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Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Costumes, Ibish and Golda Meir

Hussein Ibish writes about a new book that describes the clothing styles that Arabs in Palestine used throughout the centuries, and he finds it terrifically important.

First, let's talk about the costumes:
Munayyer’s important new book demonstrates a number of very salient points with serious implications about the present and future for the Palestinian people. First, it shows that traditional and folkloric Palestinian costumes are distinctive from other Levantine ones. Within Palestinian society, in various areas and villages, the costumes have their own particular features, handed down largely from mother to daughter, over decades and indeed centuries. But there is still a distinctive Palestinian style, strongly connected to other Levantine traditional dress, with forms and patterns all their own.

I do not have the book, so I cannot say with certainty whether this is true or not. I can say that there were a few styles of clothing within Palestine; Wikipedia divides them up into northern Palestine, central Palestine, the coastal plane and the Bedouin. In order to prove that there was a distinctive "Palestinian" style one must prove that all of these styles had more commonality when compared to other Levantine clothing styles. Moreover, the similarities must be of the same amount that one would find similarities in the costumes of different areas of Syria or Arabia or Egypt.

To do this would require someone who is objective to look at the similarities and differences between costumes throughout history in the Middle East and find commonalities among the Palestinian Arab costumes that are provably different from the others. If they were fundamentally regional, they prove nothing.

To put it another way, it would be deceptive to say that the existence of jazz or creole cuisine or blue jeans proves that there is a distinctive American culture. These all started off as examples of regional culture, not national culture; they became "American" as they spread throughout the US.

If Palestinian Arab costumes remained regional, that is not evidence of a Palestinian national identity. It is simply evidence that different regions in the Levant had different cultural symbols. If the northern Palestinian costumes have more in common with the Lebanese costumes than with the coastal costumes, then the truth is  the opposite of what Ibish is claiming.

But, as Ibish shows, Palestinian Arabs have been thirsting to prove that they had a distinctive culture for hundreds or thousands of years, and therefore it is - pretty much by his admission - impossible for such a work to be written without a political subtext:

[D]ocumenting that history and those traditions is not only a vital project of collective memory and an important academic task in itself, it is also a quintessentially political act. It is, above all, an act of passionate, dedicated and deeply meaningful resistance to the continued efforts at the negation of Palestinian identity and history.

This is Palestinian sumud, or steadfastness, at its finest. Beyond bluster, slogans and canned rhetoric, Munayyer’s volume has something deeply serious and meaningful to say about both the origins and the future of Palestinian national identity.
I've been spending a bit of time looking for specific Palestinian Arab culture, and every claim I've come across so far has been either Levantine - like falafel or the debka - or very specific to a town (like the soaps that Nablus was known for.)

By the way, Jewish women of Palestine also had their own distinctive clothing, especially Sephardic women. Would their dress be considered "Palestinian"? Does this book even research how the Jewish women of Palestine dressed? The inclusion or omission of that community would tell a lot about how objective the book it.

Ibish also makes a common mistake as he, like many Palestinian Arabs, like to misquote Golda Meir:
The days are long gone when Golda Meir’s infamous remark about the Palestinians is still taken seriously in the West. The onetime Israeli prime minister stated that “[t]here is no such thing as a Palestinian people... It is not as if we came and threw them out and took their country. They didn’t exist.” Yet there remains a hard-core contingent among Israelis and pro-Israel Westerners who persist in denying Palestinians their identity, history and heritage.

I have not yet found the original quote, which was supposedly written in The Sunday Times in 1969, but Wikiquote writes it this way:

There were no such thing as Palestinians. When was there an independent Palestinian people with a Palestinian state? It was either southern Syria before the First World War, and then it was a Palestine including Jordan. It was not as though there was a Palestinian people in Palestine considering itself as a Palestinian people and we came and threw them out and took their country away from them. They did not exist.
There is nothing inaccurate about this quote. Certainly Ibish would be hard pressed to find that ordinary Arabs who lived in Palestine self-identified as "Palestinians" before 1920, and even more hard-pressed to find anyone who described themselves that way before Zionism existed. Today, arguably, there is a Palestinian Arab people who gained this identity because of their common misery at the hands of their Arab brethren, but Meir was referring to the Arabs of Palestine before Zionism.

In short, the attempts by Palestinian Arabs to construct a culture retroactively smacks of desperation. No one is arguing that there were no Arabs who lived in Palestine or even that some of them had distinctive dress or cuisine. The idea that there was a pan-Palestinian Arab culture that somehow fits roughly along the boundaries of Mandate Palestine that were drawn by the British is simply not true.

Deep down, Ibish knows this as well, just as he knows that the attempts to find such a culture are not based on finding the truth nearly as much as they are purely political.