The Stonemasons of Beit Jala: Making the Stones Speak

By Dan Koski

[part 2 of 2]

Fawzy Nastas of Beit Jala is one of the most prolific stone sculptors in the West Bank. Having first learned his trade as an apprentice to his father during the renovation of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the 1960s, he is the third stonemason within four generations (his grandfather having fled the country due to mass conscriptions into the Ottoman Army). Fawzy speaks English with a soft Italian accent; a remnant of the many years in which he studied stonemasonry in Italy. His workshop is witness to over five decades of consistent work in the Holy Land and abroad; commemorative grave markers for the Christian deceased, a veritable iconostasis of stone icons for residential and commercial homes, life-sculptures of national, civic and religious figures ranging from the Virgin Mary to Palestinian civic and national leaders (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1: Beit Jala stone sculptor Fawzy Nastas in his workshop (photo by D. Koski).

His commissions both sacred and secular can be found across the Holy Land. Some have suffered the fate of continual conflict in the nation; an enormous statue of Christ was vandalized by sectarian extremists while in a studio in Jerusalem; another statue of the Palestinian national leader Abd al-Qadr Al-Husseini, commissioned by a West Bank university, was decapitated by Islamic fundamentalists who objected to the life-sized imagery being so prominently placed (a copy was made and the original, now restored, stands sentinel in front of the Nastas family home) (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2: Samples of stone icons for sale in Fawzy’s workshop, traditionally placed above the front door of Palestinian Christian homes and businesses (photo by D. Koski).

No mere artisan, Fawzy holds a doctorate degree from the Academy of Fine Art in Brera, Milano, and is frequently called to lecture on and represent Palestinian stonemasons and artists in conferences and exhibitions across the country. His knowledge of the history of the craft extends to delightful folk stories, such as an oft-repeated legend of one of the first well-known stonemasons of Beit Jala, Jabra Saba, who while working on the Jacir family home of Bethlehem (now the Jacir Palace) kept pestering the French architect for his next assignment at the building project. The architect, tired of the conversation, eventually blurted out a command: “go make a monkey!” – a task which the eager artisan eagerly set himself to and promptly displayed his finished work to the exasperated architect some time later.

Other legends of the works of Beit Jala stonecutters take on a darker side; for as with many other places where grand homes and buildings from eras past are part of local history, stories of haunted houses occasionally surface.  The afore-mentioned Salah house of Beit Jala, now past its prime, plays the part of the haunted house in many children’s neighborhood games and stories, while a long-standing story of a boy who once visited the Jacir Palace described meeting a man in outdated clothes – and then identified him from a mural portrait of the original owner, long since deceased (Fig. 3).

Fig. 3: The Judah Salah Family home of Beit Jala, considered one of the finest examples of Beit Jala stonework (photo by D. Koski).

A Future?

Now reaching his sixth decade of stonemasonry, Fawzy continues to work exclusively with his hands, and also teaches stone masonry. Like many other artisans in related fields, he is wary of the future of his craft.

“They use robotics and computers,” Fawzy says, speaking of the new generation of stone sculptors in general. “They don’t know how to draw, and they can’t finish (the fine-detailing) of their work. There are people who come to me with offers to work on projects with computers, but I refuse. To work on art, it must be done by hand. Almost every year, I am going to symposiums across the world for art, to represent Palestine. The question is, why are they choosing me? It is because, in my opinion, I am working by hand.”

Will stonemasonry in Beit Jala survive this century? With an exception of a few artistically-inclined souls, the younger men of Beit Jala do not see stone sculpting as a viable future. Today, Beit Jala is better known for its disproportionate number of doctors, engineers, and academics, for another legacy of Beit Jala’s proximity to Jerusalem and Bethlehem has been access to private schools, missionary organizations and civil society organizations that continue to open doors to higher education in Palestine and abroad. With an exception of a few artistically-inclined souls, the younger men of Beit Jala do not see stone sculpting as a viable future.

While taking photos of decorative lintels and stone icons. I came across a construction site near the city centre. A skeletal frame of a new building using more expensive stone dressing is going up, and while not even the exterior walls of the first floor have been completed, a large stone icon of Saint George slaying the dragon (Fig. 4), complete with a blessing and an inscription of the year in which the foundation of the structure was laid, has been placed at the upper center of the street entrance.

