[URBANTH-L] REV: Rosenfeld on Taraki ed., Living Palestine: Family Survival, Resistance and Mobility under Occupation

Angela Jancius jancius at ohio.edu
Fri May 30 10:41:04 EDT 2008

[forwarded from H-Levant at h-net.msu.edu]

Lisa Taraki, ed. Living Palestine: Family Survival, Resistance and Mobility 
under Occupation. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2006. xxx + 296 pp. 
Notes, bibliography, index. $45.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8156-3107-1.

Reviewed by: Maya Rosenfeld, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, The 
Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Published by: H-Levant (April, 2008)

Palestinian Social Research and the Ongoing Crisis in the Occupied 
Palestinian Territories

This volume is a timely addition to the disturbingly slender body of 
academic research on Palestinian society during the current, ultra-violent 
phase of the Israeli military occupation. One may have assumed that the 
October 2000 disruption of the Palestinian attempt--short-lived and 
circumscribed as it was--at state-building, and the unprecedented upsurge of 
Israeli military aggression that followed thereafter, which carried in its 
wake devastation and destruction for all aspects of Palestinian social, 
economic, and political life in the Gaza Strip and West Bank, would have 
given rise to a large body of "crisis and disaster focused" social research 
and literature. Such an expectation was all the more apt if one took into 
consideration the wealth of social, political, and historical research that 
was triggered by the first Intifada (1987-93) and the diversity of scholars, 
in terms of both disciplinary specialization and nationality, who took part 
at that time in the enterprise of in-depth inquiry and knowledge production. 
But the more than seven years that have elapsed since the outbreak of the 
second Intifada (and Israel's first attempts to suppress it) in October 2000 
appear to have yielded a very different scholarly reaction.

Certainly, one is overwhelmed by the volume, high quality, and 
comprehensiveness of crisis and catastrophe-centered research that has been 
(and is continuously being) carried out and published by a host of 
international and local organizations and agencies. These include a dozen or 
so UN organizations, first and foremost the Relief and Works Agency for 
Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) and the Office for the 
Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), the World Bank, the 
Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics (PCBS) (an agency of the 
Palestinian Authority), a long list of international and Palestinian NGOs, 
and a number of Palestinian, Israeli, and international human rights 
organizations. Indeed, the abundance of data on poverty, declining standards 
of living, unemployment, labor market contraction, and other crises in the 
public and private sectors that is found in the periodical and annual 
reports by the aforementioned organizations is probably sufficient to 
sustain hundreds of research projects in the social sciences. However, it is 
a distressing fact that the incorporation of this raw data and its partially 
processed findings into broader sociological, anthropological, and 
historical studies is lagging far behind.

Living Palestine, a collection of research essays that explore relatively 
recent trends in urban culture, marriage patterns, emigration and class 
formation, the organization of and changing relationships within family 
households, and women's economic participation in contemporary occupied 
Palestine is therefore a welcome contribution, if only for its capacity to 
supplement "facts and figures" with sociohistorical analysis. All six 
contributors to this volume, five female and one male, are West Bank-based 
Palestinian academics practicing various social science disciplines, 
including sociology (Jamil Hilal, Lisa Taraki, Eileen Kuttab), public health 
(Rita Giacaman), and gender studies (Lamis Abu Nahleh, Penny Johnson). 
Furthermore, all have previously written extensively on Palestinian society 
and politics in the Occupied Territories, some for nearly three decades. The 
five women contributors are all affiliated with Birzeit University, three 
with the Institute of Women's Studies (IWS), one with the Institute of 
Community and Public Health, and one with the Department of Sociology. The 
sixth contributor is a research fellow at the Palestinian Institute for the 
Study of Democracy in Ramallah, who has also worked in collaboration with 
Birzeit's IWS.

In addition to the authors' shared institutional affiliation, another 
connecting link renders Living Palestine into a joint venture, rather than a 
mere collection of topically related articles. All of this volume's 
contributors relied heavily on the findings of a survey of two thousand 
Palestinian households in nineteen communities in the West Bank and Gaza 
Strip designed by the Institute of Women's Studies at Birzeit University and 
conducted in the summer of 1999. The authors also made use of various 
publications of the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics (PCBS), 
primarily statistical data compiled from the 1997 census and from annual 
surveys conducted from 1995 to 2000. Only two research essays relied 
extensively on fieldwork and relevant statistical data from more recent 
crises, that is, since 2001. This implies that, somewhat contrary to the 
initial impression its contents convey, this collection elaborates more upon 
developments of the 1990s than upon those of the post-Oslo years, a point to 
which I will return. In what follows I offer a critical reading of two 
essays in the collection: Lisa Taraki and Rita Giacaman's "Modernity Aborted 
and Reborn: Ways of Being Urban in Palestine," and "Living Together in a 
Nation of Fragments: Dynamics of Kin, Place and Nation" by Penny Johnson.

