Saturday, June 13, 2020

Health and Sports in Khalil Al-Sakakini’s Life


Issam Khalidi

   In the first half of the twentieth century, the field of culture witnessed a unique phenomenon represented in the interest and passion of the educator, scholar and poet Khalil Sakakini (1878-1953) in physical exercise and other health modalities. His diaries reveal facts about his passion for physical exercise, and the nature of masculinity in Palestinian society during this period.  Sakakini recognized the importance of sports as an important tool for daily physical and mental activities, for relaxation and removing life’s tensions.  He always sought to impress the benefits of exercise upon his brother, wife, son, and friends.[1]  

   It is worth mentioning that Sakakini emphasized physical training throughout his career as an educator and made physical education a core subject in the curriculum after establishing the Constitutional School al-Madrasa al-Dasturiyya in 1909.  This was as rare then as now, in the lives of intellectuals and literary figures.

What distinguished Sakakini most from his contemporaries was his fusion of physical, moral and mental strength.  He was way ahead of his time in his awareness of the benefits of the regular practice of sports and his conviction as to the mind-body connection.

  Sakakini’s memoirs reveal many facts about his own personal health experience, which was inseparable from the evolving ideas that transcended those of the traditional society in which this modern intellectual was living.  Faisal Darraj writes in the introduction to Khalil Sakakini's diaries: "... Sakakini brought forth sophisticated ideas that went beyond his society.  For these reasons, his memoirs are a precious historical document, illuminating many faces of Palestine’s past."[2]

It is known that masculinity in Sakakini’s youth was embodied in features worthy of men, such as strength, huge muscles, whiskers and a forceful personality.  The biggest factor in his interest in sport was the powerful physique with which he was born:

 "There was no one stronger than I in school.  In the break time we wrestled.  I wrestled four or five pupils together.  No one could move my feet off the ground, so I had the power over them ...".[3] This strength imbued him with the sense of masculinity in his youth and long after.

   Exercise and bathing brought him back to himself both in hard times and happiness and served as an important means of self-expression and masculinity that he always boasted of.  As Salim Tamari points out, Sakakini "was a great admirer of his body and spent a lot of time bathing.  His memoirs appear to be vaguely obscure.  Perhaps his obsessive bathing in cold water (summer and winter), and his avoidance social events could even be considered self-effacement." [4]

   Since his childhood, Sakakini was fond of water and cleanliness.  "Nothing pleased me more than when my mother called me to bathe,"[5] which became a daily habit until the end of his life, though he exchanged warm water for cold! He always started his diaries with "cold bath," "warmed up and played [exercised], “played” [exercised] and “massaged”. 

   In his letter to his fiancé Sultana from New York City in 1908, Sakakini describes his daily schedule:  "Imagine what we were and what we are now.  I was so contented.  I used to tower over the presidents and professors, and they really respected and appreciated me.  I was happy in my home [Palestine]: I used to wake up in the morning, take a cold bath, play various athletic games [exercises] that gave me strength and vitality, then have my breakfast.  After that I would sit behind my desk, smoke my hookah, read and write, then go to my lessons, walking in the fresh air while the sun was bright, greeting everyone on my way.  I used to teach in large rooms.  During lessons, we used to go out and play different games.  I would go home for lunch and a nap.  Later a bath, a smoke, then back to my lessons.” [6]

  In his letters (from New York) to his friend Dawoud al-Sidawi in that period, Al-Sakakini described an incident indicative of his extraordinary power: "As to health and strength, I met with some young people tonight, who took to wrestling and harassing each other.  All were larger, taller and heavier than I, and perhaps they underestimated me at first.  I wrestled them and made it possible for them to grab me.  I twisted their hands as if twisting a branch.  Their legs split, and their stature bent, as if their bones were of bamboo.  I allowed the strongest among them to grab me, but he couldn’t, until one of them said ‘you sure can wrestle!’ I remembered the English poet Tennyson [Alfred Tennyson 1809 – 1892], "My strength is as the strength of ten, because my heart is pure." If you saw me, Dawoud, walking down the road, you would think I was a cannonball." [7]

