The Palestinian Family Council

I vividly remember the winter night my grandmother passed away.

One of our relatives came to visit her, the rain sneaking through the door and the wind howling outside. My grandmother, who was lying in her bed, had cloudy eyes, so the visitor asked her: “Do you know who I am?” My grandmother smiled, her eyes lit up and she said in her rural dialect, “I haven’t lost my mind yet, Em Hussien, but the lamp is almost out of oil.” That night the oil did indeed burn out. The family gathered around her in the dimming light as she gave her last breath; then we slept. On that January day in 1978 the rain was heavy, and wind and hail whipped the stone walls of the room that was lit with an oil lamp. In the middle of the warm presence of loved ones and under the dimming light, Nasrah gave her last breath. She died at peace. In the morning they came to authorize her death certificate.

In those days birth and death weren’t of any special significance, since they were part of the circle of life. The passage sprouted from earth itself, lit with an oil lamp. My grandmother used to prepare her medications from the herbs she collected from “Al-Tour Mountain” and the Plain of Ibn Amer also in the light of an oil lamp or on the fires of the wood we gathered for her. My grandmother was an active element in that circle of life. She was the one who welcomed newborns as they arrived, since she was the midwife of the village, the one who delivered its babies. And part of her job as well was to prepare those who died for the final goodbye. So she dealt calmly with the burning out of her oil, when the time came, with a lucid mind and a surrendered soul.

The oil lamp has always been a link in my memory with those days that seem so far away now- especially the scene of the Family Council. Those councils remained a cornerstone in the social life of the Palestinian villagers after the 1948 war. Those beacons of light managed to gather people in small circles where they discussed the latest news and shared their daily lives. Later the light transformed into a flash light and, if it was winter, the radiant light from the grill joined in the councils. If the meetings were informal, the sons and daughters would gather in a circle, lean up against the wall or would crawl between their mothers as they chatted. If the meetings were formal, they were usually limited to men. However, Nasrah was always present.  I used to sneak a peak at my grandmother sitting in the men’s meetings, watching them consult her while she rolled an Ottoman paper filled with tobacco. The hierarchy of those meetings were managed according to the age of the speaker. Nasrah was not only the midwife of the village, she was also their herbal healer; her opinions were important. She didn’t hesitate to support her opinion with stories from life that usually involved characters from Nature like the grass or a tree. She always wanted to deliver a clear image to the circle. The backyard of our house was something of a greenhouse where she grew plants and raised honey bees. Then at night she would wrap a scarf around her head and go to the Family Council.

Living with her embrace of the eternal circle of life was at the heart of my childhood.  The opportunity for children to be so blessed has changed radically with time.  Today, in her old house, the children of her grandchildren sit, staring at the screens of their smartphones without a mere sound escaping their lips. We all witness this scene every evening in every house. All this noise is sadly lacking the heartful “chatter” of my youth, the same way modern concrete houses lack plants.

But the world of the oil lamp and the small circles remains in my mind and heart, even after life has changed and concrete houses have replaced stone ones. After people began to abandon the land and, with that abandon many of their traditions, people stopped gathering in  Family Councils, instead arriving home exhausted from work.  Family Councils stopped serving their pivotal role in the lives of the families and the village. I almost forgot them.

After the death of grandmother Nasrah, the circle of life changed. Plants began to die from the roof tops of houses and the oil lamp disappeared. We gradually entered the bigger circle of life: work, becoming self-sustaining, daily concerns. The presence of the oil lamp, the circle surrounding it, and its intimacy, disappeared under the collection of daily burdens. Like everyone, I stopped listening to myself and lost the pleasures of my younger years in exchange for the routine of contemporary life.

All the technology that came into our lives to make it easier (and it did make it easier), replaced the most important technology of all- the fire we gathered around with which we could transform the primitive elements of earth to make food and medicine. Most important, we lost the tales. Sharing stories also became less present.

Many years passed before I heard from a friend about an “instructor” coming from the U.S to introduce to us a new dialog method that I thought may support my work with the local municipality. It was the first Listening Seminar that I was part of.  As we gathered on the ground in a circle, a memory came back to me from a faraway place. Once again I felt an open space to talk about whatever came to my mind without the fear of others prejudging me. For me to be free from my own prejudgments as well had its effect. That seminar took me back to my roots, to my grandmother’s embrace. I started crying in the seminar. I realized that I was so busy with daily routine that I had stopped listening to my mother. I saw that I needed training on patience, compassion and listening.  As I continued to deepen the practice, I was able to reach out to my mother again.

Soon I came to realize that listening seminars about council do not just provide methods for communicating with others. They are, perhaps more importantly, a way of communicating with oneself.

— Itaf Awad, Senior Council Trainer