The two West Bank families profiled here were not selected to be “representative,” but rather to explore, through people the authors knew intimately, particular lives and livelihoods as they both changed and maintained themselves in the last two decades of Israeli military occupation in the West Bank. Yet the profiles do capture some general effects of these last 20 years, the foremost being the radical uncertainty which shadows Palestinians’ lives under occupation. The litany of detentions of the sons of both families and the daughters of one is perhaps the most striking, but not the sole example. The numerous strategies for economic survival — including occupational patterns that, as one author notes, fit into no neat sociological category — is another familiar feature. The role of the family itself, which both supports and makes demands on the individual — and especially women — is felt positively in the effect of Umm Faris on her daughters, negatively in the early death of Umm Jamal. The image of the fathers that dominate both stories — Abu Faris in his shop and Abu Jamal in his living room — may be deceptive, when one reflects that responsibility for both the economic wellbeing and the political activity of the family rests with the young. Although both families embrace mainstream Palestinian politics, the Abu Faris family is a dynamic actor in it, while the Abu Jamal family is passive, always being acted upon. It is noteworthy, then, that the toll taken by the occupation on both families is not very different, although their prestige and social standing certainly is. Despite the active involvement of the daughters of Abu Faris’ family in the mass student movement, the strongest image of political resistance in both families remains an armed one — even if only with stones. Different strategies of organizing, including the grassroots movements of women that arose in the late 1970s and are more associated with left-wing groups in the Palestinian national movement, have not particularly touched these families, despite the dynamism of the women of the Abu Faris family. The two families thus mirror some of the strengths and the limits of mainstream Palestinian nationalism as it has developed over the last 20 years.

“We Are Here to Stay”

The veiled woman, exuding nervous energy, anticipates and quickly answers Abu Faris’ questions. When he asks her height, she hesitates and he points towards the left edge of the shop’s door where centimeter marks are etched clumsily into the wood. After Abu Faris fills in all the information for a Jordanian passport renewal application, he gingerly takes his mukhtar’s seal from a leather pouch, licks the spot where it is to be applied and then presses hard. His fee is eight shekels (about $5).

Abu Faris became the mukhtar of Mahallat al-Madina — a crowded Nablus neighborhood of approximately 20,000 low- and middle-income people — in 1960, at the relatively young age of 36. Since 1973, the Israeli authorities have refused to recognize his seal, thus depriving him of a major source of income. Even though his signature is still good with the Jordanian authorities, the Nablus municipality and changer of commerce, the fees for filling out a family registration form, notarizing personal status documents, typing an exit visa and so on are small change compared with the types of applications made to the Israeli authorities. In any case, Abu Faris has a reputation as the poor man’s mukhtar because he does not, as a rule, accept money from those he knows are poor.

Abu Faris’ small shop (two by six meters), is located in the heart of the Old City of Nablus. Although the veiled woman has long since left, he remains seated behind a small old desk, occasionally puffing on a waterpipe. There is little room for maneuver, as the floor is littered with large sacks of rice, beans and chickpeas as well as bundles of toilet paper, cans of oil and assorted kitchen needs. The overflow is deceptive, for the entire stock is worth less than $1,500 and, from the fine film of dust on top, it is clear that there is little turnover. Business, as it has been for many years now, is slow. In the past three hours he has only sold three and a half shekels ($2.50) worth of goods.

As a shopkeeper, Abu Faris is the last carrier of an old family tradition. His father, grandfather and ancestors from at least eight previous generations were Nablus Old City merchants dealing in regional and local trade. Abu Faris himself, before 1967, used to import carpets from Belgium and sell almonds wholesale, among other things. Shortly after the occupation, he was imprisoned for four months in what he says were horrible conditions. “I wasn’t allowed to wash my body for 45 days,” he emphasizes. Meanwhile, his father rented out two of their three shops for the now ridiculously low sum of 50 dinars a year each.

