As a cultural renaissance swept the Arab world, the meaning of storytelling in Palestine changed forever.More
Latifa Dirbas carries a jug of water on her head from the village of Bal’a, weaving from one mountain to the other while keeping track of the revolutionaries. Meanwhile, Umm Wedad Arouri leaves her village of Arura to Saffa, then to Birzeit, then to Ramallah, where she delivers an oral message to the rebels there. She answers their questions, describes the means of transport, and gives them supplies, telling them where the weapons are located. British soldiers stop Latifa on her way, but she tells them she’s only going to fetch some coal.
Latifa and Umm Wedad were not alone in their actions. Women played a key role in supplying, informing, and financing the Palestinian Revolution. Women from villages sold their jewelry, while women in cities used their inheritance money to pay for the Revolt.
In the 1920s and 1930s, the entire Palestinian family was affected by colonial policies. But if only historical documents are observed, one will note the marked absence of women in this period, whether it be socially, economically, or in struggle. Even so, the Palestinian narrative before the Nakba will remain incomplete without examining and understanding the role of women in the struggle against colonialism.
Although colonial regimes have often claimed to champion women’s liberation, supposedly aiming to spread “freedom and justice” to marginalized groups, even cursory scrutiny will reveal the spuriousness of such claims. Often, colonialism limited the parameters for women’s emancipation, under the pretext of respecting local society, customs, and traditions..
But Palestinian women did not need colonialism to justify their actions. They fought in their homes and in the streets. They resisted colonialism politically, economically, and ethically. And quite crucially, they played an instrumental role in guerilla warfare by supporting the male fighters—as carriers of information, keepers of secrets, and smugglers of weapons. Their role in uplifting morale only bolstered such tasks.
From mountain to mountain I will carry your weapons
After the First World War, the Palestinians suffered major economic setbacks. Palestine had served as a battleground, leading to the damage of infrastructure, the exacerbation of an already harsh famine resulting from a locust plague, and subsequently, a drop in population. The devaluation of the currency and the disruption of the economy all added to the worsening conditions.
In those circumstances, the British Mandate imposed employment laws that granted jobs to the petty bourgeois class at the expense of other classes. Education was neglected, garnering only 5% of budget allocations. At the end of 1927, the number of schools for boys was fifty-three, compared with only four schools for girls. This reflected the absence of women in colonial thinking, despite the slogans calling for their liberation. The colonial masters cynically blamed this absence on the attitudes of local society. This was the same justification the British used to grant women unspecialized jobs, claiming for instance that there were no qualified “Muslim female teachers” capable of working in rural areas. But the “efficiency” of rural women surpassed colonial expectations.
Rural women shared an intimate relationship with weapons. They would take care of weapons as if they were their own children—cleaning them, maintaining them, and hiding them in the fields. When the army attacked her village, Umm Ahmad hid the gun inside her dress before burying it in a potato field. After collecting some potatoes to cover up her act, one of the English soldiers mocked her and asked: “What are you doing?” Umm Ahmad replied: “I am taking these” – she held up the potatoes- “to feed him”- and pointed at her child. “Is that it?” the soldier asked. “That’s it,” she insisted.
Women were trained in handling and firing weapons. Zakia Huleileh recounts how she was taught in operating the Sten and Tommy Guns, two English-manufactured machine guns. She found them hard to carry, but her brother would encourage and teach her: “he would place a rock as a target and tell me: shoot!”
According to Hassna Masoud, the women of Tirat Haifa and Ramin were known for carrying weapons and fighting:
“When the guards of Abd al-Rahim al-Hajj Muhammad were captured, the women came out and fired at the English, to make them think that they had apprehended the wrong fighters.”
This was verified by Sabha Yacoub from Ramin.
The women played an important role in concealing weapons within their loose clothing, becoming a means of transport which fueled the logistics of the revolution. Fatima al-Khatib from Ain Bait al-Ma’ recalled how she would hide weapons in her “bosom,” or in the fireplace, where she would “pile manure over it”.
Women also played a coordinating role with the rebels to secure food supplies for besieged villages. When the British army besieged Baqa al-Gharbiyya, the soldiers rigged the bridges and roads leading to it with mines to cut supplies for villages and rebels. The women did not stand idly by when hunger threatened entire villages. They coordinated with the rebels, who raised white flags on the safe roads in order for women to reach the besieged villages safely.
Women and the High Commissioner
Tarab Abdul-Hadi, one of the pioneers of the Palestinian national movement, lived in a small house East of Jerusalem during the British Mandate. From this house began the movement of a silent convoy of cars, which passed through the city of Jerusalem, and ended with a speech in front of the High Commissioner’s headquarters. A list of demands from the demonstrators was presented to him. This took place immediately after the first women’s conference was held in October 1929, with the participation of 300 Palestinian women.
Abdul Hadi, Fayha’. “Adwar al-mar’a al-filastiniyya fi al-thalathinat 1930 – al-musahama al-siyasiyya lil mar’a al-Filastiniyya [The role of the Palestinian Woman in the Thirties, the Political Participation of the Palestinian Woman]. Al- Bira: Markaz al-Mar’a al-Filastiniyya lil-Abhath wa al-Tawthiq, 2005, p. 46.
Fleischmann, Ellen. Jerusalem Women’s Organizations During the British Mandate, 1920s-1930s. Jerusalem: Passia, 1994, p. 13.
Ibid, pp. 12-15.
Abdul Hadi, Palestinian Women, p. 84.
Ibid, p. 88.
Kabaha, Mustafa, and Nimer, Sarhan. Sijil al-Qada wa al-Thuwar wa al-Mutatau’een Lithawrat 1936-1939 [A Record of Leaders, Revolutionaries, and volunteers in the Revolution of 1936-1939]. Kufr Qare’: Dar al-Huda, 2009, p. 298.
Ibid, p. 925.
Abdul Hadi, Palestinian Women, pp. 83-85.
Khartabil, Wadi’a. “Dhikrayat wa Muthakarrat Qadura Khartabil, Bahthan ‘an al-amal wa al-Watan, Situn ‘Aman min Kifah Imra’a fi Sabil Qadiyyat Filastin [Memories and Memoirs of Qadura Khartabil, In Search of Hope and a Homeland, Sixty years of a woman’s struggle for Palestine].” Beirut: Bisan Publishing House, 1995, p. 76.
Alqam, Nabil. Tarikh al-Haraka al-Wataniyya al-Filastiniyya wa Dawr al-Mar’a Fiha [History of the Palestinian National Movement and the role of women in it]. Al-Bira: Markaz Dirasat al-Turath wa al-Mujtama’, 2005, p. 86.
Birth15 APRIL 1923, GAZA CITY, PALESTINE
Death13 MAY 2009, GAZA CITY, GAZA STRIP
Yusra al-Barbari was born in the city of Gaza. Her father, Ibrahim al-Barbari, was a Gaza merchant and member of the city’s Municipal Council. Her mother was Labiba Mahmud Halawah. She had two brothers: Kamal, an attorney, and Sa‘id.
She attended the Gaza Girls Elementary School and completed her high school education at Schmidt College for Girls in Jerusalem.
