RAMALLAH, West Bank — Dima Ahmad from Ramallah got engaged in 2014. Her mother is now preparing the henna dress that she embroidered by hand for her daughter so that it is ready before her wedding day in August. This is a custom among Palestinians in the central and southern areas of the West Bank.
The Palestinian dress has a special significance, as immigrant Palestinians maintain their customs by wearing it on the Henna Night.
Palestinian weddings last for two days. The first day is known as the Henna Night, during which two separate parties are held for the bride and groom. The groom’s family then goes to the bride’s family home with henna, and the groom’s mother paints henna on the bride’s face. The bride wears the henna dress on this night.
The official wedding ceremony occurs on the second day. The bride wears a white dress, and the groom’s female relatives wear embroidered dresses.
Although a henna dress can be quite costly, sometimes reaching $1,500, a bride or her mother buy it or tailor it as part of the wedding preparations. Mothers compete to embroider the best dress for their daughters, and each wants to add her own touch by throwing in a few beads, mixing several stitches or using a specific type of textile. Meanwhile, the bride’s and groom’s sisters and mothers, as well as relatives, wear less-pricey dresses during the wedding ceremony.
Ahmad said her dress cost 4,500 shekels ($1,200), as her mother used purple velvet, pink silk threads and beads to design a “royal” dress that resembles the one her mother wore 30 years ago.
Ahmad considers the Palestinian dress part of her cultural heritage.
“It is true this dress is more expensive than those of other occasions, which might be prettier and more fashionable, but wearing it is special. The bride wouldn’t feel it’s her wedding without it. It is just like a bride’s white dress,” she told Al-Monitor.
Zaha Hamdan, owner of Umm Sawsan Traditional Embroidery Stores, whose main branch is located in Ramallah, said all brides in the south and center wear the Palestinian dress. “It is not just a custom in cities and villages. The phenomenon has been on the rise in recent years, and it is not limited to the elderly,” she said.
She told Al-Monitor that the bride’s dress is different from other dresses in the wedding, as it is personalized in terms of color and form. The dress is also excessively embroidered and customized with beads. The dress design can be inspired by old models, but it can be modernized. She noted that she learned all types of authentic traditional stitches at the Society of Inash al-Usra in al-Bireh before opening her store. These traditional stitches are used as the base of any dress. Some girls prefer to wear their mother’s or grandmother’s dress, and sometimes they ask for their mother’s dress to be embroidered.
Hamdan said some Palestinians abroad place more value on wearing the traditional dress than the citizens of Palestine.
Bassima Azzam, who is from Nablus but who has lived in the United Arab Emirates for 30 years, insisted on holding henna ceremonies for her daughters who tied the knot there. The dress is the most important part of the ceremony. Azzam told Al-Monitor, “Three of my daughters are married, and each of them wore a different dress. I also wove the dress for my son’s Moroccan wife when I visited my family in Nablus.”
Azzam talked about the distinctive aspect of the ceremonies that she held for her daughters, saying, “Everybody felt we were in Palestine. The bride comes out in the Palestinian gown, amid other henna rituals. This enroots our identity in estranged countries, far from our homeland.”
To cater to the high demand for the Palestinian dress abroad, specifically in the United States, Hamdan opened stores in Chicago and California where some dresses are exhibited. She also posts pictures of dresses on her Facebook page. If a desired dress is not available in those stores, Hamdan and the bride will speak over the phone to discuss colors and size. Hamdan ships the dress to the US stores. If the order is from a different state, it is delivered to the bride’s house.
Samah Noureddine bought her dress from Hamdan’s stores in Chicago. Although she was born and raised in the United States and has never visited Palestine, her family insisted on organizing a completely Palestinian wedding ceremony for her in December 2014.
Rana Hafez, Noureddine’s sister, told Al-Monitor, “Wearing the Palestinian gown in weddings is one of the most distinctive aspects of our identity, which we are holding on to. Even little girls wear Palestinian gowns and all their accessories.”
Hijazi noted that weddings are among the most important occasions that can highlight the Palestinian dress. She is working on raising awareness among future generations who notice their families’ interest in this dress, especially for families living abroad and seeking a link to Palestinian heritage and a way to keep the dress alive in their culture.
This article is part of our August 2015 series on Middle East cultural heritage. To read more articles in the series, click here.