** Draft April 2001
The Competing Systems of Values and Communication Styles
In Contemporary Palestinian Society
The Palestinian-Israeli peace process collapsed. Was it inevitable? With the signing of the Palestinian-Israeli peace accord in 1993, the Palestinian people embarked on an ambitious program of national development. While the Palestinians are at a unique historical juncture, the socio-cultural dynamics they face may not be so unique. The focus on a singular national goal may have accentuated the need for the Palestinians to reexamine their social structure and interactions. This paper explores the socio-cultural debate within Palestinian society and the changes that fostered the growth of three distinct social groups, each with their own value orientation and communication style.
After more than 2,500 years, Gaza city finally got traffic lights. Now, the donkey carts, cars, and pedestrians who have bartered and bargained their way through the streets and intersections of one of the world’s oldest and most densely populated city are being regulated by colored lights that hang from a wire in the air. Entire families pack into their small car and travel from their village to see the new traffic lights – all ten of them in the city of Nablus. They are ten symbols of a new system.
Since the signing of the Israeli-Palestinian peace accord on the White House lawn on September 13, 1993, and the arrival of the Palestinian National Authority on July 1, 1994, the Palestinians have been engaged in the arduous task of nation building. The entire infrastructure, including roads, telephones, sewage facilities, etc., is still in desperate need of construction and repair. The social infrastructure, including the educational, business, industrial, and health sectors, is emerging as if out of a dormant cocoon and demanding immediate attention.
While the magnitude of the challenges facing the Palestinian society today is clearly evident, less apparent is the way to achieve the many development goals. Combined with an overwhelming sense of urgency, there appears to be a growing sense of social frustration. After years of focusing exclusively on the politics of their plight and communicating that message to others, the Palestinians have turned their attention inward. They are asking questions about their own society and their relations with each other. They are paying closer attention to how they interact and communicate with each other. In the process, many are discovering that the social hurdles are proving more difficult than the logistical, economic and even political ones.
Over and over again, one hears, “How can we get things done? There is no system!” Or, “Things will never change.” How can a people with roots deep within the Arab culture claim to have “no system”? And, how can a living, dynamic society, embarking on nation building, believe that there is “no change?” Why have such perceptions surfaced at this time when the society is focused on a singular national goal?
This paper explores the social changes in the Palestinian society. Given the arduous task of peace making and the apparent collapse of that effort, the trends observed earlier have become even more relevant and pronounced. If anything, over the past three years, these trends have intensified and speak to the disarray the Palestinian society is struggling to come to grips with. The accounts in the American newspapers only hint at the underlying turmoil. This piece, rather than being a purely theoretical piece, this paper is based on interview, observations and reflective analysis. It focuses on the debate over social order with the Palestinian society and the forces of change that have produced competing values and communication styles.
The Perception of “No System”
Where does this Palestinian perception of “no system” or “no change” come from? In terms of intercultural communication, the idea that any society either lacks a system is theoretically improbable. Numerous scholars have noted, that a society, by definition, is a system. Each member of society represents a unique component. Social norms, beliefs, traditions and values serve to define the relationships among the components or members of society. These relationships and roles give the entity a sense of wholeness that is greater than the individual sum of the parts.
From a systemic perspective, a society epitomizes the structure and function of a system. Added to this is the layer of culture, again another system. Palestinian society is deeply rooted within the Arab culture (Zaharna, 1996) and specifically, the Arab peasant village (Sayigh, 1984). Thus for the Palestinians to say that they lack “a system,” when the society itself is a system, is perplexing. Such a claim suggests that people with the society are not sensing their own place within the social structure, the relationships that tie them together, the norms that regulate those relationships, or the overall sense of integrity of the society. Because all of these features do exist, the Palestinian perception of “no system” appears to be a perceived reality rather than an objective reality. In other words, some sort of socio-cultural system does exist, however many Palestinians are unable to see or identify with it.
The inability to perceive one’s own culture is familiar to cultural anthropologists and intercultural communication scholars. A culture’s influence on its members is often so pervasive and encompassing that the members are often oblivious to its existence. As anthropologist Walter Linton once quipped, “The last thing a fish would notice is water.”