   During his stay in New York, Sakakini suffered from the difficulties of life and homesickness.  Despite the pleasure he derived from exercise and cold-water-bathing, it was a far cry from what he had enjoyed in Jerusalem.  These health rituals, alienation notwithstanding, helped him overcome his suffering which he expressed through his letters to his fiancé Sultana:

“Were it not for bathing and exercises I would hobble around with a stick.  There is nothing left of my happiness except for them….  I sleep at night and feel the boredom of life.  I wake in the morning with tears in my eyes, yet I only see myself going to bathe, then playing my sports with my mind racing.[8]

What is impressive is that Sakakini was well aware that exercise had implications not only for the body, but also for the soul.  He viewed exercise as an effective means to alleviate tensions and relax: “Yousef [his brother] was angered by our circumstances, so I asked him to wrestle, but he refused, I insisted.  Then we wrestled until we sweat.  Fortunately, Yousef’s anger subsided.  Then we lay on the bed.” [9]

   Bathing and physical exercises became Sakakini’s daily habit: "I woke up at seven o'clock, bathed, massaged my body and exercised.  Were it not for my perseverance, I would have been like a worn rag.  I thank God that I do this [exercise] without thinking, so I did not refrain from it even during the most difficult days of my grief.  One Sunday I went to teach my Armenian student [in New York], he paid me two riyals [dollars].  I returned to the room feeling strong in my body.  My life is full of anxiety and stress, so how could I possible enjoy some peace of mind? It was thanks to my good life, my showers, my games, my breathing and my chastity."[10]

  Sakakini smoked hookah and pipe, and probably was not aware of the damage it could cause.  Nonetheless, in one of his diaries, he mentioned that he quit smoking.  He always criticized his brother Yousef for his excessive smoking.  "Before sleeping, I spoke to Yusuf about smoking, and his lifestyle."  Sakakini had a constant desire to act as a role model for his brother to follow.  He felt that he and his brother were on opposite sides.

 Sakakini tried to share his passion for exercise and other health modalities with his brother, wife, son and others.  “I dropped by Khawaja George and found him dressed, and I brought him around to my love to sports, so he started playing on chairs as I once played in front of him.  If I work in this city, I will bring him around to my thoughts and principles little by little, foremost of which is the love of nature and taking care of one’s health.[11] 
   He would seize any opportunity to carry out sports activities to improve his physical fitness.  “Then we came to Khawaja George’s room and there we competed in weightlifting.” [12] “... And then we went to an empty space alongside the waterfalls.  There we found some tree branches and used them as swords for about an hour in the fresh air.  Wherever I went, however far I traveled, my first priority was to take care of my health."[13]

   In addition to exercise and cold bathing, massage had a great benefit on his body.  It is known that it increases the blood circulation, improves the functioning of joints, heals sore muscles and reduces stress.  In one of his diaries he mentions how he began to follow his showers with a massage to his neck, chest, abdomen, arms and legs.  He viewed this as a great way to soften his muscles and intestines, to get rid of the seizure that was draining his blood.[14]

Working in the factory in Maine
The strength that Sakakini enjoyed helped him bear the physical hardships of his job at a paper factory in the state of Maine, in the northeastern United States.  After arising in the morning, he would just bathe, and his job would provide the exercise.  In one of his diaries, Sakakini describes how workers came to work, relaxed and relieved by their indulgence in drinking and carousing, while he would spend his time in his room sleeping in his bed at night, sleeping in the afternoon, bathing in the morning.  Therefore, while the workers went about, yawning and sluggish, he would come and go energetically.[15]

  He considered the arduous factory work just like physical exercise, and said, “I bathed at the end of the workday and went to dine.  I got a dollar and a half from Khawaja George, met the landlord on the street, and paid him last week’s rent, and he said, ‘I think I’m going to set you up with another job as a writer.’  I told him, ‘I get something like that, and more.  The workers are worthier than I.’  He replied, “Most of them are illiterate and cannot read.’  I recovered and decided to work one or two weeks.  If I did not get this position, then at least I would have done a lot of physical exercise at the factory, with no need for the people.” [16]

