From Cedar to Hyssop is one of my favourite books of Palestinian folklore, and certainly one of the least racist. Following this blog for any amount of time will show that finding sources such as this is a rare treat, excepting contemporary works by Palestinians. You have to take the rough with the smooth when you follow this path. The work is focused on plant lore specifically gathered in and around the village of Artas, just south of Bethlehem.
Here is a sample to show the depth and delight of this work but also the sensitivity to the anti-Blackness of one of the anecdotes she reports from the field. It is also noteworthy that she lacks the usual condescension; I would expect the author to ridicule the reverence the Palestinians showed the grain. Instead, she tells us this is “not strange” to her:
WHEAT is noble, wheat is holy. Wheat came down from Heaven wrapped in seven napkins (El qamh nizil fi sab’a manadil). Bread made from it is holy, too; a crumb of it should never be dropped on the floor and trodden on. If a bit falls accidentally it should be picked up at once, kissed, and pressed to the forehead, and ‘dustoor’ is sometimes said. It is told that a black man once picked up a bit of dirty bread from the floor, kissed it and ate it. For a reward, one cheek became white, a somewhat agitating blessing to our way of thinking.
Oaths are sometimes taken on the holy thing. Bedouin use the “Wahyat el honta,” the Oath of the Wheat, saying “By the life of the wheat” (bi hayet el honta), and another oath runs “By bruised corn and flour” (El duqq w el daqiq). The binding power of the eating of bread and salt also must not be forgotten.
“Wh0 eats bread and salt together will be true to each other” (Ille akal ma’ak malh a ‘esh ma behunak), as they say in Artas. We regret that another common proverb is: “He ate our bread and salt and went and cheated us” (Akal ‘eshna w rah w rashna), but such unfaithfulness is reckoned a great sin.
That wheat should be so honoured is not strange; what is rather surprising is to find that in local story wheat figures as the forbidden fruit of Paradise. Mothers will show a grain to their children and point to the furrow in it, telling them, “See, that is where Eve put her two thumb nails in it, when she divided the grain and gave Adam half.” A similar story was heard by Dalman from a Bedouin in the Judaean wilderness; according to him the Wheat of Paradise, like the primaeval garlic of the Milkman’s Story (p.44) grew as tall as a tree, and its grain was “as large as an Ostrich’s egg.”
The book also contains a photo of a “Blessing of the Wheat,” an amulet of woven wheat which was hung indoors, similarly to the famous St.Brigid’s Cross, but triangular.
And here follows the table of contents:
- The Peasant’s Year in Proverb and saying.
- Corn, Wine and Oil.
- The Vine.
- The Olive Tree.
- Wild Foods
- Of Sallets.
- Roots and Bulbs.
- Wild Bread.
- Plants with Folk Uses.
- Fuel and Tinder.
- Plants with amusing names, proverbs or uses.
- Dead Sea Apples.
- Bee Plants.
- Of Sweet Scents.
- Dye Plants and Soap.
- Medicinal Plants.
- Miriamiya (Sage of Vertue), and other Aromatic Herbs.
- Herbal Remedies.
- Of the Medicine called the Araba’in.
- Sacred Trees and Magical Plants.
- Sacred Trees.
- The Mandrake.
- The Rose of Jericho.
- The Tortoise Plant.
- The White Flower of Innocence.
- The Legend of Lot and the Tree of the Cross.