Palestine From Cairo series: On food, songs, tales, and architecture of resistance

Amira Noshokaty , Friday 17 Nov 2023

The series opens with a brief vivid history of Palestinian Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH).

Amal Agha
Amal Agha head of Palestinian women coalition in Cairo talking about Palestinian heritage, photos by Amira Noshokaty


Khazana Heritage School has launched the first event of the series dedicated to Palestinian heritage under the title “Khali El-Turath Sahi” (Keep Heritage at Hand).

The first event titled “Ehkina Ya Falastin” (Tell Us Palestine) was a workshop on Palestine heritage writing and was held in collaboration with the Palestinian Women Collation in Cairo, where Amal Agha, head of the coalition, and Alia Okasha, member and architect, shared the Palestinian heritage gems with us. 

The safe-like metal door opened up to a little Palestine. The photo of late Palestinian President Yasser Arafat centres the scene, with the Palestinian flag beside it. To the right is a big meeting room that is cornered with Palestinian embroidery, a map, photos of the choir, signature dishes, and the resilient women behind all that.

"Talking about heritage is a great form of resistance," explained Alia Nassar, founder of Khazana School of Heritage, in her opening speech as she shared online photos of freshly baked bread in Gaza with comments saying: “My mother decided to defy the airplanes and bake on the top of our house, mission accomplished!”

Zareef Al-Tool and Dal'ouna

For decades, Palestinians have been keen to safeguard and practice their heritage as a form of resistance. Sitting peacefully in the middle of the room, Amal Agha took us on a journey of Palestinian folk tales that stitched folk songs and resistance in one beautiful motif.

Zareef Al-Tool (meaning tall and handsome) was a man who came to the Palestinian village to settle and work. He was known for his integrity and good manners and was proclaimed one of the heroes of the village when he bought, with all his money, rifles for the resistance movement to defend the village from the Israeli raids. "He was promised to marry Dalouna, and here the word Dalouna which is the Palestinian slang for a cute girl is changed into Dal Oun meaning help, when he was missing, and the village kept singing a song that commemorated his presence and resilience," explained Agha.

"This narrative is exactly like Hekayat El-Ghareeb (Stories of the Outsider), an Egyptian film, where the hero was part of the resistance movement in Suez, and the theme was to look for him; he represented everybody who resisted, yet he himself was not found," explained Okasha. 


Palestine’s intangible cultural heritage is quite rich. One of the most interesting elements is the coffee. Palestinians usually grain their own coffee beans at home.

“This is El-Mehbaj,” said Agha, referring to the dark engraved wooden grinding pot inlaid with silver ornaments.

“In Palestinian villages, El-Mehbaj is usually a sign of a big gathering or a nice visit; you see women start grinning fresh coffee for the occasion from the early morning, and the opening of the grinding pot is designed so that the grinding hand would hit the narrow opening from the inside making a certain Dabka beat that makes lots of happy commotion,” Agha added.

She added that similar to Upper Egyptian traditions, big Palestinian families have their guest house named Diwan, where they get to hold their family gatherings and celebrations and drink fresh coffee.

The Palestinian dish named by Saladin

“Maklouba (Upside down), a famous Palestinian dish, is in itself an act of resistance,” noted Okasha.

“When Saladin Al-Ayoubi, the great Arab leader, freed Palestine from the crusaders in 1187 AD, people of Palestine celebrated by cooking him one of their traditional foods, which is layers of aubergine, rice, meat, and onions set on top of each other and when cooked would be served upside down. When Saladin saw it, he named it Maklouba, or the upside-down dish, and since that day, Palestinians referred to it like that. To this day, Palestinians in Jerusalem make sure they stand and serve their heritage dish in front of Al-Aqsa Mosque, as a form of resistance against the Israeli occupation troops.”

The Khalili Clay Pot

The signature dish of Al-Khalil is the Khalili earth pot which is a mixture of rice, meat, and hummus; they slowly cook it in the oven; then they break the pot and serve the feast to the family gathering.

The power of the flag

“The idea of raising any Palestinian flag is condemned of course by the Israeli occupation,” they explained; however, Palestinians decided to resist and oppose never less. Young Palestinians used to take their white shawls, put them on the ground, and open wide watermelons that denote the colours of the Palestinian flag as a form of resistance. Women on the other hand decided to wear the flag and added it to their traditional handmade embroidered dresses.