Lack of cultural awareness might be plausible, especially given the historical-political history of the Palestinians. The Arabic cultural heritage -- based on a nomadic or wandering life style --has been well documented (Said, 1978). However, the Palestinian society, which is predominantly an agricultural (gathering) society based on the traditional Arab village, has not been specifically documented, especially by the Palestinians themselves (Sayigh, 1984). Further, since the start of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the early 1900’s, much of the West’s focus has been on understanding the Palestinians from a political perspective. The Palestinians themselves were also too absorbed in the daily realities of the political situation to divert attention to cultural studies. While Palestinian cultural expression through the various forms of art, music, and poetry flourished throughout this time period, little attention was given to rigorous study of its meaning or significance to the society.
Even today, the level of cultural study among the Palestinians is still
in its initial stages. Newspapers have started featuring an arts
and culture section. Cultural centers such as the Khalil Sakakini
Center (www.sakakini.org), academic journals such as Society and Heritage
and special websites (www.birzeit.edu/links) devoted to Palestinian culture
have emerged in recent years.
Interestingly, perhaps because of the long political struggle for a national identity, much of would be considered cultural heritage is referred to as “national heritage.” The comments of an educator during the introduction of children’s music book illustrate the cultural-political link: “Developing the arts in an important part of national expression, and this is a nation that’s developing its national expression” (Jerusalem Times, December 18, 1998, p. 12).
The focus of much of these efforts is on documenting the concrete aspects of Palestinian arts and tradition: collecting, quantifying and categorizing culturally significant items. This in itself is a tremendous feat given that many items were destroyed, lost or forbidden during the years of foreign occupation. However, as a result, the Palestinians have been unable to yet to explore the symbolic aspects of their own culture in a systematic, theoretic, or comprehensive manner. This lack of cultural study might be a plausible explanation, except that it does not explain the currently high level of frustration tied to the perception of “no system.”
Another possible explanation for the perception, might stem the meaning of the Arabic word for “system” or “nizaam.” In Arabic, the connotation of the word and its root suggest “order,” “neatly arranged or structured.” Accordingly, to say there is “no system” would imply that the society does not have an orderly arrangement or structure for accomplishing things. This perceived lack of orderly arrangement and inability to accomplish things does explain the high level of frustration, but not the cultural reality of there not being a system.
Another word which is used in the debate is “qaanoon,” which literally means “law.” However, used in the current context, the word implies a system of order, control, and regulation. In this regard, the political reality takes on significance. Because a final political agreement has not been reached and still the Palestinians are in an “Interim Stage,” they do not have complete control over their lives.
The word qaanoon also carries with it the notion of wholeness and completeness. This sense of wholeness is also particularly relevant to the Palestinian experience because on several levels the Palestinians are separated from each other. Geographically and politically, the Palestinians of the West Bank are separated from the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. Although the peace accord between the Israelis and the Palestinians calls for a “corridor” between the two areas, thus far none has been established leaving the Palestinian society to function as two, disconnected geographical entities.
Always there have been noted differences between the two regions: Gaza was under Egyptian rule while the West Bank was under Jordanian rule; Gaza is generally considered more conservative, while the West Bank towns are viewed more liberal; the Gaza population is concentrated in a small coastal area while the West Bank towns are scattered throughout mountain villages and towns; Gaza is known for its fish while the various West Bank towns are known for their particular agricultural product (e.g., grapes, olives, almonds); Gaza is known as “ahil bandora” (people eating food cooked with tomatoes) because of the moderate climate and plenitude of tomatoes, while the West Bank is known as “ahil leban” (eating dishes cooked with yogurt) because of the plenitude of grazing animals.
While these and other differences have always existed and are a unique part of the Palestinian cultural heritage, the prolonged physical separation between Gaza and the West Bank has exacerbated these differences and strained the sense of social integrity of the Palestinians. This political reality impinges on the Palestinian perception of unified social system. However, it does not completely answer it. The historical irony is that the Palestinians were able to maintain a sense of national identity as a unified people despite years of exile, geographical dispersion and foreign domination -- conditions much more severe than the current ones. How was a sense of unity and wholeness present under those conditions and not now? Are the Palestinians finding that creating “national unity” is easier than “social unity”?
