Farsoun, Samih. Cuture and Customs of the Palestinians by Farsoun. Westport: Farsoun, 2004.
January 9, 2006
Farsoun represents the struggles of many Palestinians who had to leave their home in Historic Palestine but never wavered in their devotion or love for serving their people and country. He was born in Haifa in 1937, but received his PhD in sociology from the university of Connecticut. Combining these two worlds, he taught for thirty years at the American University in Washington, DC, publishing six books on the sociology and politics of the Middle East, in addition, to several dozens of articles and book chapters. In 2004, he was named the Dean of academic affairs and the College of Arts and Sciences at the American University in Kuwait. Sadly, in 2005 at the age of 68 Farsoun died after living a prolific life. His work, Culture and Customs of the Palestinians is his last published book.
Farsoun states that this "book provides a general overview of the culture and the customs of the Palestinians set in the historical context of their defining experience," that is the destruction of their society in 1948 and its results (xiv). He attempts this overview by presenting seven chapters that introduce the Palestinian political history, its society and social customs, its familial make up and characteristics, its dress and cuisine, its religious traditions, its literature, and its traditional and modern arts including olive wood carvings, theater, songs, music, dance, and cinematography, respectively. The book further includes a chronology of the major historical events of Palestine from 661 A.D. to 2004, a detailed appendix on settlements, a glossary of Arabic words and other terms, a useful bibliographic list arranged according to different topics and interests, more than a dozen of expressive photos, and an index.
At the outset, Farsoun divides the Palestinian people into three groups: Palestinians who remained in Israel and later became its citizens, Palestinians who live in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and Palestinians who were dispersed worldwide (p. 4). However, this diversity does not influence the course of the book, its content, or its portrait of the Palestinian identity. On the contrary, Farsoun combines these three groups in the rest of the book asserting that "despite the varying trajectories of the social and political history of the three major segments" they are all concerned about the Israeli oppressive occupation and the denial of rights and identity (122).
Understandably, Farsoun focuses on the common identity among Palestinians especially their struggle and outcome of their war with Israel in 1948. However, this focus deprives the unlearned reader from recognizing the significant socio-political differences between Arab Israelis, Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and the Palestinians who live outside historic Palestine. The overemphasis on unity has sacrificed presenting important diversities. Arab Israelis, for example, are different from Palestinians in Gaza Strip in their linguistic, economic, and cultural make up. As Israeli citizens, their present relationship with Israel and its Jewish citizens is radically different from other Palestinians even though five decades ago they shared a common identity. Further, Farsoun's description of the Palestinian culture is not sophisticated enough to include Samaritans, Druze, and the unique identity struggles of the Jerusalemites who are Israeli residents but not Israeli citizens. It is unfortunate that Farsoun's good work on family, art, and culture has been driven by a misleading political construct, that is, the main defining feature of the Palestinian identity is Al-Nakba or the catastrophe of the 1948. Admittedly, it is an important element in defining their identity; nevertheless, there are many other equally important factors that have been overlooked.
The best part of the book is chapter six in which Farsoun highlights some of the best literary works introducing many Palestinian authors such as Fadwa Touqan, Mahmoud Darwish, Sahar Khalifeh, Ghassan Kanafani, Emile Habibi, and Edward Said. Chapter five, Religion and Religious Traditions, is also helpful for a concise understanding of the pillars of Islam and the diversity within Palestinian Christianity.
Last, I think that this book is a fairly good introduction to traditional Palestinian Culture. Although Farsoun has nothing positive to say about the contributions of Jewish-Arab interactions to the Palestinian identity and has few editorial inconsistencies (see for example the spelling of some names or the presentation of dates on pages 111, 112, and 117), he succeeds in presenting a helpful book that should be read by any Palestinian interested in explaining their identity to a Western audience, and by Westerners who are interested in Palestinians and the Middle East.