Issue No.
83, March 2005 Latest update 9 2014f August 2014, at 4.39 am
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Musa Sanad 1949 - 2005 A Modern Day Palestinian Folk Hero
By Leyla Zuaiter

"With Musa Sanad’s death, the Palestinians have lost a seminal figure in the field of Palestinian heritage preservation,” says Maha Sacca, head of the Palestinian Heritage Centre in Bethlehem. “Artas will miss Musa Sanad the way the Palestinian people miss Arafat,” says one of the 3,000 odd inhabitants of this village about 2 km south of Bethlehem.

The fascinating story of how this man came to be so intimately associated with Palestinian heritage and the village of Artas began in 1972, when a lady in her fifties appeared in the village. Encountering a schoolteacher, she asked him his name. “Musa Eisa Sanad,” he replied. “Musa Eisa Suleiman Selim Mahmoud Sanad,” she amended, pulling out his family tree, and tracing his lineage back to his great-great grandfather. The woman got her information from the works of Hilmeh Granqvist, a Finnish anthropologist, who in the early twentieth century had written several monographs dealing with village traditions from cradle to grave. Hilmeh was only one of the most prominent of the long line of Europeans who lived in or studied the village from the mid-nineteenth century on, drawn by its breathtaking scenery, biblical associations and proximity to Jerusalem. She is among the several women who themselves became a legendary part of village lore, thus attracting other researchers, foreign and local, and resulting in quite a few books and studies.

It so happens that Artas enjoys an especially rich landscape and cultural heritage. Watered by Solomon’s Pools and several springs, its green valley and lush agriculture belie the fact that it sits on the edge of the desert. Deriving from “Hortus,” Latin for “garden” as in “Hortus Conclusus”-- the “garden enclosed” of Solomon’s Song of Songs -- or from the Crusader’s “Artasium, or “orchard,” its very name is steeped in natural and historical imagery. In or near the village are found Solomon’s Pools, an Ottoman Fortress, as well as Biblical, Roman, and Crusader and other ruins. But perhaps Artas is today best recognized by its latest monument, a beautiful convent overlooking the valley, which was completed in 1901.

From the moment of Sanad’s encounter with the foreign lady, the fates of Sanad and Artas were inextricably linked. Ashamed that a foreigner knew more about his history than he did, Sanad dedicated the rest of his life not only to collecting, documenting, preserving and sharing the oral history of the village but also to improving the life of the villagers; the keeper of the village flame had passed to a native son. He sat with the old people and wrote down their stories, and through his students he tried to keep up-to-date on village births and deaths. After soldiers tore up some papers they found on his desk during a school raid, Sanad kept them at home, wrapping them in plastic and burying them in the garden; he also hid the 100 odd books he had collected on Artas and other subjects, dividing them between the storage room and his neighbours. He began writing his “book” in 1979. Photos of Artas of varying vintages are pasted on the cover of this large ledger-type book. Inside are pages filled with his handwriting in several colours of ink. The book, a veritable compendium of Artas, contains the proverbs, stories, curses, family genealogies, politics, events, schools, and just about everything else relating to the village. Sanad soon became acknowledged as the village expert so that foreigners or locals who came to the village seeking information were automatically directed to him.

When he finally realized his dream of opening a folklore centre in 1993, his work was taken to a new level. In 1995, Sanad initiated the first annual Lettuce Festival, which took place in the lovely Artas Valley overlooked by the Convent. By inviting members of consulates and local institutions, he generated interest in, and attracted funding for, his work, primarily from the French but also from the Belgian, Dutch, UNDP, the UAE, and other sources. He retired shortly thereafter from his teaching position to devote himself full time to his passion. By renting rooms or by purchasing and renovating historic homes, Sanad contributed much to the preservation of the village’s architectural heritage. In fact, he became so knowledgeable about traditional architecture that he was often mistaken for an engineer. One of the rooms houses a museum full of the implements and utensils of Palestinian village life.

Sanad did much to enliven cultural life in the village and surrounding area. He organized four international festivals in nearby beauty spots. Participating artists hailed from as far away as Tunisia and Turkey. So engrossed was he in one of these events that he didn’t come home for 40 days, his wife claims. He also led school children or tourists on nature and heritage walks in the area. Perhaps one of his biggest coups was the inclusion of Artas in the Bethlehem 2000 celebrations. He also tried to increase international awareness of the heritage of Artas, by staging exhibitions abroad and initiating a film project.


Aside from collecting and preserving Artas’ folklore, Sanad did many things to improve the daily lives of the villagers. With the help of French volunteers, he renovated Ain Artas, the picturesque spring near the village mosque, where some of the village women and girls still wash their clothes. He brought clean water from Bethlehem to the village, whose water source until then had been the polluted Ain Atan. He initiated the project, only partially realized, to pave the road between Solomon’s Pools and Bethlehem for the benefit of the residents and tourists. Through his efforts, a garbage truck was bought to collect the village refuse, which had previously marred the landscape. He also was responsible for getting funding for two new school buildings.

The father of nine, Sanad was fortunate to have the support of his family. His mother sometimes made coffee for visitors at the museum. His wife, Muna, an excellent cook, used to prepare traditional meals for groups of visitors. She accompanied researchers around the village to collect stories. The family shared in the sacrifices, big and small, which Sanad made for the sake of his work. Though the family stresses that no one person can replace Sanad, they hope to perpetuate his memory and build on his work. His son Fadi has begun typing up his father’s book and the family is looking for an institution or organization that can help underwrite the publication. As for the Folklore Centre, they are looking for cooperation with tourist, heritage, educational and cultural institutions. Despite the uncertainty hanging over his legacy, there is little doubt that Musa Sanad will become one of the most important people who have studied the customs, traditions and folklore of Artas and who have in turn become a larger than life part of them -- like a hero in the folktales he dedicated his life to preserving.

For the time being, interested parties can reach the family of Sanad at 02-275 2752 or
fdsanad@yahoo.com

Some particularly nice captioned photographs of Artas and the area can be seen at: www.greatmirror.com/index.cfm

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