Even though he commutes daily to his tiny shop, one can easily argue that this family tradition has already died, since the store’s profits meet less than a quarter of the household expenses. Indeed, the shop functions more as an office, where people from all walks of life come to him as mukhtar of Mahallat al-Madina to fill out forms, solve problems or seek information. Shopkeeping, he emotionally proclaims, is now akin to honorable begging. The city has grown and the casbah is no longer the center of business it used to be. Much of the goods that Abu Faris sells are not imported; nor do they cater to the tastes of the middle class. He sells goods referred to in popular slang as himar al-dukkan (workhorse of the shop) which only make a good profit when sold in large quantities. Modern supermarkets in the growing suburbs have replaced the countless little shops. The heavy arm of the occupation, combined with the turbulent Israeli economy and high taxes have taken care of the rest. During the first four years of the occupation, the Israeli army raided their house an average of once a month looking for incriminating evidence. During the past 20 years, Abu Faris, his wife and all of their children have spent time in prison. Preceding political anniversaries, such as Land Day, it is not unusual to find most of the family in preventive detention.

The psychological turning point came in 1981, when the family left their ancient home (where you had to walk bent down through a dark tunnel to reach the first open space) and rented a modern house in a middle class neighborhood outside the Old City gates. This is where one is likely to meet Umm Faris, easily the most dynamic member in the family. She is in constant motion, even when she settles down, countless shades of emotion flicker across the exaggerated mouth and eyes. She suffers from high blood pressure and other symptoms of the relentless, shell-shocked lifestyle she has had to lead, but her intensity and boundless energy are still very much in evidence. During her husband’s imprisonment, she produced flower and other designs embroidered on dresses and scarves to help support the family. She no longer makes most of her children’s clothes, but she still manages this large household and keeps it together. For many years, her children testify, she was the more radical political adviser and, in the early years of the occupation, led many a women’s demonstration. She cannot keep up this level of activity any longer, but she still does all of the cooking and cleaning as well as receiving the constant stream of guests that drop in every day.

Tiptoeing through the large garden filled with vegetables, herbs and flowers that surround the house, she recalls the confrontations she has had with Israeli and Jordanian intelligence officers over the years. “One must not be afraid,” she insists. “When they ask me stupid questions, I give them a piece of my mind and let them have it straight.” Like her husband, she prays five times a day, but it is her liberal outlook on life, her stubbornness and sense of moral outrage that seem to have rubbed off on her children the most, especially the three daughters.

The family has a middle-class lifestyle, but their only form of conspicuous consumption is food. Somehow Umm Faris manages to cook several courses a day for her many children, grandchildren and assorted guests. Lacking a single overriding source of income, they meet expenses by pooling together the shop’s income with that of their sons and daughter, all of whom work. It is the oldest daughter, Fadya, who usually contributes toward expenses that Abu Faris cannot meet. Intermittently, they receive some money from relatives abroad. Abu Faris also refers to savings accumulated before the occupation, as well as to shares in stocks bought by his father.

The family fortunes since the 1967 occupation cannot be reduced to the material, however. For accompanying their economic hardships was a steady rise in their social status and political influence, at least through the early 1980s. Even before the 1967 war, they were intimately involved in the budding nationalist movement. Moreover, Abu Faris’ wide contacts — cultivated by himself and his father as an integral part of their shopkeeping tradition and reinforced by his status as a mukhtar — made it possible for the family to play an important role in and share the fruits of the rise of Palestinian nationalism as embodied in the PLO, and specifically Fatah.

In this context, Abu Faris’ first memory of the occupation is revealing. He was ordered by Israeli military officers to step into a jeep, given a microphone and told to announce that all weapons should be surrendered to him at his house in the Old City. Because of the curfew, the authorities needed a safe spot where weapons could be delivered without fear of retribution. For an entire week, Abu Faris and his family piled weapons alongside the mounds of almonds and rolls of carpets from Belgium.

As early as 1965, his oldest son Faris was accused by the Israelis of organizing military cells in Nablus. By 1968, he was already a guerrilla commander and was one of the few to be captured alive in the battle of Karama. Following his capture, he suffered eight months of what his parents say was brutal torture. Unwilling to confess, he was finally given a court hearing and sentenced to four years in prison. The Israeli authorities offered to deport him instead, but he refused. Nevertheless, after serving his four years, and before he could see his family, he was driven to the border and told to walk straight ahead and not look back. Israeli intelligence accuse him of being the head of Fatah’s military operations in the West Bank. Neither Faris’ career in the PLO, nor the father’s election, however, seem to have resulted in increased financial security for the family. “I can put my open hands in Abu ‘Ammar’s face,” exclaims Abu Faris, “they are clean.”

