Culture and Society
Palestinian culture closely resembles the one of its neighboring Levantine countries Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Jordan as well of the rest of the Arab world. The political, economic and social situation of the Palestinian people have made the conservation of its culture and national identity challenging. But despite these difficulties, Palestinians from all around, whether it be ones living in the occupied territories, the diaspora or those living in refugee camps have managed to maintain their unity through the celebration of their expressively rich music, dance, folklore songs, proverbs, food, costumes and embroidery.
Dabke: Dance and Music
Dabke is the indigenous folkloric dance form practiced and performed by Palestinians. It is of typical village tradition, traditionally performed in social occasions such as weddings and feasts, celebrating the natural cycle of growth and fertility. Dabke is a group dance performed by both women and men- hands locked and timed steps, they circulate to the beat of rhythmic music played on traditional instruments, while stomping their feet.
It is a symbol of cooperation and solidarity, and of the strength, loyalty, joy and determination of the Palestinian people. It’s a celebration of the feelings of pride and gratitude they have for one another and for their land. The dance is viewed as an integral communal pursuit rather than an individual performance or exercise, it is used to welcome a new born, the inauguration of a business or home, or to commemorate a couple at their wedding.
The stories, fables and legends passed down from generation to generation play a vital role in remembering the past, expression of the harsh present realities while maintaining hope for justice in the future. These popular songs and stories have been passed by the hakawait a popular story teller, as well as by mothers, grandmothers and grandfathers. Memories of the occupied land remain alive through these stories told to children and grandchildren.
Folklore songs are constantly adapted to fit the current Palestinian situation. Most songs are based on poetry expressing sorrow, dignity and hope for return to the land. They are sung by Palestinians in Palestine and the Diaspora, and are even popular amongst other Arab populations.
The relationship to land is reflected immensely in the daily proverbs used as a means of communication among Palestinians. With a sense of humor, rhythm and rhyme they use hundreds of proverbs to incorporate wisdom on topics such as love, raising children, good manners, cooperation, courage, generosity or resolving conflicts.
Costumes and Embroidery
The diversity of the Palestinian people and their ways of living is reflected immensely on their costumes and embroidery. Costumes are traditionally handcrafted by semi-nomadic Bedouins and villagers. Men’s dress has become a symbol for Palestinian resistance, specifically the white and black kaffiya. Women’s dress on the other hand is traditionally much more colorful and vibrant. While some women from villages wear them on a daily basis they have become more of an outfit used at special occasions like weddings.
The most popular of these dresses are the ones worn by women villagers in the hills and coastal regions. Back in 1948, there were more than 800 villages. Despite the many similarities amongst them, each region or cluster of villages had its distinct use of color, pattern and structure. The cloth is made out of natural materials such as cotton, linen, wool or silk.
Embroidery is a language. The earliest Palestinian embroidery combines geometric patterns with some motifs such as flowers and trees. Later, these patterns were supplemented by more motifs, birds, animals, but few human figures. Every embroidery pattern, like every stitch, has a name. Patterns are usually named after things in the natural surrounding. Palms and cypresses are associated with the tree of life that goes back thousands of years. Some patterns have historical and political meanings, such as khiyam al-basha (tents of the Pasha) or, more recently, the Intifada and other nationalistic themes.
Falafel, hummus, tabbouleh, stuffed vine leaves, mjaddarah and other “health” foods are native to the Arab Middle East and particularly Palestine, Syria and Lebanon. (Falafel is also popular in Egypt, where it is called to’miyeh.) They are based on principles of nutrition, economy and good taste that can only be produced over hundreds of years of cultural practice. Beans and vegetables are common ingredients, being high in protein as a substitute for meat, along with natural additives that enhance taste and presentation. Meat is used in other dishes. One typical bedouin meal is mansaf with layers of very thin bread (shraq), covered with rice, large chunks of lamb or goat meat, a flavorful cooked yogurt from goat milk, fried pine seeds and almonds on top. All this is placed in huge trays and usually eaten by using the right hand to roll up mouthfuls. It is an experience not to be missed if you can get invited to the right feast.
But, typically, Palestinian food uses grains (particularly lentils, fava beans and chick peas), vegetables, usually a lot of olive oil and lemon juice, onions and garlic, and a variety of taste-enhancing spices. In season, certain wild herbs and wild vegetables are part of the Palestinian diet. After the main meal, coffee or tea is served. Coffee is made thick and is served in demicups, while tea is flavored either with mint in the summer or wild miramiya (an aromatic species of sage) in the winter months.