A stitch in time: Preserving Palestinian heritage through embroidery

Story by Hannah Martin // Photos by Hannah Martin and Catherine Strong

AMMAN, Jordan – Fadwa Hassan brings the dresses out one by one until they sprawl luxuriously across the coffee table – a mountain of traditional Palestinian “thob” and embroidered pattern samples.

Palestinian refugee Fadwa Hassan works on one of the intricately embroidered "thob" dresses she hopes to sell. (Photo by Hannah Martin)

“This one is very nice,” says Nimat Saleh, 52, a member of the Palestinian preservation society Al Hannouneh. She fingers a white and red design, examining its detail. “It is very traditional.”

Hassan, a Palestinian refugee who lives in Al Haynazzal, is meeting with members of the Al Hannouneh Society who will evaluate the style and quality of her work. If they like what they see, Al Hannouneh will work with Hassan and the other women in her community to sell their dresses, allowing them to both supplement their family’s income and preserve Palestinian tradition.

“We are trying to protect the dress,” said Haneen Saleh, 25, also a member of Al Hannouneh and Nimat’s neice. “Israelis are trying to steal every part of our heritage but we’re trying to hang onto it.”

After they were exiled from their country in 1948, Palestinian refugees in Jordan have watched a culture slip from their grasp. The thob is sold to tourists in Israeli markets; it is worn by flight attendants on Israeli airlines. Palestinians say Israelis are extracting favorites from a culture that set root before they arrived – a culture that is not, ultimately, theirs. Al Hannouneh, a society committed to preserving Palestinian folkloric tradition, said the embroidery technique this dress employs is a dying art.

“We lost the ladies who used to make it, and now we are losing the skill,” Nimat Saleh explained. “Some of the stitches which were well known in Palestine now are totally forgotten.”

Al Hannouneh, a non-profit society founded in 1990 with just three members, has evolved into a vast network of almost 100 Palestinian musicians, singers, dancers and organizers starting at age 5. Through traditional song and dance performances and annual awareness events, they emphasize the importance of preserving art and educating Palestinian youth.

Nimat Saleh, a member of the Palestinian preservation group, inspects dresses for authenticity. She compliments the red and brown thob, but rejects the green and pink dress for its inauthenticity. (Photo by Hannah Martin)

In an attempt to slow this cultural extinction, Al Hannouneh is adding an embroidery department to its preservation efforts. Uniting with Palestinian women from surrounding communities such as Baka’a refugee camp, Marka refugee camp and a group of Palestinians in Al Haynazzal, Al Hannouneh meets with a representative from each community to critique their collective work – dictating the color and style that is most desirable and, most importantly, true to tradition. They will then work with these women to make dresses to clients’ taste. Having already connected with around 35 women, Nimat Saleh estimates that they will have assembled a network of 150 by the end of the year when the department will officially launch.

Their business plan: women will come to Al Hannouneh with specifications on the type of dress they would like. Al Hannouneh will select a woman or group of women to make the piece and will provide them with the proper thread and cloth. The pieces will sell for around 150 Jordanian Dinars – or $212 – all of which will go to the embroiderer.

For Hassan, whose husband is unemployed, this income is crucial.

“I am trying to help my husband,” she said through a translator. “I’m trying to do something useful. I’m not wasting time.” On an average day, she spends nine hours working on her embroidery, interrupted only by preparing meals for her family and cleaning the house.

Beyond the money she can make, Hassan said she wants to remember the craft that she learned from her own mother and sister. Though most Palestinian women have a selection of thob that they save for special occasions, Hassan wears them every day.

“The old ladies, they used to put this dress on early in the morning,” she explained. “This was her dress and she would wear it in the morning until she went to sleep. We used to see our mothers with these dresses. That’s why we love it and we don’t want to lose it.”

The dress she’s wearing – casual and light with red detailing – is one of the 15 dresses Hassan embroidered for her mother before she died, she said.

Basimah Abusharar, a Palestinian Jordanian who lives in Fuhais, a small, mostly-Christian community outside of Amman, has spent her life collecting traditional works of embroidery, and said she’s enthused about Al Hannouneh’s new department.

“It’s a portrait when you see it. It’s so beautiful,” Abusharar said of the embroidery. “Each dress reflects the community it’s in. For example, people in the desert have a certain kind of embroidery. On the beach or on the coast they have a different kind of embroidery. It’s a kind of history. It’s like writing your history in stitches.”

Her hometown of Hebron, for example, is a hillside area famous for its grapes, and features grape leaves as its most prominent design motif.

Basimah Abusharar's favorite thob, a casual style in a dusty green, is more a modern take on the Palestinian tradition. (Photo by Catherine Strong)

Abusharar argues that the tradition is still very much alive.

“It is not lost,” she said. “We keep it alive by wearing it or hanging it on the wall, having it as coasters beneath the cups. We keep it alive in every way we can…We’re so proud of it.”

The women at Al Hannouneh, however, aren’t as optimistic. They critique the way today’s thob reflects modified styles and is made at a lower quality. For them, this new department is a way to keep alive the exact designs of their foremothers – not the modern, mass-produced replicas that fill the marketplace.

Al Hannouneh is satisfied with the designs – they love the red and white sample with bird and flower motifs and full-length thob with red embroidery on brown. They reject a sample with green and pale pink. Too modern, the colors aren’t right. They tell Hassan they will return with thread and fabric for her to make more to their specifications.

Ultimately, Al Hannouneh sees these women as vessels to propel Palestinian tradition, in a way that is beneficial to everyone.

“It’s pushing me to fight,” Nimat Saleh said. “I don’t mean to fight with gun. I mean to fight Israel, for our heritage. It should be ours. We will not let it go. You have to defend your heritage as you defend your land, as you defend your language, as you defend your existence.”

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About carlenehempel

I teach journalism at Northeastern University in Boston, and am leading a team of students abroad to report and write.
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