Palestine before Israel: The Village of Râm Allâh

[Editor’s Note: This is the latest in our series of sketches of Palestine before the creation of the state of Israel, intended to build understanding of the legitimacy of all claims to the land. This sketch is by Elihu Grant, from his book, The People of Palestine (1907).]

The dominant religious influence in Râm Allâh is the Greek (Orthodox) Church. It is customary all through the near East, the field of the Greek Church, to admit to the chief ecclesiastical positions priests of Greek blood only. The head priest of the Râm Allâh Church was a Cretan who had come to this village in 1899.

He spoke the Arabic language but lamely. He was very affable and rather good looking. All Greek priests wear the hair long though they knot it up for convenience. The ordinary dress is a long black gown and rimless, cylindrical black hat.

When we called on the priest he conversed courteously and treated us to preserves and coffee. His attendant was a lad from the Greek islands whom he also used as his censer boy at church functions. This head priest goes by the title raîs, that is, head-one among the people. He is unmarried, as are all the superior clergy. There are four other priests for the church, who are natives of the place, speak the Arabic language, of course, and are married. The title for such a priest is Khûry.

Whenever there is such a one in a family of Syrians the entire family is apt to adopt the word Khûry as a family name. The names of the four khûrys of the Râm Allâh Greek Church during my acquaintance with the village were ?anna, Ayûb, ?ustandy and Salîm. These under priests have most of the intercourse with the people, intermeddle with all sorts of affairs, like any native villager, and are a visible bond between the common and the ecclesiastical life of the village.

One of these four, who is reputed to be wealthy, acts as a sort of private banker in his parish, lending money about at the enormous rates which obtain among the peasants. The government rate is nine per cent, but this legal percentage is often more than doubled in practise, while for small, short-time loans the charges mount to huge proportions. One day as I walked out into the village I saw this khûry sitting in front of the dispensary. He had been consulting the physician about some ailment and had received the advice to take a sitz bath, but he lacked the very important aid of a bath-tub. He applied to me, as he saw me, to lend him a bath-tub, but I had nothing of the kind that was portable. He next heard that I was buying some articles for a new boarding-school for boys and suggested that if I bought some of the large copper vessels called ?unjerehs, one of the variety used for washing clothes would suit his purpose.

But again I had to disappoint him, as I told him I was just then short of money and decided to buy only the smaller cooking ?unjerehs at present. He looked surprised at my confession of temporary poverty, but followed up his lead affably by declaring that I was very welcome to come to his bank. It was some minutes before I saw the line of thought the thrifty fellow was following, that I should borrow money of him (the rate was then about twenty per cent) to buy bathing facilities which he might borrow of me. This will help to illustrate the unembarrassed egotism with which some of the people deal with one after the “heads-I-win, tails-you-lose” order. They are as unimaginative as children in setting your interests at naught and complacently securing all for themselves. And they will do it with all the dramatical touches of idealism and an unselfish air.

The village tradition of the founding of Râm Allâh is told by the peasants as follows: A certain Christian shaykh living in Shôbek, down towards Wâdy Mûsâ, became the father of a little girl. A Moslem shaykh, visiting the father, spoke in a complimentary way of the little child and was courteously answered, as in all cases where praise is bestowed on any possession, whether a new article or a new child, the owner or father usually replying, “It is for you.” So in this case the father replied, “She is for you,” meaning, of course, nothing by it except the usual courtesies.

Years passed by and the little baby girl became an attractive maiden, when the Moslem shaykh came and claimed her for his bride. The father protested, but was reminded of the visit of years before and the reply of the father, which had been taken in real earnest by his visitor. Consternation fell on the Christian family at the impending fate of the little daughter claimed by a Moslem. They would rather that the girl should die than marry thus, but they were in no condition to resist the demand. During the night the Christian shaykh took the only course possible, the desperate one of flight to other parts. Accompanied by his four brothers and their families he fled. No members of the large family could be left behind lest vengeance should be executed on them for the disappointment. They journeyed northward and were joined by certain Moslems who also had reasons for seeking a change of home.

The two parties traveled together, probably for greater safety. They all came into the country north of Jerusalem and the Christians, being blacksmiths, chose what were then wooded hills, the present site of Râm Allâh, though now there is no growth to evidence the early conditions. The Moslems settled about el-Bîreh. To-day when the Bîreh people laugh at Râm Allâh people and say, “Your fathers must have been foolish not to choose lands near the good Bîreh spring, but over there in that thirsty country,” some of the Râm Allâh people answer, “Our fathers were blacksmiths, and in their days the hills here were covered with woods which supplied them with charcoal.” To-day, as has been noted elsewhere, the largest section of Râm Allâh’s people is called the ?adadeh, that is, “the blacksmiths.”

Another version of the story has it that the Christians settled at el-Bîreh and the Moslems at Râm Allâh, but because the Christians were blacksmiths they arranged with the Moslems to exchange sites since there was so much material for charcoal around Râm Allâh. If this version could be credited it might help to account for the old mosk in Râm Allâh.

The villagers of Râm Allâh are often hard workers. Their hours of labor are from sunup to sunset. They often sing happily while they are digging the vineyards in lieu of plowing them where the vines are close. Twenty-five cents a day is fair pay for unskilled labor of this sort, though for skilled labor, such as that of a first-class mason and builder, the price may run to a dollar, or a little over. Women and boys work hard for from twelve to fifteen cents a day. From four to eight dollars a month secures a man servant who, if he is a clever one, will do countless services and become almost indispensable. He will try hard to meet the foreigners’ ideas and wishes and improve in his ability to anticipate them.

It does not do to nag and annoy the native helper by too close and nervous application of Western ideals of work, accuracy and punctuality, for one gets oneself into a very unlovely state of nervous irritability and often wears out a really valuable servant by unnecessary trifles of supervision. The peasant is used to a certain ease and generosity of judgment and if wisely watched will accomplish a good deal of work in a very fair way.

One fresh from Europe or America is tempted to supercilious airs, as if everything native to the country were inferior and vastly so. But a longer acquaintance emphasizes the fact that, the world over, our virtues, superiorities and so forth are put on in spots rather than in a consistent through and through grain. And one soon finds plenty of occasion in Palestine to blush for occurrences which must make a sensible native think us a very unlikely set of people to be receiving so many gifts from a kind Providence. The conditions under which they see most foreigners persuade them that lack of money does not exist in America and possibly that it is not very common in Europe. Then, too, they see so many childless married couples, these naturally being the freest to travel, or to undertake missions, that the contradiction of this apparent curse upon us mystifies them. And as to sanity of mind and clearness of religious doctrine or practise, foreigners in Jerusalem must often be on the defensive in order to keep even self-respect.

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