If the perception of “no system” is perplexing, the perception of “no change” is equally perplexing. How can a society, as a dynamic and organic phenomenon, not change? Living entities, by definition, change. Moreover, the Palestinian society itself is both the vehicle and the destination of its own very ambitious development project: nation building. How can a society engaged in nation building not be experiencing change?
In terms of the objective, physical reality everywhere one looks one sees changes. Large apartment towers are being built, new roads laid, and pilot projects of every kind initiated. However, despite such extensive, visible changes, the expectation of change may have been even greater. In this regard, it was once said that a nation emerged in the process of development is a nation in a hurry. Indeed, one finds a very pronounced sense of urgency among the Palestinians today. The Palestinians are in a hurry to overcome the years of political and economic stagnation and to develop their society to a level comparable to their neighbors. This expectation and sense of urgency of change may actually act to minimize the very significant changes that are indeed occurring, and thus contribute to the perception of “no change.”
Moreover, the Palestinians are themselves being affected by these changes in small, yet socially significant ways. Take, for example, the introduction of the traffic light. Through a gift from France, Gaza received ten traffic lights. To a Westerner, accustomed to the use of traffic lights as a means of regulating the movement of people and vehicles, traffic lights may seem minor. However for Gaza, one of the oldest cities in the world, these were the first traffic lights in the history of the Palestinian people.
Prior to 1994, there was no explicit, external system for regulating movement of people and vehicles. In 1994, the new Palestinian Authority assigned police officers to regulate the traffic. In 1997, the traffic lights were installed. Now instead, of a person dressed in a uniform conducting and -- arguing, cajoling, or pleading with the drivers, some light signals who can pass and who cannot. To delegate such power to a mere light fixture hanging from a wire requires a phenomenal leap of faith, especially in a culture in which God makes the laws, not man.
However what was more remarkable was that the Gazan drivers began to comply. The drivers began to organize themselves into distinguishable traffic lanes, they yielded to merging cars and stopped at the red signal -- even when no one was around to monitor their actions. Thus, while a traffic light might not be significant in and of itself, the changes that it produced within the society were quite remarkable.
It is quite significant to note that much of the current development in the Palestinian territory is being accomplished through the direct assistance from donor countries. For example, the traffic lights are from France. Germany has donated tarmac lights for the new airport. Japan is helping to build schools and has laid new sidewalks. Spain brought new trash trucks. The European Community placed new trash collection bins on street corners. Sweden has just funded a new counseling program for the public school system, while Australia is helping initiate school programs for the disabled.
What all this “direct assistance from donor countries” means in reality is that, rather than developing technology that is indigenous to the local society, the Palestinians are receiving all of their advanced technology, systems and ideas from foreign sources. Further, rather than having such changes occurring in small, paced increments that parallel the development of the society as a whole, these massive changes are occurring within a remarkably short time frame, i.e., three or five years. One can only speculate what the combined or long-term effect of this massive transfer of technology from so many different cultures all within such a short time period will have on the Palestinian society.
The Emergence of Differing Values and Communication Styles
In addition to the external and very visible changes within the environment, there have been significant changes which have occurred within the composition of the Palestinian society itself. These changes, while perhaps not so visible, are having an equally powerful effect on the way the Palestinians perceive and communicate with each other. Most of these changes stem from the political experience of the people.
The first significant structural change has been the return of the Palestinian leadership. The arrival of the Palestinian leadership meant for the first time since the late sixties that the people have direct, continuous, and daily contact with their leaders. The transition from “exile” to “direct contact” has profoundly affected the nature of communication as well as the images that the two parties held of each other.
Before direct contact, communication between the leadership and the people was cautious and controlled. There was no transparency between word and deed; political rhetoric could serve as political action. Further, the separation and indeed condition of exile, fostered the symbolic images each party held of the other.
