Title: Spirits of Palestine: Palestinian Village Women and Their Stories of Spirit Possession
Name: Celia Rothenberg
Department of Religious Studies and Health Studies Programme
KTH206A and UH125
McMaster University
1280 Main Street West
Hamilton, Ontario L8S 4K1
Year: 1997
Type: Dissertation Fellowship

"Spirits of Palestine: Palestinian Village Women and Their Stories of Spirit Possession" was based on fourteen months of ethnographic fieldwork (1995-1996) in the village of Artas in the Palestinian West Bank.

My research examined women’s and men’s narratives of being possessed by spirits, or, jinn. These narratives are often sophisticated examples of critical commentary on village social mores, the Israeli occupation, and the relationship between these two systems. Women’s stories of the jinn, for example, often address issues of infertility and its stigma, the requirements of honor, and the demands of women’s housework and childrearing responsibilities. These stories direct us to a consideration of the ways in which women both embrace and reject village social mores in complex ways. One fascinating woman’s story of possession revolved around her possession by a Jewish jinn. While possessed by this Jewish jinn, the woman “spoke” in Hebrew and attempted to murder her infant son. Although her attempt was thwarted, we are nonetheless led to contemplate the symbolic dimensions of speaking Hebrew, which many Palestinian men may do because of their exposure to Hebrew in their workplaces, but that women typically do not. We are also led to consider her personal circumstances: forced to marry her first cousin in Amman, Jordan, by her father, who supports her family by working building Israeli settlements and her inability to leave and return to the West Bank without both Israeli and familial permission. This story and others similar to it suggest the ways in which narratives of possession direct us to experiences of women that are far from those reported in the evening news, but nonetheless reflect women’s experiences of both occupation and patriarchy.

Men’s stories of the jinn often take place in Israeli prison cells. These stories often involve issues of moral temptations, including Jewish jinnias (female jinn) and their attempts to seduce Palestinian men. When compared to women’s stories, men’s stories show how men may face an array of issues which women do not face as directly – including the temptations of adopting foreign lifestyles and fostering relationships with foreign women. The fact that these stories often originate from prison cells directs our attention to the physical locations in which jinn stories take place. Although prison cells are obviously problematic sites because they are dirty, far from friends and family, often isolated or overcrowded, when they are considered in juxtaposition to the setting of women’s stories (usually in their homes) these sites of possession are charged with additional meanings and implications.

Bibliography: Rothenberg, Celia. Spirits of Palestine: Palestinian Village Women, Men, and Stories of the Jinn. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2004.