By Ali Qleibo
The elevated stature of historian, geographer, and researcher Dr. Shukri Arraf is incontestable. He has devoted his life to authoring a large collection of books that exceed 40 in number. His oeuvre provides an encyclopedic cultural dictionary that reveals a keen perception of Palestinian cultural geography gleaned from personally conducted fieldwork and replete with biblical and ethnographic insights of social, geographical, and architectural landmarks related to the Palestinian experience and memory; i.e., our cultural patrimony.
The 93-year-old historian greeted me cheerfully at the entrance of his garden in his hometown of Ma’liya. Despite the signs of time on his venerably wrinkled face, his passion for his work prevails over his personality and imbues him with vitality and ardor. His face gleamed with a bright smile as he led me enthusiastically to his office, where paper slips, pads, folders, folios, and books were strewn over every surface in the expansive office. Creative chaos, an integral aspect of intensive research work, dominated the scene. Here, there, and everywhere loose papers poured from the shelves, and floated all over the desk and chairs. Some floated in loose order, others – as aids for identification of important references – were tucked between the pages of scattered books that piled on top of each other. A good number of the books, strewn amidst the piles of closed books, manuscripts, and papers, were left purposefully open and turned over to safeguard specific pages to be used as a quick reference.
The orderly chaos is integral to creative work: the scattered jumble of papers, jotted notes, and books lay out the necessary references with which the engaged scholar sorts, lays out, and defines the scope of his thesis and to which he returns at any moment during work as props to support his ideas, to cite pages and paraphrase paragraphs. Throughout the visit, Shukri Arraf quoted paragraphs and phrases from these well-marked papers, pads, and marked books while expounding on the Arabic nomenclature of Palestinian historical geography.
The topics of his interest range in diversity to include the fauna and flora of Palestine and the relationship of Palestinian first names to the native flowers, shrubs, and trees to encompass the natural geographic landscapes and specific appellations. A case in point is his book on “donkeys” in which he cites over a hundred geographical locations related to donkeys: valley of the donkey, mount of the donkey, rock of the donkey, etc.
His topography books include inventories of past and present mosques, sanctuaries, and churches. He has even written a book that archives the number and names of police stations during the British Mandate. His prodigious oeuvre includes books that describe the structure of the Palestinian village, the architecture of Palestinian peasant dwellings, and agricultural tools. In his collection of 40 books, Shukri Arraf provides an extensive scholastic listing of extant Palestinian villages as well as villages destroyed by the Israelis or forgotten and abandoned in the past five centuries.
The initial impression of his workspace as if in a state of complete chaos emerges as a reflection of a dynamic analytical process of categorization in which the processes of isolation, tabulation, classification, grouping, and codification reflect the historical paradigm of Dr. Shukri Arraf and crown him as the pioneer of Palestinian historical geography.