Interview: Sharif Kanaana on Palestinian folklore and identity

Sharif Kanaana

Born in the northern Palestinian village of Arrabeh in the Galilee and currently living in the occupied West Bank city of Ramallah, Sharif Kanaana has been a professor at Birzeit University for many years. The author of several acclaimed books, including Speak Bird, Speak Again, a collection of Palestinian folk tales, Kanaana is the director of the Center for the Study of Palestinian Society and Heritage at Birzeit. The Alternative Information Center’s Robin Myers and Shadi Rohana spoke with professor Kanaana in his office about his book, Palestinian identity and both the local and global significance of folklore itself.

Alternative Information Center: Can you tell us about the process that led to the publication of your book Speak Bird, Speak Again?

Sharif Kanaana: I studied and taught abroad in the United States, spending about 15 years away from home. In 1975, however, I felt that I should return home to Palestine. This coming-back was borne of a great deal of nostalgia for the traditional way of life, food and culture, for everything authentic. Nothing makes one feel the value of his own culture and society like being far away from them.

This journey that I undertook, of returning to my roots, happened on two tracks. First, as the head of the research center in Birzeit University, I led a team of local researchers in locating all the Palestinian villages that were depopulated and destroyed during the Nakba [the Palestinian expulsion] of 1948. The project later led to the compilation of the book All That Remains, which appears as edited by Walid Khalidi, who supported our project.

The second track I undertook was the collection of folk tales, the outcome of which was the book Speak Bird, Speak Again, containing 45 Palestinian folk tales translated into English. I simply thought they were beautiful stories. I still think that folk tales are the most beautiful literature in the world, in any culture. The book first appeared in English in 1989, following a ten-year joint effort with Ibrahim Muhawi. The reason it took so long to finish the book was that when Muhawi left Palestine to teach in Tunisia, we could not maintain direct communication — the Israeli authorities forbade us to have any direct communication with Arab countries. We corresponded through letters sent back and forth by a mutual friend in London. I did the social, psychological and cultural analysis of the stories, while Muhawi took care of the linguistic and literary ones.

AIC: What has the book achieved regarding the recent revival of Palestinian identity and folklore?

Kanaana: First, the book itself is valuable. In the foreword, [the late folklorist] Alan Dundes says that it introduces Palestinian culture and folklore to the world folklore community. That in itself is an achievement. As for Palestinian identity, I would say it went though something similar to what I went through myself, for I lived the Palestinian story from its beginnings. I was born in 1935, and so I experienced the Palestinian Revolt of 1936-1939 at a very young age. Later, I witnessed the Palestinian Nakba of 1948 and suffered from its effects.

In 1948, the Palestinians who remained inside the Israeli borders felt they were completely lost. No communication was allowed with the rest of the Arab world, not even by mail or phone. As a result, their identity became diluted; they wished to be accepted in the Israeli Jewish society. However, thanks to the racism of the latter, Palestinians were rejected, and were thus impelled to search for their own identity.

It didn’t take Palestinians too long to discover that identity, to discover their roots, which are now being strongly revived among the Palestinians of 1948 [Palestinian citizens of Israel] as rejection by Israelis continues to intensify. I went through the same process as an individual; after all, the business of searching for your own identity is the business of locating things that symbolize it. For me, these symbols were in folklore.

I remember how in the late 1970s, as I was collecting the folk tales, some of the older women whom I asked to tell the stories would respond, as if insulted, “Do you think I’m old fashioned?” For them, folklore was something old-fashioned! At the present time, however, despite the fact that we lost most of these tales, we are not defensive about them anymore; we’ve come to value our folklore and culture in a different and stronger way.

Myers and Rohana: You said you began to work on this project with a great deal of nostalgia for Palestine after many years abroad. As you began to collect those stories, to speak with people and locate these symbols, did you encounter things that surprised or disappointed you? Were there discoveries you hadn’t expected?

Kanaana: Well, many of these stories I had already heard as a child. I was a child during a period when people told these stories almost every day. Maybe the surprise was just how beautiful they were. When I was a child I would simply listen to them for fun, but in coming back to them as an adult, I discovered a lot of beauty in them. In addition, I discovered that the stories held a particular kind of psychological support for the identity and personality of the child. Actually, the sheer amount of psychological insight expressed in folk tales still surprises me, and I feel that humanity is losing so much these days by not resorting to folk tales in the raising of its children. In this sense, folk tales are universal; they assure the child that one day he or she is going to grow up and be as strong as the hero.