She then travelled to Egypt where she enrolled in the Faculty of Arts and the Department of History of Fuad I University (later, Cairo University), where she earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in history in 1949. She was the first female university graduate in the Gaza Strip. She began to work on an M.A. thesis about the struggle of the Palestinian people against British occupation and the Balfour Declaration, supervised by the well-known historian Ashraf Ghurbal, but she did not complete that thesis. She was fluent in Arabic, English, and French.
Her working life began in Gaza, then under Egyptian administration, as a teacher at the Bir al-Sabi‘ Girls Elementary School; she was later appointed teacher and supervisor at the Zahra School, the only secondary school for girls in the Gaza Strip. She became inspector of social studies in girls’ schools where she developed a curriculum for female teacher training, which eventually became the Women Teachers Institute in Gaza. Following the Israeli occupation of the Gaza Strip in 1967, she refused to work in any job under Israeli authority.
Ever since she was a young student, Yusra al-Barbari had taken part in demonstrations against the British Mandate, demanding the annulment of the Balfour Declaration and an end to Jewish immigration. During the years of her secondary school education in Jerusalem, she took part in numerous anti-Zionist and anti-Mandate activities. In Cairo, she participated in a massive demonstration organized by university students to protest the UN Partition Resolution of 1947. Along with other Gazan women she met the stream of Palestinian refugees coming from towns and villages occupied by Israeli forces during the 1948 war, provided them with basic services, taught refugee girls in tents, and took part in the national effort and in demonstrations protesting the scheme, advocated by Israel, to resettle the Palestinian refugees outside Palestine, in the Sinai. She participated in protests of the Israeli occupation of the Gaza Strip in 1956.
She was prominent in the field of sports, taking part in several Arab and international table-tennis tournaments, a sport she mastered. She worked as an administrative official in the Palestine girls’ table tennis team.
In the autumn of 1963 she joined Dr. Haydar Abd al-Shafi and Ibrahim Abu Sitta on the first Palestinian delegation to visit the United Nations and was chosen as a member of the First Palestine National Council, held in Jerusalem in May 1964, at which the Palestine Liberation Organization was established.
She played a prominent role in establishing the Women’s Union of Gaza in 1964 and was elected its president; she attached a workshop for weaving and embroidery. She led the Gaza women’s delegation to the conference which founded the General Union of Palestinian Women, held in Jerusalem in 1965.
When Israel occupied the Gaza Strip for the second time in June 1967, Yusra al-Barbari was the first person to arrive at the homes of political detainees and to offer aid to their families in the name of the Women’s Union. Because of her activities against the occupation, the Israeli authorities in 1974 prevented her from traveling for several years.
She became the executive secretary of the Gaza Red Crescent Society which was set up in 1969 and started its operations in 1972, and then a member of its board of directors. She was also a member of the Veterans’ Society and the Society for the Disabled in the Gaza Strip. In 2005, the Palestine Consultative Council of the Swiss group “League of 1000 Women for the Nobel Peace Prize” (1000 Femmes pour le Prix Nobel de la Paix) nominated her as one of eight Palestinian women candidates for the award. The Swiss initiative aimed to draw attention to the role played by women in all spheres of life and in bolstering peace in their societies.
Yusra al-Barbari died in Gaza and was given a solemn funeral. She was buried in the Martyrs Cemetery east of Gaza City. Her death was officially announced by President Mahmoud Abbas and the Executive Committee of the PLO. A memorial service for her was held on 24 June 2009 at the Rashad al-Shawwa Cultural Center in Gaza city, attended by many prominent national figures. When pioneering Palestinian women were singled out to be honored at the opening of the fifth congress of the General Union of Palestinian Women on 21 May 2009, she was honored by receiving the Star of Jerusalem Medal, where the citation read: “In appreciation of her exceptional contributions and her early and distinctive participation in the national and educational struggle.”
دراغمة، عزت. “الحركة النسائية في فلسطين (1903-1990)”. القدس: مكتب ضياء للدراسات، 1991.
طوبي، أسمى. “عبير ومجد”. بيروت: مطبعة قلفاط، ط 1، 1966.
عبد الهادي، فيحاء. “يسرى إبراهيم البربري: باقية في ذاكرة الشعب الجماعية”. “الأيام” (رام الله)، 31 أيار/ مايو 2009:
الفراني، عبد الحميد جمال وعوني محمد العلوي. “أعلام النساء الفلسطينيات”. بيروت: دار العلوم العربية، 2013.
فيصل، نعمان. “أعلام من جيل الرواد من غزة هاشم منذ أواخر العهد العثماني وحتى القرن العشرين”. غزة: مكتبة اليازجي، 2010.
النحال زعرب، امتياز. “فلسطينيات: وجوه نسائية فلسطينية معاصرة”. غزة: دار المقداد للطباعة، ط1، 2013.
نصّار، إبراهيم (تحرير). “نساء من بلادي”. رام الله: طاقم شؤون المرأة، د. ت.
Abdul Hadi, Mahdi, ed. Palestinian Personalities: A Biographic Dictionary. 2nd ed., revised and updated. Jerusalem: Passia Publication, 2006.
Birth1903, JERUSALEM, PALESTINE
Death13 MAY 1992, JERUSALEM
Zulaykha al-Shihabi was born in Jerusalem. Her father was Ishaq Abd al-Qadir al-Shihabi, and her mother was Zainab al-Muhtadi. She had two brothers, Subhi and Jamil, and two sisters, Rasmiyya and Rifqa.
She was educated at the Notre Dame de Sion school. Her father (unlike most fathers at the turn of the century) insisted on sending his daughters to school to learn the sciences and languages, and Zulaykha was among the top students in her class.
From an early age she became conscious of the dangers of Zionism. She had been raised in a family with deep roots in Jerusalem, and she learned the history of her city since its earliest Arab Islamic days. She in turn conveyed to her classmates what she had heard from her parents.
She joined the nationalist struggle during the turmoil that followed the al-Buraq rebellion. She was present at the Palestine Arab Women Congress, which was held in Jerusalem in October 1929, was the first women’s political meeting at the national level, and was attended by some three hundred women, to discuss the political situation. The meeting then issued a memorandum setting out the reasons behind the rebellion and the demands of the people. She was elected as a member of the delegation that presented the memorandum to the High Commissioner. Matiel Mughannam gave a short speech in English; Tarab Abd al-Hadi gave a speech in Arabic. When the delegation returned to the meeting, a massive demonstration by women broke out, with some one hundred cars driving through the streets of Jerusalem and shouting thunderous slogans, amidst enormous popular enthusiasm.
She cofounded the Arab Women Society in Jerusalem as a follow-up to the resolutions of the 1929 meeting. Similar women societies were founded in most cities; some went by the name Arab Women’s Committees.
She worked with Milia al-Sakakini in a voluntary and free campaign to teach young girls basic reading and writing skills, and she founded al-Dawha School, which became well known for the education and health care it provided young girls.
Through the Arab Women’s Committees she played a prominent role during the General Strike and the Great Arab Revolt (1936–39). It was her idea to organize a large audience to attend the trials of rebels to raise their morale and to show the authorities that the people were behind their heroes.
