Palestinian Embroidery: Preserving the Roots of Palestinian Identity
SNA (Kuwait) — Siham Abu Ghazaleh, head of the Palestinian Cultural Center Folklore Committee, organizes the exhibition of Palestinian embroidery, ceramics, and gourmet delicacies that takes place yearly in Kuwait. 2019 marks the 50th anniversary of the exhibition. Amongst the distinguished personalities attending the event was Salman Abu Sitta, a Palestinian researcher and author. He is known for his project of mapping historic Palestine and for developing a plan to implement the right of return of Palestinian refugees.
Palestinian embroidery is an ancient craft closely related to the Palestinian national identity. Siham, a Kuwaiti national of Palestinian ancestry, makes a remarkable effort to introduce attractive new products in each edition. She divides her time between Kuwait and Jordan, as she is the co-founder of the Palestinian Culture Center, located in Amman. The center employs more than five hundred women who are commissioned to produce the traditional embroidery. For these women, many of whom still live in refugee camps, embroidery is the only way to earn money to support themselves and their extended families.
The establishment of Israel in 1948 and the 1967 Arab-Israeli War uprooted hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, many of whom ended in up refugee camps. With the passing of time, their local culture dispersed, and people lost their communal identity.
Siham’s fifty years with the center presented her with the opportunity to work with new generations of Palestinians. These younger generations, born and raised in exile, are thus able to learn about their culture through different programs and exhibitions. The 50th exhibition main theme is “Children in Palestine Call on Us.”
Siham illustrates the dismal situation of children living in occupied Palestine today. In 2018 alone, 57 Palestinian children were killed by Israeli forces. 42 were killed by live ammunition, seven by drones, three by missiles, and one by a rubber-coated bullet. Five of these children were under the age of twelve, and the rest were between fifteen and seventeen years of age.
Proceeds of the event go to provide for medical and educational needs of children.
Despite the tragic reality of their lives, the exhibition is a stirring festival that reflects the Palestinian spirit. In the exquisite color combinations, in the high quality of the work, we sense the resilience and pride of the women. Embroidery is one of the great art forms of village life in Palestine. From mother to daughter, each generation added new inspirations to the traditional designs of each locality.
Palestinian embroidery is a sort of encyclopedia due to the information that it reveals through its motifs and colors. Siham explains that the geometrical patterns are the oldest ones, with various meanings; protection against the evil eye, marital status, health and prosperity. Siham points out rather emphatically that the first Palestinian artist was some anonymous villager woman from centuries ago.
The craft of embroidery is embedded in the history and culture of the Palestinian people. Each area of Palestine had its characteristic embroidery. In particular, Ramallah and Bethlehem were well known for its elegant styles.
Eventually, the motifs became more figurative as the women took inspiration from their surroundings. For instance, in the 19th century and early 20th century Ramallah used to be a well-known resort. Tulips grew in abundance, birds stopped for a moment on the flowers. Garments and table accessories from Ramallah are easily recognizable because of their stylized tulips and birds that depict a very different place from today’s reality.
Siham also shows work characteristic of Jaffa. “I’m originally from Jaffa,” says Siham, her eyes shining with the memories of her childhood. “Every house used to have jasmine plants near its entrance. I can still smell its heady aroma. Cypress trees are often featured in Jaffa’s embroidery. There were many varieties of cypress because these protected the orchards and flower bushes from the sea winds,” she adds.
“The embroidery from Hebron,” she notes, “features the house keys that women used to attach to their belts when they went out.”
Hebron was famous for its ceramic and glassware that were manufactured there since the 4th century BC. Table top glass is still produced. The glass cups used for traditional Arabic medicine, similar to the Chinese, advocates for the ancient health method known as “cupping” were much in demand. Thus these objects too are stitched on Hebron’s embroidery.
“Musical instruments, kohl (eye make-up) containers, elderly men’s teeth, feathers from the birds and chickens that roamed around the villages, the two-stone fences that served as a divider between homes: anything and everything assumed stylized forms and then turned into patterns that narrated the daily life of Palestinians,” concludes Siham.
Not only has Israel occupied Palestinian land, but even Palestinian embroidery has been appropriated by Israeli designers who usually don’t note its origin. Even the kefiyeeh or hata, the black-and-white checkered scarf, a symbol of Palestinian nationalism since 1936, has been appropriated.
Over the years, Palestinian lands have undergone multiple changes in its representation of physical, political, and emotional imagery. Within this context of occupation and exile, embroidery has now acquired a role of its own, as with every stitch, the collective memory of the Palestinian identity is kept alive.
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