A Brief Look into Palestinian Culture
Updated: Jul 10
Norah Nowarah | Whitby, ON
If you've read my article, "About My Trip to Jordan/Palestine/Paris," then you know that my family and I took two months’ vacation to the holy land of Palestine. As mentioned before, it was an incredible experience and I was able to truly visualize the culture in which my parents grew up and passed down to us. That said, it is important to explain the culture I was surrounded by to give readers additional knowledge and perspective on my trip. Accordingly, I have decided to focus on certain aspects of Palestinian culture: the language, religion, values, arts, cuisine, and clothing. Since Palestine has been occupied by the state of Israel since June of 1967 (Tahhan), I will touch on demographics relevant to the West Bank and Gaza. Now, let’s take a look!
Undeniably, language is a powerful tool that passes down vibrant cultures from generation to generation. In this section, I will discuss the main language spoken in Palestine, touching on its varying dialects and forms.
As 98.7% of Palestine’s population consists of Arabs, the most common language spoken in this Middle Eastern country is Arabic ("Demographics of The Palestinian Territories"). Specifically, Palestinians speak in the Levantine (or ‘Shami’) dialect of Arabic (Kiprop). This dialect is prevalent across the Levant; a geographical region in West Asia home to countries like Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria (Gill). However, this dialect varies across Palestinian regions themselves (i.e. between urban and rural regions) (Kiprop). Additionally, Palestinians differentiate between two main forms of Arabic: fusha Arabic (‘formal’) (or Modern Standard Arabic) and classical Arabic (‘informal’) ("Demographics of The Palestinian Territories").
Because dialects can become a real communication issue across Arab countries, Fusha Arabic is the form of Arabic taught in schools and heard in mainstream media (i.e. news, television, etc.) as all Arabs can understand it regardless of their dialect. That said, learning to navigate between these two forms of Arabic was one of my biggest struggles when going back home because they sounded like two different languages at times! If you are interested in learning more about the Arabic language and its origins, I have added a detailed video under 'Additional Links.' As for other language spoken in Palestine, Hebrew, Armenian, and Domari are noted as well (Kiprop).
Religion is known to influence the cultural practices that thrive in society. For this section, I will discuss the demographics of religion in Palestine and common religious practices, while touching on some of the most prominent religious sites there.
Of the five million Palestinians currently living in Palestine, the vast majority are Muslim (primarily a part of the Sunni sect of Islam) while approx. 2.5% are Christian ("Demographics of The Palestinian Territories"). Other religions present in minorities include Judaism, Druzism, and Samitarism (Sawe). In terms of common religious practices, Muslims observe the five pillars of Islam, attend weekly Friday prayers, and celebrate Eid Al-Fitr/Eid Al-Adha (Schimmel). In fact, the business week in Palestine is from Sunday-Thursday. This way, Muslims can attend Friday prayers on time and gather with loved ones afterward! As for Christians, both Christmas and Easter are national holidays for Palestinians.
When looking at the historical religious sites in Palestine, many of them can be found in the holy city of Jerusalem – home of the world’s three monotheistic religions (Tahhan and Najjar)! Below, I have included a video on the significance of this city and the most notable religious sites found there. Also, I have added a link to a virtual tour of Jerusalem under ‘Additional Links’ if you want to gain a sense of what the city looks like!
Certainly, culture is an expression of what society deems valuable. Under this section, I will focus on two Palestinian values that I noticed during my trip last summer: family solidarity and hospitality.
Starting with family solidarity, Palestinians hold very high regard for maintaining familial bonds – whether it be with immediate or distant family – as solidarity serves as a ‘primary source of identity’ (“Palestinian Social Customs and Traditions”). Not only is this value encouraged from an Islamic perspective, but also a political one. As explained in an article by the Institute for Middle East Understanding (IMEU):
“With no real government-sponsored social safety-net, and with the lack of a functioning economy or enough independent government institutions or even enough banks to provide home or student loans, Palestinians have had to rely on family and neighbors to fill the gaps” (“Palestinian Social Customs and Traditions”).
Furthermore, this key social unit has also survived the many catastrophes faced by Palestinians since Israel occupied them, such as the 1948 Nakba or 1967 Naksa. Despite being placed in harsh conditions (i.e. in refugee camps, away from loved ones and towns of origin), they continued living, working, and socializing “within the confines of the family” (“Palestinian Social Customs and Traditions”). I have added articles on each mentioned catastrophe under 'Additional Links' if you would like to learn more. As for my family, we make sure to visit our relatives back home whenever we can to maintain these essential bonds despite being across the globe!
