What happens when victims of war disperse all over the world and form their own communities elsewhere? Are they successful integrating in their new environments? I am sure people of every ethnic background have their own fascinating stories of adversity, failure, and success. One thing I do know is that Palestinian Americans in the diaspora have been for the most part quite successful integrating into the United States, partly because of their desire to assimilate, and also because they carry with them tribal traditions that bind them as a people.
Events like Palestine Cultural Day are a way that Palestinians strengthen their bond through music, dance, food, and togetherness. This festival is also a way to open their hospitality to the world at a time when they are defined by a mostly hateful media lens. Government leaders and media pundits have called Palestinians ungrateful, hateful, violent, Islamic fundamentalists, ignorant, and worst of all, invisible, or a “made up” people. In reality, Palestinian’s history stems back many centuries, traced to the biblical Canaanites. Today they are the most educated people per capita in the Arab world, are comprised of both Christians and Muslims, almost always speak English along with at least one or two other languages, have a strong work ethic, and value hospitality, freedom and peace. At Palestine Culture Day, they were proud to share these aspirations with other Americans.
This year’s festival, which occurred in Foster City California, featured a plethora of Palestinian robes for sale. The Palestinian embroidered robes, or “thobes” keep alive the old Palestinian villages through embroidery. Each embroidery represents a different town, so just by looking at a woman’s wardrobe in Palestine, you could tell whether she was from Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Jericho, Nazareth, or any other Palestinian city. The fashion show featuring Palestinian models told the story of each robe, a mini history lesson expressed through wearable art.
Palestinians also express their freedom though their folkloric dance called debke. In the early days, Palestinian farmers would dance debke to celebrate their harvest in the fields, and they would also dance the debke to ward off bad spirits. Today the debke is a symbol of Palestinian strength and resilience, one of the few ways they can express joy living under occupation. Palestinians usually dance the debke today at joyous occasions, like weddings. The dance formation is in a circle or a line, alternating between delicate stomping to outright strong and robust stomping usually done by the males. If you do ever find yourself at an Arab wedding, don’t be shy, just follow along and there will always be someone eager to teach you how to dance with the rest of the crowd.
Debke line dancing
Of course one of the most important tenets of Palestinian culture is the food! Members of the PAC, or Palestinian American Clubs in the San Francisco Bay Area, got together to cook and bake months in advance. Tender stuffed grape leaves, crisp felafel, lemony and creamy hummus, hearty meat and spinach pies, seasoned shawarma wraps, honey semolina cakes…and the crown jewel, Palestinian kanafa all make an appearance at this festival. This is home cooking on a massive scale at its finest, and a chance for Palestinians to share their hospitality through food, which is what they do best.
Warbat: Cheese filled buttery filo with pistachios
To see my favorite highlights from the festival, click on the video below. I would also love to hear any of your stories of being first generation immigrants, and the traditions you are most proud of in the comments below!