She was a prominent member of the twenty-seven member delegation of Palestinian women that took part in the Eastern Women Congress in Cairo at the invitation of Huda Sha‘rawi, the Egyptian feminist leader, for the purpose of supporting the cause of Palestine. The conference convened in Cairo in October 1938 and included a very large number of Arab women who were pioneers in the social and national fields. Palestine was the focal point of that First inter-Arab women congress. Shihabi delivered her speech in the name of the Women Society of Jerusalem and spoke of the history of the problem and of British policy. When the congress came to elect deputies from each delegation, Shihabi and Wahida al-Khalidi were elected from the Palestinian delegation. At the end of the congress, she was invited to deliver a speech in the name of Palestine; she thanked everyone and ended with these words: “We return convinced that the people of Palestine are not alone as they wage their sacred struggle to save their homeland.”
Returning to Jerusalem she proceeded to implement Huda Sha‘rawi’s recommendation to unify Arab women’s activities under a single name, the Arab Women’s Union. So she announced the dissolution of the Arab Women’s Society in Jerusalem and the creation of the Palestinian Arab Women’s Union.
In heath and social welfare matters, her most notable achievement was to create, through the Women’s Union, a first-aid field committee charged with treating the wounded. She also created a clinic to treat the destitute, provide free inoculation against infectious diseases, and care for pregnant women and childcare; she also took part in securing shelters for orphans. The union defrayed the cost of educating tens of orphans in Dar al-aytam al-Islamiyya. In Jericho, she founded a winter resort for convalescence and a home for destitute women. People remember her as a woman who used to visit prisons and detention camps to encourage rather than console prisoners, carrying with her symbolic presents for political detainees to let them know that the people supported them.
She showed a special interest in sports. Under her supervision the union established a sports club with its own executive committee, its own sports program, and a large playing field. When the union held its conference on 16 July 1946, attended by a large number of Arab women from various Arab capitals, the flags of their countries were displayed on the sidelines of the playing field.
In the 1940s, she intensified the union’s activities in the cultural domain and sent out invitations to writers and artists to give lectures on scientific and national themes and to discuss cultural issues.
The secret of her success was that she did not rely solely on voluntary contributions but on productive work as well. Thus, the union from the very beginning bought several plots of land planted with vines or fruit trees and presented these plots to families of martyrs who would then care for the land and live off its produce. So too with women. The union taught them needlework and weaving in order to provide them with an income. The most notable decision was to teach young girls the art of flower making; they began to create artificial flowers. Shihabi herself would happily join them in their work and would join them also as they manufactured beauty creams. The union frequently organized charitable markets to sell its diverse products and spend the proceeds on charitable projects.
After the Nakba she redoubled her activities. Jerusalem remained her primary residence, but she frequently traveled to Amman. In 1959 she added to her other responsibilities the presidency of the Union of Charitable Societies in the Jerusalem District.
She travelled extensively, attending Arab and international women’s conferences, and visited both Britain and Russia in addition to many Arab capitals. She was an ideal representative of the Palestinian woman and the most eloquent in explaining the Palestine cause in public forums.
As an elected member of the executive of the General Union of Arab Women, she attended the meetings of the union as well as conferences devoted to women’s issues in Beirut, Cairo, and Jerusalem. She was a prominent female member of the First Palestine National Congress, from which emerged the PLO on 28 May 1964. As president of the Jerusalem women’s union she sought to popularize the idea of creating a general union of Palestinian women.
On 20 February 1965, she organized a general meeting in Jerusalem of representatives of women’s unions in Palestinian cities to prepare for a general conference to include Palestinian women both in Palestine and the diaspora and with the object of creating a broad framework to be called the General Union of Palestinian Women. As chairwoman of the preparatory committee, she oversaw the convening of the Palestinian Women’s Congress in July 1965 in Jerusalem. This was attended by 174 members, and the PLO Department of Popular Organizations contributed to the creation of the Union on the constitutional, organizational, and administrative levels. The union then came into existence.
After Israel occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank in 1967, Shihabi was one of the first figures it deported to Jordan. However, the intervention of several states and the United Nations forced Israel to allow her to return and resume her work as president of the union. She continued to work tirelessly until her death at age 89.
She died on 13 May 1992. Her funeral prayer was held at al-Aqsa Mosque and was attended by many prominent national figures.
“الحركة الوطنية الفلسطينية: 1935- 1939. يوميات أكرم زعيتر”. بيروت: مؤسسة الدراسات الفلسطينية، 1980.
خرطبيل، وديعة قدورة. “بحثاً عن الأمل والوطن: ستون عاماً من كفاح امرأة في سبيل قضية فلسطين”. بيروت: بيسان للنشر والتوزيع، 1995.
طوبي، أسمى. “عبير ومجد”. بيروت: مطبعة قلفاط، 1966.
Khalidi, Anbara Salam. Early Arab Feminism; The Life and Activism of Anbara Salam Khalidi. London: Pluto Press, 2013.
In 1930s Jerusalem, a young boy walks to school through the narrow, stone paved streets of the Old City. Every morning, as he reaches Damascus Gate, he passes a group of men gathered at a local coffee shop to listen to the latest news.
His name is Hazem Nusseibeh, and over eighty years later, he describes the scene to us from his home in Amman. “Big groups would come in from the villages near Jerusalem,” he says. “Their faces would be pink from all the walking and they would be carrying baskets of grapes and figs.”
He describes how men from the villages would bring their harvest into the Old City to sell it at market, then go to a coffee shop where a man would read the newspaper to them. During the 1930s, only around one in five Palestinian-Arabs could read and write, so it was common to read newspapers aloud and show the pictures and cartoons to those who were illiterate. Through these gatherings, illustrated newspapers spread their message to a wide audience, shaping the political awareness of both literate and illiterate Palestinian Arabs.
Drawing the Headlines
Gatherings like these were so widespread that after the 1929 Buraq Uprising, the British officials who had been sent to investigate the conflict reported back to His Majesty’s Government that “In almost every village there is someone who reads from the papers to the gatherings of those villagers who are illiterate. The Arab fallahin [smallholding farmers] and villagers are therefore probably more politically-minded than many of the people in Europe.”
Political cartoons always appeared on the front page of these newspapers, providing sharp critiques of political negotiations, tactics and economic developments.Yet the woman who drew the most widely read cartoons in 1930s Palestine remains shrouded in mystery. All we know is that she was a Christian from Eastern Europe, and that the owner of the newspaper Falastin, ‘Isa Daud al-‘Isa, would think up the ideas for the cartoons and ask her to draw them. Her story was told over sixty years later, in an email from ‘Isa’s son to the American academic, Sandy Sufian, just a few years before the son passed away. Had it not been for this email, this mysterious woman would have disappeared from history entirely.
Sneaking Past The Censors
At first glance, there is also something mysterious about the cartoons themselves: the way they suddenly became popular, then just as suddenly faded back into obscurity. Before and after the 1936 Great Arab Revolt, political cartoons rarely appeared in Palestinian newspapers and as the conﬂict intensiﬁed, they became more frequent.
It is no coincidence that as tensions in Palestine rose, British censorship of newspapers increased. Journalists were jailed, the publication of certain types of information was banned and daily newspapers were closed down for publishing “dangerous” articles. More than once, the British suspended all four Arabic dailies at the same time for what they considered to be provocative articles. During the early phase of the revolt, Arabic newspapers were suspended thirty-four times, while the Jewish press was suspended thirteen.
