The Palestinian people, an ancient people with strong ties to their land and with deeply rooted customs and traditions. This site aims to expose the culture of the Palestinians, who now number around nine miffion people, have persevered, even flourished, asserted their identity, preserved but also transformed and modernized their traditional culture, both inside historic Palestine and in the diaspora.


The land and people of the area historically called Palestine are ancient and have been at the center of regional and global history for millennia. They continue to be so today. Analysts in the West and in the Middle East believe that the Palestine question, at the heart of which is the Palestinian people, is the central issue in war and peace in the region. The contemporary conflict between Palestinians and Israelis revolves around Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. As dramatic and newsworthy the occupation and resistance to it is, it is only half the problem of the conflict. What typically remain unstated, unreported, and uninvestigated in the Western media are the rights (particularly the right of return to their homeland, that is, the repatriation) of the Palestinian refugees who comprise more than half the total population of Palestinians in the world. Resistance to the occupation that has been in place for 37 years has ebbed and flowed over the years, but it has never ceased nor has that of the Palestinian refugees. They both continue to this day and are the core political problem in the Middle East This chapter establishes the contextual basis that will help the reader understand Palestinian history, society, and culture. tt will combine a chronological historical rendition with fundamental concepts that will organise and make sense of the complex social, cultural, and political history of Palestine and the Palestinian people. These elements include Palestine›s role in the greater regional Arab context, the Palestinian people›s place in the larger Arab nation, its long-standing political struggle, the sociocultural dimensions and experiences that make up the unique Palestinian identity, the Palestinians› view of the identity, and the views of others about them.estintian identity, the Palestinians› view of the identity, and the views of others about them.


The Occupied Territories/Palestine is part of the Arab World. It shares with the rest of the Arab World, especially the countries that are its neighbours–Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria–a distinctive configuration of traditional and contemporary social structures, customs, values, and norms. These have been changing ever since the nineteenth century as a result of European intervention in what was then the Ottoman province of Palestine and the rest of the Arab “Fertile Crescent” region of the eastern Mediterranean Sea. Change has also come about because of the local and regional drive toward modernisation that has been evolving ever since.


Prior to European intervention in Palestine, the province was largely based on an agrarian economy and a commensurate rural social system. It had a few small cities and towns that specialised in the production of certain products that were well known in the region. These included, among many, the famous soap, manufactured particularly in the city of Nablus; pottery and rugs in the city of Gaza; and glassware, pottery, and other products in the city of Hebron. Jerusalem, the centre of administrative, religious and legal life, attracted religious pilgrims from the three major faiths: Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. Muslims and Arab Christians predominated as pilgrims. The indigenous Jews were a tiny minority in both Palestine and the adjacent Arab region. Jerusalem and its surrounding towns and villages such as Bethlehem, Beit Sahour, Beit Jala, and others also produced religious figurines and icons made of olive wood for the Christian pilgrims. Famous among them are the figures of the scene of the Nativity, including the infant Jesus, the Virgin Mary, the three Magi, and animals such as lambs, sheep, camels, and donkeys. In Nablus, Majdal, Ramallah, and other centres, cloth was woven on traditional hand-looms and sold locally and, to some extent, around the region.


The most important economic activity of the great majority of the population was agriculture–both for subsistence and for the local and regional markets. The dry climate of the country allowed the planting and cultivation of olive trees in the hill country of central and northern Palestine. This tree has become a symbol of Palestine, both its past and its present. From olives, which were a main staple of daily food, come olive oil, a food staple that was also used for lighting and soap making. Even the olive pits were crushed and burned in special copper or earthen containers or braziers, for home heating in the cold winter months. When burned inside the house, olive pits produced little or no smoke and much heat. In addition to olive trees, the country’s plains and flat plateau were typically planted with wheat, and in the drier areas or the south, barley and other grains were grown. These products were produced largely for subsistence but also for the local and, to a lesser extent, regional, markets. Besides olives, the farmers and peasants of the hill country also produced sesame seeds and some cotton.


