The Semiology of the Palestinian Face – The Dichotomy of Private versus Public Space


Each culture is an empire of verbal and nonverbal signs that structure subjective individual consciousness. According to anthropologist Ray Birdwhistell, nonverbal communication, paralanguage, constitutes almost seventy percent of human interaction. Whereas verbal communication may be transcribed in writing, nonverbal communication, such as posture, gesture, stance and movement, facial expression, and eye movement, present a greater challenge. To study nonverbal communication, pioneering visual anthropologists such as Edward T. Hall and Ray Birdwistell provided conceptual means of analysis. Although the concept of proxemics delineates its field of research through the study of personal and social space, kinesics, on the other hand, has as its object the study of posture, gesture, and body movement. This stimulated anthropologists to develop alternative methodological tools of research under the title of visual anthropology in which ethnographic documentary and photography were developed to supplement traditional literary monographs.


Abu Basem and Um Basem moved closer to each other on the sofa as they prepared their body posture for a photograph. Their children and grandchildren stood watching beyond the camera range to allow the middle-aged couple a moment of filmic privacy. Abu Basem adjusted his sitting position, moved closer towards his wife, and shyly extended his arm over her shoulder. Involuntarily, out of modesty, Um Basem recoiled. Physical proximity between wife and husband and public display of tenderness is a silently observed taboo in Palestinian society. The couple faced each other. Momentarily, for the camera, they looked affectionately at each other. The children giggled then turned silent. It was a solemn moment. I took the picture. Abu Basem drew his arm away instantly and both moved away from each other. The couple laughed with relief. Their faces relaxed into a smile. The socially awkward moment was over.


The camera transforms the subject of the photograph; it cuts, edits, and proffers the precept of the photographer. But it does not simply depict reality as delineated by the scope of its lens, wide or narrow, concave or convex, or its structured light and shadow resolution. Rather the mere presence of the camera imposes involuntary changes in the individual’s posture, facial expression, and gestures. The subject of the photograph invariably seeks to project the noble essence lying within, the best of oneself and what is conceived to be one’s inner true self. The malleable human face becomes a mask that mirrors the context of particular myriad subtle nuances and flexibly reflects the varying signs of respectability as expressed in the local community.


Palestinians learn to put on a public face from early childhood. “For shame!” Ayb! (يا عيب) is a common phrase to admonish children into correct behaviour to be followed instantly by the rhetorical question, “What will people say?” To the public gaze one learns to put on a mask that projects one’s prestige, dignity, honour, respect, i.e., one’s individual sense of identity and status.


Rules of modesty in dress and conduct often overlap with the public/private dichotomy. My father’s generation emerged fully dressed from the bedroom or bathroom following a bath. He was always dressed in accordance with the orthodox rules of modesty. It was either the pyjama when we were alone or the full suit and tie with which he received visitors. I never saw his thighs or arms and never knew whether he had a hairy or smooth chest. To us he did not present the public jovial friendly face, neither jokes nor idle chatter were allowed. It was believed that the stern face preserved the proper distance and maintained the fear and respect expected in the father/child relationship. As children matured into adulthood the father’s face would change to that of a brother in accordance with the common Palestinian adage, “Once your son matures, become his brother.”.اذا


كبر ابنك خاويه

Palestinian idioms reinforce the crucial role that the “social face” plays by projecting the degree of respectability that individuals command by virtue of their relative position in their social network. A key normative saying in Arabic is keeping a “white face” (بياض الوجه) and avoiding “blackening the face” (سواد الوجه), i.e., sullying the face. The social face is a mask that a respectable, credible, self-restrained, and emotionally balanced person is socialised to wear in order to project the positive social values he/she assumes.


Signs, verbal and nonverbal, bombard the individual and constitutively constitute his/her respective identity and structure consciousness as recipients and emissaries in a dynamic dialectic. Our faces, eye movements, gaze, or averted look, the body posture, the hand movements, the crossed leg, the distance or proximity to others, the layout of the house and use of space, the distribution and function of the rooms, the choice and hanging of the pictures in various areas and at varying heights; our entire personal space is governed by strict protocol and ritual through myriad signs. The “face” represents one’s own sense of identity.


The social face is a distancing mechanism. Indeed there is no “natural face” lurking underneath the “social face.” At the axis of the verbal and nonverbal signs one’s subjective consciousness emerges in the form of the “objective” personal face that singles out one’s sense of individual identity. In either private or public domains, irrespective of whether the facial expression is stern, jovial, friendly, hostile, aggressive, or elusive, the signs are culture specific. In fact, few individuals are allowed to view the face in its moments of vulnerability, weakness, desire, love, jealousy, or disappointment. These few are restricted mainly to parents, grandparents, and eventually the spouse.