In this repressive atmosphere, political cartoons were useful because subversive messages could be shifted from the text to the image, where they were more likely to pass censorship regulations.
Though they may seem simple and direct, some of these cartoons contained multiple layers of symbolism.
The June 1936 Falastin cartoon titled The Zionist Crocodile to Palestine Arabs tells a multifaceted story about the colonization of Palestine.
The bug-eyed crocodile salivates as he prepares to devour Arab fallahin and their citrus groves, his tail emerging from the sea like a ship’s ramp. He embodies two key strategies of early Zionism: gaping jaws representing the colonization of indigenous land through Zionist land acquisition, and scaly tail alluding to the arrival of tens of thousands of European settler colonists to Palestine by ship.
In the 1930s, the displacement of fallahin through Zionist land purchases was a pressing economic issue. Fallahin debt and default on credit reached critical levels, made worse by the fact that British had started to tax many previously untaxed pieces of agricultural land. The fallahin resisted by joining trade unions and political organizations, and engaging in civil protest and cultivation disputes directed at the British, Zionists and the Palestinian upper class.
Worth A Thousand Words
At a library in Beirut, a middle-aged man puts on a set of rubber gloves, takes a small reel out of the archive and attaches it to the microfilm reader. The reader is a clunky grey machine that looks something like a PC from the 1980s. The Beirut-based library of the Institute of Palestinian Studies is one of the few places where these caricatures have been preserved, but sadly much else from this period has been lost forever.
Caught up in the fervor of revolt and faced with harsh British repression, it seems Palestinian revolutionaries and their supporters had little time to document their stories and preserve their history. Much of what had existed was lost a decade later in the Nakba, as Palestinians fled their homes in the face of danger from Zionist militias. In these rare drawings, we see some of the few remaining images that tell the story of an anti-colonial consciousness awakening in British Mandate Palestine.
- Nusseibeh, Hazem. Interview by Thoraya El Rayyes & Ibrahim Tarawneh, Amman (2015), sound recording.
- Khalidi, Rashid. The Iron Cage: The Story of the Palestinian Struggle for Statehood. Beacon Press, 2007.
- Shaw, Sir Walter Sidney. Report of the Commission on the Palestine Disturbances of August, 1929: Evidence Heard During the 1st [-47th] Sittings, HM Stationery Office, 1930.
- Sufian, Sandy. “Anatomy of the 1936–39 Revolt: Images of the Body in Political Cartoons of Mandatory Palestine”, Journal of Palestine Studies 37, No.2 (2008).
- Shaw. Report of the Commission on the Palestine Disturbances.
- Sufian, Sandy. “Anatomy of the 1936–39 Revolt: Images of the Body in Political Cartoons of Mandatory Palestine”, Journal of Palestine Studies 37, No.2 (2008), p. 25.
- Ibid, p. 27.
- Ibid, p. 30.
- Tamari, Salim, and Issam Nassar. The Storyteller of Jerusalem: the Life and Times Wasif Jawhariyyeh, 1904-1948, Olive Branch Press: 2013.
- Sufian. “Anatomy of the 1936–39 Revolt,” p. 30.
- Azoulay, Ariella. “Photographic Conditions: Looting, Archives, and the Figure of the” Infiltrator”, Jerusalem Quarterly, No. 61 (2015): 6
The production of soap is a very old tradition in the Middle East: it is based primarily on the production of olive oil. At first a domestic production, the soap industry developed in urban centers: the most famous are Aleppo in Syria, Tripoli in Lebanon, and Nablus in Palestine. Throughout the Ottoman period, big families of the urban bourgeoisie acquired the main soap factories located in the city center of Nablus. In the nineteenth century, the soap industry became the dominant economic sector of the city: owning a soap factory became a symbol of wealth, prestige, and urban belonging.
Process of Making Soap
The few Nablus soap factories that have remained operational follow more or less the same manufacturing process (except for some minor changes) that was developed two centuries ago. It is a five-step process—cooking, laying, cutting, drying, and packaging—supported by four different teams of workers.
At the ground floor of the soap factory, olive oil (the main ingredient) mixed with caustic soda and water is placed in a large bowl (halla) and “cooked” for three days. (In the first half of the twentieth century, caustic soda, imported from Alexandria and Europe, replaced the qeli, a plant turned into ashes.) Under the tank, a boiler helps the process of saponification. Once the mixture is ready, the head of the team tastes the soap or crumbles it on his hand to check its texture. Then porters carry the mixture in buckets and pour it on a designated section of the first floor (mafrash), where it dries for a day before being shaped into small cubes, stamped with the brand of the soap factory, and cut by a team of three to four trained workers. A day later, the same workers pile the pieces of soap into pyramids (tananir). The soap then dries for two to three months. Another team packages the soap, wrapping it in a paper with the brand of the soap factory. These workers pack an average of 500 to 1,000 bars of soap per hour.
In the heyday of soap production in Nablus, factories were registered companies with brand names and a printed logo on the soap wrapping paper. These brands were often symbols or names of animals; examples include muftahein (the two keys), al-jamal (the camel), al-na‘ama (the ostrich), al-najma (the star), al-baqara (the cow), al-badr (the full moon), and al-assad (the lion). Slogans were added on the packaging such as al-sabun al-Nabulsi al-mumtaz (Nablus soap extra) or al-ma‘ruf (the well-known).
Decline of Soap Production in Nablus before 1948
By 1930, Nablus soap production had experienced its first important setback. Several reasons are usually given for this decline. Egypt and Syria, which were major markets for Nablus soap (especially Egypt), imposed taxes on imported soap. Nablus soap was competing with soap production in Egypt. The label “Nabulsi” attached to the soap was not protected, and as a result, counterfeiting took place. This, coupled with the rise in the price of pure olive oil after the Great Depression of 1929, contributed to raise the price of Nablus soap, making it difficult for Nablus producers to compete with other imported soaps. In addition, Jewish mechanized industry, which also succeeded to obtain customs benefits from the British Mandate, provided local competition.
This first soap crisis reveals the effects, though indirect, of Jewish immigration in the region of Nablus, hitherto relatively protected from the consequences of the Zionist colonization. In general, the absence of a sovereign state capable of controlling borders and taxes meant that Nablus soap was unprotected, while at the same time the British Mandate granted customs benefits to the Zionists traders, and Egypt and Syria were able to impose barriers to protect their local production.
After 1948, the market of historic Palestine closed; so too did the Egyptian market. The East Bank of the Jordan River (Jordan) became the main market for Nablus soap. Soap producers were gradually forced to import olive oil from Syria and Lebanon, and secondarily from Spain and Italy.
Transformation and Final Decline of the Soap Industry
In the 1950s Hamdi Kan‘an, brother-in-law of the soap producer and trader Ahmad Shaka‘a, introduced in Nablus what was called “green soap,” a soap made from jift (solid remains of first press olives, mainly kernels) oil: it was a lower quality soap used to wash the floor and do the laundry. This was a small revolution. Indeed, the exploitation of this new, much cheaper type of oil allowed less wealthy families to rent soap factories and mass-produce household soap. During the 1970s, production of this “second class” soap (which quickly took the generic name of “Kan‘an”), developed rapidly. But it also helped some soap factory workers to become small manufacturers; they rented soap factories in the old city and started to produce soap. At this time, some soap factories tried to mechanize and “develop” the Nablus soap in its form, packaging, and ingredients. Another change (a consequence of the Israeli occupation of 1967) is that all kinds of oils started to be used.
