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Fifty Years of Collecting Palestinian Heritage

Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 25.02.2006:

By Widad Kawar

This Week in Palestine

March 2005

Prior to 1948, every area of Palestine had a special market day on which villagers would go to the largest nearby town to shop. Saturday was market day in Bethlehem, so every Saturday from the balcony of our home I would watch a festive procession of beautifully dressed women coming from Ein Karem, Malha, Walajee, El-Khader and other villages to the Bethlehem souq. These women were a rainbow of colours, and the shops catered to their every need in terms of textiles. In Bethlehem’s souq they bought shawls and jackets, embroidery threads and fabric, silver and gold jewellery, and whatever else they needed to make their rich traditional costumes.

I grew up in Bethlehem and studied at the Friends Girls’ School in Ramallah as a boarder. Both these towns were treasure houses of Palestinian heritage and rich village culture. In every home I entered I would see women weaving, sewing or embroidering on their beautiful costumes. While Bethlehem women applied couching to their dresses and jackets, Ramallah women embroidered red cross-stitch patterns on black or white linen. Along with the other girls at the Friends School, I got acquainted with the Ramallah patterns in sewing and embroidery classes, where we made simple table runners and napkin cases, and copied patterns from the teacher’s sampler.

There were cultural activities every evening – music, drama, visits to the library and nature walks. This was in the 1940s – years of growing political awareness. Jewish immigration to Palestine was on the rise, and we felt the threat of the Zionist colonization efforts. On some days a strike was declared, and we did not go to classes, like on the anniversary of the 1917 Balfour Declaration. Usually, our activities met with understanding at the school, since the Quakers were open-minded about politics and human rights’ issues.

After finishing secondary school, I attended Beirut College for Women and later the American University of Beirut, where I studied Middle East history and was exposed to overall Arab culture. As a freshman, my English teacher was Mrs. Phyllis Sutton, who was a great source of inspiration to me regarding Palestinian embroidery. She had previously taught in Ramallah and Amman. In the 30s, together with Grace Crawford, she had published a pamphlet on Ramallah’s embroidery.

Returning home, I saw how the repercussions of the 1948-49 war and the Israeli occupation were impacting people.

Many villages had been destroyed and their inhabitants expelled. Vanished overnight was the beautiful picture I had of village women dressed in their best costumes promenading in the marketplace. They and their families had been dumped into refugee camps, faced with a radically different life style and a new “camp culture.” Instead of their festive processions to the souq, they were now queuing up to receive their refugee rations in faded costumes, their faces noticeably more wrinkled. The sharp contrast apparent in this situation pushed me to begin collecting traditional costumes and other items of heritage. It kept me going – collecting and documenting for about fifty years, in an effort to keep this festival of women alive.

In 1955, I married Kamel Kawar, a mining engineer and geologist, and moved to Amman, but I visited the West Bank often and each time acquired new pieces for my collection. I also collected in Jordan, and interviewed women in the refugee camps about their hometown and their previous life in Palestine. At first, women in the camps hung on to their costumes, but later economic hardship led many of them to sell. Some were happy to sell to me because they knew I would preserve their costume. I made a point of buying all my pieces from the actual owners, because that way I could get accurate information about each item. I love hand-woven textiles and embroidery, and this made me buy the very best, sometimes disregarding costumes that were worn out, lacking in embroidery or made for everyday wear. For this reason, most of my collection is festive dresses.

The 1967 war confronted me with an entirely new reality: all the villages, all of Palestine, were now occupied. I had to redouble my efforts to collect genuine pieces of traditional costume and handicraft before they were influenced by the emerging refugee camp styles and the

increased use of synthetic fabrics. I also gathered accessories, such as jewellery, head coverings and belts, and items women made for their homes, like embroidered cushions. Later on, I collected samples of the new style dress which evolved in the refugee camps. New patterns were used, and styles from different areas of Palestine were combined, though traditional elements were retained in the cut and finishing details. The colours and embroidery patterns used for the new dresses often express national allegiance to Palestine as such, rather than to a particular village or town. The colours of the Palestinian flag are prominently displayed, and women wear such dresses as a sign of their identity. The best example is the Intifada dress.

My collection of costumes, jewellery and accessories grew and expanded. Over the years, it has been exhibited in different Arab countries; at major museums in many European countries; and in the Far East including Japan and Singapore. I feel that these exhibits have been a valuable source of raising political awareness about the Palestinian cause and culture. For example, in Japan, an average of 3,000 persons a day visited the exhibit. In many cases, I collaborated with the museum exhibiting the collection to produce books or catalogues on the collection and related subjects. Some of these books are: Secrets and Splendour (in German), Memory in Silk (in French), Costumes Dyed by the Sun (in Japanese), and Two Thousand Years of Colour (in Danish). Moreover, in 1986, I worked with Tania Nasir and others to produce the book, “Palestinian Embroidery, Traditional Fallahi Cross-Stitch” (published by the State Museum of Ethnography, Munich, in German, English and Arabic), documenting all the patterns that were used in pre-1948 Palestine.

While collecting, I realized what a great deal of information there is still to be found on the subject. There will always be gaps in our knowledge, because the people who knew the answers are no longer with us. This is why I have not previously published all my work. I kept hoping to fill in the gaps. The research I did on the costumes by interviewing the women who made and owned them is as valuable as the collection itself. This research revealed the great harm done to Palestinian culture by the Israeli wars. It also showed how strong Palestinian women have been in situations of military conflict and occupation. It was the women who always managed to carry on with little or no income. When families’ homes were destroyed, it was the women who would get the family together and start all over again to make a new home even if in the corner of a destroyed house.

Interviewing women on where they got their fabric and thread also showed how interconnected pre-1948 Palestine was with nearby Arab countries, and how collectively self-sufficient these countries were. They catered to each other’s requirements with no need for foreign imports. Some of the textiles used for traditional Palestinian costumes were locally produced, while hand-woven cotton and linen were brought from Egypt. Syria has been famous since Byzantine times for the silks and brocades used for

costumes in Nazareth, Nablus and the Jerusalem area. Lebanon also produced silk for centuries, while Iraq produced wool abayas and silk for men’s attire.

During my work of collecting and documenting, I had the invaluable support of my husband and children. I also came across a number of friends and specialists who were of great help. At present, I have two main aims. The first is to write the story of the lives of the brave women whose precious heritage I have collected. The second is to prepare my collection for a museum, or more aptly a study and research centre for students and journalists, with workshops, seminars and lectures on subjects that would promote cultural awareness and understanding of our Arab heritage.

In all this, my greatest inspiration is the women who have shared their heritage with me, who have recounted their happy and sad memories of their past – how they lived when they were still in their original towns or villages. It is their strength, their resilience and their stories that inspired in me a deep commitment to preserve our rich culture so that it may be passed on to future generations. Not enough is being done in this field at present. We need to redouble our efforts to acquaint our young people with their cultural heritage. They are living in a dangerous cultural vacuum, which we need to fill with knowledge of, and pride in, their heritage so that they may be inspired to preserve and develop it.

Mrs. Widad Kawar is a collector of Palestinian and Arab heritage. She has the largest known collection to date of traditional Palestinian costumes (thob).

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