Palestinian embroidery: Threads of identity, resistance

Alwaght- Her fingers gracefully puncture the fabric with a needle tied to a bright-colored thread, seaming the Palestinian tradition of embroidery to modern-day identity, interweaving symbols and patterns in to the history of the Israeli occupation, and ultimately stitching the story of resistance.

Keeping the Traditions Alive

The Palestinian woman is contributing to the persistence of the Palestinian identity by carrying on with the traditional Palestinian embroidery, using a standard technique which is referred to as cross-stitching.

In earlier times, young girls were taught the skill by their grandmothers, starting from the age of seven, since school was generally a long shot for girls. When these girls matured, they often created their own Jihaz or what is known as marriage trousseau. Now the skill has taken on a new meaning. For the most part, young Palestinians are learning the skill to preserve their Palestinian heritage. Others, especially Palestinian women who live in refugee camps, also benefit from the proceeds that are generated from selling the hand-made products.

In a room full of Palestinian crafts and hand-made products, Kalthum Ghandour, a representative of the Palestinian Red Crescent Society’s department of Palestinian heritage, recalls how her grandmother taught her the skill. She also points out that the process of keeping the tradition alive is a result of handing it down from one generation to another.

“Embroidery was used to represent daily traditions from Palestinian society. The Palestinian heritage is thousands of years old, handed down to generations by Palestinian mothers and women. I learned how to embroider from my grandmother. This is how we preserve it. Now we are teaching the new generation to conserve the tradition,” Ghandour said.

Quest For Identity

On one of Hamra’s streets stands al-Badya, a shop that exhibits and sells the intricately embroidered products made by Palestinian women residing in refugee camps across Lebanon. Al-Badiya which was established in 1976, employs the needles of more than 160 women of three generations. With each embroidery stitch, the Palestinian collective memory is preserved, sometimes with a modern twist.

“The goal of Badya foundation is to preserve the Palestinian tradition which existed throughout history and still exists today, specifically embroidery. Learning the skill came with those who came from Palestine to Lebanon. They taught them how to stitch and there are several kinds of traditional stitches,” said the Palestinian shopkeeper, who commutes to the shop from Burj al-Barajneh refugee camp.

“There are designs which belong to certain villages. For example, Gaza has its own design. Yafa has its own known scarves as well as the Palestinian bridal veil. All of these are documented in books.”

Products from handbags to long dresses come in a range of bright colors. But, characterizing Palestinian embroidery are the distinctive styles that originate from different villages across Palestine which have adopted various motifs, including geometric forms such as squares and rosettes.

Women who live in the diaspora, whether as double-nationality citizens or as refugees, take on embroidery as a way to sew their Palestinian identities in to their state of exile as a result of the ongoing Israeli occupation. Keeping their ancestors’ practices alive is a way of refusing to submit to claims that the passing of time and the growth of distance can make them any less Palestinian.

Threads of Resistance

Because the threads of the Palestinian identity cannot secure continuity by themselves, Palestinians have woven the threads of resistance in to their being.

Not only has the Israeli regime occupied Palestinian land and continues to use up much of its resources, but it has also launched a cultural invasion over the Middle East, taking much of the region’s heritage as war plunder. This is seen by many as part of Tel Aviv’s ethnic cleansing campaign.

From the famous Hummus dip, to falafel, and even embroidery the Israelis present these traditional aspects of Middle Eastern life as their own, simply because they have few things to claim as tradition—an issue that entails the recognition of the 68 years of occupation which were enough to build an army, establish governmental institutions, and lobby western support but insufficient to enrich the Zionist entity with its own culture and heritage.

In Hidden Histories: Palestine and the Eastern Mediterranean, Basem Ra’ad writes: “An Israeli book on embroidery, Arabesque:  Decorative Needlework from the Holy Land, starts with “biblical times” and ends with photographs showing Israeli adults and children wearing the embroidered clothing of Palestinian villagers (many from the villages from which Palestinians were forced to flee in 1948).  These Israelis have put on an act for the photographs.  The book not only takes over a Palestinian art form; it impersonates it.  The euphemistic allusion to the “Holy Land” helps to camouflage the real, Palestinian source of this unique form of village art.”

Meanwhile, Lebanon-based Mohammad Abou Laila, Executive Manager of Roots of the Palestine Organization for Heritage tells Alwaght that embroidery, just like everything Palestinian, is under threat of being hijacked by the Israelis.

“Palestinian embroidery is an indispensable part of the Palestinian tradition. When we say it is inherited from our forefathers, it means that it is our duty to preserve it, considering its symbolical importance as well as the targeting of the Zionist entity which is trying to steal this tradition claiming it… as ‘Israeli’.”

Recently, two Israeli-based designers launched a clothing line incorporating Palestinian patterns inspired by embroidery and passed them as their own designs without any reference to the Palestinian heritage.

That’s why he believes embroidery is a form of resistance and its roots are deeply tangled in Palestinian soil.

“Preserving Palestinian tradition and embroidery is one of the forms of resistance because you’d be maintaining the roots of the Palestinian identity and challenging the Zionist enemy.”

Its branches are also spreading, bearing fruit no matter how far away from the trunk they grow.

“You notice that this art is widespread in all Palestinian refugee camps, whether in Lebanon, Palestine, Jordon, or even in exile: Europe and the US…therefore those who teach their children and the future generations this art are reviving this tradition.”

The threads of the Palestinian identity are in the hands of Palestinians who are fighting to retrieve their homeland including its land, history and culture while concurrently trying to salvage what is left of it. Embroidery is one way to weave the threads of identity and resistance in to the fabric of Palestine’s existence.

By AlWaght