Despite the attempts by some in the soap industry to transform production and adapt to the changing circumstances, the soap industry experienced a steady regression during the second half of the twentieth century, and the first intifada marked the final decline. Small factories producing green soap were already being marginalized by the introduction of detergents and washing machines and cheaper foreign products (like Lux and Palmolive). They could not compete, nor could they afford the new taxes imposed on the soap: their lack of capital prevented them from maintaining their production. Moreover, since the first intifada, soap production became harder to maintain, because the old city was the target of Israeli attacks, and many soap factories thus closed in the 1990s.
In summary, cheaper foreign products as well as the introduction of new consumption patterns brought about the decline of the soap industry in Nablus. Of the more than thirty soap factories in the old city of Nablus, several were damaged by the Israeli invasion of 2002 and two of them completely destroyed; most of the rest have been abandoned or put to other uses. For example, the Arafat soap factory is being developed into a cultural center for children; some producers are using perfumes and mechanization to produce new soaps to keep the tradition of soap making in Nablus alive. Since 2007 only two soap factories have remained functional in Nablus, and they belong to the Tuqan and Shaka‘a families, who keep them as a heritage. These factories export the vast majority of their production to Jordan, taking advantage of long-standing relationships with the distributors on the East Bank of the river and the importance of the Palestinian population in Jordan. From there, a small part of the production is sent to Kuwait and the Gulf.
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Bontemps, Véronique. “Soap-Factories in Nablus. Palestinian Heritage (Turâth) at the Local Level.” Journal of Balkan and Near-Eastern Studies 14, no.2 (2012): 279–295.
Bontemps, Véronique. Ville et patrimoine en Palestine. Une ethnographie des savonneries de Naplouse. Paris: Karthala/IISMM, 2012.
Doumani, Beshara. Rediscovering Palestine, Merchants and Peasants in Jabal Nablus (1700–1900). Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1995.
Graham-Brown, Sarah. “The Political Economy of the Jabal Nablus, 1920–1948.” In R. Owen, ed., Studies in the Economic and Social History of Palestine in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1982.
Jaussen, Antonin. Naplouse et son district. Paris: Geuthner, 1927.
Sharif, Husam. Sina‘at al-sabun al-Nabulsi [The Nabulsi Soap Industry]. Nablus: Palestinian Authority: Municipality of Nablus, 1999.
Taher, Ali Nusuh. Shajarat al-zaytun. Tarikhuha, zira’atuha, amraduha, sina‘atuha [The Olive Tree: Its History, Culture, Diseases and Production]. Jaffa, 1947.
Rahma Ibrahim Al-Haj, who was not older than seven, didn’t know anything of the world except her village of al-Tira, which at the time had a population that did not exceed 6000 people. Despite being a village where things rarely happen, what Rahma witnessed on July 19 in 1948 made up the scenes of the most important event of her life, and of many others like her.
In the months preceding that day, Rahma would hear her elders speak of the number of Zionist forces—50,000, a number she had only then just heard for the first time. This was a force of armed fighters backed by air and naval forces, as well as tanks and artillery. They were met with 7000 Palestinian fighters in semi-organized groups, as well as 3000 Arab volunteers, and dozens of others from Germany, Turkey, Pakistan, Yugoslavia, Africa, and even a small number of English volunteers.
The women would speak about the massacres taking place in neighboring villages as though they were speaking about outer space. Women raped, children slaughtered, pregnant women miscarrying, men lined up and killed with bullets—all of this was just talk, until al-Tira’s turn came. Suddenly, all the rumors were verified.
When she saw groups from the Haganah distributing flyers that threatened the villagers and warned them of cooperating with the Arab Liberation Army, Rahma ran. Before she and her family and their neighbors could recover from the scare of the leaflets, the Zionist special forces, under the guise of Arabs, raided the village in search of volunteers. These operations were labelled “violent surveillance,” which aimed to enter unarmed and unfortified villages at night and remain for a few hours, killing whomever leaves their home. After a few days, a struggle began which would evolve into two months of protracted confrontations and steadfastness. The men of the village took out the weapons hidden in the ceilings and wells, and gave battle to regain the village’s fortunes.
On July 16, the Jews entered the village. Until that moment, 13 men were martyred. Some of the fighters withdrew outside the village, while 30 men were taken to an unknown location, which was later discovered to be the prison of Acre. Soldiers had gathered those that remained from the village, choosing 300 men and women, and placing them in 20 buses that took them to al-Lajjun. In each bus, a group of Jewish guards armed with machine guns accompanied them. Upon arriving at the border along which Iraqi forces were stationed, the Jewish guards kicked them out, making them flee towards the Arab areas while firing bullets at their heels.
On July 19, the twenty-fifth day of Ramadan, the remaining villagers took stock of their losses. Recognizing that their days in the village were numbered, they gathered what they could in order to leave. They carried their clothes in bindles, while women hid house papers, birth certificates, and small amounts of money in their chests. The Jews returned to the village, where only 60-80 elderly people remained, some of whom were blind. Afterwards, everything happened quickly. The Jewish guards cried out:
Saa’, Saa’, let’s go, let’s go.
Everyone climbed onto buses under Jewish guard, made up of 10-15 individuals. They reached an area East of al-Lajjun at around eight PM. The buses stopped on the road to Afula near some new houses that were recently demolished. The villagers of al-Tira were commanded to get down as they carried their bindles in their hands. They sat in a circle around 200 meters from the main road in a recently harvested wheat field. They were informed that they were near Arab lines. The guards handed over the residents to other guards from a nearby colony, and it was later found out that they were Jewish settlers that had taken over the police station, and wore hats that resembled police hats. After a long day of travelling in Ramadan, the villagers grew thirsty and requested a drink of water. After a long wait, the settlers returned with gallons of something that resembled water and poured it over the heads of the residents as they sat over their bindles on dry grass. Rahma detected the smell of gasoline and ran.
The guards lit the villagers on fire and left them to burn, shooting whoever tried to run.
Rahma Ibrahim al-Haj says in her testimony: “I ran and hid under a rock until the morning. I saw the fire ablaze and people screaming and crying out for help. In the morning, I went to the place of the burning. When my sight fell on the charred bodies I was engulfed with horror. I didn’t stay for a single moment to count them. I ran until I reached the village of Zalafa. There, I fell on the floor from exhaustion and fright. The residents of the village took care of me and then took me to Jenin.”
It is not completely known how many survived the burning, because the survivors were separated and sought refuge in the camps of Nablus, Irbid, Damascus, and Sidon. Some of the United Nations observers were able to record the testimony of 10 out of the 15 people believed to have survived. Those that were burned alive did not exceed 55 people.
- Abu Sitta, Salman. “Dirasat Filastin wa Huquq al-Aradi al-Mughtasaba [A Study of Palestine and the Rights of Usurped Lands.
- Abu Sitta. Right of Return.