For the Palestinian people, the leadership in exile was seen as the champion of the Palestinian cause within the international arena, with Chairman Yasser Arafat as the symbol of the Palestinian revolution. For the leadership, the Palestinians within the territories were seen as the heroic, steadfast people struggling against the brutality of foreign military occupation and political repression. The Palestinian “children of stones” who rebelled during the Palestinian uprising in the late 1980s became the symbol of the Palestinian pride for the Palestinians in exile. Over the years, without having the benefit of direct contact, both parties were able to cultivate highly symbolic images of each other. Without transparency in their communication and actions, they were able to hide the limitations and realities of their actual condition. By the time the leadership arrived in 1994, expectations on both sides had grown all out of proportion.
The change in the Palestinian leadership from an overly idealized image to a more realistic, humanly-flawed image was not only natural, but inevitable. Direct, continuous communication by the leadership exposed the limitations inherent in any human relationship. Additionally, the unmet expectations exposed the vulnerabilities of the people holding them and the leadership struggling to meet them. As a result, the communication between the two parties has become less cautious, less controlled, more demanding and, at times critical.
The problem of rhetorical transparency in the direct contact between the people and leadership is particularly pronounced. The following newspaper quote from a local resident commenting on a sewage project is not atypical: “the strange thing is that number of Palestinian officials visit us in the village and give us many promises. None have been carried out as yet” (Jerusalem Times, August 21, 1998, p. 12). Stronger still are examples of journalist sarcasm embedded in the context of news articles: “As usual, instead of accepting culpability and taking quick action to fix the problem, the PNA government officials are spending time blaming each other” (Jerusalem Times, October 23, 1998, p. 12, italics mine). Such examples reflect the change in the image of the leadership and nature of communication.
A second, internal change within the structure of the Palestinian society is the coming of age, or adulthood of the “Occupation/ Intifada Generation.” The Occupation Generation, born after 1967 when the Israeli occupied all the West Bank and Gaza Strip, has lived their entire lives under an oppressive, military rule. Expressions of national identity or patriotic allegiance were grounds for imprisonment (see, Aruri, 1984). The Intifada Generation, sometimes refereed to as “the children of stones” because they confronted the Israeli soldiers by throwing stones, were the Palestinian youth (age 5-17 years old) who lead the Palestinian uprising or “Intifada” against the Israeli occupation. The Intifada began in early December 1987 and lasted until the arrival of the Palestinian leadership. Throughout this time period, severe measures were taken by the Israelis to quell the Palestinian uprising.
The political survival of the Palestinian youth of these periods appears to have come at great social costs. What both these groups have in common is that many of their members are emotionally scarred. Psychologist Eyad Surraj of the Gaza Mental Health Clinic has estimated that as much as 80% of the Palestinian population has been traumatized (www.amin.org). The communication skills and strategies they tend to employ are rigid, overly cautious, and restrictive. There is very little risk-taking or individual initiative. This communication pattern reflects the unstable and insecure environment in which they grew up.
For example, under the long years of severe political repression, the communication “survival” skills often necessitated deliberate distrust, manipulation, and secrecy. On a very basic level, one could not be certain if a “friend” was a political compatriot or a political informant. Thus, deliberate mistrust and misinformation was often warranted. Additionally, because the primary political organization, the P.L.O., was banned, membership and communication activities demanded secrecy. Even expressions of support or popular feeling often had to be suppressed or disguised.
While such communication strategies may have been highly effective under political repression, they can be extremely detrimental to rebuilding a social infrastructure. Nation-building, such as the Palestinians are engaged in now, demands large amounts of cooperation, coordination, and communication in order to complete tasks on a large scale. For example, in order to maximize resources and avoid duplication, officials from the various Palestinian ministries would need to communicate and coordinate their efforts together. However, the prerequisites of such cooperation include trust as well as direct and open communication with others about the nature and aim of one’s intent -- skills directly counter to those developed under political repression.