Despite his strength, he was small in stature compared with the workers in that factory and could not match their might.  Also, the tonnage of paper packages exceeded his physical ability at the time: “I bathed, went out to breakfast, then on to the factory.  The work today was very arduous; we were carrying packages on our shoulders from train to train under the sun, and the packages were big and heavy.  I could not grab it with my hand.  I was working with big, tall workers, and as we came to the packages for us to carry, they took the small ones and left the big ones.  Barely had we started working before my strength gave out and my joints buckled, but I mastered myself and escalated my drive.  I worked not with physical force but with the drive of my heart, just as you spur on a horse exhausted by fatigue so that he runs not from strength, but from his nerves agitated by the pain of the spur.” [17]

   Khalil Sakakini traveled to New York in October 1907 and returned in September 1908.  Immediately after returning, he wrote in his memoirs about the football match he attended in Jerusalem in November 1908.  “… In the afternoon I took the officer from Damascus, Sa’eed Efendi, along with Is’af an-Nashashibi and we went to the al-Mutran School play field to attend a match between the School of the Evangelical Jews [al-Yahud al-Mutanassireen] and the English College.  They began to play and the officer was delighted to see their attention and order.  We saw the playing field with our own eyes.” [18]

The ad-Dustouriya School
In 1909 Khalil Sakakini the ad-Dastouriya School in Jerusalem and set forth a teaching approach that was devoid of grades, prohibited corporal punishment, and concentrated on music and sport.  The main reason for that was his conviction as to the importance of daily practice of sport and physical exercise to both the body and mind, and he made it part of his lifestyle.  A year and a half after founding the ad-Dustouriya School, Sakakini pointed out one of the advantages of ad-Dastouriya was that it was interested in sports games and military moves.  “I assigned an officer to do this.  In fact, it [the school] intends to add wrestling, boxing and the use of weapons in its curriculum in the near future, God willing.” [19]  Sakakini cites one of the reasons he stopped writing for about five months because he was involved in school matters - the teachers' house… “I fostered the spirit of action, habituated them to bathing in cold water, and had one of the teachers limbering them up with athletic movements every morning before breakfast.” [20]

In Prison
Even during his time in prison in Damascus (November 1918), he would get up early in the morning, determined to take a cold bath in a shed where the water came down, which surprised the prisoners, given how very cold it was.  “I hung a shawl on the door to the shed then went in, washed my body with soap, then massaged myself vigorously, as was my routine in Jerusalem.”[21]  Further regarding his prison stay he writes, “I bathed well despite the intense cold; one of the prisoners laughed at me saying that even if they gave him a hundred pounds, and dismissed him from military service, he would still not bathe in cold water on a day like this.”             [22]
    It is known that cold shower improves the circulation of blood; it can help the body's resistance to common illnesses, like colds and the flu. It also improves the mood and fights against depression. 

His son, Sari
As previously mentioned, he had an influence on his relatives, especially his son, Sari.  “I want Sari to be passionate about sports of all kinds and follow the example I’ve set since my childhood and have always preached: Athletic games, cold baths, nutritious food, and reading: this is the method that will overcome the whole world.  I do not pretend to be happy to see my son in play clothes, naked forearms and legs, with his head uncovered, bouncing down the stairs of Columbia University in New York, the air tousling his golden hair.”  In one of his letters to Sari, he writes, “Haute culture includes literature, poetry, history, acting, rhetoric, at least one foreign language, society, the economy, politics, biology, philosophy, and so on.  In fact, it might include music, dance, various athletic sports such as wrestling, boxing, tennis, football, and even billiards.” [23]