Handmade resistance

Pre-1948 Palestinian costumes and artworks were well displayed by and among the Rockefeller Museum in Jerusalem, the British Museum of Mankind in London, and the Pergamon in Berlin, as Leila El-Khalidi explains in her book titled “The Art of Palestinian Embroidery” (1999).

According to the book, the earliest forms of the holy land embroidered cross stitch can be dated to around the 11th century. The book displayed the stitches, their cultural meaning and significance, and the fact that Palestinian women have 15 traditional handmade dresses that vary in colour and motifs, each representing the Palestinian cities.

“Since 1948, Israeli settlers would use the economic distress of underprivileged Palestinians and would buy the handmade dresses that they usually sell on their Thursday market, to hide it and claim it as their own,” Agha noted, adding that as a reaction to all of this, the Palestinian women never stopped their traditional stitching as a form of resistance and preserving their national identity. Young women sewed the longest Palestinian dress over 30 metres which awarded them the genius record.

“You could tell which city a Palestinian woman came from, by the patterns of her handmade dress,” Agha said, revealing some of the meanings of the stitches and their intangible cultural heritage.

“In Beirsabaa for instance, the stitches are more geometrical shapes because they are inspired by the mountains, while Al-Khalil patterns are more colourful and take the shapes of grapes and flowers because it is an agricultural area. Ramallah is known for its palm tree motifs, and Yafa for its sarw trees, which resemble Christmas trees. Bethlehem motifs have more crosses because it is the birthplace of Jesus Christ, who is Palestinian, " notes Agha, who also explains that purple is a signature colour of Palestinians invented by their Canaanite ancestors.

"You can also notice that the designs of the dresses vary from towns to villages, for the villages there is more stitches and bigger size so that it is used to collect crops as well, while in towns the women started to work and didn’t have much time for embroidery, so the designs have less embroidery and are smaller in size. There are even songs for the dresses that go 'my grandma has a dress and shawl...' this motif is from Yafa," she added.

Land of Thyme, Olives, and Nablus Cheese

Olive trees have been a feature of Palestine for hundreds of years, and are highly symbolic. Thyme grows there naturally, so thyme and olive oil are symbols of Palestine," said Agha. "There is a brand of olive oil called Roman olive oil which is exported by Israel; it was pressed in Palestine since Roman times, which is long before the establishment of the occupation state of Israel," Agha added.

"The cheese of Nablus has its own tradition. It is homemade, a family collaborative effort where the father and children add salt to it and sing as they work."

Architecture of Resistance  

To Palestinian-Egyptian Architect Alia Oukasha, architectural designs are a powerful means of resistance.

In her awarded book Architecture of Resistance, published in 2010 by Ahmed Bahaa El-Dien Association, Oukasha traces back the history and cultural philosophy behind Arabic and Islamic architecture.

"Jerusalem is the best example, where all houses are made from stone rocks and the city was divided into four areas: one for the Armenians, one for the Christians, one for the Muslims, etc.., the Buraq wall (The wall where prophet Mohamed tied his Buraq creature by which he traveled from Mecca to Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem before ascending to heaven, as explained in Quran) was set right behind Al-Aqsa Mosque, next to the Moroccan Quarter, " explained Okasha.

She added that after the Balfour Declaration in 1917, many Jewish settlers tried to take control of the city, triggering Palestinian resistance in 1929.

In 1967, the Zionists tore down the Buraq wall and built in its place what they refer to as the El-Mabka wall (Wall of Tears), which they claim are ancient remains of Solomon's temple.  

The Heart of Palestinian Houses

"Palestinian Houses are similar to classical Islamic and Arabic architecture. The house is usually a two-story building with an internal patio a fountain and a tree. The best trees are planted inside the houses," Oukasha explained, adding that these would usually be orange trees or almond trees.

"The internal patio is referred to as a 'janina' which is etymologically related to 'janna' meaning heaven; that's how dear greenery is to Palestinians, " said Oukasha.

She added that Palestinian refugee camps maintain the urban fabric of their homes, "living next to each other just like in their old neighbourhoods. Even the most underprivileged houses must have a plant or any greenery centering their homes, even just an empty tin can with a small plant."

Short link: