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> Mai Masri Palestinian Filmmaker
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> Faida Daibes-Murad wins environmental prize in Sweden
> Milad Fatouleh: Palestinian Child Wins...
> Hisham Sharabi Ph.D. 1927 – 2005
> Daniel Zoughbie: Global Micro-Clinic Founder
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> Julia Dabdoub, Bethlehem
> Interview with Mitri Raheb: Recounting ordinary stories
> Musa Sanad - by Leyla Zuaiter
|Interview with Mitri Raheb: Recounting ordinary stories
Toine Van Teeffelen
The following is an old interview with Mitri Raheb, reverend at the Christmas Church in Bethlehem, which is interesting for Palestine-Family.Net because of its emphasis upon the need for Palestinians to revive old stories, songs, and other cultural items.
Source: The Jerusalem Times, October 17, 1997. Interview taken by Toine van Teeffelen
Mitri Raheb was born in Bethlehem out of an old Bethlehem family. He studied theology in Germany and took there his doctoral thesis on the history of the Protestant churches in Palestine during the 19th and the 20th century. Since 1987 he is pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church in Bethlehem and director of the International Center in Bethlehem. Apart from being engaged in interfaith dialogues on cultural issues, he is involved in the development of what is called contextual theology, an approach in which the religious meaning of the Bible is clarified by studying the social context from which Biblical stories emerged.
What is the place of story-telling in Palestinian society?
Story-telling is a dying technique, and also the contents of the stories are disappearing. This has to do with the changes in our society. Story-telling was an important, meaningful aspect of Palestinian peasant life. In fact, many of the old Christian and Jewish feasts are nothing but old Palestinian Canaanite feasts. For instance, the Thanksgiving feast which we have today in the Protestant churches and elsewhere is actually a Canaanite feast. During the Canaanite period the peasants used to go out to their field where they had small towers from which they watched their olives or grapes during harvest time. They would live there for weeks. Imagine a valley with perhaps a hundred families and a hundred watch towers. During the evening, after a day of hard work, all these families and their children would come together, having a bonfire and Arabic coffee. Then the elderly people would start telling stories and singing folk songs. These celebrations had a religious meaning. In this way the idea of Thanksgiving came into being.
Story-telling was an important Palestinian practice even during pre-Jewish and pre-Islamic times. The Old Testament and the four Gospels are nothing but narratives. Those narratives didn't come from heaven but were transmitted from one generation to the next long before they were written down. Some parts of the Bible, like Deuteronomium, suggest that when your child asks you about your identity, you would answer by telling a story about your ancestor, for instance Abraham; that he was Aramaic, came from Ur, and so on. People did not respond to such a question in an analytic way like now. Narratives were very much alive; they stayed from the beginning till the end as they were.
This culture of the Palestinian peasant has been thoroughly destroyed, especially after 1967, when the agricultural infrastructure of Palestine was left to die. This was the first big hit. Many people went to work as labourers in Israel, and slowly the whole pattern of life changed. The second hit came in the wake of the recent peace agreements. We now see a diffusion of the free market society so quickly and so violently that many people don't even have access to it. The social infrastructure does not provide a safety net. People now often have to work 14 or 16 hours a day in order to survive. So there is no time for story-telling. Simultaneously we have the arrival of satellite TV with its many channels, each trying to tell you different stories. The old stories have become useless.
Story-telling was important because it was a dialogue between the generations, it created a bridge. It was very communicative and community-based. But now when people watch television they do it separately, so there is actually no community, the community is destroyed. And this is for me linked with the free market society. The atmosphere is one of interest-seeking, competition, getting one's money, becoming richer, getting a bigger car. I think that we are now one of the most competitive societies in the world. This is only a recent development. During the Intifadah, people had hope, they had their stories and they were proud of their stories. What is happening now is that one's hope and identity and pride is being lost.
I think it is now our biggest challenge how to re-write and retell our stories. I still remember that my grandmother and mother always used to tell me stories. I now try very hard to tell my children at least twice, three times a week some stories; Palestinian stories, stories of the Bible, stories from life. But it needs a real effort. However, our children still keep loving stories. In the afternoon they like to tell each other the stories of the day.
What is the genuine identity of Bethlehem?
I give you an example. Presently we bother only about opening a Hamburger cafetaria and a Pizza Hut. But why not open some other places where we have our own genuine food? Such places have all but diaappeared. We perhaps need a place with old Bethlehem music and a story-teller. In the whole Arab world I think there is only one such place, in Syria. Another example is a street cafe where people can, for instance, smoke the nargilah [Arab waterpipe]. In Europe you have such cafes too. It is actually part of our heritage. Why not try to re-activate this part of our history? It is not a return but rather a revival. Many people think that our identity is a closed one; that we just need to go back to our history. I don't believe there is a way back. We have to move forward without neglecting our history.
Part of having a genuine identity is getting engaged in contact and dialogue with other cultures. Not necessarily cultures which are sophisticated in the Western sense. It is important to listen to stories of Japanese people, South African stories of suffering and hope, stories from Ethiopia. Through such stories we can look at ourselves in new lights. We can actually re-activate history through such dialogues. All peoples have something specific. You learn about that in dialogue. You also learn more about yourself if you don't shut the doors to the outside world. In fact, you can only be yourself if you listen to others.
Palestinians are used to tell their story but we are not giving a lot of attention to what others have to say. We are a people who like to talk much more than to listen. However, the most important aspect of story-telling is listening. If you don't listen you don't have stories. This is actually why we are planning here, at the International Center, to bring artists, musicians, story-tellers from all over the world.