Paradox, Perversity and Promise:
A Journey into Palestinian Genealogy
By Leyla Zuaiter
If I initially demurred when approached by Toine Van Teeffelen to give a workshop on Family History and Genealogy to the women’s group of the Arab Educational Institute (AEI) in Bethlehem, it's not that I wasn't interested in the subject. On the contrary, I had spent the last eight years wandering deeper and deeper into an enchanted family forest of memory, identity, history , literature, ethnicity, religion and psychology. The prosaic portal to this magical world was my bedside table drawer, where I had rediscovered a few forgotten fragments of my American and Iraqi ancestry. From such inauspicious beginnings, my “sanctuary” had grown almost imperceptibly around me into a forest of its own, akin to that of the boy’s room in the children’s classic, Where the Wild Things Are: family documents, old photos, stacks of letters, family memoirs, books, and maps--not to mention email--were crammed on the shelves, and stuffed to bursting in the trunks, cartons and binders. Yet I had not left Jerusalem; in fact, I had hardly left the house.
How did I do it? First, I contacted relatives on both sides of my family, tried to find out what they knew, and asked them to put me in contact with other relatives, repeating the process again and again. Then I headed for the Internet. I had opened that drawer at just the right time. A few years earlier, it would have been almost impossible to document American family history without actually going to the courthouse in the many places in which my ancestors had lived. But by now, genealogy was being touted as the second largest Internet pastime. I was able to learn about the places in which my ancestors lived on State and County sites, connect through message boards or mailing lists with distant relatives who had already done research on a branch of a family, download forms to order my great-grandfather’s Civil War pension records, order books, and get many on-line records--even scanned census images. If I got stuck, I turned to how-to sites and if I got really stuck I took advantage of the kind souls willing to do “look-ups” in censuses or books, or those dedicated to “random acts of kindness,” who might photograph a gravestone for me. I tried to enter all the information as I got it into my Family Tree Maker software, which let me easily store, access, update and even swap with others the accumulating piles of information. With a click of the mouse, I could generate such things as family trees or kinship reports, which showed at a glance how any given individual was related to another. If I wanted, I could even print out a pre-formatted book right from my computer.
With one thing and another I had soon gathered quite a bit of information on my American ancestors. And despite very low expectations regarding what I might uncover about my Iraqi ancestors, through correspondence and library research, I had collected more documents and information than I ever dreamed possible. Married to a Palestinian, I was also interested in my husband’s family history. I was equally fascinated by the colourful and diverse religious and ethnic threads woven into the histories of Palestinian families: Gypsy, Bukharan African, Afghan, Mughrabi, Circassian, Kurd, Turkoman, Greek, and Syriac •these as well the better-known Christian sects, each with its distinctive traditions, were like jewels in a treasure box. I marvelled at the ready answers to questions of family origins and the nonchalant references to hundreds of years of family history in conversations and articles.
But Palestinian genealogy presented a paradox: with few exceptions, such as the family tree scroll at the Khalidi Library I saw being unrolled on National Geographic, most of these tantalizing tidbits regarding Palestinian family origins were as dandelion fluff on the wind. For when I asked people how they knew that what they said was true, they said, “Our elders told us so.” As every genealogist knows, family stories are one thing but documenting them is quite another. “Islamic Court Records” was the only answer I got as to possible documentation. Eventually I would discover Beshara Doumani, who in his work had not only taken some of the mystery out of these records, but had used them to paint a picture of daily life in eighteenth and nineteenth century Nablus1. But the workshop was not in Nablus, and the records still seemed forbiddingly inaccessible. Thus, I wondered where I would come up with the content for the workshop.
Furthermore, I doubted that my experience, no matter how interesting, would be of much relevance for the workshop. What, after all, did sites like ancestry.com have to do with Bethlehem ladies? They didn’t need to find out where their ancestors came from. They didn’t need to wonder what cosmic forces were at work which set two different people from opposite sides of the globe into orbits which would ultimately cross and eventually lead to their birth. There was nothing mysterious or unpredictable about the marriage of their parents. They were in fact the opposite side of the coin. They were like the relatives who had stayed in the same place for generations whom I had sought in my own research. Surrounded by relatives and extended families, they took their heritage and family history for granted, rarely giving it much thought. Rootsweb and similar sites were unlikely to have much information of relevance to them or even Diaspora Palestinians, most of whom, as relatively recent arrivals, know where they came from; their ancestors were hardly apt to be found in Civil War records or even census records, which are only available to the public seventy years later. And although Iraqi history and heritage had much in common with Palestine, it was unlikely to shed light on the family trees of my ladies.