Fig. 4: Stone icons of Saint George, patron of Palestine, Christ, and other Christian figures, created by Fawzy Nastas (photo by D. Koski).

The smooth polished stone face of Saint George, untarnished as of yet by exhaust fumes and the intensity of the Palestine sun, looks on over the old city of Beit Jala and towards Jerusalem.

 

 

 

 

Dan Koski is a long-term resident of Beit Jala, and can be reached at dankoski1979@gmail.com. A special thank you to Faten Nastas Mitwasi, artist, Chairwoman of the Visual Arts Department of Dar Al-Kalima College and daughter of Fawzy Nastas, who is preparing a book on Palestinian stonemasonry.

A Day in Jerusalem

By Charlotte Kelsted

In April 2018, a generous travel grant from the Palestine Exploration Fund allowed me to carry out an introductory research trip to Palestine. My research explores the attitudes and experiences of British women (colonial wives, missionaries, teachers, nurses and others) who resided in Palestine during the British Mandate (1920-1948), focusing specifically on encounters between these British women and local Palestinian Arab and Jewish communities. I started my PhD seven months ago, and this research trip has undoubtedly been the highlight of my doctoral study thus far.

After arriving into Tel Aviv late in the evening, I spent the first night of my trip at the charming Kenyon Institute in East Jerusalem. The Kenyon Institute, formerly the British School of Archaeology at Jerusalem (BSAJ), was established during the British military administration of Palestine in 1919, as result of a joint effort by the Palestine Exploration Fund, the British Academy and the Foreign Office. The library at the Kenyon Institute contains over 10,000 volumes on the Middle East and is particularly rich in material relating to Mandate Palestine.

Next to the Kenyon Institute is Dar Issaf Nashashibi, an inspiring archive and library devoted to promoting Palestinian cultural heritage. Dar Issaf Nashashibi was my first stop in Jerusalem and I was fortunate to meet Dua, Head Librarian, who was exceptionally helpful. From the top of Dar Issaf Nashashibi one can see Mount Scopus and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (Fig. 1). Founded in 1918 and inaugurated under the British Mandate, the Hebrew University has rapidly expanded since the early twentieth century: with 270 students in 1934, in 2017 there were 23,000 students registered at the university.

Fig. 1: Mount Scopus and Hebrew University of Jerusalem (photo by C. Kelsted).

 

Next I visited the Mount of Olives to see the Dome of the Rock in all its splendour. This iconic shrine dominates the Jerusalem landscape and as the golden dome sparkled in the midday sun, the adhan from Al-Aqsa Mosque drifted up the Mount of Olives. Setting eyes on this view for the first time was a stirring moment for me, having gazed longingly at a photograph of this view from my desk in Exeter for several months prior to the trip (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2: The Dome of the Rock seen from Mount of Olives (photo by C. Kelsted).

Back in the heart of this remarkable city in the afternoon, I entered the Old City for the first time through Damascus Gate. The atmosphere that greeted me was intoxicating: narrow passageways full to bursting with fervent tourists, locals expertly weaving in and out of the crowds as they attempt to carry out their daily business, clamorous shopkeepers and street vendors selling their wares, young men speeding through the ancient, cobbled streets on motorbikes, popping up behind you without a moment’s warning and the intoxicating smell of cinnamon and other aromatic herbs and spices emanating from the souq.

Escaping the intensity of the Old City, I roamed along the ramparts from Jaffa Gate to Damascus Gate and onwards, finally reaching the Spafford’s Children Centre. I had first heard the moving story of this centre from The Right Honourable Lady Cope of Berkeley at a Remembrance Service for the British Palestine Police in November 2017, and had been looking forward to visiting ever since.

The Spafford’s Children Centre was founded by Bertha Spafford Vester – an ancestor of the Rt Hon. Lady Cope, a patron of the British Palestine Police Association – in 1925 (Fig. 3 – Special thanks to Rachel Lev at the American Colony Archives, for kindly supplying this image).

