In the footsteps of “Sitt Halima”

By Rosanna Sirignano

(Continued from “Introducing ‘Sitt Halima‘”)

Those who have women as informants are in a specially favourable position; the women are very much interested in their conditions and linger with pleasure over things which men glide over lightly.” (Granqvist 1931: 22)

Having obtained PEF support to go to Artas, I travelled there this October. After spending a couple of days in Jerusalem I left for Bethlehem together with my husband. Fadi Sanad, president of the Artas Folklore Center, welcomed us at Bab al-Zqaq from where we took a shared taxi to the village. He had arranged everything for us: the first two weeks we stayed in an apartment provided by Abu Sway family. Thanks to their hospitality and open mindedness we soon felt part of the community. The night we arrived women from Sanad family encouraged me to wear a traditional Palestinian dress and to attend a henna party.

En route to the henna party. Photo: R. Sirignano.

En route to the henna party. Photo: R. Sirignano.

Women dance with a basket full of sweets during a wedding. Photo: R. Sirignano.

Women dance with a basket full of sweets during a wedding. Photo: R. Sirignano.

A few days later Fadi´s younger brother got married. I had the privilege of getting involved in wedding preparation from the women’s side, while my husband enjoyed the atmosphere from the men side. When my husband left, I moved to Fadi Sanad´s mother´s place. She lived with three unmarried and beautiful daughters. Here my field work really began.

My research assistants were children from Abu Sway and Sanad family. They helped me to learn the local dialect and find my research participants, and they assisted me in doing the interviews.

I interviewed eleven women from 50 to 97 years old belonging to some of the families described in Granqvist´s work.

One of my research participants in her courtyard. Photo: R. Sirignano

One of my research participants in her courtyard. Photo: R. Sirignano

An old Artas women during the olives harvest. Photo: R. Sirignano

An old Artas women during the olives harvest. Photo: R. Sirignano.

I explained frankly the purpose of my research to all my participants at the beginning of the interview process. They had a similar attitude toward wailing songs (in Arabic tanāwiḥ) and they didn’t feel comfortable speaking about it because they considered it sinful (ḥarām) and shameful (cēb). It seems that the Prophet Muhammad recommended to not express grief with loud wailing, beating one´s chest or cheeks, tearing off the clothes etc.

While my participants had never sung or wailed during a funeral, they have seen this practice at least once. Because of contrasting information they gave it was difficult to establish how common the practice had been and when exactly it disappeared. Some women preferred referring to wailing as a very old and uncommon practice in Artas. Some others admitted that it was a common practice which disappeared only ten years ago.

I was a little bit discouraged, but I could not give up. I had to think up a way to complete my wailing songs mission. I thought: Why don’t I ask “Sitt Halima” and their patient collaborators for help?

Granqvist's house in Artas. Photo: R. Sirignano

Granqvist´s house in Artas. Photo: R. Sirignano

I began to show the women Granqvist´s collection of wailing songs in Arabic. Most of them were very happy to see that someone had recorded part of their cultural heritage so carefully. Although they recognized only one song, transcribed below, they quoted other songs that I have still to analyse.

ḥabībti w ana ḥabībtha

ištāk kalbi la zyāritha

yiṣcab calēyya yōm furkitha

 

She is my beloved and I am her beloved

My heart has pined for her visits

My heart suffered when I had to depart from her

(Granqvist 1965:199)

L. Baldensperger handwritten notes in Granqvist´s archive at the PEF. Photo: R. Sirignano.

L. Baldensperger handwritten notes in Granqvist´s archive at the PEF. Photo: R. Sirignano.

Haddad's notes with Granqvist's interlinear transcription (PEF archive). Photo: R. Sirignano.

Haddad’s notes with Granqvist’s interlinear transcription (PEF archive). Photo: R. Sirignano.

References/Further reading

Gamliel, Tova 2014. Aesthetics of Sorrow: The Wailing Culture of Yemenite Jewish Women. Wayne State University Press.

Granqvist, Hilma 1931. Marriage Conditions in a Palestinian Village, vol.I, Helsinki, Societas scientiarum fennica, commentationes humanarum litterarum.

Granqvist, Hilma 1965. Muslim Death and Burial: Arab Customs and Traditions Studied in a Village in Jordan, Helsinki, Societas Scientiarum Fennica, Commentationes Humanarum Litterarum.

Wickett, Elizabeth. 2010. For the Living and the Dead: The Funerary Laments of Upper Egypt, Ancient and Modern. I.B.Tauris.