Moving on to hospitality, Palestinians – along with Arabs in general – are known for their kind and welcoming embraces for everyone (“The Culture of Palestine”). Not only is there a cultural responsibility to help their family, but also their neighbors and “passerby whoever that may be” (“The Culture of Palestine”). Palestinian homes are always prepped with food, sweets, and Arabic coffee to accept random guests throughout the day (“Palestinian Social Customs and Traditions”). From my personal experience, I have been invited over for dinner or a cup of coffee multiple times by random people I have engaged in conversation multiple times during my trip!
Literary & Performing Arts (Poetry, Music, and Dance)
Each nation uses the arts as an expression of their cultural identity. For Palestinians, this cultural identity is one in which the Israeli government has continuously attempted to erase. Here, I will focus on Palestinian poetry, music, as well as traditional dances that have undeniably played a large role in shaping the people’s culture.
Starting with poetry, poetic work since the 1920s is characterized by its anti-occupation, anti-oppression messages. Well-known poets such as Ibrahim Tuqan (1905-1941) (pictured on the top left) and Mohammed Darwish (1941-2008) (pictured on the top right) were said to ‘give a voice’ to Palestinians ("Palestinian Poet Mahmoud Darwish Dies"). While both poets wrote in different time periods, their work was unified in its ability to express the desires for Palestinian independence. Tuqan wrote revolutionary poems such as Mawtini (Arabic for ‘my nation’) which discussed independence from British occupation, while Darwish’s poems such as Betaket Hawiya (Arabic for ‘identity card’) expressed freedom from Israeli occupation ("Palestinian Poet Mahmoud Darwish Dies").
Notably, such poems that carried these empowering messages were so meaningful to Palestinians, they became incorporated into daily life. For instance, the poem Mawtini was made the Palestinian national anthem in 1996 – recited daily by thousands all over the country ("Ibrahim Tuqan"). Going back to 2016 when I studied in Palestine, I also remember having to study several Palestinian poems for Arabic class; reciting them word for word to the teacher, analyzing the poem for literary devices (e.g. metaphors), and writing out the meaning of the stanzas! That said, I have added the mentioned poems by Darwish and Tuquan under ‘Additional Links’ if you are interested in checking them out.
Moving on to music, Palestinians have historically developed a unique style of classical Arabic music (specifically Levantine music) ("Music of Palestine"). This distinctive style is said to have developed in many ways: “on one hand, it uses Palestinian folklore as a foundation for musical composition; on the other, it draws on the different genres of world music that have penetrated Palestine since the late nineteenth century” (Khoury).
Traditional folklore music is known to incorporate more of certain musical instruments such as the famous oud (a pear-shaped guitar-like instrument) (pictured on the top left), rebab (a small, violin-like instrument) (pictures on the top left) and shebabeh (a wooden, flute-like instrument) (pictures on the top right) ("Music Of Palestine"). Unsurprisingly, this traditional music is no exception when it comes to expressing resistance and identity. One of the most notable folk songs is Ya Zareef et Tool (Arabic for ‘O’ Elegant and Tall One’) – a song for Palestinians who are leaving to find a better life abroad that is sung by relatives in order to convince them to stay ("Music Of Palestine"). Under ‘Additional Links,’ I have provided a video of this folk song if you are interested in hearing the types of rhythms and beats used sound like!
These amazing instruments never failed to get Palestinians dancing, which brings me to Palestinian dances. Of the various Arab dances, the dabke (Arabic for ‘stamping feet’) is one of the most notable ones. Commonly performed at large celebrations such as weddings, this line dance consists of people holding hands and coordinating their foot movements to the beat of the music played (Ahdia).
Certainly, the dabke serves as an expression of solidarity, nationalism, and historical, cultural tradition ("Music & Dance"). While there are around nineteen variations of dabke around the Arab world, the most popular ones in Palestine include Al-Darrazi, Al-Sahja, and Al-Shamaliyya ("Dabke"). During my trip to Palestine last year, I tried to perform this dance at a family gathering but found it challenging as there was much pressure was on me to make the right foot movements and not slow the line down. Above, I have included a video of one of the Palestinian Dabke styles performed by La Dabke Troup at the University of California, Los Angeles to see this amazing dance for yourself!
Traditional cuisine is another key expression of cultural identity. For this section, I will discuss the basics of Palestinian cuisine, as well as the most notable Palestinian foods!