Fig. 3: Mothers, nurses and children, Anna Spafford Baby Home (today the Spafford Children’s Centre), 1925 – 1934; part of Members and Activities of the American Colony and Aid Projects, 1926 – 1937 (courtesy of American Colony Archive, Jerusalem).

Bertha’s parents, Horatio and Anna Spafford were pious Christians who moved to the Holy Land in 1881 following the loss of four of their children at sea and another to scarlet fever. On arrival in the Holy Land, Horatio and Anna Spafford founded the American Colony and embarked on a project of philanthropic work to benefit all sections of Jerusalem’s population. In 1925, inspired by the work of her parents, Bertha established the Spafford Baby Home (now the Spafford Children’s Centre). To this day, the centre aims to assist all children and families in need of support, regardless of race or religion.

In the early evening I left the Old City and headed northwards, back to the Kenyon Institute in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood. On the way I came across St George’s Cathedral (Fig. 4).

Fig. 4: Façade of Saint George’s Cathedral (photo by C. Kelsted).

This cathedral was built in the late nineteenth century under the instruction of George Blyth, who had founded the Jerusalem and East Mission (now the Jerusalem and the Middle East Church Association) in 1888. This charming cathedral was the principal Anglican place of worship in the Palestine during the Mandate and thus a focal point for the British community between 1920 and 1948. Taking a moment to envision the British colonial wives, missionaries, teachers, nurses and others who would have congregated at this cathedral – several of whom taught at the adjoining school and college – was the perfect way to end my first day in Jerusalem.

War in the Holy Lands

Guest post by Briar Barry

We’d hear a heavy smack and know a horse had been hit. Mostly they were hit through the stomach and would just shake themselves a little. The owner would take the saddle off immediately, for it was always a mortal wound. The horse would nose around among his mates, shake himself, and five minutes later roll on the sand. It was the beginning of the end.”

Captain Arthur Rhodes, New Zealand Mounted Rifle Brigade, World War 1

War in the Holy Lands, a new temporary exhibition about New Zealanders’ First World War experiences in the Middle East, is now playing as part of The Great War Exhibition in Wellington, New Zealand. The show is fourth in a series of six created by Story Inc and Dusk, and funded by the Lottery Grants Board, with the intention of telling some of the lesser-known New Zealand stories of the First World War. The exhibit uses six big projection screens and an immersive audio environment to create a powerful visitor experience out of still imagery and first-hand verbatim accounts of soldiers’ experiences.

A talented photographer, Arthur Rhodes captured his experiences during the Beersheba Campaign in Sinai and Palestine on film. The Palestine Exploration Fund of London kindly provided some of the photographs which feature in the show.

Guns drawn up for inspection, a photograph by Captain Arthur Rhodes which features in War in the Holy Lands. PEF/P/RHODES/29, Palestine Exploration Fund, London.

The story of New Zealand’s war in the Middle East is often overlooked. It doesn’t fit with the traditional image of World War 1 – the mud and trenches of the Western Front. Some soldiers at the time shared this view, feeling that they were missing out on the ‘real war.’ A few people back home agreed, seeing them as ‘tourists in uniform’ having an easy time of it in the sun-drenched Middle East. But while the casualty rate was certainly lower than on the Western Front, the Sinai and Palestine campaigns were hardly a holiday. The men faced fierce battles, hordes of flies, extreme temperatures, and rampant malaria. In total 17,723 New Zealanders served in the Middle East. Of them, 640 were killed in action and 1,146 wounded.

The ‘Mounteds’ gained a formidable reputation as fighters and became known by Ottoman troops as “devils on horses”. They would often ride through the night, taking the enemy by surprise at dawn. But it was not all glory. At the end of the war, one of the most shameful events in New Zealand’s military history occurred: a massacre of civilians, in which some New Zealand soldiers played a prominent part, in the Palestinian village of Surafend. Of course there are no photographs or images connected with the event. Instead, a ghostly series of animated “shadowplay” silhouettes hinting at the violence are projected into an otherwise completely black room.

Behind the scenes of the Story Inc and Dusk “shadowplay” shoot. Photo by Story Inc.