 

Introducing “Sitt Halima”

By Rosanna Sirignano

“I needed to live among the people, hear them talk about themselves in Artas, make records while they spoke of their life, customs and ways of looking at things. For that reason I decided to remain in Palestine.” (Granqvist 1931: 2)

Hilma Granqvist (nicknamed ‘Sitt Halima’ in Palestine) was born in 1890 in Sipoo, in the UUsimaa region in the eastern neighbour of Helsinki. Her family were Swedish-speaking Finns, a minority ethnic group in Finland.

Picture 2

Hilma Granqvist during the harvest (PEF archive).

Picture 3

Between 1925 and 1931, she carried out a field research in the West Bank village of Artas. “Sitt Halima” soon became part of the community. Thanks to her work, Artas is the most well documented village in Palestine before 1948. Her five ethnographical monographs about marriage, childhood and burial customs, have a unique place in Palestinian studies because of the detailed descriptions of women´s lives under the British Mandate.

I am currently carrying out a PhD research at Heidelberg University on Hilma Granqvist´s Arabic field notes in Arabic. When I first discovered her biography during my BA dissertation, I was immediately fascinated. Her courage, perseverance, patience and stubbornness in the face of difficulties, marked her as a painstaking researcher, determined to achieve her goals.

The Palestine Exploration Fund now holds the material resulting from her field work, including more than a thousand papers containing the original Arabic version of the texts. In 2011 I visited the PEF and with the help of Felicity Cobbing and Ivona Lloyd-Jones I photographed all of Granqvist’s Arabic field notes. My MA research focused on the transcription and translation of texts about childhood.

Granqvist´s field notes in Arabic at the PEF.

Granqvist´s field notes in Arabic at the PEF.

Funded by the PEF, I have recently been investigating what are known as ‘wailing songs’ – performed by women lamenting and bewailing the deceased. These songs are a long-standing tradition in Israel\Palestine. We can find traces even in the Old Testament, for example, in Jeremiah 9:17-20 God calls mourning women to raise a lament over the besieged people of Judah (Granqvist 1965: 194). The practice of wailing can also be found in other part of the world.

Women in mourning (PEF archive).

Women in mourning (PEF archive).

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Women sing and distribute food (PEF archive).

For the PEF project I focused on songs performed at women´s death. These were dedicated to a stranger woman, a good wife, a good mother, a neighbour and friends (Granqvist 1965:199-201). Their contents recall some aspects of the deceased’s life, or express feelings of loss and sadness. In some cases women give a voice to the deceased, for example:

“The beloved ones passed me by

They have crossed the border of the country

They have gone far away from me” (Granqvist 1965: 201)

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Arabic original version of the song, PEF archive. Photo: R. Sirignano.

The file n.22 from Granqvist´s PEF archive contains different original Arabic version of the songs. Three people helped Granqvist in taking notes: Louise Baldensperger, Elias Haddad and Judy Farah Docmac. Each of them used a different system to reproduce the variety of Arabic spoken by Artas villagers. Sometimes it is very hard to interpret the text, and this is my main research problem: how could I reconstruct the musicality and rhythm of the songs to show their artistic value?

To be continued…

Picture 8

Artas landscape today. Photo: R. Sirignano.

References / Further reading

Claasens, L. Juliana M. 2010. Calling the Keeners: The Image of the Wailing Woman As Symbol of Survival in a Traumatized World. Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 26 (1): 63–77.

Granqvist, Hilma 1931. Marriage Conditions in a Palestinian Village, vol.I, Helsinki, Societas scientiarum fennica, commentationes humanarum litterarum.

Granqvist, Hilma 1935. Marriage Conditions in a Palestinian Village, vol.II, Helsinki, Societas scientiarum fennica, commentationes humanarum litterarum.

Granqvist, Hilma 1947. Birth and Childhood Among The Arabs. Studies in a Muhammadan village in Palestine, Helsingfors, Sӧderstrӧm & Co. Fӧrlagsaktiebolag.

Granqvist, Hilma 1950. Child Problems among the Arabs, Copenhagen, Munksgaard.

Granqvist, Hilma 1965. Muslim Death and Burial: Arab Customs and Traditions Studied in a Village in Jordan, Helsinki, Societas Scientiarum Fennica, Commentationes Humanarum Litterarum.

Naïli, Falestin 2007. L’oeuvre de Hilma Granqvist: L’Orient imaginaire confronté à la réalité d’un village palestinien, Revue d’Etudes Palestiniennes, 105, 74-84.

Seger, Karen (ed.) 1981. Portrait of a Palestinian village, the photographs of Hilma Granqvist, London, The Third World Centre for Research and Publishing.

Weir, Shelagh 1975. Hilma Granqvist and Her Contribution to Palestine Studies, Bulletin of the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies 2/ 1, 6-13.