The nineteenth-century European intervention pushed Palestine increasingly into a market economy and linked it with Europe through export and import trade. The single most important product that Palestinians developed for export in the second half of the nineteenth century was citrus fruit, and oranges in particular. The coastal area was extensively planted with orange orchards and the fruit was exported to England and as far north as Moscow and St. Petersburg in Russia. Exported from the port city of Jaffa, the oranges came to be known as Jaffa oranges. Jaffa oranges became famous in large part because, before refrigeration, they were practically the only fruit available in northern Europe during the winter. They survived, sweet and juicy, the 23-day journey by ship from Jaffa to London and became very much valued at the time.


Palestinian farmers and landlords also exported sesame seeds to France, where they were ground into oil for use in the manufacture of perfumes. Hill wheat, called durum or hard wheat, was especially good for making spaghetti and other pastas, so it was imported extensively into Italy. Finally, one of the big exports of the nineteenth century was barley, sent to Germany to produce beer. Palestine in the nineteenth century also became a major tourist destination of Christian pilgrims from Europe and even America. In short, this economic transformation into a market economy that exported raw agricultural products had also a long-term negative socioeconomic impact on the country. This nineteenth-century pattern of exporting raw agricultural products, importing manufactured goods, and becoming a tourist attraction for Westerners are classic hallmarks leading to economic underdevelopment in the non-European world.

Gender, Marriage, and Family


The Palestinians have not been fortunate in achieving political independence, and thus the ability to develop public institutions that support the individual and the nuclear (small, two-generation, independent) family. Public institutions or programs such as unemployment compensation, retirement or benefits for the elderly, welfare programs, and other social safety-net programs have never been developed. Neither were private or commercial institutions such as banks that would provide long-term loans for purchasing or building homes or school loans or other such activity. Perhaps just as important, Palestinians lacked an independent economy that employed most seekers or employment with an income level that allows individuals and small nuclear families to become financially independent from other near or extended kin.


For example, conflict associated with the struggle for independence has significantly undermined the Palestinian economy of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. During the second Intifada, unemployment rates reached 60 percent in the Gaza Strip and 45 percent in the West Bank. With the Israeli siege of Palestinian cities and the restricted travel and curfews in place in 2000, these rates have increased further, and the economy practically came to a stand still. It was no different among the refugees, although the more unfortunate among them received assistance from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). Accordingly, the family and the larger kin grouping remain the critical institution that sustains the individual and the small nuclear family among the Palestinians. This familial dependence became more significant after al-Nakba and accelerated further after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war and Israeli occupation. War, dispossession, displacement, occupation, migration, and forced social fragmentation have not only created greater individual and familial insecurity among Palestinians but also strengthened the need for family because there is no other source of security. 


The activity of the UNRWA did help the most desperate among Palestinian refugees with basic food subsidy and elementary education for refugee camp dwellers, but it was neither sufficient for a decent standard of living nor as a basis for independence from kin. The rise and evolution of the PLO also provided non-kin-based, secular service institutions, particularly medical and educational, and, for the refugees in Lebanon, some employment. But such services reached only a fraction of the Palestinian population at any given time. Since the exit of the PLO from Beirut in the wake of the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, such PLO institutions ceased to function, and the insecurities among the refugee population have escalated significantly.


In short, given the context of Palestinian life, its attendant insecurities, its forced expulsions and social fragmentation, the family in its smaller and larger groupings continues to be the source of economic, psychological, and social security and the basis of Palestinian identity. In the course of these repeated and devastating tragedies, Palestinian families have been fragmented, transformed, and reformed to provide the needed support for the individual and the kin group. What, then, is the nature of this resilient and critical institution?


Palestinians share many aspects of their traditional dress with the Arabs of nearby countries. Nevertheless, they have unique and distinctive features that distinguish their garments, costumes, headdresses, and veils from those of surrounding countries. The dress of both men and women, especially in the cities, was also influenced over the years by the urban elite, and by the ruling Turkish classes, and then by the British during the Mandate. Village dress remained largely immune to the imported styles; however, it occasionally incorporated some stylistic features of these foreign influences. Styles of dress and the decorative features: varied by place of residence, social organization, and lifestyle, whether urban, village, or nomadic Bedouin. Remarkably, even in the diaspora refugee camps, the Palestinian women in particular have preserved, reproduced, and expanded the use of traditional decorative. styles and techniques. Indeed, a cottage industry in the preservation and expansion of the unique Palestinian style of decoration---embroidery---has evolved in the refugee camps of the occupied territories and in the Arab host countries of Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan.