  In another letter to Sari, he writes, “Many rich people with huge wealth envy us and wish they could enjoy life as we do.  Who among the wealthy across the length and breadth of the country lives as I do?  Every day I do my athletics, limber up my body from head to toe, and take two cold baths in the river.  [24]

   After the loss of his wife, Sakakini continued his daily health regimen.  “I still try to strengthen myself.  I take cold baths morning and afternoon, I engage in athletics, eat right, and get adequate sleep.” [25]  Sakakini was a vegetarian, but his use of tobacco is unclear, as he would quit and then relapse later on.  “I resolved to be a vegetarian, and not eat meat.  I drink only pure water, and do not smoke.  My vegetarian persuasion goes back a long way.  My commitment to drinking only pure water is new.  As to smoking, that is a problem as smoking a cigarette or the hookah revives my brain.  But if I cannot quit smoking entirely, then at least I will strive for moderation… i.e., I won’t exceed 100 hookahs per day!” [26] He may have meant that as a joke or sarcasm, which he constantly engaged in.

  When he turned 70, he wrote, “Today I turn 70, entering my eighth decade of life and I am as young as ever.  My health is good and every morning, as soon as I take a cold bath, I am as if born anew.  [27]

The Philosophy of Sport: Awareness, Cognition, and Practice

As to his philosophy of sport at school, he wrote, “In the sports arena, young people learn to be bold, brave, steadfast, and driven, and they have a natural propensity to compete and win.  In the sports arena, faces shine and the body parts function in coordination, thus beauty is achieved.  In the sports arena, the intellect develops, the mind is sharpened, the faculties are honed… the first priority to attend to is athleticism and sports." [28]

  In explaining his philosophy of life, he points out the importance of the body to the meaning of life.  “Living long is not important.  What’s important is living correctly, actively, with the ability to work; to live as long as you treasure your life, for if your body wears out, your activity fades away, and the quality of life diminishes, you cherish death more.  [29]

    He refused to neglect his body ever.  “… After I finished the reading I wanted to do, I would engage in physical exercise.  One of the most important exercises I practice these days is to bend the knees to strengthen them and preserve their flexibility, flexing and releasing.  I’ve seen many people, some younger than I, some older, who, when they get into a car, they cannot climb up the steps, as if they were carrying iron or stone.  If I slack off, I could become what they became, God forbid.  [30]

   To Sakakini, happiness stems from physical activity.  “… If happiness lies in health and activity, then I am the happiest of God’s creatures. Because nothing can top the pleasure I derive from exercise, and the feeling of strength I renew every day, and what I garner from activity.  My pleasure, happiness and contentment only double as Sultana matches my passion for her exercises and baths.  Every day she becomes more graceful, active, and beautiful, which makes her worthy to bear the name Sultana.” [31] People were constantly amazed at Sakakini’s health.  “Everyone who sees me is amazed at my health and the fullness of my body.  The credit for this goes to the way I lead my life, and there’s no harm talking about it: athletic exercises.  The people in our country – parents and teachers – believe that athletics is trivial and a waste of time.  Thus, as soon as a boy turns 15 years old, he abandons his athletics and fun, and adopts a false sobriety and the look of premature old age and transitions directly from childhood to old age: he wears the clothing of old men, talks like them, walks like them, and forgets about youthfulness.” [32] These progressive ideas match the ideas of many exercise advocates in our current time. Unfortunately, the benefits of exercise and sports have been neglected and ignored by many Palestinian intellectuals who were and still looking at sport as an abstract entertaining activity with no vain, ignoring its national, social, educational, moral, and health aspects. 

    In Sakakini’s memoirs, we see a precise analysis of physical strength and its role in the life of the individual.  This analysis is comparable to the analysis of academic sports specialists who say that a good citizen is the one who increases this strength that was bestowed on him, and not the one who lacks it.  Sakakini believed that the world needed major reform, otherwise its destiny would be weakness, decadence and demise.  One way to accomplish this reform would be to take care of the body, mind, and mind-body integration. This is what we see in the medical-psychological approach advocated by philosophers, doctors and psychologists in our present time.

