Chapter 3


Marianne Heiberg

The author wishes to thank Rema Hammami for her many useful comments on this chapter, particularly those which relate to kinship structure, consumption patterns and house investments.

The Cultural Setting of and Domestic and Public Spheres inside the Housing Unit

The house - al dar - comprises the fundamental framework which surrounds family life and separates the private domestic realm from the public domain. The house is a physical representation of the family which resides within it and the importance of the house reflects the prominence of the family within Palestinian society. It is an indicator of its status and the permanence or transiency of its anchoring to the local community. It also signals some of the central values and priorities within the society. The size and subdivision of rooms and the investment made in their furnishing tend to reflect the internal hierarchy within the domestic sphere, the relationship and ranking between the domain of men and the domain of women. It also reflects conceptions of privacy both between family members and between the family and the outside world. The structure of the house often reveals not only critical features of the family within, but just as importantly that family's anticipations. In a sense, building a house is also a statement concerning future expectations. Looking toward the development of the family over time, families often build houses that are larger than they can live in and more than they can furnish or even finish.

Traditionally Palestinian villages contained a number of residentially based patrilineal descent groups - hamuleh - each of which in turn were subdivided into separate extended families. Members of each hamuleh lived in a group of adjoining houses grouped around one or more interconnected courtyards.1 To a certain extent the spatial relationship between houses was an indication of the kinship relation between households. The more distant the kinship link, the further separated the houses.2

The architectural and social unity of the traditional compact Palestinian village has undergone major transformations. The marginalisation of agriculture and the massive shift toward wage labour has splintered family groups and introduced new architectural styles and spatial distributions, reflecting, on one hand, an increase in economic prosperity and, on the other, a trend toward a more nucleated family organisation.

Because architecture and internal environment mirror cultural preferences, specific social structures as well as processes of economic and social transformation, comparisons of housing standards across cultural boundaries can often be misleading. Different concepts of privacy, for instance, imply different thresholds concerning physical human separation and thus acceptable levels of human density. Different and changing notions of status affect patterns of domestic consumption since items that give prestige in one set of circumstances may differ radically from items that mark status in others.

Nonetheless, the house, its furnishings and amenities, the nature of its ownership and the protection and comfort it provides, is a critical dimension of living conditions. In the occupied territories the house has gained an uncommon importance because people tend to spend a good deal more of their time within it. Modern public social arenas, such as cinemas, theatres, restaurants, parks and play grounds, are either relatively undeveloped or have in recent years become underdeveloped due to closure. For cultural reasons, married women, in particular are often confined to the house for large parts of the day. Moreover, many social activities traditionally enjoyed by Palestinians have ceased with the intifada. The constant evening gatherings of men in the main village square is a thing of the past and even men's coffee houses, where they still exist, are usually open only during daytime hours. Political strikes, intifada closings, protracted curfews and general fears have further increased the amount of time Palestinians spend within their homes.


al@mashriq                       960715