Taking as their starting point "the abrupt abortion [in 1948] of Palestine's 
urban modernity as embodied in the coastal cities of Jaffa and Haifa and in 
the inland city of Jerusalem" (p. 1), Lisa Taraki and Rita Giacaman set out 
to explore prototypes of urban history and of contemporary urban life in the 
West Bank, where the continuity, rather than the rupture, of communities 
prevailed. The authors' choice to focus on the cities of Nablus, Hebron, and 
Ramallah reflects an attempt on their part to encompass the marked diversity 
of urban development within this small part of historical Palestine. 
However, due to the relative scarcity of existing sociohistorical research 
on the three cities and the paucity of primary sources available to the 
authors, the reconstructed "city profiles" that emerge, while instructive, 
are based on considerable speculation and border on stereotypes. Thus Hebron 
and Ramallah are depicted as polar opposites, antipodes on the continuum of 
modernity and development. Hebron, the service and commercial center for 
Jabal al-Khalil, which retained attributes of a semi-rural town throughout 
the twentieth century, is characterized as the stronghold of traditionalism, 
conservatisms, localism, and narrow-mindedness. In contrast, Ramallah, 
currently the political and administrative "capital" of the Palestinian 
National Authority, is essentialized as the cosmopolitan home of students, 
intellectuals, and professionals, as well as local and international NGOs.

And finally, Nablus, which has historically served as the region's economic 
and cultural capital, and is home to a distinctive urban (yet "traditional") 
elite that has long played a significant role in the Palestinian national 
movement, is afforded an intermediate position in the aforementioned 
hierarchy. Conspicuously absent from this typology, however, is an attempt 
to incorporate the impact of four decades of Israeli military occupation and 
the equally long period of resistance to that occupation in the framework of 
the Palestinian national movement. In other words, the single most 
significant factor contributing to occupied Palestine's general economic, 
social and institutional underdevelopment, its arrested urban development, 
the consequent homogenization of socioeconomic conditions and reshaping of 
social structure, and the emergence and consolidation of political 
consciousness in this territory, was inexplicably left out of the analysis.

The absence of these key analytical determinants becomes all the more 
problematic in the second part of the essay, in which the authors use the 
reconstruction of their three historical profiles in an attempt to explain 
contemporary demographic and social characteristics of the three cities. To 
this end they mobilize a body of statistical data--most of which was 
extracted from the PCBS 1997 census--on fertility, marriage, education, 
employment, occupational differentiation, patterns of consumption, and other 
elements of lifestyle in the three urban areas and their corresponding rural 
districts. One salient finding that emerges from the abundance of data 
presented here and in other parts of this collection, is that, on the eve of 
the twenty-first century, the districts of Ramallah, Nablus, and Hebron 
exhibited relative similarity in terms of major socio-demographic 
indicators. These include an ever increasing rate of female enrollment in 
institutions of higher education, a significantly low rate of female 
participation in the labor force, a very high rate of kin marriages, a very 
low median age of women at the time of their first marriage, and a 
correspondingly high fertility rate. Another salient finding is that the 
city of Ramallah, at that time (1997) home to less than 20,000 residents, 
constituted a marked exception when compared to both its rural hinterland 
and to the other two cities. This was especially so in terms of Ramallah's 
relatively high concentration of students, adults with post-secondary 
education, professionals, persons employed in medium and higher management, 
recent emigrants from other parts of Palestine and from the Diaspora, and 
households with private cars, computers, and other amenities.

