Seven Decades of Palestinian History

An Introduction to Tawfiq Canaan’s Autobiography

By Mitri Raheb

Autobiographies give a unique eyewitness account of historical events experienced by one particular person, an account of a life with all its ups and downs, struggles and failures, successes and setbacks. They invite us to look at history not from a distant bird’s-eye view, but through the eyes of one person’s own personal reality. Tawfiq Canaan started to write his autobiography in English in a pharmaceutical diary dated 1956, just a few months after his retirement in May 1955. Although still in good health, he must have had the feeling that time was slowly running out, that life was slowly but surely fading away, and that he had a story to share with his family, friends, and the visitors who were always eager to hear from him about socioeconomic and political events. It must have taken him only a few months to write his memoirs.

Canaan recounts a very rich life and offers fresh insights into the family story of someone who played an important role in the cultural life of his country. He recalls the socioeconomic and political history of Palestine through the unique prism of his access to different strata in Palestinian society, something few others could replicate. Canaan’s autobiography spans a period of seven decades of Palestinian history, from the late-Ottoman to the early-Jordanian period: a condensed history of the whole country of Palestine. Through his words, we live the history of a whole nation, we feel the tectonic shift that took place in Palestine as one empire replaced another and as Jewish immigrants replaced the displaced Palestinians. The personal element in this autobiography is incomparable with historical and political analyses.

Tawfiq was a PK, a pastor’s kid. His father Bishara was the first native Arab Lutheran pastor in Palestine. He worked as a medical doctor at three Protestant institutions: he started his career at the Deaconesses Hospital of Kaiserwerth; then he directed the Leper Home owned by the Moravian Church; and he ended his medical career at Augusta Victoria Hospital run by the Lutheran World Federation.

Canaan describes the life of an (upper) middle class Palestinian milieu where members were multilingual. Canaan composed about 100 short musical pieces, many of which were played in the YMCA concerts under the name Taucani (Tau[fik] can[aan] i). Unfortunately, all his compositions were lost with the loss of his house during the 1948 War.

Canaan’s account of intercommunal relations conveys the development of ecumenical relations between the different Christians churches as well as between the religions. His description of the relations between Palestinian Arabs and Palestinian Jews is interesting.

His autobiography is a fascinating exploration of hybrid identity. The Canaan family roots were in Kfarshima on Mount Lebanon, yet Canaan, born in Beit Jala in Palestine, voluntarily chose Palestine as his destiny and fought for its cause. He served with the Ottoman army as a medical doctor while secretly hoping that the British would replace the Ottomans. After the British declared the Mandate over Palestine, Canaan went on to oppose their policies that gave preferential treatment to Jewish settler immigrants. The rapidly changing context in late-Ottoman Palestine, through the British Mandate period and the Nakba, ending with the West Bank becoming part of Jordan, required Canaan to adopt a dynamic identity that shifted and evolved over the years. In this sense, his autobiography is a story of Palestinian resilience in the face of all odds and challenges.

Through Canaan’s life, we can trace the development of the Palestinian national identity. In the 1930s, Canaan started to draft political pamphlets. His most important political writings are the two pamphlets, “The Arab Palestine Cause” and “Conflict in the Land of Peace,” both printed during 1936. As a Palestinian Arab Christian, a well-educated intellectual with a credible career, and well connected to the Palestinian and international elites, Canaan felt he was predestined to advocate on behalf of his people to the international community. Canaan used these pamphlets to criticize the preferential treatment of the Jews by the British Mandate and the international community. He advocated for equal citizenship for Arabs and Jews, with Christians, Jews, and Muslims in a binational state based on a parliamentary system of government.

For Canaan, politics was first and foremost to care for the polis, the community. Politics was not so much a form of rigid nationalism but a love for the country, its landscape, history, culture, and people. It was a commitment to the community. It was this dedication to the community that kept Canaan in Jerusalem during the Nakba when most of the younger doctors left. Throughout his life, Canaan felt that he had been called to help the underserved, the sick, the lepers, the poor, the refugees, and the peasants.

Canaan provides important information about socioeconomic developments and cultural life in Palestine over seven decades. He describes the conditions prevailing in the country under Turkish rule and how people traveled from Jerusalem to Jericho or Beirut, how much time it took, and the forms of transportation used. It is fascinating to read about the huge changes in transportation over seven decades through a personal lens.

