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.
Hilma Granqvist during the harvest (PEF archive).
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.
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 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)
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…
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.