However, rather than tracing the processes that yielded both the exception 
(Ramallah) and the rule (all other urban and semi-urban communities in the 
West Bank), the authors attribute contemporary socio-demographic disparities 
between the cities to distinct, immanent "social universes" (p. 31), 
"cultural universes" (p. 33), or "urban paradigms" (p. 40) that allegedly 
breed distinct value systems. Thus, the significantly higher percentage of 
adults with higher education in Ramallah is attributed to the great 
valorization of education by the Ramallawis as well as to their "modernist 
dispositions" (p. 48). Conversely, we are told that the slightly higher 
rates of child labor in Hebron and Nablus reflect the fact that "in Hebron 
and Nablus some sectors within the population appear to believe that their 
children can manage their lives without much education" (p. 37), and the 
greater prevalence of amenities in Ramallah households is deemed indicative 
of the distinctive "life agendas" adopted by particular individuals and/or 
families. One cannot escape the feeling that this essay was written as a 
song of praise for the Ramallah-based Palestinian middle class and the 
supposedly (post?) modernist "ethics" it upholds, a sociopolitical stand in 
marked contrast to the radical orientation that characterized Palestinian 
social science just two decades ago. However, my main problem is rather with 
analysis that reproduces Ramallah, Hebron, and Nablus as self-contained 
entities divorced from the political economy of the Israeli occupation as 
well as from Palestinian politics. One is tempted to ask if, as is claimed, 
Ramallah is a "cultural universe" of its own, how do we explain the results 
of the parliamentary (PLC) elections of 2006, which demonstrated the fact 
that popular support for Hamas did not stop at the gates of this city? And 
what sense do we make of the fact that, for many years, the student movement 
at Birzeit University, perhaps "the" symbol of the "Ramallawi spirit," has 
been dominated, in whole or in part, by factions affiliated with Islamist 
political parties?

Researched and written by Penny Johnson, the second essay in the collection 
attempts to explain the persistence and pervasiveness of endogamy (marriage 
inside the kinship group, or kin-marriage, as it is termed here) in the 
Occupied Territories in the face of the profound social and political 
transformations that Palestinian society underwent during its prolonged 
subjection to Israeli military occupation. The high incidence and marked 
stability of endogamy are revealed in the ample statistical data that 
Johnson presents, and which are worth dwelling upon at some length. I will 
confine my remarks to the most salient data items: according to the IWS 
survey, in 1999 the prevalence of marriage between first cousins--the form 
of marriage to which the highest cultural preference is accorded--among 
women who had ever been married stood at 21 percent in the northern West 
Bank, 26 percent in the central West Bank, 27 percent in the southern West 
Bank, 30 percent in the Gaza Strip, and 32 percent in Jerusalem, with the 
cross-regional average standing at 27 percent. A PCBS survey taken in 2000 
yielded comparable results, and found that an additional 19.3 to 21 percent 
of women who had ever been married were in fact married to more distant 
relatives (distant cousins from the same hamula). Most importantly, the data 
revealed that the prevalence of first cousin marriage bore little relation 
to classic indicators like age, urban vs. rural residency, locality, or 
educational level (pp. 67-68). Of further interest is the wide gap between 
parents' declared preferences with respect to marriage partners for their 
children and actual practice. Parents of prospective brides and grooms 
commonly express negative views about marriage to relatives, occasionally 
employing a "modernist discourse" of genetics for that purpose. Yet, more 
often than not, they end up marrying off their daughters and sons to close 
or distant cousins.

As Johnson acknowledges, a prevalence of kin marriage is not unique to 
Palestinian society. It is, in fact, rather common in all contemporary Arab 
societies, with the incidence of first cousin marriage in the 1990s reaching 
24 percent in Egypt, 31 percent in Saudi Arabia, 35 percent in Syria, and 43 
percent in Libya (p. 66). Moreover, endogamy is, alongside patrilocality, 
patrilineality, and patriarchy, among the cultural practices and structural 
features that have received the most scholarly attention from 
anthropologists, sociologists, and social historians. Scholars have offered 
varying explanations for endogamy's historical origins, its social, economic 
and cultural "functions," its interaction with other components of the 
sociopolitical system, and the reasons for its persistence against a 
backdrop of changing socioeconomic conditions. However, there is a broad 
scholarly consensus that endogamy is an embodiment of patriarchal control 
exercised by older male members of the family (and the broader kinship 
group) over young, unmarried family members, particularly unmarried 
females.[1] It is because of this linkage that the high incidence of 
endogamy is commonly employed as an indicator of social conservatism as well 
as of the lower social status of women in a given society. Conversely, the 
apparent aim of Johnson's analysis is to free endogamy from its 
interconnection with patriarchy, at least as far as the contemporary 
practice of kin marriage in occupied Palestine is concerned. Indeed, nowhere 
in the text does Johnson note the ways in which endogamy, as a particular 
form of family-arranged marriage, enacts and reproduces patriarchal 
relationships within the families of the (hundreds of thousands of) 
Palestinian women whose experiences are the basis of the data she utilizes. 
Therefore, it is unsurprising that Johnson eschews explanatory schemes that 
indicate connections between the persistence of endogamy, the preservation 
of property relations, the reinforcement of social conservatism, and the 
repression of women.