Canaan’s autobiography is a treasure for researchers working on the historical development of the health sector in Palestine. It describes the Christian mission hospitals, Jewish hospitals, and community health projects in times of war. His contribution to research on popular medicine, the treatment of malaria, and the eradication of leprosy in Palestine cannot be emphasized enough. Further research is needed to shed light on Canaan’s role in this field.

In Palestine, Canaan is well known primarily as an ethnographer. His writings that document Palestinian customs, popular medicine, and religious superstitions attracted the attention of Palestinian researchers. Canaan was one of the most productive intellectuals of Palestine in the first half of the twentieth century. He published over 130 articles, 5 books, and several pamphlets that cover the health sector, folklore, and political developments. Most of these pieces were never studied in depth and thus can provide a rich resource for future researchers. Canaan probably developed his interest in social customs from his father, who began working on this topic before his premature death. This interest was also related to the realization that around the turn of the century, Palestine was undergoing rapid transformation. Many of the customs that were already lost in the cities survived in the villages and among Palestinian peasants but were under threat from the modernization taking place in Palestine around World War I. Canaan saw a window of opportunity to document as many of these customs and traditions as possible for future generations.

In Palestine, Canaan’s ethnographic role was rediscovered, especially in the 1970s when the study of Palestinian folklore emerged and the Journal for Heritage and Society (Majalat atturath wal mujtama) was launched. Renewed interest in Canaan was evident in the late nineties, triggered by the permanent exhibition of the Canaan amulet collection at Birzeit University Musium. Dar al-Kalima’s international conference on “Palestinian Identity in Relation to Time and Space” in Bethlehem in 2013 was an important milestone in setting the stage for interest in Canaan based on newly discovered material. It was at this conference that Dr. Fauzi Mantoura, Tawfiq Canaan’s grandson, announced the discovery of a handwritten manuscript by Canaan: his autobiography written in English. Dr. Mantoura was gracious enough to give us the manuscript and the rights to publish it, thus making them available to the public. The publication was made possible by the generous support of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation office in the Palestinian Territories.

Tawfiq Canaan: An Autobiography
Edited by Mitri Raheb
Preface by Fauzi Mantoura
Foreword by Hermann Groehe, MP, Germany
Diyar Publisher, 2020
Hardcover, 196 pages, US$ 19.90
Kindle Version, US$ 9.90

 

Amulet photos courtesy of Birzeit University Museum which runs a permanent exhibition of the Tawfiq Canaan collection.

 

 