Back in the year 1989, you would have seen a group of young women surrounded by tables working an assembly line in one of the houses in the village of Sa’ir, north of Hebron. There was a table for cutting slices of lemons, a table for squeezing its juice, a table for straining it, and a table for packaging the sliced, squeezed and strained lemons into bottles. At first glance, this simple process looked like a communal project that was suggested by a neighbor over a cup of coffee on a sunny morning. In fact, it was a production line that played a role, modest though it was, in building a resistance economy.
This was the Sa’ir cooperative project, which was formed in the first Intifada at the initiative of the Union of Palestinian Women’s Committees. It was inspired by 25 young women from the union and their friends who were politically, economically and socially active in the struggle. It was one of the cooperatives that spread throughout the occupied territories during the Intifada, as a productive mechanism that reflected a strategy of economic resistance that aimed to strengthen resilience and self-sufficiency.
Cooperatives were one of many tools of economic resistance. The developments of the Intifada forced changes in Palestinian consumption and production patterns, as consumption of the enemy’s goods was no longer an option due to the boycott. The economic blockade and the cessation of Palestinian laborers from working within the Green Line resulted in a decline in the incomes of Palestinian families, necessitating the creation of productive areas that provided both work and food for the purpose of enhancing sustainability.
To a certain extent, the cooperatives developed the phenomenon of domestic economics, helping to meet basic needs beyond those of a single family. At the beginning of the Intifada, the home-grown initiatives, with the help of the Unified National Leadership of the Uprising (UNLU), supported the proliferation of home gardens planted with vegetables that families needed. Additionally, poultry and livestock were tended to, and the promotion of small-scale food and industrial projects such as textiles was encouraged.
Cooperatives sprouted everywhere through people’s collective action. They reclaimed unused land and set it to work, distributing cooperative products to those in need. Voluntary and charitable work began to spread as people took part in cleaning neighborhoods, assisting farmers on their lands, and securing medical supplies and qualified health volunteers. The spread of popular education, which was devoted to the spirit of cooperation, social solidarity, and united efforts to resist occupation, further deepened this state of steadfastness.
The productive adaptation of nascent cooperatives led to the creation of a new kind of cooperative, unlike service cooperatives in the fields of transportation and marketing, or productive cooperatives geared towards generating profits for its shareholders. This adaptation came as a response to the limits imposed on domestic production, especially with regards to its operative inefficiencies and lack of diversity.
Dozens of cooperatives of this type were formed in the West Bank and Gaza Strip during the Intifada, and each one had between five and twenty members. Most of them were characterized by a primitive inner structure. They did not go beyond cooperatives in domestic production, such as those that produced pickles in neighborhoods, although it was not uncommon to see cooperatives organizing agricultural labor and livestock rearing as well.
Financing these cooperatives fell on membership donations, and sometimes on “contributions” from the villagers. The young men and women who worked for the cooperatives became prime targets for arrest, which was part and parcel of the occupation’s objective to shut them down, as with the case of the crackdown on cooperatives in the village of Battir near Bethlehem.
In her oral testimony, Ms. Lamya Shalalda recalls her experience in the Sa’ir cooperative, narrating the intersection of national struggle, production, and feminism.
With modest funding, the Union of Palestinian Women’s Committees organized these ideas in women’s cooperatives. The village women assisted in providing raw materials for the manufacture of whatever was needed in the village.
“Production was adjusted according to the agricultural season,” Shalalda says. “During the grape season, the committee’s work was based on the production of homemade grape products. During the plum season, we would produce jam. In the winter season, we worked on citrus products, such as concentrated natural juices. And although the methods were crude, these citrus fruits were manufactured or used in the jam industry.”
These experiments combined popular experience in food processing on the one hand, and the scientific basis for forming sustainable products with a longer shelf-life on the other.
“This was a true fusion of modernity and originality,” says Shalalda.
The process began with renting a place that was fitted with simple tools, from barrels to utensils to hand juicers. The main factor was manual labor. The provision of sugar was very important as well, in addition to gas cookers, which were bought from the area. The Union of Women’s Committees provided the raw materials for the cooperative, since women were not financially capable of purchasing these materials. The work was disorganized at first, so the women had to coordinate with the Union, which was paying them per working hours and marketing their products.
“If you do not form a domestic economy, people will go hungry, and that will lead to frustration. That is why it is necessary to elevate steadfastness and build morale. These were fundamental issues that embodied wonderful societal values such as social solidarity, which was an effective weapon in the hands of the Palestinians.”
Shalalda says, describing the ethos of the cooperative.
According to Shalalda, this activity was multi-dimensional, as “there was a sense that this cooperative was part of the Palestinian national struggle”. This was reinforced by the village’s embrace of cooperatives so that the cooperatives’ headquarters became a selling point for the village and the whole area.
Yet the missing link, as relayed by Shalalda, was the extent to which women working in the cooperatives were involved in decision-making. It was the supervisory authority that exercised the role of planning on behalf of the working women, who were the most active people in the cooperative.
In addition to this cooperative, the Aboud, Birzeit, and Kobar cooperatives were significant experiments in the use of wide areas of lands, in increasing animal production for sheep and cows, and in the provision of dairy products to the village.
Despite all these attempts, the availability of products remained well below the abundance of the pre-Intifada years. This necessitated a significant change in consumption patterns, such as the abandonment of luxuries and the adaptation to locally available produce. Prior to the Intifada, the enemy worked on deepening Palestinian consumerism, aiming to prevent the saving of money so that it could be absorbed into the Israeli economy. The advent of the Intifada caused the reversal, albeit gradually, of that equation, decreasing the amount of consumerism, avoiding certain aspects of luxury, and boycotting Israeli products when local or international alternatives existed. The results were a decrease in the purchase of beauty products, clothes, shoes, carpets, and furniture. Restaurants, decorators, photographers and tailors all scaled down production, and wedding celebrations were kept to a minimum.
Adel Samara describes this as “taking a self-defensive stand.” Increasing politicization took people in the direction of volunteerism, which in turn promoted a culture of thrift and the acceptance of local products that were of a lesser quality. Carried forward by the momentum of national struggle, Palestinians turned to boycotting Israeli products, even if at a slow and partial rate.
While dependency on Israeli products diminished, Arab-owned factories witnessed steady growth. Some Arab companies even took over Israeli shares in the market, such as Silvana and Golden Sweet, which dominated the shares of the Ilit company.
While individual and collective efforts gave the initial push to these experiments in economic resistance, the UNLU eventually started playing an active role in charting their course. They also played the role of encouraging and perpetuating these models as a national goal, and not merely as a means of securing daily needs.
On February 18 1988, Communiqué 8 called for a comprehensive boycott, a return to the land, and the promotion of a domestic economy. Communique 9 added to it the need to work productive sectors to their maximum capacity, and to regulate working hours for skilled professions. Finally, Communique 10 then called for detailing products that were to be boycotted immediately, and demanded a control of the market for fear of manipulation.
Later communiques gradually called for active labor boycotts, demanding the immediate cessation of Palestinian work in Jewish-only settlements, and the reabsorption of these labor forces in the Palestinian economic sectors. They also called on agricultural engineers to train and educate the masses, and supported the building of cooperatives and reorienting consumption patterns, all of which further strengthened community organization and social solidarity.