Other moments that pack an emotional punch in War in the Holy Lands come from the stories about the bonds between the men and their horses. The open spaces in the Middle East made this a mobile war. The connection between animal and rider was strong, and only made stronger on the battlefield where horses even acted as shields by lying down on the sand so the men could fire over the top of them. However, New Zealand’s strict quarantine policy and a shortage of transport meant that the horses who survived the war could not come home. In the Middle East they were either declared unfit and shot, sold locally, or kept by the occupying British Army. Many troopers, worried about how their horse would be treated if it was sold, made the heart-wrenching decision to shoot their own animal after having them declared unfit. Trooper Ted Andrews described the task,

It was the saddest day of the war…. Each man had to hold two horses, and it was the most sickening job I had… It seemed awfully sad that these poor old faithful creatures, after suffering from thirst, hunger and fatigue and carrying heavy loads for hundreds of miles, should have to end their days being shot down by the very people they had so faithfully served…”

A New Zealand soldier shoots a wounded horse. National Army Museum of New Zealand.

War in the Holy Lands is running from 13 December 2017 until 20 February 2018. Thank you once again to the Palestine Exploration Fund for access to, and permission to use images from their collection.

Visitors watch War in the Holy Lands. Photo by Story Inc.

Miscellanea of Duncan Mackenzie

By Sarah Irving

This summer, a travel grant from the Palestine Exploration Fund allowed me to spend some time in London, rifling through the PEF’s archives for traces of Yusif ‘Abu Selim’ Khazin and Yusif Khattar Kanaan, two Lebanese Christian overseers who, between 1890 and World War One, worked on the Fund’s excavations.

My primary interest, and the focus of this piece of research, is the role of Arabs working on archaeological digs in Palestine in the Late Ottoman period. The standard view of the archaeology of this period tends to focus on a single (white, educated, male) leader who makes pioneering discoveries and to whom all credit for a dig accrues. As future publications emerging from this research will show, this image often does not hold up under scrutiny of the daily records and personal writings of excavators and their staff and visitors. I think that the two Yusifs – as well as many other non-Westerners who contributed to British, American, German and French archaeological digs in the Holy Land pre-WWI – were actually important figures, not only in the practical, day-to-day running of the excavations, but also at times in how finds were understood and interpreted.

One part of my approach to this issue has been to look at the networks of contact and knowledge exchange which happened, not only in formal, academic settings but also in informal environments. Much of my focus has been on the writings and activities of Frederick J. Bliss and R.A.S. Macalister, as the two longest-serving PEF excavation leaders at the time. In this blog, though, I want to show a couple of small, rather peripheral, but also quite fascinating and indicative objects which emerged from the archives.

The first is a pair of calling-cards found in a wallet belonging to Duncan Mackenzie. Mackenzie was a Scottish archaeologist, best-known for his work with Sir Arthur Evans at Knossos in Crete. After Macalister’s resignation from the PEF to take up his chair at University College Dublin in 1909. Although Mackenzie had a reputation as a brilliant field archaeologist, he was also a difficult character; in a 1996 article for Palestine Exploration Quarterly, Nicoletta Momigliano described his time at the Fund’s Ain Shams dig as one of “conflicting interests and expectations, of misunderstandings and self-delusions, of wounded pride and dysentery. It is not a ‘success’ story”.

Calling-cards bestowed on Mackenzie by Boulus Said of “The Palestine Educational Store, Jaffa Road” and Gustaf Dalman, styling him “Rector of the German Archaeological Institute, Consul to His Majesty the King of the Swedes, Goths and Wends, and to the King of Denmark”. (PEF-DA-MACK-313.01 – 03)

Calling-cards bestowed on Mackenzie by Boulus Said of “The Palestine Educational Store, Jaffa Road” and Gustaf Dalman, styling him “Rector of the German Archaeological Institute, Consul to His Majesty the King of the Swedes, Goths and Wends, and to the King of Denmark”. (PEF-DA-MACK-313.01 – 03)

The calling-cards reflect, however, a different aspect of Mackenzie’s time in Palestine, his interactions with the intellectual and social milieu of Late Ottoman Jerusalem. Jerusalem is often painted a somewhat of a backwater, especially in contrast with Cairo and Beirut, the thriving centres of the Arabic Nahda, or renaissance. But the city saw much coming-and-going of Western scholars, missionaries, diplomats and businessmen, as well as a more stable population of local Arabs and Jews engaged in thinking, writing, studying and publishing. Mackenzie met many people from each of these overlapping social worlds, as these cards demonstrate.