Palestinians and other eastern Arabs often say Sahtayn when a meal is finished. This expression means “two healths” to you. It embodies more than just a polite comment–it sums up the entire experience of eating in Palestine and the Arab World. Perhaps more than other cultures, Palestinians and other Arabs make an important social experience out of eating. In part it is because the offering of food is strongly incorporated into the values and customs of generosity and hospitality. Preparing, serving, and partaking of meals in family, among kin, and at other gatherings are the quintessential social activity among Palestinians of all social classes and locales. Although this happens daily on a smaller scale, it becomes particularly festive on special occasions, on weekends, and during the holidays.


There are dishes that are typically considered Palestinian, or prepared the “Palestinian way,” but much Palestinian cuisine is familiar to many as eastern Mediterranean or Lebanese cuisine. It consists of common dishes, ingredients and spices used not only by the Palestinians but also by the Lebanese, Syrians, Jordanians, and, to some extent, the Egyptians. Perhaps with greater variation, the Greeks and the Turks also share much of this food. The Mediterranean diet is generally considered to be among the most naturally healthy diet in the world.

Religion and Religious Traditions

Palestine is holy to the three major monotheistic religions of the world; Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. For Judaism, it is the Promised Land; it is holy because the tomb of Abraham and the location of the first and second temples built during the ancient Israelite Kingdoms of David and Solomon. For Christians, Palestine is the birthplace (Bethlehem) of Jesus Christ, the town where he worked and lived before his mission (Nazareth) and the City (Jerusalem) where he was crucified, died, was buried, and then resurrected. Jerusalem also includes the Via Dolorosa, known in English as the Way of the Cross, which has not changed since that time. Jerusalem is the site of the Church of the Sepulchre, the site of the last supper, and the Garden of Gethsemane. The land and the cities of Palestine are saturated with the historic events and traditions that define Christianity. It is also the site of the founding Christian Church and earliest bishops of Christianity.

Jerusalem and Palestine are. also sacred to Islam. Palestine is al-Ard al-Muqaddasah (the Holy Land). Jerusalem was the site of the overnight flight of the Prophet Muhammad to heaven and back. According to Islamic tradition, the prophet flew on a winged stallion (Al-Buraq) from a rock situated on the plateau in the city. Upon that rock, the famous Dome of the Rock Mosque was built in A.D. 691, not long after the death of the prophet. Jerusalem was the first of the two qiblas, the direction toward which the Muslims prostrate themselves when they pray. (Mecca is the second qibla and has become the permanent one for all Muslims.) Jerusalem is one of the three holy cities of Islam along with Mecca and Medina, which are in today's Saudi Arabia.


Palestinian literary and oral productivity shares with the rest of the Arab World a long and rich tradition. Because of the unique and tragic experience of the Palestinian people, however, many of the themes, issues, and content of their cultural production reflect their distinctiveness. A true Palestinian literature did not develop until the twentieth century, although its origins go back to the nineteenth century. What helped increase literary output beginning late in the nineteenth century was the expansion of education, especially as a result of missionary activity of the Western powers and Russia. Perhaps equally important was the introduction of the printing presses into the country, which encouraged the spread of education, readership, and literary and cultural interests. The development and growth of Palestinian print media encouraged the growth of prose writing. Essay writing became an important modern literary genre as well and became less traditional stylistically; writers addressed more directly political, social, and cultural concerns of the day. Also, books on language, literary criticism, culture, religion, and politics were produced and avidly read before al-Nakbah.

The pioneering literary figures included Khalil Al-Sakakini (1878-1953) and Muhammad Is'af al-Nashashibi (1882-1948). Others, including lzzat Darwaza (188 7-1984) and Khalil Baydas (1874-1949), advanced both essay and book genres and added translations of Russian and Western fiction as well. During the British Mandate, fiction writers appeared and developed the genre significantly. Among them were two pioneering and multitalented women who wrote poems, short stories, and novels: Samira Azzam (1925-1967) and Najwa Qa'war Farah (1923-2015). This section reviews and highlights a small selection of the literary output of the Palestinians, principally those literary contributions that were produced after al-Nakbah, because that event is the defining experience in modern Palestinian history and in the lives of its people.