Under Communique 21, the leadership forbade promoting Israeli products and sanctioned those who did. It also called for withdrawing savings accounts from Israeli banks and improving workers’ conditions by counting strike days as working days. Furthermore, a committee to protect economic and agricultural institutions was formed. This was followed by Communique 22, which forbade in no uncertain terms the payment of fines and bonds, also calling for the boycott of Israeli tourist institutions.
The experiment of replacing Israeli products with local ones contributed to the notion of self-development. Local initiatives provided Palestinians with a minimum level of self-sufficiency. This strategy of survival and steadfastness (sumud) was touted as a means of achieving economic independence, itself a precursor to achieving political independence.
Closed shops, open homes
One of the paradoxes of the first Intifada was that the mornings that did not begin with the sound of metal shop fronts opening were sometimes the busiest days of productivity. These acts of “stoppage” represented the strongest and most effective tool of struggle.
Civil disobedience was not born in the Intifada. For decades, strikes represented a spontaneous manifestation of mourning for martyrs, before becoming a form of popular resistance, or becoming a way for the UNLU to announce its political positions through its communiques. Strikes continued to grow ever since 1967, becoming a truly confrontational weapon in the early 1990s. The occupation authorities were kept busy forcefully opening stores during strikes, and closing them during the operating hours upon which the resistance had decided.
Strikes took place on several fronts during the Intifada, varying in terms of size, territory and areas of business, including workers, transportation and educational institutions. The strikes went hand in hand with calls for self-sufficiency, boycott, and civil disobedience, such as the rejection of Israeli orders, handing over identity cards to soldiers, and the refusal to pay taxes.
The individual and collective initiatives had a decisive significance in pitting economic resistance against Israeli laws and procedures. The role of the UNLU here was instrumental. On January 10 1988, Communique 2 directed workers to boycott work during strike days, also calling on shopkeepers to comply with the strike. Slogan revolving around “an end to land confiscation” and “an end to taxation” quickly became a rallying cry of social revolt.
Communique 3 came out in the same month, saluting shopkeepers and urging them to continue forming committees in every city, neighborhood and street. It implored them to formulate collective national positions refusing to pay additional taxes, while calling on workers to continue boycotting Israeli employers.
On February 2 1988, Communique 6 advocated for the continuation of the previous directives. It called for refraining to pay fines, reducing the burden on tenants by delaying rental dates, boycotting Israeli goods, and encouraging the national economy.
The communiques’ tones ranged from urging, to demanding, to forbidding. Examples include the withdrawal of savings accounts from Israeli banks, improving workers’ conditions, and counting strike days as working days. Decreasing consumption and persistent boycotts led to a significant decline in the Israeli taxation rate. Other factors contributed to this trend, including the declining sales of local luxury goods, the rise of domestic food storage and processing, the resignation of tax officials, and popular attacks against taxpayers. Indirectly, punitive measures of occupation, curfews, roadblocks, and the fight against local agriculture have contributed to making the additional tax small in amount.
Urban businessmen and small shop-owners played a decisive role in encouraging the commercial strike, as well as in supporting acts of tax evasion and the boycott of the Israeli Civil Administration. In coordination with the UNLU, merchant participation set the day-to-day pace of disobedience, defying the Israeli attempt to impose its own version of “normality” upon daily life.
As street confrontations fluctuated between 1990 and 1989, and with the diminishing influence of local committees in the suburbs, trade strikes remained the most visible signs of disobedience.
The experience of the town of Beit Sahur encapsulates the model of the economic Intifada advocated by Palestinians. In addition to working on achieving productive and agricultural self-sufficiency, the town’s residents all committed to refusing to pay taxes in February 1988. This led the occupation army to resort to punitive measures by doubling fines and bills on families.
The families reacted to this crackdown in unexpected ways. They refused to pay taxes, declaring a state of total civil disobedience. They gathered over one thousand identity cards and handed them over to the Israeli military officer of the area. The campaign for the refusal to pay taxes continued for over a year, and the occupation authorities tried once again in September 1989 to impose further taxation in an attempt to break the civil disobedience.
Ghassan Andoni relayed the story on 31 September 1989 to the Palestine Center of Information:
“Since 19 September 1989, Beit Sahur has been besieged by hundreds of Israeli forces. A new military barracks was built near the shepherds’ fields for the execution of military orders. The Israeli order for the residents to pay taxes turned into a big military operation, which targeted the economy of the town and involved the “break the bones” policy, the arrest of children, and the pillaging of shops and factories. The Israeli authorities were unable to force any resident to negotiate with them, or even to pay meager sums in return for their confiscated properties. The military operation moved from the stores to the homes. In some cases the army seized the entire contents of a household, piled them in a truck and took them to the auction place. Phone lines were disconnected, media were refused entry, and throughout 42 days, hundreds of residents were arrested and used as hostages in exchange for paying taxes.
One of the residents involved in tax evasion efforts, Ilyas Rishmawi, said that the agricultural committee busied itself with planting vegetables in every plot of land around every house. Rabbits and chickens were raised to ensure the supply of meat in the case of a military curfew.
“Soldiers would get hysterical when they smelled grilled meat in the town of Beit Sahur during the siege and curfew,” Rishmawi said.
The military operation imposing the payment of taxes began in September 1989. The entire town of Beit Sahur was under siege. All entrances to the town were closed, phone lines were cut off, and food and medical supplies were forbidden. The popular and work committees, in coordination with the committees in the surrounding areas, announced a state of emergency, working night and day to combat the effects of the closure.
“In one of the houses, after the soldiers were about to leave, they heard a woman screaming at them to wait,” said Rishmawi.
“They smiled to themselves and said finally someone decided to pay the taxes, but that quickly turned into anger when the woman threw the controller device and told them: Forget what you came for.”
- Samara, Adel. “Ada’ al-Mu’assasa al-Iqtisadiya fi al-Manatiq al-Muhtalla Qabl al-Intifada wa Khilaluha [The performance of economic institutions in the occupied territories before and during the Intifada].” Majallat al-Dirasat al-Fialstiniyya, 1.1, 1990, pp. 30-31.
- Ibid, p. 31.
- A group of researchers. Al-Intifada Mubadara Sha’biyya: Dirasa li Adwar al-Qiwa al-Ijtima’iyya [The Intifada as a Popular Initiative: A study of the role of social forces], 1990, pp. 182-187.
- Shannar, Hazem. “Al-Awda’ al-Iqtisadiyya wa al-Ijtimayiaa’ fi Dhil al-Intifada [Economic and Social Conditions In Light of the Uprising].” Majallat al-Dirasat al-Fialstiniyya, 1.2, 1990, p. 40.
- Samara, Adel. Iqtisad al-Daffah wal Qita’ min Ihtijaz at-Tatuwwor ila al-Himaya ash-Sha’biya [The economy of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip: from holding development to popular protection]. Akka: Dar Al-Aswar, 1988.
- Shannar, p. 49.
- Tamari, Salim. “Makhatir al-Rataba: al-‘Isyan al-Mahdud wa al-Mujtama’ al-Madani [Risks of Monotony: Limited Rebellion and Civil Society].” Majallat al-Dirasat al-Fialstiniyya, 3, 1990, p. 6.