Thus, aside from my reluctance to leave a particularly piquant point in my own research, I balked at the thought of the sheer amount of time and energy the workshop would require. Toine’s attempt to address my misgivings by saying that the workshop was merely to be an “eye-opener” didn’t fool me one bit. It would be a hell of a lot of work. Yet I found I couldn’t just walk away. In the end , I decided to give the workshop, telling myself I would do it in memory of Musa Sanad2, who had dedicated his life to preserving the family history of nearby Artas.
Having made up my mind, I now set out to collect the pieces of the puzzle for the workshop with as much zeal as I had applied to my personal research. Starting on the Internet, most of my search results ranged from irrelevant to perverse. When I searched for “Palestinian” or “Arab” Genealogy I found a few items of interest, such as the primordial tribal divisions of the Arabian Peninsula, or the Biblical ancestor of Arabs. However, I soon found myself face to face with nefarious uses of Genealogy. The promising Arab “genealogy databases” turned out to be genetics databases of the Human Genome Project, which collects DNA samples from around the world and which “will show the connectiveness of people” according to the elusive Mormon billionaire who founded the project.3,4 Yet only a click away I read that in 1998, Israel claimed to have used such samples in the successful development of a " genetically specific ethnic bullet" that targets Arabs•I suppose if it were true, we would have heard a lot more about it by now.5 A few years later, the United States government is using genealogy software to track the family relationships of Iraqi insurgents,6 and complaining that the “extraordinarily strong family bonds complicate virtually everything Americans are trying to do here, from finding Saddam Hussein to changing women's status to creating a liberal democracy.”7 Democracy, Shemocracy. What was that you were just saying about family values?
Checking back on the US-based Palestinian sites, I was happy to note Google-sponsored ads for Palestine Hotels•until I clicked and found out that they were in Palestine, Texas. Palestinians searching their roots were more likely to find the ubiquitous Denis Ross book excoriating their late elected leader than distant relatives. Sponsored links to anti-terrorism sites or references to the Holocaust were apt to pop up more frequently than their ancestors. Depending on which site they used, they might not only fail to find Palestine, but be surprised that the entire Middle East had disappeared, a seeming Atlantis--except for one country, which was represented by a sponsored link about birthrights at the bottom8. Maybe I should check out Gensuck magazine after all, I reflected. Angry that genealogy, which I imagined could be a bridge between Arabs and the rest of the world, was being cynically turned against them, I redoubled my efforts.
It was only when I changed my search terms to “Oral History,” that I finally started to get closer to the kind of site I was seeking . And the use of “Oral History” rather than the more widespread “Family History” is particularly apt in the Palestinian context, not only because of the strong oral tradition among Arabs in general but also because of the fact that political constraints affecting the curriculum has meant that the choice usually came down to oral history or no history. Most of these sites were primarily related to refugees, which makes sense when one realizes how the majority of Palestinians are descendents of those who were forced to leave their homes. Al-Nakba’s Oral History Project9 Shaml,10 and Badil11 are among these ambitious and excellent sites having statistics, photos, oral testimonies, and more. But again, my ladies weren’t refugees, and neither were their distant cousins in places like Chile, where many had immigrated 100 years ago. Clutching at straws, I searched for anything related to genealogy and family history of Palestine no matter how remote: Christian and Muslim views of genealogy, Biblical genealogies, the ancestors of Jesus, and Mohammed; even the supposed “descendents of Jesus” per The Da Vinci Code. I can hear some of you saying, “But what about this or that book, study, paper or conference?” Yes, I came across some of them, but the point is that one shouldn’t have to be an academic to have access to this information. Ordinary people around the world benefit from user-friendly websites that provide the background, resources, advice and connections necessary to help them in their search for roots. Why shouldn’t Palestinians?
Given the lack of easily available information about Palestinian Genealogy in general, and the fact that all of the ladies were from Bethlehem, I now felt justified in narrowing my focus to the Bethlehem area. I left my computer and went on an all-out search for community resources that could be used in the workshop . I discovered that in many respects, Bethlehem was an ideal community from which to initiate such a project, for not only does Bethlehem have a very interesting family history, but there is a particularly tight relationship between the families and the physical features of the town. There are also many individuals and institutions dedicated to preserving heritage and not a few books as well. Genealogists would be green with envy if they knew how easy it was for Christian Bethlehemites to obtain family trees going back hundreds of years. One young heritage keeper, Andre Dabdoub, who has done so, is using genealogy software and a website to share it with others.12 Muslims can also find information about their ancestors in Khalil Shokeh’s book,13 which brings to life and documents both Christian and Muslim families of the Ottoman period. My job now boiled down to bringing home the importance of exploring and documenting their family history and leading the women to the resources. “Eye-opener” it would be. The workshop was soon over, but the effects were not•either for me or the women. For a series of coincidences led me not only to make discoveries about my husband’s family, but my own as well, and to continue finding heritage keepers, such as Bashir Barakat of the Issaf Nashashibi Cultural Centre, who is using Islamic court records to document the history of Jerusalem and its families.