The first was given to him by Boulus Said. Boulus owned the Palestine Educational Bookshop (the precursor to the Educational Bookshop on Salah Eddin Street, beloved of many visitors to present-day Jerusalem).  In his study of Palestinian books and literacy Reading Palestine, Ami Ayalon estimates that Boulus Said founded the bookshop around 1910 – so when he handed Duncan Mackenzie this card he had only recently set up his store. Later, on his return from the USA, Boulus’ cousin Wadie (later William) joined the business and established a branch in Cairo; Wadie is probably best-known as father of the great Palestinian scholar Edward Said.

The Palestine Educational Bookshop was not only one of the first bookstores and stationers in the country. It was also a publisher, and the company name appears on many works from the Mandate era, in both Arabic and English. A rival Jerusalem bookshop, the Andalus, advertised the fact that it could source books from Cairo within 24 hours, ordering via telegraph and receiving them through the railway which passed through Gaza and Jaffa to arrive in Jerusalem; there seems little reason why the Educational, with its Cairo branch, could not have performed similar feats. Certainly newspaper adverts highlight its range of international titles.

The presence of a calling-card from Boulus Said in Mackenzie’s wallet, therefore, represents a beginning – an early moment in the development of a significant cultural and intellectual phenomenon in pre-1948 Jerusalem, and the linkage of that moment to some of the most important figures in twentieth-century Palestinian history. The second calling-card, though, represents something more like an ending. It came from Gustaf Dalman, a German Orientalist, theologian and ethnographer.

In the 1890s and 1910s Dalman had lived and worked in Palestine (he also, early in his career, applied to become a Free Church of Scotland missionary there), and published major works on, in particular, the Aramaic language, Hebrew theology, and Christianity. At this point in time, German researchers were producing some of the most important scholarship on both contemporary and historic Palestine, and Dalman was foremost amongst them. But soon after Mackenzie left Palestine in 1913, WWI saw German influence in the Middle East (via its ally, the Ottoman Empire), collapse.

The American archaeologist WF Albright recorded just after the war that Dalman had returned to Jerusalem, but that his rivals amongst the British and French scholars in the city were trying to have his passport revoked. The portrait Albright’s letters paint of Dalman is of a rather sad and isolated figure. Mackenzie’s collection of cards, therefore, bears witness not only to the rise of a distinctive Palestinian literary and social milieu with Boulus Said, but also to the decline of Germany’s heyday in the Ottoman-ruled Holy Land.

Caption: A well-travelled envelope carrying a letter to Duncan Mackenzie, via Cairo, Wadi Halfa and back to Alexandria. (PEF/DA/MACK300)

Caption: A well-travelled envelope carrying a letter to Duncan Mackenzie, via Cairo, Wadi Halfa and back to Alexandria. (PEF/DA/MACK300)

Caption: Reverse side of the envelope showing further stamps. (PEF/DA/MACK300)

Caption: Reverse side of the envelope showing further stamps. (PEF/DA/MACK300)

The final small item also represents an ending, although on lesser scale. A little envelope, addressed to Mackenzie (care of the Thomas Cook travel agency), it is liberally covered with the stamps of postal offices stretching from Alexandria, via Cairo and Wadi Halfa, to Khartoum, and finally stamped ‘Unclaimed’. All date from 1913, and show it to be a remnant of the PEF’s attempts to contact Mackenzie during his employment on a dig in Sudan that year.

By this time he was embroiled in an acrimonious dispute with the Fund over the terms under which his employment had been terminated and his failure to deliver excavation reports from Ain Shams. The envelope – which presumably did reach Mackenzie, since it appears in the archive, or else was returned to its sender – highlights the efficiency of the Egyptian postal service in this era, and the reach of the British imperial administration. But with its array of postmarks and fruitless journey across North Africa, it also seems to echo the missed opportunities and miscommunications that marked the PEF’s relationship with this brilliant, troubled, unconventional man.