- Qumsiyeh, Mazin. Popular Resistance in Palestine: A History of Hope and Empowerment. London; New York, Pluto Press, 2011, p. 211
1900 to 1948
In one scene, children gather around a travelling storyteller and his Box of Wonders. In another, a hakawati tells a story about the mythic Arab hero, Abu Zayd al-Hilali, who almost killed his estranged father. In a third scene, the mischievous shadow puppet Karagoz fails miserably at the latest in his long line of get-rich-quick schemes.
Karagoz in the village square
They say that drama was born in the village square. And in the towns of villages of Palestine, scenes like these were a common part of daily life for hundreds of years. In coffeehouses and at religious festivals, hakawati storytellers dramatically recited folkloric tales and the adventures of mythic heroes. The crafty, vulgar fool Karagoz was especially popular among the people of Jerusalem, young and old.
He was rude, rough-spoken and knew well that he was a fool– his jokes were not only directed at others but also at his own stupidity.
In the words of the Arabic literature professor, Mas’ud Hamdan, Karagoz was “a fool with a high degree of self-consciousness.” On stage, Karagoz’s constant companion is an arrogant, cold-hearted puppet named ‘Aiwaz who is always trying to “refine” Karagoz, a thankless task at which he is doomed to fail. During the fast of Ramadan, shadow puppet shows were traditionally presented twice a night, and local puppeteers competed with visiting performers from other Arab cities.
But at the beginning of the twentieth century, as theater performances in the Western style began to develop and cinema began to spread, scenes like these became less and less common. “The theater silenced the storyteller” says Serene Huleileh, a Palestinian cultural activist who works to revive the art of the hakawati.
Hamlet in Gaza
In 1911, Hamlet stepped onto the stage for his first ever performance in Gaza. At the time, many of the plays that were performed were translated works originally written in English or French and most theater in Palestine was non-professional and amateur. Influenced by the Arab cultural revival (al-Nahda) of the time, and especially the Egyptian cultural scene, an interest in Western style theatre began to emerge. In Jerusalem and Haifa, young poets, writers and dramatists were invited to read their works in literary salons.
And when Palestine’s first radio station began broadcasting in 1936, the director of the station’s Arabic programs, the famed poet Ibrahim Touqan, encouraged playwrights and actors to perform their work on air. The first play to be broadcast on the Palestinian Broadcasting Station was an interpretation of the story of Samson and Delilah written by the Jerusalemite playwright Nasri al-Jawzi.
The first actresses
Long before the rise of the theater, the women of Palestine were experienced storytellers who recited tales to each other and to children, but only in the private spaces of their homes. But as theater performances became more popular, a number of pioneering women started to perform in public as theater actresses.
Because actresses were few and far between, female characters in translated plays were often converted to male characters or else they were portrayed by men dressed and made-up as women. According to the playwright Nasri al-Jawzi, the biggest obstacle faced by theater troupes at the time was “finding an educated, well-mannered girl who would agree – whose family would accept that she – get on stage and act out the romantic roles required by the theater.” Things became easier in the mid-1930s, after the Palestinian Broadcasting Station was established, because women actresses did not have to appear before a live audience and could use stage names instead of their real names.
One of the earliest actresses was an unnamed Argentinian woman of Arab descent who spoke Arabic with a heavy foreign accent. Al-Jawzi also tells the story of an actress who took on a role of the romantic heroine in a play during the early 1930s. During rehearsals, whenever the male lead would approach her to declare his love, she would tell him not to come any closer and warn him that there would not be any kissing. On the evening of the performance – in a theater packed with people – when her love interest walked towards her on stage, she unexpectedly yelled “Don’t come closer, there won’t be any kissing!” And from the dark rows of the audience, a man yelled out “It’ll be left until later!” since the male lead was – in fact – her real life fiancée.
Does it matter where you tell a story? If you perform it on the radio, or recite it in the street on a warm Ramadan night? The demise of popular storytelling culture and development of formalized theater in Palestine is often presented as progress, a development from naïve folk art to sophisticated high art. This is a view taken by many, from Israeli academics who study Palestinian theater such as Reuven Snir to Palestinian dramatists such as Nasri al-Jawzi.“It shows us another level of freedom and creativity. The storyteller doesn’t have to have a stage, or knowledge of Western art, or even props. Sometimes he only has his presence.”
But not everyone agrees. Samar Dudin is a theater director who sees the old forms of storytelling as much more than a mere performance of folktales. “This type of storytelling is based on improvisation” she says, adding that “It shows us another level of freedom and creativity. The storyteller doesn’t have to have a stage, or knowledge of Western art, or even props. Sometimes he only has his presence.” To her what was special about the hakawati was his freedom, the lack of restrictions on how he tells his story. Because of this, she sees these storytellers as existing outside the confines of society’s moral values and of political power structures.
“It shows us another level of freedom and creativity. The storyteller doesn’t have to have a stage, or knowledge of Western art, or even props. Sometimes he only has his presence.”
In the words of the cultural activist Serene Huleileh, “There is something democratic about storytelling. The hakawati is free. He can go anywhere and speak to whomever.” She adds, “Anyone can tell stories. You don’t need a degree, or approval from the censor to tell your story.” Huleileh points out that in the storytelling tradition the audience plays an important role when they interact with the hakawati, unlike in traditional Western theater where the audience is passive. It is only in more contemporary, experimental forms of Western theater that audience involvement and improvisation have emerged as important.
“They say theater is the father of the arts” Serene Huleileh tells us, “but storytelling is the mother of the theater.”
- Snir, Reuven. “Palestinian theatre: Historical development and contemporary distinctive identity.” Contemporary Theatre Review 3, no. 2, 1995, pp. 29-73.
- Hamdan, Mas’ud. Poetics, Politics and Protest in Arab Theatre: The Bitter Cup and the Holy Rain. Sussex, Sussex Academic Press, 2006.
- Snir, “Palestinian theatre,” pp. 29-73.
- Hamdan. Poetics, Politics and Protest in Arab Theatre.
- Snir, “Palestinian theatre.”
- Hamdan. Poetics, Politics and Protest in Arab Theatre.
- Samar Dudin and Serene Huleileh. Interview by Thoraya El Rayyes, Amman (2015), sound recording.
- Al-Jawzi, Nasri. Tarikh al-Masrah al-Filastini, 1918-1948 [The history of Palestinian theatre, 1918-1948 ]. Cyprus, Sharq Press: 1990..
- Snir, “Palestinian theatre.”
- Samar Dudin and Serene Huleileh. Interview by Thoraya El Rayyes, Amman (2015), sound recording.
- Snir, “Palestinian theatre.”
- Al-Jawzi. The history of Palestinian theatre.
On the orders of Menachem Begin, who was the head of the Zionist gang “Irgun”, the Zionist gand “Haganah” paid 70,000 pounds to the “Etzel” gang to carry out the mission of bombing the southern section of the hotel, where the Civil Administration of the British Mandate government was located.
The operation was carried out on July 22, 1946, in which 101 people were killed in the bombing. It was a response from the Jews to the Mandate government’s restriction of Jewish immigration to Palestine and their delay in fulfilling their promise to establish a national home for them in it. This terrorist operation was one of hundreds of operations carried out by Zionist gangs against the British, such as assassinations police leaders and bombing cafes and clubs where British families are located, to pressure them to withdraw from Palestine and declare the state of the