Jewels of the Occupation: Gold Wedding Jewelry in the West Bank

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VOL. 39

2009/10

No. 4
P. 43
Article
Jewels of the Occupation: Gold Wedding Jewelry in the West Bank
ABSTRACT
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Jewels of the Occupation   Gold Wedding Jewelry in the West Bank

 
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By Elena Hogan

This article examines the social role and broader cultural meanings of gold jewelry used in Muslim weddings in the West Bank—“marriage jewelry” that by right belongs exclusively to the woman and whose socio-symbolic value extends far beyond its market value. Through interviews with muftis, gold dealers, and especially Palestinian women, the article explores the unwritten “rules” governing marriage jewelry’s exchange, and how these rules are affected in a context of occupation and economic hardship. In particular, the author discusses the relatively new phenomenon of imitation (or “virtual”) gold jewelry for public display in wedding rites, exploring the new rules growing up around it and speculating on its long-term impact on entrenched traditions.

“[The] purchase of [gold] jewelry, from the wedding ring to all the other gold accessories, is viewed as the true expression [and] official announcement of a new marriage, no less important than the marriage certificate itself,”  writes Palestinian economist Aziz al-Assa. Al-Assa’s confirmation of the pivotal role played by gold jewelry in Muslim Palestinian weddings  should come as no surprise: gold jewelry is widely used in wedding rites from the Middle East to Central and South Asia.  Likewise among West Bank Muslims, gold jewelry is publicly given to the bride by the groom and both sides of the family during the wedding. Gold jewelry, then, is closely associated with the marriage alliance and the gift,  and signals an essential change in a person’s civil status in Muslim Palestinian culture.

This has continued to be the case despite widespread poverty and political upheaval. At the time of my fieldwork,  over half the Palestinian population of the occupied West Bank was living under the poverty line.  Exacerbating the economic hardships produced by closures and occupation policies, international sanctions had been imposed on the Palestinian Authority (PA) following Hamas’s parliamentary victory in January 2006. With international aid frozen and Israel refusing to hand over Palestinian tax money to the PA, thousands of government employees including teachers and health professionals went unpaid for many months, resulting in unprecedented levels of economic hardship that afflicted most layers of Palestinian society.  Yet despite these grave circumstances, gold jewelry stores were still in business and significant amounts of gold jewelry continued to circulate and be worn by Palestinian women.


Given gold jewelry’s fundamental role in cementing marriage alliances, it stands to reason that the true value of these jewels is not simply their intrinsic value measurable in monetary terms but rather reflects their ability to fulfill multiple functions on a symbolic level.  Many of gold jewelry’s more important functions are thus fundamentally anthropological. For this reason, a brief look at some key anthropological concepts regarding Palestinian gold jewelry is useful before we examine this commodity’s most salient exchange patterns.

GOLD JEWELRY AS COMMODITY

The first consideration to be made about Palestinian gold jewelry is that it can be defined as a commodity in the sense of Arjun Appadurai, who, starting from the alternative economic theories of Georg Simmel,  holds that commodities are “economic objects” whose economic value is never intrinsic but wholly dependent on what value a subject attributes to them. A commodity is thus a “thoroughly socialized thing”  and remains a commodity only as long as its possibilities for exchange (past, present, or future) are considered its socially relevant feature.  The social value of gold jewelry to Palestinians, then, is so great that even at times of acute economic crisis this jewelry continues to be exchanged.

From the Palestinians I interviewed, the following life cycle of gold jewelry can be deduced:
 
•    Its sale to a client (generally male) as a gift for a woman (usually a bride)
•    Its use by women as ornament during weddings and sometimes after giving birth
•    Its eventual resale to the jewelry store by the female owner (possibly after other ownership transfers between women)
•    Its subsequent resale by the jeweler to the wholesaler
•    The industrial production of new jewels from the gold obtained by melting down the initial jewels
•    The sale of these new jewels back to the jeweler who once again initiates the exchange cycle

This sequence makes it clear that gold jewelry in Palestinian society fits categorization as a “quintessential commodity,” that is, gold jewelry is nearly always in the commodity state.  If the life cycle of a piece of gold jewelry technically ends when it is melted down at the factory, the gold that it contained immediately reenters circulation in the form of other jewels.

Mary Douglas and Baron Isherwood have illustrated how commodities provide “marking services” within coherent information systems  and how “[t]he cultural aspect of necessities is revealed as their service in low-esteem, high-frequency events, while luxuries tend to serve essentially for low-frequency events that are highly esteemed.”  Marriage alliances are highly esteemed low-frequency events that give concrete form to Palestinian social structure and for which gold jewelry, as a luxury item, provides a fundamental marking service.


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ELENA N. HOGAN, is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin Madison and the Alma Mater Studiorum—University of Bologna, Italy, where she recently completed a second interdisciplinary degree in cultural anthropology and fine arts. She has been active with humanitarian aid work in the occupied Palestinian territory since 2002 and is currently based in Jerusalem.

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