Another important feature of the Occupation Generation is that these Palestinians grew up resisting the Israeli military occupation “authority.” However, somewhere along the line, that very specific “authority” became blurred and began to include all forms of authority. Professors, the authority figure in the classroom, had difficulty scheduling exams. Parents, the authority figures in the home, had similar difficulties in controlling the children. By the time the Intifada erupted in 1987, the concept of “authority” had lost all meaning. It was this eradication of the concept of authority that enabled children the age of eight or nine to become “the generals,” as they referred to, in the Palestinian uprising.
Needless to say, the Palestinian National Authority has not escaped this authority dilemma. Some of the leadership’s image problem referred to earlier stem from the legacy of the Intifada. However, in contrast to the active resistance against authority by the Occupation/ Intifada Generation, the leadership has brought with it a very authoritative, patriarch structure and style of communication. In fact, Yasser Arafat, is known as “the father” of the Palestinian revolution. His nickname is “Al-Iktiyar” or “old man.” Both names reflect the “respect for authority” inherent in the traditional patriarchal structure. The military background of the Palestinian leadership has reinforced this authoritarian style, contributing to a very hierarchical structure of command and control. The communication pattern is vertical in that orders are issued from above and those below are expected to comply. Again, the association between leadership and “authority” is reinforced.
The third major social change has been the return of the Palestinians from abroad. After years and for some, decades of living in foreign countries and cultures, these Palestinian “Returnees” bring with them not only their desire to contribute to the new state, but also new ideas and values from abroad. Many of these “new” ideas are really Western ideas that are clashing with Palestinian-Arab cultural traditions and beliefs.
For example, among these new ideas is the notion of “individualism” and “individual freedoms.” Many of Returnees left the country as youths to obtain a university education and then later stayed abroad to work. These Palestinians by necessity of being separated from their families and the traditional social network, developed a strong sense of self-reliance and independence apart from the social group. Many also openly enjoyed the personal freedoms such as dressing casually, speaking frankly, having privacy, and coming and going as they pleased. In contrast, to this individualism, the Palestinian Arab culture is primarily a “collectivism” culture in which the desires of the group are seen as superseding those of an individual. The concept of public “face” and reputation are very important. Group norms are strongly enforced and individuals who deviate tend to face social censorship through negative labeling, malicious gossip, or social estrangement. While such tactics still tend to work with the local population, they are having the opposite effect on the Returnees. Instead of complying, many Returnees became more defiant.
Tied to the notion of individual freedom, is the concept of “freedom with responsibility” or “individual accountability and responsibility” for one’s actions. These concepts are distinctly Western, tied again to the sense of individualism. In contrast, the Palestinian culture is primarily an authoritarian, patriarchal culture. As such, individuals tend to resist making exclusively individual decisions or taking individual initiative, and instead defer to a higher authority who can shoulder the responsibility. In many ways it resembles the patronage system. For the Returnees, the lack of individual initiative can cause considerable frustration, “Why can’t you make a decision? Why can’t we do this or that?” They often label the restrictions as “bureaucratic.” In return, the local Palestinians view the Returnees as mavericks. The term maverick in a traditional social setting does not have a positive connotation.
Another important concept the Returnees brought with them is the “activity orientation.” (Kluckhohn and Strodtbeck, 1961) distinguished between one value orientation that emphasized doing or activity and another orientation that stressed being and becoming. For members of the activity orientation, one’s identity is derived through what one does or achieves. This includes the products of one’s activities such as achievement, performance and progress. For the Palestinian who traveled to activity oriented cultures, many learned “to prove themselves.” Still others, after having lost so much in their own homeland, felt that they “had to make it” in the new foreign country. As a result, many Returnees developed a sense of identity based on their accomplishments. In the foreign setting and isolated from their social setting, these Palestinians were recognized for their professional and educational achievements. These Palestinians learned also to evaluate others based on achievement.
The activity orientation brought back by the Returnees sharply
contrasts with the traditional Palestinian “being orientation” that values
social ties and fixed relationship (Zaharna, 1991). The sense of
identity is drawn not from individual accomplishments, but rather social
connections represented by family ties and geographical links.
