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> Mahmoud Darwish
> Yara Dowani: swimmer and karate player
> Akram Safadi - photographer
> Rosemary Sayigh: anthropologist
> Adnan Mousallem: historian
> Sharif Kanaana: anthropologist and folklorist
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> Milad Fatouleh: Palestinian Child Wins...
> Hisham Sharabi Ph.D. 1927 – 2005
> Daniel Zoughbie: Global Micro-Clinic Founder
> Ahmed Harb, author and university lecturer
> Julia Dabdoub, Bethlehem
> Interview with Mitri Raheb: Recounting ordinary stories
> Musa Sanad - by Leyla Zuaiter
The anthropologist Sharif Kanaana has been lecturer at the Department of Sociology and Anthropology of Birzeit University since 1975. His main interest is the study of Palestinian folklore. The following interview was conducted by Toine van Teeffelen for The Jerusalem Times on October 3, 1997.
How did you develop an interest in folklore?
I wasn't trained in folklore, my specialization as an anthropologist was in the field of cultural and mental health. At the time of my Ph.D. I conducted interviews and handed out questionnaires. However, the problem with these methods is that the answers are very much coloured by the ideas and intentions of the individual you approach. But when you do anthropology you need data which tell something about the spirit of a culture. I started to appreciate those data that come more naturally. Older Palestinians like to tell folklore, and folklore tends to express the spirit of the community over a long period of time.
I have worked with several genres of folklore: the joke, more recently the contemporary legend, the story about a fantastic event, the rumour, the proverb. I am fascinated most by the traditional folktale which resembles the fairytale. There are of course other tales, hunourous tales, tales of wisdom, tales for teaching manners, morals and behaviour. But the traditional folktales seem to have a great deal of depth. Although their origins may be traced back to India, Mesopotamia or Egypt, they have been here for a very long time and have come to crystallize the spirit of society. I collected 80 types over a period of twenty years. With Ibrahim Muhawi I analyzed many of such stories and came out with the book "Speak Birds, Speak Again" [University of California Press].
I became interested in folk narratives of any kind. In 1984 I started a project about the Palestinian villages destroyed in 1948. The idea was to find out about and to preserve the Palestinian way of life, especially the style of life that prevailed in the peasant village before 1948. And again I gradually started to realize that informants produce the richest type of data when you allow them to tell a story of their life, their village. If you ask them directly "why did you leave in 1948," you probably get some official statement: for instance, "the Arab kings or leaders told us to leave" -- a story they likely heard from the Israeli news media. But if you ask them "tell your story what happened," they tell something very different. Narrative is the most convenient or comfortable way to talk about things, to convey a message. It is also the easiest, most comfortable way to receive a message, to understand something. If you get the story, you get the message.
What did you discover about the Arab and Palestinian culture through your first research, the folk narratives?
One vivid insight related to the ghoul [type of demon] in the fairy tales. Who is that ghoul, what does that ghoul do in order to scare people? When a main figure or character of the story is a ghoul, then very often the ghoul turns out to be a relative instead of a stranger. Apparently the greatest harm and danger may come from relatives. Because these are the most intimate people who know your secrets, who can expose you, these are the people who can harm you. Compare this with the idea of sutra in Arabic culture, which means covering, veiling. The most important thing for a traditional Arab family is to be mastura, veiled. It doesn't matter what takes place inside the house. As long as the neighbours don't know, it is alright. But if the neighbours know about it, it's terrible. Note that you don't ask Allah to prevent you from mistakes, but rather to make you able to cover mistakes. It is acceptable to make mistakes, the Moslem religion is flexible about that as long as you repent and you keep it from being revealed. The main thing is that the rest of the world does not penetrate the fence between the family and the rest of the world. This rule appears in a great many aspects of life. For instance, if your coat was torn, people used to take a piece from between the shoulders on the back and cut it up in order to fix the rest. Why that? Because they wear a jacket over the shoulders.
Of all what can be exposed, sexual misbehaviour is the most dangerous. A traditional Arab family can fall like a rock from the top level of society when a girl runs away with a man or becomes pregnant. The ghoul is very often a female. The most harmful ghouli is usually a daughter or sister. That's the one who eats up the whole family and the cows and other animals. Maybe one of the family escapes but then only to a place where nobody knows him, where he is not exposed.
