Unity through Symbolism: The Hamsa
The Hamsa, or the Hand of Fatima, is a symbolic hand which represents protection in both Jewish and Islamic cultures. Relating to Fatima, the daughter of the Prophet Mohammed (the founder of Islam), and Miriam, the sister of Moses, this symbol directly correlates back to various religions and cultures. As a teen with a Muslim-Palestinian father and a Jewish-American mother, this symbol has always meant a lot to me and my family.
Growing up in a mixed-culture and mixed-religion family is confusing. As a young child, I didn’t question my personal identity as often as I do now. Simply, I knew my family would practice certain holidays and important spiritual days in both religions, and I didn’t think much of it. Nowadays, there's an internal grapple with the two sides of my identity, but also a beautiful mix of two cultures coming together as one around me. This is constantly shown through the various holidays we practice, trips to see family around the world, flavorful meals, and my personal favorite, the symbol of my family: the Hamsa, or, the Hand of Fatima.
The Hamsa/Hand of Fatima is a hand that holds many different meanings to a wide range of cultures, including Judaism and Islam. Hamsa, or “khamsa” (خمسة) in Arabic, means five: a number associated with the Evil Eye, the five pillars of Islam, and of course, the five fingers on the symbolic hand itself. Providing protection from the Evil Eye, this symbol is especially popular amongst both sides of my family, being Middle Eastern and Jewish.
Hung throughout my house, my family has over one hundred Hamsas made and purchased from around the world. From Jerusalem, Jordan, the Dead Sea, art fairs around the world, Morocco, and even made by me, the Hamsa truly is a symbol appreciated and used by all of us on both sides of my family. Our personal collection has a wide range of hamsas including one constructed from olive wood made in Madaba, Jordan, some from our first trips to Morocco, and some from our first trips to various places throughout the Middle East. In one of the rooms of my house, the entire wall is completely covered from top to bottom. My mother started a small collection of Hamsas years before she met my father as a way to represent her interest in Jewish symbolism and curiosity about Jewish identity. After their marriage, she merged this collection with Hamsas my father has found and collected throughout the world as a way to represent this mix of cultures. A symbol of protection in various religions and cultures is also used as a symbol of unity for a positively messy mix of backgrounds in my family.
Our wall of Hamsas is also located in our “library,” a room that holds within it two large bookshelves, one with historic Palestinian books, and one full of Jewish and medical books pertaining to my mother’s profession as a gynocological oncologist. In addition, this room has certain Middle Eastern art pieces that have been purchased around the world that hold specific meaning to us. In a way, this room represents the journey of my parents' marriage. From worries about non-acceptance from others, problems for me, and initial hesitant feelings from their parents, my parents' journey together has contained many challenges. However, through their marriage and my life as someone with an interesting background and mix of cultures, they have brought this idea of unity to our everyday lives, and to the people around us.
For me, the Hamsa means something slightly different to that of my parents as I am the merger of the two cultures. The Hamsa is a fusion of multiple cultures, similar to that of my family. Especially in a world where I constantly will be working to be connected with both sides, the Hamsa and I have that characteristic in common. In recent years, I have started making my own Hamsas for my family's wall out of clay, and sometimes embroidery. This is my way of taking a symbol used by my family, and reinterpreting it to fit my personal identity. On the embroidered Hamsa, I include traditional greetings in Hebrew and Arabic, Shalom and Salam, as well as an olive branch, to represent unity, peace, and the concoction of backgrounds we possess.
Part of growing up in a family with such a mixed background is finding my path to understand, embrace and balance the backgrounds within myself. I’ve learned various recipes and traditions from my family such as our traditional hummus, kousa mahshi (stuffed zucchini), musakhan (sumac chicken), matzah ball soup, how to set up a table for Passover, and so many more meaningful parts of my culture. In addition, I’ve involved myself with understanding the community around me through activism groups including clubs at school like Students Demand Action, youth groups, and ultimately writing for JWA’s blog now. It’s been important and beautiful to find my way around life through immersing myself in my cultures, and even adding my family's twist on certain things, especially the Hamsa.
This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.
How to cite this page
Nuri, Leila. "Unity through Symbolism: The Hamsa." 19 October 2022. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on December 5, 2023) <https://jwa.org/blog/risingvoices/unity-through-symbolism-hamsa>.