Undoubtedly one of the greatest challenges that the Palestinians have faced in modem history has been how to tell their story. In a world where their history has become irrevocably entwined with that of Israel and often rewritten and distorted, it has become increasingly difficult for the Palestinians to make their voices heard above the highly volatile political discourses that surround the region. As the noted Palestinian intellectual Edward Said pointed out in a 1992 interview:


In the West Bank and Gaza, because people are so much in need of security, the Palestinians go from one day to the next and the last thing they want to do is to tell their story. They just want to survive .... Internationally, whenever a Palestinian tries to tell a story, to put ln dramatic and realizable way the interrupted story of Palestine and its connection to the story of Israel, it's systematically attacked.


Nevertheless, many Palestinians have overcome the odds to narrate brilliantly their poignant stories; some have made lasting contributions to the literary and folkloric world. Although only a few of the most prominent Palestinian ‘literary figures are highlighted here, many others have significantly contributed to the rise of a distinct Palestinian voice in modem literature.


Art, Performing Arts, and Cinema

The principal practices of Palestinian visual art are old and derive from the Islamic tradition. As Islam emerged as a faith condemning idolatry, it placed a prohibition against the creation of statues (idols), pictorial representation of humans, the Prophet Muhammad and his companions, and, above all, Allah. Accordingly, Islamic art evolved with a unique emphasis on abstract geometric and floral designs and on calligraphy in diverse venues. Calligraphy was used in architectural decorative motifs on the walls and ceilings of mosques and public buildings and in craftwork, especially copper and brass artifacts, glazed pottery, and illuminated books including the Qur'an. This architectural tradition is expressed in the stunning decorations both inside and on the outside the Dome of the Rock Mosque in Jerusalem. Although it is known for its shining golden dome, the mosque also exhibits some of the finest abstract geometric designs and beautiful calligraphy of passages from the Qur'an. Many other mosques in Palestine also exhibit similar artistic decorations.

The-Dome of the Rock Mosque was built in the seventh century and has been renovated several times since then. Each time the decorations were enhanced and developed further. One of the leading Palestinian Islamic-style artists was Jamal Badran (1909-1999), who worked on the first major renovation of the mosque in the 1920s. Badran's reputation grew when he was commissioned to renovate the Minbar (pulpit) of the mosque after it was burned and destroyed by an extremist Israeli arsonist. He is also famous for individual pieces of Islamic art including illuminated glass, leather, lampshades, and other artifacts.

Palestinian history prior to the Islamic' influence in the country was dominated by the Byzantine tradition with its pictorial iconography. Unlike the Western Catholic tradition, the eastern Christian churches eschewed statues depicting Christ, the Virgin Mary, or the saints. Instead, eastern or Orthodox Christianity developed a tradition of pictorial iconography with two-dimensional patterns. This tradition may have not survived. Islam and the Latin kingdoms of the medieval era because few churches were built after that time until the nineteenth century, when European missionaries built many new churches, including Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, and Russian Orthodox. As a result, visual art, in the Byzantine tradition of icon paintings experienced a revival among Palestinian Christians. Small Icons found a ready market in Western pilgrims eager to buy portable mementos from the Holy Land for their homes and as gifts for their families and friends. Larger icons, which decorated monastic and church sanctuaries, found a local and regional market throughout the nineteenth century as well.

Iconographers of the Jerusalem School, as it came to be known, may have learned the art from Greek and Russian monks who were resident in the holy land in the nineteenth century. However, its naturalization and distinguished Palestinian style had been evolving since the early eighteenth century. It is notable for the almond shaped eyes arid rounded facial feature of the Arab folk hero of the period. The saddle of Saint George's horse, usually painted in a plain red, turns in the hands of a Jerusalem painter to crimson gilded in delicate stars and crescent ... At times Greek may be the alphabet used to identify the icon's liturgical title; all other words, however, were usually painted in Arabic.