None of the other children’s lives turned out to be as dramatic as Faris’, but they all, each in their own way, contributed to the family’s tradition of resistance to the occupation. ‘Umar, the next in line, escaped from the West Bank in 1971, just two days before soldiers stormed the house looking for him. He has also been accused of organizing armed cells. Unlike his brother, however, he chose to study agricultural engineering and now works in this field in Syria. Rashid, the third youngest son, went through a somewhat similar experience. Just as he turned 18, he was placed in administrative detention (that is, imprisoned without charges or a trial) for 30 months. He has since opened a small appliance store and, along with his wife’s salary as a teacher, makes enough to support his three children.

The daughters, following their mother’s example, made the most of the opportunities opened by the political energy that dominated the household. Unlike in most Nablus families, the daughters daily received male visitors and were free to leave the house at any time to attend meetings, rallies and demonstrations. Each formed her own circle of friends and sphere of influence.

Fadya, the oldest daughter, spend the turbulent 1970s in Damascus, near her brother ‘Umar, studying civil engineering at Damascus University. She now works for the Nablus municipality and has, in addition, an engineering office at the center of town (but with little or no business). In 1982, she was held incommunicado for 40 days of constant interrogation. In an effort to make her confess, both her father and her younger sister, Samira, were briefly arrested and put in cells adjacent to hers in the infamous Muscobiyye basement. She did not break down, however, and was unconditionally released without charge.

That same year, she joined the overwhelming majority of the Nablus municipality employees in an open-ended strike protesting Israel’s forced removal of Bassam al-Shaka‘ and the democratically elected city council (of which her father is a member). Since Fadya subsidizes some of the household expenses, this exacerbated the family’s financial difficulties until the Joint Palestinian-Jordanian Committee began paying the striking employees’ salaries. This situation continued until the Amman Agreement signed by King Hussein and Yasser Arafat in February 1985. One of the first consequences was a decision by King Hussein to stop subsidizing the striking workers. Fadya, along with the rest of the employees, was forced back into the municipality long before Dhafer al-Masri’s brief reign. (Al-Masri was appointed in December 1985 and assassinated a month later.) In 1986, she was engaged to Jamal Musa, who was freed in the prisoner exchange of May 1985 after spending over 10 years in various Israeli jails. Jamal was convicted on charges of attempting a military raid that was foiled at the last minute. Two weeks before their marriage ceremony, he was put under administrative detention for six months and is now in Junayd prison in Nablus.

The two other daughters, Samira and Suad, became heavily involved in the student movement and typified two of its stages. Samira, the second oldest daughter, was a fiery high school student leader at the age of 15 in the mid-1970s. Her hard-hitting style derives in part from the method used by student leaders at the time. The dates and times of the demonstrations were kept secret until the last minute. Then one or two students would burst into classrooms and interrupt teachers with calls for a demonstration. Since the student movement before and during the 1976 uprising was not yet divided along the same lines as the PLO’s constituent organizations, it is no coincidence that her closest friend and fellow student activist, Lina al-Nabulsi, became the symbol of the 1976 uprising in Palestinian political folklore when she was shot to death on the streets of Nablus during a demonstration. Samira was arrested and detained many times, but never for an extended period.

Although Samira was one of the first to be active in the student volunteer committees, by the time she enrolled at Birzeit University her formal involvement in the national movement steadily waned and her interests became more localized. Thus, when she worked in the Arab Studies Society and Kullat al-Mujtama‘ for two years after graduation, she played a key role in organizing employee demands for better pay, working conditions and fringe benefits. She received a Fulbright scholarship in 1984. After being refused entry into Jordan, there followed a long struggle with the Israeli authorities who initially refused to allow her to leave. Some pressure from lawyers and the US consulate in Jerusalem finally moved the authorities to issue her a laissez-passer. She recently returned from the United States with an M.A. in international development and is now expected to help support the family and perhaps take the financial place of Fadya.