But where is the promise I promised you? AEI was so pleased with the response of the ladies to the workshop that it decided to make it part of their Values and Identity programme. During my preparation for the workshop, I had noticed that a message board on ancestry.com14 had a large number of inquiries about Bethlehem families. Someone in the United States would ask a question to which someone in Chile, who didn’t know much more, would reply. “Any school child in Bethlehem could probably answer that question,” I thought. That was it! My Bethlehem ladies should be the resource persons. They and others in the community should be the ones to receive questions and requests from those in the Diaspora, many of whom may not speak Arabic, and to respond to them. They could do “look-ups” in books, or a “random act of kindness” such as photographing a home or interviewing someone’s relative. We could develop entertaining and educational activities about family history and heritage such as the “Treasure Hunt,” and “Bethlehem Jeopardy Game” I had prepared for the ladies. The activities would not only lead to community building at the local level but with the huge Diaspora as well. Generations would try to share their varying experiences with each other. All of the extra material I had collected in preparation for the workshop would be put to good use on a website15 in lists of the resources, and articles on the “heritage keepers” I had met on the way.
Then Toine forwarded an email he had received about a new site called Palestine Family Net.16 On this site individuals will soon be able to directly upload their photos, documents, stories, trees, articles and other items related to Palestinian family history and genealogy in more than 40 categories, while receiving full credit for their contributions. Just as Beshara Doumani strives to rewrite Palestinians into history, Palestine Family Net will rewrite them onto Internet-genealogy sites. And that is just the beginning of the promise of Palestinian Genealogy. But you have enough to think about for now. So collect the stories of those close to you, write to those who are far, document your existence and that of your ancestors, submit something to Palestine-family.net, then go write a book. If you don’t write your story, somebody else will. And if you don’t believe me, just go take a look at " Palestine" on Latter Day Saints’ website.17 Someone has been very busy since the last time I looked•and I don’t think it was Palestinians. What are you waiting for? The first step on your journey might be on the keyboard in front of you.
By the way, if you think this article has nothing to do with this month’s health focus, you’re wrong. Genealogy is a pastime that will stand by you in sickness and in health. I should know. The two months I was incapacitated by a fall from a horse ushered in a period of postal paradise, and kept my thoughts from straying too often to Christopher Reeves. And cartons of documents as well as a documented family tree going back to 1600 arrived during a one-month bout with pneumonia. The best thing was I didn’t even have to feel guilty about the amount of time I spent reading them!
Leyla Zuaiter is engaged in personal American, Iraqi and Palestinian family history research and advises local bodies on the incorporation of this field into a wide range of projects and activities.
Photo of Giacaman family: Courtesy of Fuad Giacaman, Arab Educational Institute, Open Windows, Bethlehem
1 history.berkeley.edu/faculty/Doumani/ and Rediscovering Palestine: Merchants and Peasants in Jabal Nablus, 1700-1900 (UC Press, 1995)",
2 See Musa Sanad 1949 - 2005 A Modern Day Palestinian Folk Hero www.thisweekinpalestine.com/details.php?id=1263&ed=100
3 James LeVoy Sorenson: Elusive billionaire, by Dave Anderton
Deseret Morning News;
4 The Church of the Latter Day Saints, abbreviated to " LDS" in Genealogy circles, whose adherents are also known as Mormons, are an American sect now centred in Utah, whose belief in posthumous baptism motivates them to collect family records from all over the world. Americans can access these in the closest LDS Family History Library; the church also has a website for genealogists: www.familysearch.org. There is no such library in Jerusalem, despite the Mormon University on Mount Scopus
5 In “Project Censored: The News that Didn’t Make the News (#16): Human Genome Project Opens the Door to Ethnically Specific Bioweapons,
6 February 17, 2005 Genealogy Software Combats Terrorists in Iraq blog.eogn.com/eastmans_online_genealogy/2005/02/genealogy_softw.html
7 Iraqi Family Ties Complicate American Efforts for Change by John Tierney (New York Times) Sept 28, 2003 http://126.96.36.199/search?q=cache:Z_1Bdfgw_jQJ:epicalert.c.tep1.com/maabySPaa1lpSbaJ8sFe/+Iraqi+Genealogy+-Jews+-Jewish&hl=en
8 The Internet changes so fast that it is hard to replicate a search. In the interval since I first started working on the article and the final draft, for example, the advertisers on the PalGenWeb had changed as had the sponsors on the About.com’s Genealogy Page.
13 Tarikh Beit Lahem fi Ahd il Othmaniyin