Wednesday, October 15, 2014

THIS WEEK IN PALESTINE: Ethnographic Habitat, Place Memories, and Cultural Identity

Byzantine, Crusader, and Ottoman traces.

"Sebastiya successfully combines the ideological framing of history and identity. The exquisite rehabilitation of Sebastiya homesteads and previously abused monuments addresses the relationship between time and space, and points the way for the future development of Palestinian cultural geography...."

Retrocog-nition in Sebastiya

Ethnographic Habitat, Place Memories, and Cultural Identity

"...Sebastiya is a living ode to Palestinian life, a museum of memories with which we are already acquainted though Fairuz’s classical ballads. In fact, the lyrics and melodies immortalised by Fairuz haunt the old town of Sebastiya.

Sebastiya is a “place memory” par excellence, wherein the visitor “remembers” events that have been experienced by others, and it is closely associated with retrocognition, which literally means “backward knowing.” In retrocognition, visitors and locals witness events as “a playback of a past scene.” Thus, place memory and retrocognition juxtapose present-day environmental place memory with alterations in time that might let you literally see the past (retrocognition). With retrocognition there is a dream-like state and an altered sense of time.

Each village has its own narrative, its own individuality, and its own unique character. Sebastiya brings together Biblical, Roman, Crusader, Ayyubid, Mamluk, and Ottoman archaeological architectural elements, not as cold relics but as an integral expression of Palestinian key symbols and signs within an ecological niche that the Palestinian genius has sculpted through the past five millennia.

In Sebastiya, history and its relationship with narratives constitutive of national identity weave a lyrical poem that celebrates the roots of Palestinian national identity in antiquity. By situating the cultural architectural narrative within the local spatial context and connecting it to wider regional cultural geography and history, the heritage attraction sites become signifiers that help advance the understanding of the highly diversified cultural expressions of Palestinian national identity.

In Sebastiya we find a venue that reveals the composite multi-layered historical and demographic levels of which our cultural identity is an expression. Sebastiya as an iconic heritage site has come to symbolise fundamental aspects of “Palestinianness,” and in so doing presents the nation as a family, a group of relations with shared history, values and beliefs, and common characteristics."

Dr. Ali Qleibo is an anthropologist, author, and artist. A specialist in the social history of Jerusalem and Palestinian peasant culture, he is the author of Before the Mountains Disappear, Jerusalem in the Heart, and Surviving the Wall, an ethnographic chronicle of contemporary Palestinians and their roots in ancient Semitic civilisations. Dr. Qleibo lectures at Al-Quds University. He can be reached at:


Habitat is not your usual word. A look at the English dictionary definition reveals a number of meanings:
  • The natural environment of an organism; a place that is natural for its life and growth. For example, a desert habitat and all the wildlife thriving there.
  • A place where an organism is usually found. For example, Nablus is a major habitat for knafeh chefs and sweet shops in Palestine.
  • A special environment in which organisms reside over an extended period. For example, the village habitat in Palestine is special for both humans and animals.
If we take a look at the beautiful old houses in Palestinian villages, towns, and cities, we find that they easily integrate with their surrounding habitats. They have been built by the descendants of people who have lived and been nurtured in this habitat for thousands of years. A totally different perspective from the one you get when you are struck by the illegal Israeli settlements that intrude on the natural habitat of Palestine and impose ugly structures that have little to do with their surrounding environment.

In the pages of this issue you will discover the unique floral aspects of Palestine, its rich wildlife, and just how little you know about it all. We hope that you will gain a greater appreciation of the village habitat, the way Jerusalem produced its own kind of habitat, and how all of it is endangered mainly because of the occupation but also because of other social and economic factors.

Habitat is not just a word in Palestine; it is a way to affirm and preserve
our identity and way of life!

Ahmad Damen
Content Editor

Highlights of Palestinian Habitats

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