Su‘ad, the youngest daughter, typified the student movement in the universities during the late 1970s and early 1980s — a time when political work was much more sophisticated and involved groups of students organized along separate ideological blocs. Unlike Samira’s confrontational style, she developed a reputation for being a soft-spoken but pragmatic and effective organizer. When the “Palestine Week” exhibit at Birzeit University was mysteriously burned down in 1984, for example, she helped organize artisans, workers and students from all parts of the West Bank to rebuild the exhibit within 48 hours. She was elected to the executive committee of the Birzeit Student Council and, for a six month period, headed the Student Council. With a scar on her neck from a soldier’s bullet as a permanent memento of her student days, she now works an extended night shift in a local Nablus hospital. Responsible for pre-operation tests as well as the blood bank, she works from 6 pm to 8 am, six days a week, for 70 dinars (about $185) a month. All attempts at continuing her education have been frustrated by the Israeli authorities. In 1986, they gave her permission to leave. She quit her job in a pharmacy, packed her bags and bade farewell to family and friends. Then, at the last minute, the permission was revoked.

Abu Faris has seen the best and worst of times. He was elected to the city council in the famous 1976 elections along with Bassam Shaka‘, Dhafer al-Masri and seven others. He received the fourth-highest number of votes, while much richer and more famous people, such as Hafiz Tuqan, failed altogether. Proud of his victory, he nevertheless notes that during the next six years, until their forced removal in 1982, his duties on the council eroded the clientele of his shop and left him little time to pursue his work as mukhtar. Since council members are not paid, he explains, “these six years ruined us financially.” He neglects to mention that much of his current reputation as a community leader is rooted in this fateful election. He, for example, has been offered the mayoral post many times since by the Israeli military, but has consistently refused.

Abu Faris is guardedly optimistic about the future. “They [the Israelis] still don’t acknowledge the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people, but we are here to stay and our roots are deep. We can never forget our land.” Yet, the future does not seem to hold many pleasant promises for him. Although he and his family are still widely respected in Nablus, it is clear that the setbacks for the PLO after Lebanon, the Israeli iron fist and King Hussein’s stubborn efforts to undermine the nationalist movement in the occupied territories have all lessened the degree of political influence he once enjoyed. Maintaining their middle class standard of living as well as occasional small political victories are now the stuff of his and his family’s life.

Beshara Doumani

Seasoned Migrants to the North

The sun was setting over Ramallah as I bent my head and, after a short knock, stepped into the dimly lit house in Harat al-Jiryis in the Old City. Abu Jamal sat glowering in a corner of the small, damp room, his hands raised over the coals that lay smoldering in the kanoun, drawing intently on his cigarette of homegrown tobacco — what is known in the villages as hisha.

Abu Jamal had no reason to be cheerful: his son Nasir had decided to divorce his wife of six months, Nuha, who returned to her father’s house in Sa‘ir. She was what is commonly referred to as hardana, disgruntled and unwilling to go back to her husband until be comes, usually with gold, to fetch her. Now Abu Jamal is faced with the prospect of rocking the family boat, Nuha’s father being his cousin, after all, in addition to having to pay the deferred amount of the bride-price (al-mahr al-mu’akhkhar) for the divorce, if in fact it takes place. Given his precarious standard of living, it is probably the second punishment he fears most.

Abu Jamal does not fit in any nice sociological category. Historical processes have thrown him and his family among the in-betweens of human society; such people constitute a major component of Palestinian society. Raised in a family of peasant origins, he is definitely not a peasant: he lives in the city, feeding off the crumbs it provides him and his offspring. He is definitely not a worker in the proletarian sense, as he has moved around in the lower reaches of all possible economic sectors: agriculture, industry, services. If ever he had a career, it is fair to say that his was a career in honing his skills of survival, at scraping by by the skin of his teeth. He and his wife raised 11 children, who will support him until his death.