     “A person must be strong in body, mind, and spirit.  Those who excel in body, mind, and spirit are not aberrations of nature.  Rather, they are of nature and according to their origin, are more than steel, but we neglected them and misused them, so they became bridles and blood [sic].  Our senses were stronger and healthier than they are now.  Our skin, our muscles, our nerves, our bones, and our internal and external organs were healthier and immeasurably stronger than today.  If we say that a person must be strong, then we mean that original strength with which we were created.  In fact, that strength is as subject to increase, as it is to decrease, so there is no limit to the power of man.  And the most deserving of life are those who increase this strength, not diminish it, strengthening the body as a whole, not strengthening one component at the expense of others.  The bodies are dead, not living things [sic].  The body that gets sick by the least bit of cold or heat, it nothing but an antiquated and weak body. Likewise, a person’s intellect must be very strong so that it won’t be overcome by delusion or derailed by problems or taken over by superstitions and nonsense.  Those intellects that illuminated the world and uplifted humanity were not divine but human minds.  We must search for the means to make all people's minds as brilliant as those. If a person neglects his mind, there is no difference between him and the beasts.  Indeed, this power is the new teaching which we must inculcate.  Among people, there are those who say that “right makes might,” and those who say that “might makes right.”  If we ponder a little, we see that “might makes right,” in the sense that those who are powerful in mind, body, and spirit are worthier than those who are weak in mind, body, and spirit.  The strong are the ones who inherit the earth, the right of the strong is a firm, comfortable right based on a right mind and a right principle.  As to the right of the weak, it is a void right based on pretense, a weak mind, degenerate principles, a dysfunctional feeling, and a stiff body...” [33]

   Naturally, Sakakini saw that his lifestyle had its internal and external.  Its external was athletics, bathing, eating, strength, activity, amusement and pleasure. As to his interior, it was purity of heart, health of mind, freedom of thought, superiority, steadfast morals, refined aesthetics, integrity of intention, “for if I am content merely with the external, I delude myself, as this is the scourge of all religions and creeds.”[34]  This does not diminish the value of the external for Sakakini, who remained firmly connected with the internal, as previously mentioned.

    These ideas are valid to be included in the current school curricula, especially literature. Sakakini’s ideas about health could help in increasing the awareness about the culture of the body; they could stimulate physical activity among students and help them to adhere to health means (that Sakakini followed) as an important part of their daily life. Sakakini and his experience should be an example to follow today.

    In an interview, the Palestinian journal Al-Muntada reported in March 1944:

    The young sheikh – our professor – may God lengthen his life – in the seventh decade of his life, would still take a cold bath every day and wear a thin shirt winter and summer, and not leave his bed until after completing a variety of exercises, working even on his hands, feet, forehead, and ears! If you were to ask him, he would tell you about twenty exercises for the ears, eleven for the nose and forty for the head!  When he got up, he would exercise his chest and legs, bathe, then enjoy a delicious meal.  He started his work joyfully and finished it joyfully……. We asked him for his opinion on living, and he said: this is my way: athletic exercises, cold baths, nutritious food, reading, writing, and music: this is how to conquer the whole world.  And if you are lucky enough to have gracious, intelligent friends, along with knowledge, humaneness, and sound taste, then sit down with them or go out with them into nature; dwell with them happily, God willing.  And if you are married, then make your house a paradise to enjoy until the time comes so you can sleep well at night, well thought of.  And whenever you meet your friends, shake their hands vigorously and ask, ‘have you exercised?  Have you bathed?  Have you eaten?  Have you read… or written?  Have you sung or played your musical instrument?’[35]

  Praising Sakakini’s lifestyle Al-Muntada reports: And I swear to God that the professor is an adult who whatever age he reached; he is still in the prime of his life.  He is full of health and dynamism.  He does not wear long underwear or wool in the winter, and we nevertheless see how hot-blooded he is, as if it were the loveliest day of spring.[36]

