashir, and we have yet another generation to work back from.

Collecting Oral History

Collecting oral history from family members is one of the first things a family historian does. Given the great rate of mobility in Western societies, particularly America, this is often difficult as family members may live thousands of miles apart and reunite infrequently. People may have little or no contact with members outside of their immediate family. This makes collecting oral history a difficult task.

Palestinians within Palestine, on the other hand, are likely to be in almost daily contact with members of their extended families, who have likely lived in the same community for generations, making it easier to collect and compare testimonies from many individuals. Even if they are in the Diaspora, once they make the right connections, they may be able to prevail upon from those who have remained in the community to do so for them. One caution: while getting information from others is often a short cut, one must always take it not as an end point but as a starting point, and to verify the information oneself.

This article first appeared on the AEI’s Bethelehem Genealogy and Family History Website.


Helen Afana

on 26.09.2021

I am so happy to see this site. I have been trying to research my husband’s Arabic ancestors for a long time.

Kathy Kenny

on 18.10.2021

I have just started to work on a tree that includes my maternal grandparents from the Saade and Khawandeh (Kabande) families of Bethlehem, Palestine. Many immigrated to the US and Mexico in the early 1900s. I’ll be using

Kathy Kenny