When I first came to Palestine, my impressions were dominated by the harsh reality of oppression, violence, and poverty. Then I fell in love with Palestine’s beauty, which was in a stark and surprising contrast to my initial perception. The beauty was in the landscape, seasons’ bounties, artisan work and the people who create them. So I am fortunate to have been working for Sunbula, a Palestinian fair trade organization that uses the traditional handicrafts as a tool for cultural and economic empowerment for the most marginalized.
It is no mystery that Palestine has a rich artisan heritage. Situated at a crossroads of continents and civilizations, and having hosted a number of peoples and empires since the ancient times, the artisan work of this land is an infusion of many cultural influences, while it also evolved to form own uniqueness. For many centuries, peasant women decorated their dresses with vividly colored embroidery, Bedouin women spun sheep wool and wove rugs and tents, and artisans in Bethlehem carved olive-wood and mother-of-pearl into relics and souvenirs for pilgrims. Armenians perfected the art of pottery-making in Jerusalem, and glassblowers created those signature-blue glassware in Hebron. In the southern coastal city of Majdal, craftsmen wove the famed Majdalawi fabric with indigo-dyed cotton.
It is no small miracle that these artisan works were made to survive and thrive by the people, when most of their historic homeland was physically destroyed, and whose existence and identity have been under the relentless and systematic acts of denial and erasure by its powerful occupier, backed by the strongest nation of the world.
Artisan work in the modern day Palestine found their way to numerous income-generation initiatives, which sprung up in the communities after al-Nakba of 1948. The number of these grassroots enterprises continued to soar with each subsequent tragedy that would mark the Palestinian history. The war of 1967, the occupation, and the two Intifadas compelled the families to seek means to put bread on the table in their new reality, when previous source of livelihood had been lost in the turmoil. Women often took up the responsibility of a breadwinner, when men were unable to for various social and political reasons under the military occupation, and spearheaded grassroots economic initiatives and popularized the embroidery work as an accessible source of income. And it is in the most marginalized communities today, where the artisan work is solidly established and systematized as an income-generation means, and where some of the most amazing works of art are being made.
Sunbula works with 19 grassroots craft groups, which operate in refugee camps and villages of the West Bank, support marginalized groups in East Jerusalem, give opportunity to people with disability and refugee women in the Gaza Strip, and empower Palestinian community inside the Israel proper. We work to ensure the economic viability of their products – embroidery, Bedouin rugs, olive oil soaps, ceramics, basketry, wood carvings – by facilitating access to the market. Our fair trade stores in Jerusalem are the lifelines for hundreds of families, for most artisans have few alternatives to sell their products under the closure, siege, and blockade. We also collaborate with the young generation of Palestinian designers, whose talent, passion, and fresh approaches have invigorated the crafts scene through the fusing of modern designs with tradition.
In Gaza today, people are once again working to rebuild lives in the aftermath of Operation Protective Edge, the latest chapter in their brutal, enduring history. While I fear and worry about the fate of precious ancient artisanal works that had survived the previous wars, I also know that the embroidery will continue to play a vital role at women’s cooperatives across the Strip. Gaza’s women tell me that they need work more than anything right now, and their need for income will always be a reason to pick up the needles and threads. But they are doing something bigger than just earning; theirs is a resilient act of keeping alive Palestine’s cultural heritage and identity against the great, many odds.
Who is there?
When the piece have to be picked up.
After the cameras and compassion have floated away with the dissipating smoke
Who is there?
To stitch back together the past and the future
So that her children can eat and know how to dream, smile and create again.
A testament to love and regeneration in the face of senseless brutality.
All of us who have fed this fire
through our ignorance, indifference and inability
to stop those who destroy lives and futures in our name and with our coin
Will we be there?
When the smoke clears and the unspeakable harm that we have allowed to unfold
In transformed and transmuted into a future that can not be denied
a freedom that is undeniable
A mother and her daughter
sitting together reweaving ancient wisdom
reminding us of our our forgotten humanity
If only we could be worthy of their love
Will you be there?
(Poem by Taj James)
Sunbula is currently running a crowd-funding campaign on Indiegogo. Help Palestinian women create traditional works of art that support their families: Palestinian women sew for change