At the same time you should know that the folktales are told almost exclusively by women. They therefore reflect, unlike anything else in Arab society, the perspective of Arab women. The folktales express their emotions, desires, longings, wishes. Sometimes you find women behaving in the stories that are not acceptable in society. I understand that this refers to the way women would like to behave, if they were allowed.
Such stories seem to express a stable system of society, with clear fences. But haven't these fences been broken down in Palestinian culture and history?
Yes, there has been a critical change in the culture. These stories, at least among Palestinians, are disappearing. Some of my students have never heard of these stories, they may just know a name or a sentence. The stories do not represent anymore what is going on in the culture. Palestinian society underwent a process of physical destruction and dispersal. Now I ask myself seriously: Is there still a Palestinian culture or society? There is supposedly something Palestinian about Palestinians. As time passes I am starting to doubt that more and more. Among the Palestinians, even those who are living together here, almost each individual has lived in a different society or community, with different experiences. Palestinians don't seem to have shared backgrounds provided by Palestinian culture.
Without shared backgrounds you cannot communicate by narratives, because the narratives are not uniform. I don't know if Palestinians now can tell each other shared stories that refer to shared backgrounds and meanings in Palestinian culture. It is probably a lot easier to exchange a line of poetry from, say, the pre-Islamic poets, than to tell the stories that prevailed in the small unified communities of Palestine. The shared culture at the higher level is still there, but at the community and society level it becomes hard. I don't know how many stories I share with people like Abou Abbas, or Arafat. To put it extremely, I think that an American soap opera on television such as "The Bold and The Beautiful" unifies me more with Abu Mazen than any Palestinian folktale.
The cultural crisis has many aspects. Palestinians used to have masterstories at the level of their individual lives and at the level of the national life. I think recently there is a hesitancy about both. Old people don't want to tell personal stories about village life before 1948, about the old homeland, the beautiful fields, their fig trees, and so on. People used to think of pre-1948 as the golden age. They used to tell such stories with the idea that someday they would return. The preciousness of that golden age, that golden country, is what made them struggle in order to keep the idea of return alive. Now there is a feeling among lots of people that this idea of return is not alive, it is dead. There is no use of telling a story about something dead.
There is also a crisis to the extent that we presently have a feeling of inferiority, of having no worthy story to tell. We're adopting the same language as the Israelis, we use the word terrorism when referring to Palestinian activities. We tell ourselves that we have gone through defeat after defeat. Almost every Palestinian tells you now that in 1929 we did the wrong thing, the 1936 rebellion was wrong, we killed each other more than we killed the enemies, we lost and therefore it was wrong. In 1947 we refused the division of the country, we should have accepted a state of our own, but we did the wrong thing. Even some people say the Intifadah was wrong, and now people say Oslo is wrong. It is as if we have been stupid from the very beginning of the conflict until now. This is the narrative people know now. There is no glory in such a story, there is nothing to be proud of in order to tell.
Not only is the beautiful past replaced by an ugly past. Also the lack of hope in the future is preventing us from looking back, because we always look back to base the future on the past. But when I see total darkness, my story cannot lead me to where I want, and therefore I don't tell the stories. A state of hopelessness does not encourage narratives.
Are there ways out of this situation?
The narratives need to be rewritten, retaught. History needs to be rewritten from our viewpoint in a more positive way if you want children who are hopeful, who look forward. They should have different narratives to tell. We need to give them a somewhat unified core Palestinian culture, even if we have to be inventive, so that they have something in common that distinguishes them as Palestinians. Let's say ten of us should come together and decide about the 2000 story items every Palestinian should know, from the history of Palestine and the history of Arabs and so on. But the second question is: Even when you are able to formulate such a core culture, how would you reach Palestinian children everywhere, for instance those living in the camps in Syria? At least we should start with those we are able to reach. There is nothing so negative as demoralized human beings.
Are in this project the historical tales more important than the folktales?
The proverbs and fairy tales are also important. But if there is not a unifying masternarrative about the Palestinian people and for the Palestinian people, pieces of folktales in themselves will not do the job. Teaching somebody a few steps of dances here or a few tales there leave the inside of the child empty. There should be one national narrative that brings all these other tales together, as leaves connected to the national tree.