  1. Stone: Triangular-shaped stone perforated longitudinally. It is used as a heart shaped stone.
    Usage: Talisman. District: Nablus (Middle East, Palestine)
    Materials: Stone. Dimensions: Length: 3.5 cm, Width: 6.0 cm.
  2. Tongs: Rectangular-shaped wooden tongs with decorations on one of its sides. The piece takes the shape of a book stand, usually used for reading the Qur’an.
    Usage: Tongs. Materials: Wood. Dimensions: Length: 8.2 cm, Width: 2.5 cm.
  3. Stamp 2: Yellow-Palm shaped stamp with duaa (prayer) written in Arabic and a back handle. The duaa:
    “يا شافي يا الله، نصر من الله، وفتح قريب، وبشر المؤمنين، يا محمد يا حنان يا منان”.
    On the five fingers is inscribed another duaa [praising Ali and his sword, and citing names of God in prayer]. It was obtained in 1914 from a sheikh.
    Usage: Stamp. District: Palestine (Middle East).
    Materials: Metal. Dimensions: Length: 10.0 cm, Width: 7.5 cm.
  4. Soul Bead: Oval-shaped stone with different shades of color ranging from white to light brown. It is pierced in the middle in order to be used as a pendant.
    Usage: Talisman for protection from evil spirits. District: Palestine (Middle East).
    Materials: Stone. Dimensions: Length: 4.0 cm, Width: 2.7 cm.
  5. Spray Vessel: Cylindrical vessel with a removable cap and holes on the bottom to sprinkle powder on a wound or injury. It is used to dispense powder when circumcising a newborn.
    Usage: A spray-disinfectant cylinder. Materials: Copper
    Dimensions: Length: 3.6 cm, Width: 5.7 cm, Diameter: 3.4 cm.
  6. Amber Stone: Half a ring, dark yellow in color, almost peach. Used to ward off jaundice. Drops from the stone are stirred with water and given to children to drink.
    Usage: Talisman for protection from jaundice. District: Palestine (Middle East)
    Materials: Stone. Dimensions: Length: 2.5 cm, Width: 1.0 cm.
  7. Stamp: Round-shaped stamp with Greek letters and symbols, used for stamping Sunday bread for the Divine Liturgy. It is also called Tattoo; it has an ornate squared handle attached to the back. Canaan obtained it in 1941 from Jerusalem for 100 mils.
    Usage: Bread stamp. District: Jerusalem (Middle East, Palestine)
    Materials: Wood. Dimensions: Diameter: 12.7 cm.
  8. Horseshoe: Iron horseshoe. Canaan obtained it in 1944.
    Usage: Talisman to undo magic. Materials: Iron.
    Dimensions: Length: 7.0, cm Width: 7.0, cm Thickness: 0.4 cm.
  9. Mill: Round white stone with shades of brown. The shape of the stone is spiral.
    Usage: Talisman worn as a charm to protect against the evil jinn.
    District: Palestine (Middle East). Materials: Stone. Dimensions: Diameter: 1.5 cm
  10. Incense Censer: Cylindrical wooden piece with many holes.  A removable cap on one end has a horizontally symmetrical hole where incense matches can be placed.
    Usage: Incense censer. Materials: Wood. Dimensions: Length: 14.6 cm, Diameter: 2.4 cm.
  11. Kabsa or Kabbas Bead: Dark green cubical bead pierced in yhe middle. Bought in 1942.
    Usage: Talisman for amicability. District: Jerusalem (Middle East, Palestine)
    Materials:  Stone. Dimensions: Length: 2.5 cm, Width: 2.5 cm.
  12. Heart-Shaped Stone: Rhombus-shaped dark green stone, perforated in order to be used as a pendant.
    Registration No: 01039300. Usage: Talisman. Materials: Stone.
    Dimensions: Length: 2.3 cm, Width: 2.0 cm.
  13. Garnet Stone: A broken piece of garnet, which probably used to be round. It is fixed in position by a silver frame on which there are engravings only partially readable due to a rupture in the frame. The silver frame is attached to two rings then to a lace so to wear around the neck. Canaan obtained it in 1917.
    Usage: Talisman. District: Jerusalem (Middle East, Palestine). Materials: Stone, Silver.
    Dimensions: Length: 11.0 cm, Width: 5.0 cm.
  14. Comb: Double-sided wooden comb decorated in the middle. One side is thicker than the other. There is a hole at each end of the comb. The comb is decorated on both sides.
    Usage: Comb. Materials: Wood. Dimensions: Length: 13.5, cm Width: 7.0 cm.
  15. Heart-shaped Stone 2: A beautiful big heart-shaped stone. It is almost oval in shape with shades of reddish-brown. Canaan obtained it in 1919.
    Usage: Lifta, Jerusalem (Middle East, Palestine). District: Lifta, Jerusalem (Middle East, Palestine)
    Materials: Stone. Dimensions: Length: 4.0 cm, Width: 2.5 cm, Thickness: 2.0 cm.

 

Palm Stamp: A Palm-shaped stamp with religious writings and prayers (Duaa), and a flattened knob placed on the back. It was obtained in 1942 for 300 mils.
Usage: Stamp. Materials: Copper. Dimensions: Length: 8.1 cm, Width: 7.3 cm, Thickness: 0.9 cm.

  • Reverend Dr. Mitri Raheb is the founder and president of Dar al-Kalima University College of Arts and Culture in Bethlehem. Having published 25 books, Rev. Raheb is the most widely published Palestinian theologian to date. A social entrepreneur, he also founded Dar Annadwa Cultural and Conference Center, in addition to several other civic initiatives on national, regional, and international levels. Rev. Raheb is the recipient of several international awards for his courageous and indefatigable fight against occupation and violence. He holds a doctorate in theology from Philipps University of Marburg, Germany. He is married to Najwa Khoury and has two daughters, Dana and Tala. For more information, visit www.mitriraheb.org.

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