Abu Jamal was born the oldest son of ‘Abd al-Fattah Ghanim al-Farouq, in Sa‘ir, a village northeast of Hebron, in the year 1936. ‘Abd al-Fattah moved with his small family up to Ramallah the same month that Abu Jamal was born. A landless shepherd, he was unable to sustain himself, his wife and child in the native village. The city beckoned with the prospect of work in the booming stonecutting industry and the support of those relatives who had preceded him in his journey northward. Unable to find housing near the Manara, the square that is the hub of the twin towns of Ramallah/al-Bira, ‘Abd al-Fattah moved around from place to place, finally settling in the Old City of Ramallah in a house owned by the Shunnara family. ‘Aziz Shunnara, like many Ramallah Christians, had made the big move to America, leaving his property for rent at a rate that, due to rent control regulations, today is low compared with new housing: 100 Jordanian dinars per year (a little less than $25 per month). By the early 1980s, the al-Farouq clan had become firmly ensconced in the original town of Ramallah, its 20 families making up perhaps one fourth of its population. They share this small area of one square kilometer with other Sa‘ir families (the Shalaldas, the ‘Umtours, the Jaradats) and a number of families from Dhahariyya, south of Hebron. Now relatively few of the original Christian families remain in these old parts.

As a kid, Abu Jamal contributed to the income of the growing family by shepherding, running errands and carrying goods for people. He attended the school belonging to the Roman Catholic Church in Ramallah, but quit after three years. He never learned to read or write.

He has two vivid recollections of World War II: He remembers the blackouts in 1945, when residents were ordered by the British occupying forces to cover their windows with blankets, or paint them blue; and he recalls the British soldiers celebrating in the streets of Ramallah after the final victory of the allied forces.

Memories of the war of 1948, and what Palestinians refer to as the Disaster that followed it, lie closer to the surface. “We were not scared,” Abu Jamal recalls now, “because the war stayed far from Ramallah. We trusted that the Arab nations would expel the Jews, sooner or later. Our people used to carry out acts of sabotage and raid Israeli farms and camps. In Ramallah we did not notice much of this.” With the defeat of the Arab armies, an uneasy peace came to the area, and with it thousands of refugees expelled from their native lands. Abu Jamal worked the next two years for the Red Cross distributing relief packages to his newly dispossessed neighbors.

At age 15, Abu Jamal journeyed to ‘Aqaba to haul goods in the Hashemite Kingdom’s southern port: wheat, phosphates — whatever arrived in or departed from this busy port city, Jordan’s gateway to the Fertile Crescent. He would return home every 40 days or so, and stay with his family for a week until new ships arrived and demand for labor peaked. In 1952, he voluntarily joined the Jordanian army. He remembers training, guard duty, patrols, and occasional skirmishes with the Israelis entrenched across the Green Line, only meters away.

Four years into his army service, at age 20, Abu Jamal wedded the daughter of his aunt and uncle in Sa‘ir, as is the custom in Palestinian villages. Umm Jamal was barely 13 when she was sent to Ramallah into marriage. Close kinship ties dictated a minimal bride-price — itself one more reason, aside from the traditionally strong identification with the clan, for a young man of humble means to marry within the immediate family. The oldest son, Jamal, was born two years later. Twelve children followed, two of whom died at an early age. Umm Jamal was strong of character, and her stewardship over the family through times both rough and very rough was natural and unchallenged. She was the one who encouraged the children to study, and she would even help them with their homework though she herself could neither read nor write. Her influence extended beyond the immediate family; others in the neighborhood as well as more removed members of the clan treated her with a great deal of respect. When she succumbed to illness and died prematurely in 1986, she was sorely missed by all who knew her. Her youngest child, Ahmad, was only five years old at the time.

At the birth of his first son in 1958, Abu Jamal left the army and set off on a career as roving laborer in Ramallah, performing irregular tasks such as loading and unloading trucks, and moving from coffeeshop to coffeeshop as a waiter. By 1965 he had saved up enough cash to open his own cafe near the Manara, where he developed his considerable skills as a comic orator and working-class socialite, the anti-hero who plays the clown at village gatherings and is the butt of many an affectionate joke. Still today he is fondly referred to as Abu Shaham — the Fat One — by his friends and relatives.

The occupation came brusquely on the unsuspecting Palestinian population of the West Bank and Gaza in 1967. “Airplanes came flying over. But it was more of a game than of a real war. The Arab leaders were lying to us. People were scared. They had Dayr Yasin in mind. Some were so scared, they fled across the bridge [into Jordan]. I was scared, but I could not leave; I did not want to leave. When the situation got dangerous, we used to go down into the cellar underneath the house. When the Israelis came, we moved to ‘Ayn Kinya [a village west of Ramallah]. The Israelis said that everybody should go to their houses and raise a white flag on the roof. So we put a white flag, and kept it for about a week, like everyone else. We were under curfew, and soldiers searched all the houses.” Normal life remained paralyzed that June, and food was scarce. “There was no flour in the shops. So we went down to the UNRWA offices, which were closed, and broke them open to take the flour that was inside. Soldiers were looking on and asked what we were doing. ‘We are hungry,’ we said. ‘We want to eat.’ They said they wouldn’t stop us.”

