PALESTINE AND PALESTINIANS: Culture and Customs of the Palestinians

By Taraki, Lisa | The Middle East Journal, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview

PALESTINE AND PALESTINIANS: Culture and Customs of the Palestinians


Taraki, Lisa, The Middle East Journal


PALESTINE AND PALESTINIANS Culture and Customs of the Palestinians, by Samih Farsoun. Westport, CT and London, UK: Greenwood Press, 2004. xxvii + 123 pages. Appends, to p. 133. Gloss, to p. 139. Bibl. to p. 151. Index to p. 160. $25.

This volume is part of Greenwood Press's Culture and Customs of the Middle East series aimed at students and general readers. The Series Foreword notes that as with other books in the series, "the focus is on contemporary culture and life, in a historical context." In the case of a book on Palestine and the Palestinians, this becomes a challenge. To write about the contemporary culture and life of a people dispersed over different nations and territories inevitably means answering questions about the history that explains this state of dispersal. Farsoun is very clear about this, and foregrounds the 1948 Nakba (catastrophe) as the defining moment in modern Palestinian social and political history and the key event, along with the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza in 1967, in light of which contemporary society and culture must be understood. In this sense, and in view of the highly contentious nature of the historiography of the Palestinians, the editors of the series are to be commended for publishing an account of the customs and culture of the Palestinians from a viewpoint sympathetic toward the victims of this unique history.

But the significance of history is problematic in this book in another sense, and this is where I think the book's main shortcoming lies. Farsoun is keen on underlining the authenticity of the Palestinians' claim to Palestine and their historic rootedness in the land; this legitimate aim is achieved, however, through a static, essentialist, and ahistoric treatment of contemporary social and cultural realities. In examining contemporary practices and institutions, Farsoun adopts the common strategy of framing his discussion by reference to "tradition," that is, to an initial, original state of "traditionality" as the main anchor for understanding the present. But this is only half of the problem; while Farsoun often shows the distance traversed between a traditional past and a modern present, he just as often conflates the past with the present, leaving the general reader in confusion as to the reality of the present. For example, in a discussion of women's dress, and after acknowledging that fashion and style have never remained stagnant, Farsoun states that "embroidery still has social significance....Unmarried women and younger girls wear modestly embroidered dresses.. ..Older women wear dresses that are less heavily embroidered...The lavishness of embroidery varied also in terms of social class and status" (p. 55; emphases mine). In another example, a discussion of the family begins with the statement that the "traditional rural Palestinian extended family typically has three or more generations residing. …

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