Nowhere has the conflict over “activity” and “being” orientation become
more tense than in the competition for jobs. Is it individual skills
and knowledge or family connection? The issue of “wasta” --
or using one’s social connections to obtain privileges -- has become a
particular point of contention for both locals and Returnees.
A final very significant, yet subtle distinction between the Returnees and the local Palestinians is in the “future-oriented” versus “past-oriented” perspectives. “Future-orientation,” according to Kluckhohn and Strodtbeck (1961) was exemplified by the Western and specifically American cultural tendency to value progress and change. In contrast, “past-oriented” perspective emphasized historical contexting as a basis for determining relevance and meaning.
Many of the Returnees who studied and worked in the US and the Western European countries learned to work within the future-oriented perspective. Most are familiar with such activities as planning, strategizing, formulating time charts, etc. However, for the local Palestinians, who are still very much rooted in the past-oriented perspective associated with the Arab culture, envisioning future activities as certainties is anything but “natural.” Technically in Arabic there are only two verb tenses -- an action completed and an action not yet completed. To speak of an action in the future is often followed by “In sha Allah,” or “God willing,” because it is only God who knows for sure if an action will or not occur. It is not uncommon to hear the news announcers state, “We will return with the news again in another hour -- God willing.” However, because such future activities do not come “naturally” to the locals, while they do come “naturally” for the Returnees, both tend to become tense and frustrated with the other when they must work together on such activities as writing funding proposals or developing strategic plans.
Significantly, because many of these Palestinian returnees tend to be professionals, they are assuming positions of responsibility within the government, business, education, and health sectors as well as in the mass media. Thus, their influence expands well beyond their numbers. It is still too early to tell what will be the longer term impact of these Returnees on the Palestinian society, but already the influence of the Returnees is readily apparent in the Palestinian media (Zaharna, 1997).
As discussed in the beginning, the possibility of a society having “no system” or experiencing “no change” is in theory highly improbable. Further, in looking at all the circumstantial evidence, such perceptions do not appear to be grounded in objective reality. Ironically, what such perceptions and evidence may suggest is that rather than there being “no change,” that there is significant change occurring. In fact, the changes within the socio-cultural framework of the Palestinian society appear to be occurring so rapidly and significantly that the perceived reality is that of chaos -- or, the absence of an orderly system and the absence of an ability to affect change.
This inability to affect change in the way one would like as well as the inability to understand the system in which another is operating in is most pronounced when one looks at the three distinct groups which have emerged in the Palestinian society: the Leadership; the Occupation/Intifada Generation; and the Returnees.
The Palestinian leadership reflects the more traditional Arab value system and communication style, common throughout the Arab world. Both the system and communication style are authoritarian with directives emanating from above and little participation or input coming from below. Members of the Occupation/Intifada Generation, who have now become adults, have a more restrictive communication style and decidedly anti-authoritarian value system. The Returnees have brought back with them a more open, flexible, and innovative communication style which they learned after living many years of in the West. In this regard, the Returnees clash with the restrictive and rigid communication style of the Occupation/Intifada Generation. However, both the democratic values of the Returnees and the anti-authoritarian values of the Occupation/Intifada Generation clash with the authoritative values of the Leadership.
As a highly politicized people, Palestinians tend to be very knowledgeable of the differing circumstances which each segment of the Palestinian population faced over the years. This knowledge, however, has not translated into a complete understanding of the differing values and communication that each segment has gained along with those circumstances. Each Palestinian segment seems very much locked in his own perspective and is unable to see that of the other. This raises the question of socio-cultural fragmentation and reintegration. It very much suggests that instead of there being “no system” that there are in fact several systems, each competing with the other to establish its values and communication style as the dominant one in contemporary Palestinian society. In this paper I have focused on the interaction of three competing systems that together have created the interrelated perceptions of “no system” and “no change.” There indeed may be others.
While the Palestinians are at a unique juncture in their history,
the current dilemma that they face may not be so unique. In many
ways, the focus on a singular national goal may have surfaced the interaction
of competing value systems and divergent communication styles. In
this respect, the Palestinian society may be experiencing its own form
of multi-culturalism within its own culture.
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