Abu Jamal’s career as a coffeeshop operator did not survive the war. Although he reopened the cafe later in 1967, he grew increasingly apprehensive about his position in such a public area as a coffeeshop, what with the proliferation of collaborators — that scourge of the Israeli occupation — and the influence they had on the atmosphere among his customers. He shut down the shop shortly thereafter, and sold the business finally in 1971. For two years he worked in the building trade for Israeli contractors (“with the Jews”) in West Jerusalem, until he dropped a stone on his foot. After a three-month stint in the hospital, he retired from the labor force. Since then, he and his family have scraped by on the meager welfare check he managed to draw from the Israeli Social Affairs Department, and on the occasional income from his chicken trade, usually illicit. Toward the late 1970s, the burden of providing the family’s subsistence was gradually transferred onto the backs of the sons as they reached their teens.

Today Abu Jamal lives in the house of the absentee ‘Aziz Shunnara, which consists of two small buildings, each containing two rooms, located on the square that abuts the Ramallah mosque. Abu Jamal’s cousin (who is Umm Jamal’s brother) and his cousin’s wife (who is Abu Jamal’s sister) live 20 meters across the way; other relatives are just around the corner. Relations with the remaining Christians are cordial; confessional differences, which do exist and sometimes are even articulated, play a minor role in the life of the neighborhood.

The bonds with the village remain strong, both because of its significance as the family’s birthplace — as Abu Jamal explains — and because of continuing close family ties. Relatives travel back and forth almost daily, if not for family visits, then at least for the frequent major family occasions like births, weddings and funerals, or religious feasts like the ‘Id al-Fitr and ‘Id al-Adha. Intermarriage ensures that these bonds will not soon diminish. Those members of the clan in Ramallah who still won land in Sa‘ir return seasonally to the village, where many have retained an abode, or where their children have chosen to settle. Most of the landless Ramallah contingent work in the fruit and vegetable trade around the suq in the Old City, or are employed irregularly either in Ramallah or inside Israel, usually in construction.

Some of the al-Farouqs have come into money through the years, and have moved into new housing elsewhere in Ramallah or in al-Bira. Some of the young men even ventured across the ocean in search of greater opportunity, often finding life in America profitable but harsh. Many of these married a second wife in the States to obtain the coveted “green card,” and some of them never return to their first wife and the children they sired in Ramallah. Abu Jamal’s younger brother Musa managed to make it to the US in 1978, married, stayed, earned some money, and then was shot to death under yet unsolved circumstances in Boston in 1983. His wife in Ramallah, a mother of six, was forced to look for work in order to survive, since Musa’s American wife received most of the small estate. She now cleans houses and offices at five dinars per day, and must otherwise rely on the irregular labor of her oldest son, a boy of 16.

Life under military occupation has taken its toll on the family of Abu Jamal. His sons are involved in various trades, but usually for short stretches, and at low wages. Although they can read and write, they have not learned any particular trade or skill. Jamal, the oldest son, was managing a coffeeshop in an office building at the Manara until he was arrested for resistance activity in the summer of 1985 and sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison. Nasir, the second son, has intermittently worked at the local tissue paper factory at 60 dinars ($160) a month, including overtime. He spent ten months in jail in 1985-1986 for alleged activities against the occupation. Two other sons, both in their late teens, work odd jobs. Khalid has taken over Jamal’s place in the coffeeshop, and ‘Umar, who is 17, has been working in the tissue paper factory at 45 dinars a month (since he is not married) after he spent three months in prison in 1986 for resistance activity. As part of the sentence, Abu Jamal had to pay a fine of 140 dinars. Abu Jamal himself was caught transporting chickens without a license (i.e., without paying taxes), and was forced to pay 140 dinars to the authorities, in addition to the fact that his chickens and the boxes containing them — a total value of 450 dinars — were confiscated. It is sometimes difficult to believe how families like Abu Jamal’s are able to save up money for the only major expense of their lifetime: the weddings of their sons. According to his calculations, Abu Jamal shelled out between 4,000 and 5,000 dinars, part of which he borrowed from friends and relatives, for the wedding last July of his son Nasir — the one who is now set on getting a divorce, which itself may cost the family 1,000 dinars, along with the predictable upset in familial ties.

