Journey to the Holy Land – Day 11

November 3, 2010

Today I had the opportunity to visit a local museum which is administered by The Arab Women’s Union, a charitable, social and cultural society that was founded in 1947—a very good year since I was also born that year.  I know, I know.  Hard to believe, isn’t it!

The Society is composed of thirteen women (do you recall that the Aseela Women’s Cooperative was also started by thirteen women?) in the Executive Committee.  There are an additional 80 women who assist the organization on a voluntary basis.  Although there are six project areas that the Society supports, the one that I was able to witness today is called “Baitouna Al-Talhami” which translates in English to “The Museum of Traditional and Popular Art.”

Before I visited the museum, I read an article on the internet by Julia Dabdoub who is president of the Society.  I am going to quote something from her article and ask that you read it with an open mind.  Keep in mind that this article does not in any way dispute the actual location (in the present day Church of the Nativity) that is believed to be where Jesus was born. She writes…   

“In the Bible it is said that Saint Joseph and the Virgin Mary came to a “hostel” or “inn” in Bethlehem. We know that Joseph was originally from Bethlehem, he was the descendant of King David. He should have had some family there. Now we feel that it’s a Western legend that the people of Bethlehem refused hospitality. Since thousands of years we Palestinians keep the custom that when people come from abroad, they shouldn’t sleep in a hotel or guesthouse; they should come to a house. Even when you have only two rooms you make space. This is our custom.”  Julia continues…

“It’s a shame when people go to a hotel. We felt that it would have been more likely that Joseph and Mary went to the house of Joseph’s relatives. Since everybody lived in only one room, and the Virgin Mary was about to give birth, they let her go down where the sheep and goat stayed, and there she gave birth. Later we heard that a well-known Biblical scholar, Father Pierre Benoit, agreed and had found that the word “cataluma” in the Greek Bible does not exactly cover the meaning of hotel or inn. It may in fact mean “house.”

For me, this explanation of the culture of that time in Bethlehem sounded very plausible.  When I went to the museum and toured this 600-year-old home and witnessed how the house would have been set up at that time, Julia’s writing made a great deal of sense.  At most, the one floor on which the family lived might have been divided into two rooms.  One would have been sleeping quarters for the parents and the other larger room would have been both living and sleeping quarters for the household.  There were low to the ground seating areas and other smaller pieces of furniture at the perimeter of the room while the floors were covered with wool rugs.  A lighter rug would cover the wool rugs during the day and then be removed when the mattresses were brought out for sleeping at night.  This room is called Al Dar.

Below Al Dar is the stable used to keep their domestic animals such as a donkey, mare, goat and sheep.  This room, called Al-Rawye, does resemble a cave as it is all hewn out of rock. It made sense that Mary might have gone to a similar place in her relative’s home to give birth so that she had a place of privacy.  Most typical families of that day might comprise eight or more people all living in one room and perhaps the culture did not consider ‘birthing’ a family affair.  I leave you to reflect on this idea as a possibility.  My goal is not to start a revolution but to open avenues of education and perhaps conversation.

There were two other areas in the house that were very interesting.  The kitchen was a room completely separated from the other part of the house.  It included different kinds of containers for food, a grinding wheel for lentils and other beans, many kinds of cooking pots made of tin and copper, and a box about 2’ x 2’ x 2’ in dimension with screens on all sides which hung from the ceiling and which they affectionately refer to as the refrigerator.  There was also a cistern built below the kitchen. There was a device used to lower a bucket down to gain access to the water and to bring it back up to the kitchen for cooking.

The final area I saw was an open veranda where people would gather in good weather for conversation, needlework, and social events.  In one corner of the veranda there was evidence that another cistern had once existed below this space.

One of the other projects of the Arab Women’s Union is to preserve the traditional embroidery of their heritage.  In 1968 they started the ‘Embroidery Center’ with the aim to provide work for needy local women and to preserve this part of their culture by exactly copying the embroidery from traditional Palestinian dresses.  I was able to see some of this fine work being done today as well as see one of the original traditional wedding gowns which had embroidery only on the bodice.  The tour guide told me that a woman would not only wear this dress for her wedding but also for all other special celebrations during her life.  Most Christian Palestinians also requested to be buried in that dress.

Since one of my projects while I am here is to work on women empowerment issues, perhaps The Arab Women’s Union could be another topic for a radio program.  I am adding it to my small but growing list.

Until tomorrow, stay warm, sleep well, and may you have a peaceful, life-restoring rest.

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Published in: on November 3, 2010 at 2:52 pm  Leave a Comment  

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