Within the traditional family network, the social position of the daughter-in-law is ambivalent and illustrates another dimension of the private/public dichotomy. On the one hand she is the legal mother of the children and is much respected, but as an outsider she belongs to the distant social sphere and is treated as such. Paradoxically her offspring are considered “insiders,” while she is perceived as an “outsider.” She is invariably looked upon by the in-laws as the “stranger,” el-ghareebeh (غريبه). The grandmother would chatter casually with her children and grandchildren. Once the daughter-in-law enters the room the mood modulates from a private scene to a public scene. Irrespective of whether it may be a casual exchange of jokes, gossip, or serious family business, everyone would hush. Instantly they would adjust their sitting positions and body postures as they put on the formal mask reserved for outsiders: the public face. With time and hard work the daughter-in-law may earn trust and merit entry into the inner circle, which is an exceptional honour that adds to her personal prestige. Yet when she dies, the wife would not be buried with her husband’s family; rather, an outsider, she returns to her family and is buried in her family cemetery.


Cemeteries and Moslem burial practices reinforce on another level the antimony between private and public space. In Islam the daughter is always buried with her mother and female relatives from her mother’s line. If the husband is alive, he pays back to her family al mu’akhar (المؤخر), the contractually agreed sum of money should a divorce occur. The problem of burial is a source of family squabbles within Jerusalem’s old families. For years there were constant arguments between my grandmother and her sisters since she wanted her daughters to be buried with her. Should that happen, they contested, then each daughter married to outsiders would have the right to be buried with her respective mother which would, in turn, allow their daughters to join. That would ruin their burial privacy. The wrangles ended when my grandmother decided to be buried alone so that her daughters would be buried with her.


Nonverbal communication represents a language with its own vocabulary and grammar and underlies the production of unconscious collective categories that provide the blueprint for individual social behaviour. Whereas the public space, al-harah (حاره) refers to the world of disorder and connotes impurity, the house – in sharp contrast – is constituted as the domain of “order”; it is perceived as “pure” and “sacred.” The house has its sanctity (حرمة البيت). It is the sanctuary that underlies the deep sense of belonging fostered by the sacrosanct notion of family and shelters the individual from the disorder outside. “This is a house not a public space” (هذا بيت مش حاره) is an idiomatic form of chastising the children for making too much noise, for raising the volume of the radio or TV, for messing up the house. A single man, divorced or a widowed, is the object of horror and pity; his life alone is compared to that of a lonely dog (عيشة الكلاب). In the Palestinian psyche the home is synonymous with family life.


The perception of the outside as the disorderly, impure space explains the shocking dirt and piles of trash lying outside in the street. In contrast, the interior of the house is orderly and scrupulously clean. Within the house each room assumes a ritually designated, socially defined function. Consequently the house is treated with great reverence; a feeling and attitude that are extended to encompass all the blood and in-law relations that form an integral aspect of that hidden nonverbal social dimension. In contrast the external world, public space, is not defined and is thus impure and chaotic. It is “void” of meaning and as such is unconsciously categorised and perceived as “invisible” space. By extension all the people out there, if they are not “family,” are the “anonymous others” and are equally “invisible.” By the same token, the individual seeking employment or in need of bureaucratic services must resort to nepotism or clientelism, i.e., family relations or party membership, to become visible; qualifications in our society do not stand as objective criteria by which the individual merits recognition.


It is not uncommon to see things casually tossed into the street from the open windows of a car: cigarette boxes, chocolate wrappers, soda bottles … The pushing and shoving in the streets while walking in the marketplace is concomitant with the unconscious categories informing the dichotomy of private versus public space and the visible versus the invisible. The others simply do not exist. Suddenly, among the crowds, you are struck by the formidable scene of a middle-aged man reverentially kissing the hand of a young man and becoming engrossed in highly ritualised courtesies, “obviously” his young uncle. From this perspective the scene of the madding crowds emerges as a structured choreography to a polyphonic melody that the natives intuitively sense and by whose rhythm they sway.


The power that the hidden nonverbal dimension exerts on urban traffic assumes major proportions when driving in an Arab city. In Cairo, Amman, Beirut, or Damascus the road is culturally perceived as public space where others are categorised as invisible and the open road as the domain of disorder. Traffic is invariably chaotic and confused. Drivers unexpectedly cut into other lanes, jump lanes, zigzag incessantly into any open space, forge new lanes, push, shove, and shift arbitrarily from the extreme right lane to make a left turn, without the use of blinkers….


I do not navigate my way as a semeiologist.
In Amman I never drive.


I need clear signs.


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Dr. Ali Qleibo with Daughter

Dr. Qleibo with his daughter, Khan Tankiz during Ramadan

Dr. Al Qleibo is  an Author, Artist and Professor as well as a former fellow at the Hartman Institute conducting research and writing articles on mystical Islam. Born in Jerusalem and educated in the USA his books and artworks have taken him all over the world. He lectures on Islam in various international interfaith dialogues and presently lectures in ancient classical civilizations at Al Quds University. Dr. Qleibo is a contributor to Travelujah and can be reached at

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