Further Reading:

Ayalon, A. 2004. Reading Palestine. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Momigliano, N. 1996.  Duncan Mackenzie and the Palestine Exploration Fund. Palestine Exploration Quarterly 128 (1): 139-170

Said, E. 2000. Out of Place: A Memoir. London: Granta.

The Disappearing Art of Palestine’s Traditional Tiles

by Mary Pelletier (PEF Volunteer)

Stepping into the Aslan Tiles workshop is sort of like stepping back in time. Just off a busy street in downtown Nablus, a short driveway opens into a kaleidoscopic work-yard, and colourfully patterned tiles decorate every wall, floor, and step – it’s almost like walking into a fun house. Here, the Aslan family operates the last traditional tile factory in the West Bank, helping to preserve a unique Palestinian craft.

I recently had the opportunity to visit Aslan Tiles with a couple of other journalists, interested in seeing how this small-scale business operates under the occupation, and how exactly these tiles get made. Anan Aslan, the company’s welcoming, middle-aged manager, greeted us and showed us around the workshop where everything, from the tools to the employees, is covered in a fine layer of cement dust.

It’s a small set-up, with three outbuildings and seven employees, including Anan and his father Jalal, who recently handed over the management to his son. For much of the time we were there, Jalal kept a watchful and fatherly eye over the two youngest tile-makers, Luay and Omar, who are both in their teens.

Luay and Omar, the youngest tile-makers at Aslan Tiles, work across from one another, sharing a stencil and tile press. (Mary Pelleter/Al Jazeera).

Luay and Omar, the youngest tile-makers at Aslan Tiles, work across from one another, sharing a stencil and tile press. (Mary Pelleter/Al Jazeera)

The two young men stood across from one another, taking turns using a large, hand-cranked tile press that was imported from Avignon decades ago. This is the kind of machinery that the family has used since starting the business in the 1930s. Over the years, the business moved from its original location in Jaffa to Acre, and then to Nablus’ Old City before settling into their present location, but the tile production methods have remained the same.

The exterior of Aslan Tiles is awash with colour - every surface acts as an advertisement for the company's handiwork. (Mary Pelletier/ Al Jazeera).

The exterior of Aslan Tiles is awash with colour – every surface acts as an advertisement for the company’s handiwork. (Mary Pelletier/ Al Jazeera)

Luay and Omar each clean a copper-based mould, and then set an intricate stencil inside its frame. They have a set of old, caked pigment cans beside them, and using a small paint-ladel, fill the stencil sections with quick precision. The stencil is carefully removed, and the watery pigment is covered with ground cement – first a layer of fine dust, followed by a chunkier, wetter variety. The mould is placed beneath the press and after only a few seconds, the finished tile emerges.

Luay and Omar are working on the same design, and each of them will complete between 120 and 150 tiles per day. Across the way, Thaer and Abu Walid are working on two other designs, and work even quicker than the young boys. Abu Walid has certainly had the practice – he’s been working for the Aslan family since 1947, and inspects each tile he produces with a quiet seriousness.

After cleaning the copper base of his tile mould, Thaer begins the tile-making process by pouring a light blue pigment into segments of his stencil. (Mary Pelletier/Al Jazeera).

After cleaning the copper base of his tile mould, Thaer begins the tile-making process by pouring a light blue pigment into segments of his stencil. (Mary Pelletier/Al Jazeera)

After trying my hand at pouring a tile design (which needed a deft paintbrush touch-up from Thaer), we made our way to the third building on site, the office. Anan led us to a room where combinations of mosaics made up the walls, and tile stencils were everywhere – hanging from the walls, overflowing from a massive cabinet, even hanging off a light over the bathroom sink. There are over 700 designs, and customers can choose any colour patterns they like. As we tried to learn some of their names – Pigeon’s Egg, The Egyptian Rose, Upside-down Chessboard – we were treated to a surprise delivery of local knafeh from Jalal, who made sure we knew that Nablus knafeh is the best you can find.

