Sixty years of Israeli occupation
are being defied stitch by stitch
Clockwise from top left: the traditional dresses of different cities of Palestine: Ramallah's costume in 1935; a Bedouin in the 1920s; the city coat of Jerusalem in 1930; a child in a traditional Bethlehem dress; at the GUPW headquarters in Cairo; two motifs called moon of Bethlehem and the road to Egypt (far left)
June 11, 2008
Sixty years of Israeli occupation are being defied stitch by stitch, writes Amira El-Noshokaty
In a bright, spacious room, Sana Al-Digani sits among a group of women examining embroidered garments that are kept neatly folded in a glass cabinet alongside traditional silverware. For these women the embroidered clothes are far more than items to be worn. Each stitch is a reaffirmation of identity, a setting down of the past, for these women are Palestinians and in practising their craft they are reminding the world of the land that they have lost. "Palestinians are fighting to keep their heritage while reminding the world and the future generations of the biggest lie in history, one that claimed that Palestine was a land with no people and Israelis were the people with no land," says Al-Digani, head of the heritage committee at the General Union of Palestinian Women (GUPW).
A Palestinian flag marks the first floor of the building in Ramses Street where the women gather around a wooden table to sew stories of their homeland in vivid colours onto fabric.
Amal Al-Agha, internal affairs officer at the GUPW, believes endorsing the Palestinian legacy has always been a goal of Palestinians, especially those living abroad. "It started out in the early 1960s after the Palestine Liberation Organisation [PLO] was established, first through Palestinian cultural centres and then the Association of Palestinian Cinema, set up in Beirut where it flourished in the early 1970s up until the 80s when it was raided by the Israelis," she told the Weekly.
Acknowledging the importance of oral history, audio/visual documentation has been conducted as the residents of villages destroyed during the occupation recounted their life stories. Conservation followed the PLO's movement across the Arab world until it returned to the occupied territories. Since 1991 ever increasing efforts have been made to preserve Palestinian culture in its various forms, through national museums in Ramallah and elsewhere, as well as through websites and books.
The Coalition of Palestinian Women (CPW) was established in 1963 by Samira Abu Ghazala. Registered as a non- governmental organisation with the Egyptian Ministry of Social Solidarity, in 1965, following a PLO decision to found an umbrella organisation for women both inside and outside Palestine, the CPW became a branch of the GUPW.
Gamila Al-Barghouti, currently the treasurer, has been a member of the heritage committee for the past 40 years. Despite being the only Egyptian member -- she is married to a Palestinian -- she is one of the founders of the committee and actively trains new recruits.
"We teach young girls now how to embroider traditional shawls, the galabiya, table cloths and pillows," she says. In addition to such traditional items embroidery is also used to decorate wallets, bags and coasters. The revenue from the sale of such items is an important component of the income of underprivileged Palestinians living in Egypt.
"In the old days 150 Palestinian families used to benefit. Now, after some of them moved away, there are 70 to 80 families," says Al-Barghouti. Passed on from mother to daughter, the patterns cut across generations. In The Art of Palestinian Embroidery: the Migration of Symbols, Leila Al-Khaldi writes that current research suggests that the earliest forms of Holy Land embroidered cross stitch can be dated to the 11th century AD.
The culture committee also promotes Palestinian folk music through its choir, most members of which were born and raised in Egypt. They regularly perform folkloric songs as well as setting of poems by such leading writers as Mahmoud Darwish and Sameh Al-Qasem.
"Our main aim is to preserve all forms of our heritage though these days we are facing some financial problems given a drop off in donations," says Al-Barghouti. Now a grandmother, Al-Digani joined GUPW in the early 1980s, and is currently teaching her granddaughters the basics of Palestinian embroidery.
Al-Digani was born and raised in Jaffa where, she says, the colour red dominant in the embroidery is most characteristic of the district. She also recalls attending traditional weddings, which were held over seven days and consequently required seven different bridal outfits. "Embroidery gives us a sense of belonging, connects us to our land and gives us an identity. It's also a way to get back at an enemy that claims such beautiful embroidery for itself," she says.
"Colour schemes were marked by pale pastels in the north, straw colours and brownish reds along the central coastline and red as basic colour in the central region round Jerusalem, becoming bright to very bright in the south. All blue embroidered garments were apparently only worn by women in mourning, to mark a gradual return to colour following a period of wearing total black," writes Al-Khaldi.
Tahani Moussa, a housewife, was in Gaza and raised in Egypt. She first came into contact with GUPW 20 years ago when she came to the organisation with her mother to apply for a grant from the students' fund. "I learned to embroider from my mother and am now teaching it to young girls here," she explains, showing a pillow case that took a month to complete and which uses stitches from a number of areas, including Ramallah, Rafah and Gaza.
There is no accurate data on the number of Palestinians living in Egypt since, as Al-Agha point out, they assimilate easily.
But why is it that women play the central role in preserving the heritage?
Al-Agha has no doubts. "Why women? It's because women are the ones who cook and talk, who embody that heritage in their lives. Women are the land and the roots."