Rather, Johnson selectively employs the theoretical apparatus of Pierre 
Bourdieu, particularly his concept of "economies of symbolic goods" and his 
conceptualization of kin and family relations as a relatively autonomous 
sphere, one not explicitly determined by the economic and political 
structures within which it is embedded. Thus armed, she asserts that 
"everyday practices of marriage and 'kin work' are sites where Israeli 
colonialism is contested and identity is constituted" (p. 52). The main 
thrust of Johnson's argument is that marriage between relatives (and 
occasionally, between unrelated members of the same community) is a means by 
which Palestinian families and the individuals they comprise fulfill 
essential social and emotional needs that they have been consistently 
denied, first by the Israeli occupation regime, and subsequently by the 
failure of the PNA to restore basic services or otherwise alleviate the 
devastating consequences of the siege and fragmentation that Israel imposes. 
In communities where permanent insecurity reigns, where people's ability to 
work and make a living, stay on their land, access health care, and travel 
is frequently disrupted or denied altogether, the persistence of endogamy 
indicates the importance that people accord to "closeness." In other words, 
it is their acknowledgement that, especially during periods of social 
instability, the similarity, indeed the "familiarity" or even "sameness" 
shared by prospective spouses is deemed a most valuable social asset (pp. 
76-77). In short, Johnson interprets "the dynamics of sameness in marriage" 
(p. 87) as a means by which parents seek to protect their children and 
improve the latter's future prospects, a process yielding enhanced social 
solidarity and greater empowerment of the individuals involved.

In the absence of a modern state and the entitlements and services that such 
sovereign entities regularly confer, one is likely to find increased 
dependence on the family and other kinship ties for security, stability, and 
other forms of support. This is doubly true under the conditions wrought by 
military occupation. Moreover, a rich and varied body of ethnographic 
research conducted in the occupied Palestinian territories, including my own 
work and Lamis Abu Nahleh's contribution to this volume, provides us with 
analysis of household economies and other "mechanisms" that enable families 
to survive prolonged crises like severe, chronic poverty, irregular income 
patterns, and the multitude of daily pressures caused by the occupation.[2] 
However, along with the crucial support it provides, greater reliance on 
family and kinship ties usually entails increased subjection of individuals, 
particularly young, unmarried women, to patriarchal control. It is in this 
context, I believe, that one should interpret evidence documenting the 
persistence of kin marriage in occupied Palestine. Specifically, the fact 
that such a significant number of Palestinian parents continue to arrange 
their children's marriages is an indication of the low place young, 
unmarried men and women occupy in the hierarchies of their families and the 
larger society.

In the history of the Palestinian national movement "social agendas" always 
lagged far behind the national issue. Nonetheless, until quite recently, the 
secular organizations that constituted the national movement in the Occupied 
Territories, particularly the leftist organizations and their affiliated 
women's committees, considered themselves progressive alternatives to 
conservative, reactionary social forces and institutions, including the 
patriarchal family. This position found natural expression in the critical 
attitude that political activists adopted to kin marriage, an issue to which 
I became exposed during my field research in the Dheisheh refugee camp 
(between 1992 and 1996). The parents of young male and female activists 
often attempted to arrange their children's marriages to first cousins or 
more distant relatives. Many resisted such attempts and mobilized 
"organizational resources" to that end: senior members of organizations 
repeatedly assumed intermediary roles, intervening on behalf of junior 
activists in an effort to call off arranged marriages or obtain parents' 
approval of their children's marriage choices. Resistance to the occupation 
was thus coupled, even if only to a modest degree, with resistance to the 
family's patriarchal control over its young members.

The Palestinian political arena has changed profoundly since the early 
1990s. Popular political structures have all but evaporated, as has the 
power of leftist parties and organizations. Women's political committees 
have either been dissolved or supplanted by NGOs, and what remains of the 
secular national movement faces fierce competition from Islamist 
organizations. Hardly any political formation challenges the traditional 
family's authority, while rising religious forces champion traditional 
values and institutions. This retrogression is another factor explaining the 
persistence and prevalence of kin marriage in the Occupied Territories.

[1]. Suad Joseph, "Gender and Family in the Arab World," in Arab Women: 
Between Defiance and Restraint, ed. Suha Sabbagh (New York: Olive Branch 
Press, 1996), 194-202.
[2]. Maya Rosenfeld. Confronting the Occupation: Work, Education and 
Political Activism of Palestinian Families in a Refugee Camp (Stanford: 
Stanford University Press, 2004).
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