Luay proudly holds up a completed tile. (Mary Pelletier)

Luay proudly holds up a completed tile. (Mary Pelletier)

Anan explained that, with the rise of inexpensive, mass-produced tiles in the 1980s and 1990s, the demand for local tiles waned, and local producers around the West Bank disappeared. But for the past ten years, they have seen a renewed interest in their locally-made, bespoke product. “In the last 10 years, there has been a growing appreciation of this product because people now feel like it is a tradition, a heritage, something that reminds them of their past and their roots,” he said. “It used to be a necessity and people liked its durability, but now it is seen as more of a luxury. People want to enjoy this art.

A vast wall of stencils decorates the workshop's office, some dating back to the 1930s. (Mary Pelletier/Al Jazeera)

A vast wall of stencils decorates the workshop’s office, some dating back to the 1930s. (Mary Pelletier/Al Jazeera)

A link to my full photo story about Aslan Tiles on Al Jazeera English can be found here:

http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/inpictures/2016/02/enduring-art-palestinian-tiles-160210091638586.html

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).

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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…

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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.

To the Secretary, Palestine Exploration Fund

By Amara Thornton

The anniversary of the Great War is now in full swing. The PEF ceased formal excavations during the war, but an intriguing set of correspondence in the PEF’s office archives highlights how the Fund was viewed immediately after the conflict.

The correspondence in question is a series of letters addressed to the Secretary, Mr G L Ovenden. Most of them are from ex-servicemen enquiring about the potential for employment on projects in Palestine. The earliest dated letter in the series is from January 1919.

The former Ottoman Empire territory of Palestine was at that time under military occupation, with French and British controlled zones. The future of the region still hung in the balance. By the end of the Great War, the PEF had been active in Palestine for just over half a century (the PEF’s 50th anniversary was in 1915).  To the British public it would have been associated with archaeological exploration and excavation in the region.

A few key members of the PEF’s Committee were particularly interested in converting soldiers with first-hand experience serving in Palestine into subscribing members after the conflict. Perhaps these letters are evidence of the PEF’s subscription drive at work. They also reflect the difficulties ex-servicemen faced returning to everyday life in post-war Britain, and a yearning to return to Palestine to make a new start – particularly a Palestine under British administration.

Detail of a letter to the PEF from an ex-serviceman in London (PEF archive).

Detail of a letter to the PEF from an ex-serviceman in London (PEF archive).

Some of the soldiers writing into the PEF had served in the Egypt Expeditionary Force, and had been stationed in Palestine. Among the correspondents were men who served in the Yeomanry, 1st Kings Regiment, 3rd Battalion of the Cheshire Regiment, the Royal Air Force, and one man from the London Mounted Brigade Field Ambulance.

Londoners formed a significant proportion of correspondents. One, formerly of the Essex Regiment, Egypt Expeditionary Force, wrote:

Should your society have any position vacant likely to suit an ex soldier I shall be pleased to hear from you.

I have recently been demobilized after four years overseas in the Levant. I took part in the Gallipoli, the Sinai + the Palestine campaigns.

I am interested in history and speak fluently French + Spanish also some Portuguese + Arabic.

In pre war days I spent some considerable time in the Upper Amazon + took part in travelling expeditions in the Uroyali, Favony + also had charge of a store near Iquitos.

I have also been in Paraguay + in Bolivia where I was employed in the Accountants dept of railway companies in those countries. I am conversant with clerical work, book keeping etc. + am used to native labor, camel transport work. I could act as camp master, help to organise expeditions etc. …”

As far as I know, only one of the men writing to the PEF between 1919 and 1923 ended up working in archaeology in Palestine – J. Lee Warner from Cambridge. He became the first student at the British School of Archaeology in Jerusalem and then an Inspector in the Department of Antiquities.

I find these letters intriguing and poignant pieces of social history. Although they contribute little to the history of excavation, they speak volumes of post-war conditions and attitudes towards the Middle East – which emerges almost as a place of refuge for men who had returned ‘home’ from the trauma of war abroad.

The letters also help remind us that as much as the Fund is associated with excavations overseas – something that comes across clearly in these letters – it is also, for Londoners, a local institution.

Palestine Exploration Fund Museum, 2 Hinde Street

A selection of images from our archive showing the PEF museum on the upper floor of 2 Hinde Street.