The biggest jolt to the family was the death of Umm Jamal in August 1986. Mourning the absence of her two imprisoned sons and virtually pining away because of the uncertainty surrounding the fate of a brother who apparently “disappeared” in Syria, she was not able to muster the necessary physical resources to withstand a bout of hepatitis — nor could her family muster the necessary financial resources to put her up in a hospital to protect her from the constant demands at home. At age 42, Umm Jamal had come to wield considerable power in the family, virtually running it singlehandedly as Abu Jamal was either away looking for chickens to transport or socializing in the coffeehouse near the suq. The gap must now be filled by the second generation: Abu Jamal’s younger daughters (the older ones having married and moved back to Sa‘ir) like Faryal, who had to quit school with her mother’s death, and Jamal’s wife In‘am, who at age 24 has five children of her own to take care of.

Abu Jamal’s immediate family circle was thus further reduced. His own father, ‘Abd al-Fattah, died in 1970, but his mother, Lulya — the Hajja — is still around, a spunky old woman of 70, and a real tease, who will alight anywhere on the ground in the small neighborhood but who will never ever sit down on a chair. One of Abu Jamal’s brothers and two of his sisters died at a very young age; another sister did not survive an illness at age 18 (an “act of God” — “min Allah”). Now two sisters remain: Umm Anwar, who lives across the square with her family, and Um ‘Abbas, who lives with her children in Sa‘ir while her husband travels back and forth between the village and Ramallah, where he works — some of the time. A picture of ‘Abd al-Fattah, a beautiful black-and-white reproduction of the man in his later years, still adorns the wall of Abu Jamal’s house.

Traditional village mores remain the organizing force of the Ramallah community, an idee fixe indelibly impressed in the consciousness of these semi-urbanized villagers. It is as if the social structure of Sa‘ir has simply been lifted out of the original village, to be reproduced intact in the city, minus the social relations generated by immediate access to land and the fruits it engenders. The weight of Ramallah‘s economic life gravitated long ago toward the dividing line with al-Bira, leaving the Old City a peninsula bordering on the main part of town, a virtually self-sufficient (but barely so) economic and social entity with links primarily to the native village and — through the village — to the money that is repatriated by its offspring in the Gulf states and in the US. The longevity of the community is in doubt, however, as more and more of its members seek their blessings elsewhere. The older generation is fading and the Ramallah municipality — faithful to the plans first developed by the late mayor Karim Khalaf — has begun to earmark some of the aging houses for demolition.

During the past year, women activists linked to the recently founded women’s committees have tried to interest the women in the neighborhood in their social and cultural activities. So far they have had little success. One reason is the traditional brake on village women to move outside their houses and outside the immediate family circle. Another reason lies in the political affiliation of the committees, which tend to identify with the more progressive blocs in the Palestinian national movement. Abu Jamal’s family, like most of the families in Ramallah’s Old City, displays an unwavering identification with the mainstream grouping in the national movement, and their allegiance to Abu ‘Ammar (Yasser Arafat) as a leader is absolute and unquestioned. In fact, the political action of the residents of the old quarter extends as far as the edge of their communal territory, and is usually a kneejerk response to overt repression. These people were at the heart of the demonstrations against the occupation in December 1986 (which followed the killing of the two students in Birzeit) and February 1987 (during Amal’s siege of the Palestinian camps in Lebanon), throwing stones and burning tires in the general area of the suq and the mosque. Although the demonstrations involved mostly children and teenagers under 18 (and the girls among them most prominently), the older generations gave their full moral support. This was positively the only day since the death of Umm Jamal in August that I have seen Abu Jamal walking around with a spark in his eyes and a big grin on his face as he, like everyone else, was momentarily bathing in a rediscovered sense of self.

Joost Hiltermann

How to cite this article:

Marilyn Johnson "Profiles of Two Families," Middle East Report 146 (May/June 1987).

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