However, it is interesting to note that in these stories the hero doesn’t start out as a hero at all. Quite the opposite, in fact — an antihero, maybe. He starts out as just a small child, maybe someone deformed and controlled by his older brothers. Any child can psychologically identify with this character, because every child lives in a world that is controlled by adults.

Look at the story Half-a-Halfing (Nus Nsees), for example. The hero is a small child, the son of the first wife who’s no longer loved. He gradually grows up, becoming stronger and stronger before ultimately defeating his two brothers, his competitors. Eventually, his mother defeats the second wife (her competitor) through him, which allows him to inherit his father’s wealth.

Another universal element found in this story is how the son, Half-a-Halfing, goes off to fight imaginary creatures. This is typical of all folk tales worldwide: a weak person who wins against all odds, returning home powerful and strong. It’s fantastically helpful for children. It tells them that they won’t be small and controlled by others all their lives if they try hard and be patient.

AIC: The Arabic edition of the book Speak Bird, Speak Again was banned by the Palestinian Ministry of Education in 2007 under the pretext that it contains “immoral expressions.” What did it mean for Palestinian society to experience such a ban of its own cultural and historic heritage? What was under threat?

Kanaana: When many Western media outlets came and spoke to me about the banning of the book, I was aware that neither Palestinians folklore nor I was what really interested them. They only wanted to condemn Hamas: the book was prohibited and taken out from schools when Hamas was in government, which caused a big fuss, and the book became famous around the world. The same goes for Fatah and others here who organized demonstrations in town to lift the ban. The folk tales were condemned because they supposedly include “insults” to people’s dignity or whatever.

But compare this attitude to that of Arabs in the 7th or 8th century, which was fantastically liberal! Classical Arabic culture itself lies at the heart of these folk tales. The connections between them have been eroded in our collective memory, in our understanding of our own identity. I, for instance, didn’t know anything of classical Arabic culture for a long time. I studied elementary school under the British Mandate, and I started high school the very first year that Israel took over the schools. I never heard the name Palestine there — you could go to prison for it! I went to college in the United States and studied there through my PhD. Where would I learn anything about Arab culture? When I came back to Palestine, part of returning to my roots was to read classical Arab literature. I found it to be fantastic, really beautiful and rich. Somehow, it has been subdued completely.

In the West, of course people know of Arab culture through One Thousand and One Nights, but these stories are not the heart of the Arabic culture; I think they are rather on the fringes. While the classical Arab natural sciences were used in the West, there is a lot of literature, poetry and scientific writing during the classical period about the nature of women, society and language that has been completely subdued.

Here’s another example - last year I read all 28 volumes of the Book of Songs (Kitab al-Aghani) by Abu al-Faraj al-Asfahani, which contains songs and stories about musicians and singers during the Umayyad period to the 9th century. Why doesn’t the world appreciate such a document? Is it because the world has since been dominated by a different group that doesn’t acknowledge or even recognize other cultures? If a Greek in Ancient Greece said a couple of sentences he is celebrated to this day … everything started with the Greeks! But how can anyone ignore these 28 volumes? They have fantastic amount of poetry and songs, and I’m sure people can find a hell of a lot in them. There is also The Great Book of Interpretation of Dreams by Ibn Sirin. There is nothing that Freud came up with, as far as the interpretation of dreams is concerned, that is not found in this book.

I was fascinated to discover all this treasure hiding in our past. Many people in our society know nothing about it, because everything they studied comes from and remains oriented toward the West — and since 1948, the Israelis. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t learn from the West, but I think we should start with our own culture, our own civilization, and then build upon it.

When we are well-informed about our culture, history and society, and then borrow from the West, we are bound to merge it with our culture rather than having it imposed upon us as an alien element. It would be truly assimilated — a treasure, a background, to which we would then bring other materials from outside. But if you don’t have a strong basis, if you don’t have anything to assimilate into, you just absorb these external elements exactly as they are, and you end up with sort of a split personality, one Arab and one European.

Shadi Rohana is a Palestinian from Haifa who currently forms part of the Alternative Information Center (AIC) and reports from Jerusalem.

Robin Myers is from New Jersey, the United States and reports from Jerusalem.