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A Multi-Coloured Dress for Jerusalem A Fashion Show of Sorts

Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 02.01.2010:

By Amal Nashashibi, Maro Sandrouni and Hamada Atallah

The Arab League decided that in 2009, Jerusalem would be “the Capital of Arab Culture.” The announcement took the Jerusalem community by surprise. Poets and writers quivered, as the task to reinstate the city as a centre of Palestinian Arab culture would be a daunting affair, especially as the necessary infrastructure is not in place. There are no publishing houses in the city, no specialised journals, nor is there serious journalism.

Other concerned Jerusalemites tried to transcend this reality, to override the deficiencies, to start thinking of it as an opportunity to put in place a five-year culture-rehabilitation plan. The priorities of the plan would include the restoration of the Jerusalem theatre house, Al-Nuzha El-Hakawati, to its pre-eminence as a vibrant cultural space; completion of the restoration of the Al-Quds cinema building and its inauguration as a space for local cultural production; assurance of core funding for the thriving cultural organisations to help them reach more children and youth; development and financial maintenance of the old private family libraries in the Old City and provision of research grants to encourage the exploration of the city’s social and cultural history; completion of the restoration work that was started a few years ago in the two museums in town, and the training of their attendants in order to turn them into educational spaces for school children.

In the short run, however, and within the modest means availed to the NGO community, individual organisations began to plan for events that would celebrate Jerusalem as capital of Arab culture as early as December 2007. Al-Mirsat, which is a Jerusalem-based organisation that helps youth find employment in arts and crafts and related information-technology fields, developed a co-project with two fashion designers, Hamada Atallah and Maro Sandrouni, to stage a fashion show of Jerusalem Costumes Across the Ages.

We mused about what the city stood for across the ages and speculated that it was an open city which never closed its gates to any pilgrim, visitor, or refugee, and had never withheld residency rights to anyone who desired to stay on to live in peace within its walls. It had never bound anyone to pray, never averted anyone from worshipping his or her own God, never imposed its language on anyone, and never forced a soul to live in a specific quarter because of ethnic affiliation.

We deemed it important in these dark times that Jerusalem should be celebrated for its efforts to safeguard for the world the hope of peaceful coexistence among religions and peoples. Our consensus was that we should weave for Jerusalem a multi-coloured dress worthy of its history and its essence.

Sixty dresses to be exhibited in a fashion show would be produced by the two designers. The show would involve a modern cultural representation of the city of Jerusalem inspired by the present material manifestations of the age-old spiritual beliefs and social customs. It would represent the designer’s individual interpretation of the Old City’s landscape against which different and diverse communities of the bold and the introvert, who converged on Jerusalem and who represent nearly the entire cosmos, have created cacophony and concord in the space.

The designers were left alone to look for and find their inspiration. However, an apprentice programme was appended to the project by Al-Mirsat in order to encourage young Jerusalem artists, artisans, and apprentices to gain hands-on experience, especially as reviving traditional arts and crafts was an important part of the fashion production process. Finally, after 12 months of researching, designing, training, shopping for fabric, cutting, sewing, and apprenticing, the show was ready. It was staged on 16 December in Jerusalem, at the Notre Dame Conference Center, one day before the closure of the festivities of Jerusalem, Capital of Arab Culture. The conference hall was packed.

The project was funded by the Welfare Association, and the fashion show was funded by the French Cultural Centre in Jerusalem. Al-Mirsat as well as the two designers offered their work gratis. It was labour that was passionately offered to Jerusalem.

By Amal Nashashibi

The concept of this project emerged upon the completion of the History of Fashion course I took in New York, which inspired me to embark on a project to reveal the origin of costume in the Middle East, along what is known by historians as the The Fertile Crescent, The Cradle of Civilisation.

When Jerusalem was declared the Capital of Arab Culture for 2009, I decided to materialise this concept with a focus on Jerusalem. Since my focal point was the early civilisations (2500 BC until the Ottomans), I proposed the idea to my friend Hamada Atallah, who agreed to take over from the late-19th century until today.

With my proposal, “Jerusalem Across the Ages,” I approached Al-Mirsat, which offered to be the umbrella provided that we train 20 artisans in fields related to the production of the garments.