Issam Khalidi is an independent scholar living in Monterey, California, is the author of History of Sports in Palestine 1900-1948 (in Arabic), One Hundred Years of Football in Palestine (in Arabic and English), co-edited Soccer in the Middle East, as well as articles and essays on the subject of sports included at


[1] The author expresses his gratitude to Dr. Paul Roochnic for his assistance in translating some of these notes.
[2] The Diaries of Khalil Sakakini: Diaries, Letters, Reflections. Volume I, New York, Sultana, Jerusalem, 1907 – 1912. Edited by Akram Musallam, Institute for Jerusalem Studies, Khalil Sakakini Cultural Center, p 11.
[3] Khalil al-Sakakini, Kaza Ana ya Dunia [Such Am I, O World] (Biorgraphy), (Jerusalem: al-Mataba’a al-Tijariyya, 1955), p 162-163.
[4] The Diaries of Khalil Sakakini: Diaries. Volume I. p 33.
[5] Khalil al-Sakakini, Kaza Ana ya Dunia. p 150
[6] The Diaries of Khalil Sakakini: Diaries. Volume I. p 115.
[7] The Diaries of Khalil Sakakini, 1 January 1908, p 84.
[8] The Diaries of Khalil Sakakini, 17 April 1908, p 182.
[9] The Diaries of Khalil Sakakini, 1st and 14 June 1908, p 234.
[10] The Diaries of Khalil Sakakini, 22 May 1908, p 214.
[11] The Diaries of Khalil Sakakini, 15 and 28 June 1908, p 244.
[12] The Diaries of Khalil Sakakini, 15 and 28 June 1908, p 244.
[13] The Diaries of Khalil Sakakini, 12 and 25 June 1908, 241-242.
[14] The Diaries of Khalil Sakakini, 3 and 16 June 1908, 235.
[15] The Diaries of Khalil Sakakini,19 June 1908, p 249.
[16] The Diaries of Khalil Sakakini, 2nd July 1909, p 249.
[17] The Diaries of Khalil Sakakini, 13 July 1908, p 257
[18] Khalil al-Sakakini, Kaza Ana ya Dunia. 21 November 1908, p 47-48.
[19] Khalil al-Sakakini, Kaza Ana ya Dunia. 1 January 1910, p 51-52.
[20] Khalil al-Sakakini, Kaza Ana ya Dunia. 26 Marche 1920. P 189 – 190.
[21] Khalil al-Sakakini, Kaza Ana ya Dunia. 22 December 1917, p 113.
[22] Khalil al-Sakakini, Kaza Ana ya Dunia. 24 December 1917, p 115.
[23] Khalil al-Sakakini, Kaza Ana ya Dunia.30 April 1932.
[24] Khalil al-Sakakini, Kaza Ana ya Dunia. A Letter to Sari, 24 July 1934, p 263 – 264.
[25] Khalil al-Sakakini, Kaza Ana ya Dunia. 13 October 1940, p 328.
[26] Khalil al-Sakakini, Kaza Ana ya Dunia. 30 January 1932, p 222.
[27] Khalil al-Sakakini, Kaza Ana ya Dunia. 23 January 1948, p 383.
[28] Khalil al-Sakakini, Kaza Ana ya Dunia. 1 January 1950, p 412.
[29] Khalil al-Sakakini, Kaza Ana ya Dunia. 1 January 1950, p 412.    
[30] Khalil al-Sakakini, Kaza Ana ya Dunia. 16 January 1934, p 259-260.
[31] Khalil al-Sakakini, Kaza Ana ya Dunia. 15 November 1914, p
[32]Khalil al-Sakakini, Kaza Ana ya Dunia. 18 April 1918, p 141 – 142.
[33] Khalil al-Sakakini, Kaza Ana ya Dunia. 7 January 1933, p 116- 117
[34] Khalil al-Sakakini, Kaza Ana ya Dunia. 22 May 1919, p 150.
[35] Al-Muntada, 1 March 1944. p. 6.
[36] Al-Muntada, 19 July 1946. p. 8.

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