As this Middle Eastern country is located on the Mediterranean coast, Palestinians follow a Mediterranean diet – one filled with vegetables, fruits, grains, herbs/spices, nuts, heart-healthy fats, and moderate amounts of meats and fish (“Palestinian Cuisine”). While Palestinian cuisine is a ‘diffusion’ of cuisines brought along by civilizations that previously settled in the area, it is most similar to other Levantine cuisines (e.g. Lebanon and Syria), as well as Turkish cuisine ("Palestinian Cuisine").
Throughout the day, Palestinians will normally have three main meals in a day: futur (light breakfast, typically of eggs, zaatar, olive oil, cucumbers, yogurt, bread, and tea), ghada (heavy lunch, typically of rice, meat, vegetables, and salads), and asha (light dinner, typically of dips like hummus and meat pies) ("Palestinian Cuisine").
Some of the most prominent Palestinian national foods include maqloubah (a dish of rice, meat, and fried cauliflower/eggplant) (pictured on the top right), musakhan (a dish of layered bread, rice, chicken, yougurt soup, and nuts), kunafeh (a sweet - originating from the city of Nablus – made from shredded phyllo, white-brined cheese, and syrup) (pictured on the top left) (“Food of Palestine”). Above, I have included a video that details the steps for some of these amazing dishes! Also, I have added a link to purchase one of my favorite Palestinian recipe books, Palestine on a Plate: Memories from My Mother’s Kitchen, by Joudie Kalla under ‘Additional Links’ if you are interested!
To wrap things up, all this rich culture can be reflected and identified in a simple piece of clothing. Here, I will discuss the most prominent cultural clothing historically worn by women and men, as well as the different factors which determined the way they dressed at the time.
Starting with women’s clothing, the thobe (example shown in first and third picture above) is the by far the most notable one. Essentially, a thobe is a loose, long-sleeve dress that incorporates rich styles of Palestinian embroidery ("Palestinian Costumes"). This style of embroidery (or 'tatreez') is known for its cross-stitch and couching stitch techniques ("Embroidery"), as well the use of the colours red, yellow, dark blue, and purple ("Palestinian Costumes"). Historically, embroidery designs differed from Palestinian village to village – “special three-dimensional stitching for the upper class of Bethlehem, big pockets for the nomadic Bedouin women, orange branch motifs for the orchard-famous city of Jaffa” ("Iconic Palestinian Thobe Fashions A New Political Symbol").
Moreover, the embroidery colours worn also indicated women’s social positions. Maha Saca, director of the Palestinian Heritage Center in Bethlehem, explained that red was worn by brides, blue was worn by widows, and blue with multi-coloured stitches was worn by widows looking to re-marry ("Iconic Palestinian Thobe Fashions A New Political Symbol").
Nowadays, the thobe is a national symbol of resistance worn by women of all cities and social classes at special events/celebrations (i.e. weddings)(Dimitrova). Below, I have added a video discussing the thobe, Palestinian embroidery, and its symbolism today if you are interested in learning more.
As for men’s clothing, the qamis (example shown in second picture above) and shirwal are classics. A qamis is a knee-length wrap-around undershirt, and a shirwal is a loose cotton trouser (usually worn with the qamis) that comes in black or dark blue (Dimitrova). Nowadays, these cultural prices are worn on special occasions (i.e. dabke groups performing at weddings or other cultural events) (Dimitrova). However, you may find elderly Palestinian men wearing the qamis with a tuxedo jacket around the country!
As you can see, Palestinian culture is simply beautiful, rich in history, and resilient. Despite continuously facing foreign efforts to erase their presence, Palestinians continue to represent their heritage in everything they do. On that note, I strongly encourage you to visit Palestine if you get the chance. Not only will you learn about their struggles under Israeli occupation, but you will be amazed at the way they continue to create happiness throughout it all. Like I said once before, I would take any chance to visit my homeland again.
Video on the Arabic language: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nDg3yPSzsEg
Article on the 1948 Nakba: https://interactive.aljazeera.com/aje/palestineremix/al-nakba.html
Poem by Ibrahim Tuqan (composed version): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pRMmCWLzk4U
Poem by Mahmoud Darwish: https://genius.com/Mahmoud-darwish-identity-card-english-version-annotated
“Ya Zareef Al Tool” folk song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PDjjY6SYixE
Link to buy Joudie’s cookbook: https://www.palestineonaplate.com/
Link to the interactive tour of Jerusalem: https://interactive.aljazeera.com/aje/2018/east-west-jerusalem/index.html
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