The project started a year ago with extensive research followed by production and apprentice training. The year-long effort was full of challenges and tremendously strenuous, yet inspiring and exhilarating.

During my research, I discovered the Great Goddess of Love and War known as Inanna/Ishtar, the Joyous and Sorrowful, who constantly reshaped herself.

I was fascinated by her countless resilient and challenging qualities, which stimulated my imagination and triggered a sense of connection between her and my city, Jerusalem, which across the ages experienced love, war, joy, and sorrow. Therefore, I decided to start the show with a young and talented dancer to impersonate this character and thus celebrate this golden city in a “Moment of Peace.” This was followed by a number of tableaus of trendy evening gowns inspired by various eras: Canaanite/Jebusite; Hyksos/Egyptian; Assyrian/Babylonian; Persian; Hellenistic; Roman Byzantine; Armenian; Muslim; Crusader; and Mamluk. In most cases, the source of inspiration was the original dress of the era, however, when researching the Muslim Era, I was intrigued by the treaty, Al-Ohdeh Al-Omarieh, and since I have a passion for Arabic calligraphy, I decided to decorate the dresses with a mélange of Armenian floral motifs and some excerpts of the treaty. The Mamluk Era with its rich architectural patterns carved on domes ranged from ribs and zigzags to floral and geometric star designs enhanced the beauty of three of my garments creating the Mamluk mosaic.

I ended the show with a bridal gown inspired by the gates of the walls of the Old City erected during the Ottoman Period. The bride with her thorn crown and her barbed-wire bracelets and the chains connecting the gates once again uncovered the joy and sorrow that Jerusalem experiences along the way.

It was important that people become aware, even briefly, of the various bygone peoples who influenced their culture and society and enjoy the history of Jerusalem in a peaceful and creative setting. Moreover, having to relate the past to the present by means of apparel was very attractive and interesting to people from all walks of life regardless of age, sex, religion, or ethnic group.

To identify a Jerusalemite, questions are asked in order to verify the ethnic background of the individual. Therefore, it is necessary to emphasise the fact that every single person in this small city comes from a different ethnic group that helps to form this interesting, spicy society we live in.

By Maro Sandrouni

My extensive proficiency as a costume designer in the performing arts and film productions locally and internationally and my expertise in Palestinian embroidery as a trainer of a number of women’s handicraft groups in different parts of Palestine encouraged me to embark on this very special project. Since the focus of my friend Maro Sandrouni was early civilisation, I succeeded in completing the history of my city by covering the late-19th century until today.

To make it more vibrant and comprehensible, I decided to present my works in seven scenes that covered the Late-Ottoman Period, the British Mandate, 1948 Al-Nakba, 1967 the Occupation, the First Intifada, the Second Intifada; and the Wall. The costumes revealed the moods of the era, the political situation, and the characteristics of the events. My vision was to create an inventive collection, free from the rigidity of literal reconstruction of historical garments. My artistic background in sculpting and painting enabled me to create stage scenes that allowed spectators the freedom to see and imagine each piece through their own lenses, just as each one of us lives and feels Jerusalem in his or her own unique, personal way.

Two threads of themes ran through the collection: the Three Dominant Religions and the numerous Communities of Jerusalem. They portrayed the peoples who have arrived from various parts of the world and settled in the city, and the communities that have flourished and declined – Armenians, Ethiopians, Assyrians, Sufis, Africans, Gypsies, and Greeks, to name a few. The collection expressed their rituals, customs, spiritualities, languages, values, and cultures – the mosaic pieces that make up this extraordinary city.

Palestinian embroidery was an integral part of my works because I tried to emphasize the importance of our tradition by engraving our stamp on our own heritage. It was imperative, therefore, to revive the vanishing art of embroidery which has been diminishing since the destruction of much of our culture in 1948 and because of the modernizing of our lifestyles. Given this reality, I sprinkled each costume with various elements of traditional embroidery and offered a glimpse into our exquisite and diverse artisan heritage.

The undercurrent of the collection is a complex emotional relationship that I, as a Jerusalemite, have with my city – the profound love, hate, sickness, pride, and a sense of belonging to its millennia-long history. The collection celebrated the unbreakable bond that will always pull us back to our city, and the beauty that rises above all the tragedies and insanities.

By Hamada Atallah


January 2010

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