Palestinians have long used embroidery to express identity, sentiments, fears and longings, and amulets for protection against evil. This heritage is now displayed at an exhibition titled "The Labor of Love" at the Palestinian Museum in Ramallah.
The exhibition, which will run until Aug. 25, has some 80 costumes, including the "intifada dresses," which were embroidered by Palestinian women in defiance with motifs of rifles, political slogans and even a motif showing Al-Aqsa Mosque during the first intifada of the 1980s. To its curator, Rachel Dedman, the exhibition is not simply about embroidery but how embroidery reflects the social and cultural fabric of the Palestinians — and indeed, how it became a political symbol of identity and rebellion.
"Labor of Love" follows the same theme as a 2016 exhibition, again curated by Dedman, titled "At the seams: A political history of Palestinian embroidery" by the Palestinian Museum in Dar el-Nimer for Arts and Culture, a cultural center and gallery in Beirut.
The "Labor of Love" collection also includes the Palestinian Bedouin costumes from the 1940s and a set of amulets and charms that used to belong to the Palestinian doctor, writer, researcher, historian and anthropologist Tawfiq Canaan. Canaan's items are on loan from the Birzeit University Museum.
"The Canaan collection includes 1,380 different pieces representing a rare cultural and heritage treasure that Canaan collected from the patients he treated from 1905 to 1946," said Vera Tamari, the founder of the Birzeit University Museum, at a conference titled "The Exploration of Ethnographic and Artistic Collections of Birzeit University Museum Group" in June.
Tamari explained that the university started building a collection of Palestinian clothing in the 1980s because the ancient costumes served as an important tool to study the art of embroidery, as well as the local beliefs associated with the motifs.
The amulets and charms, which were donated by the Canaan family to the university in 1995, are some of the most important collections in Palestine, added Tamari.
"Canaan traveled all over Palestine as a doctor. The amulets and charms that were carried by some of his patients caught his attention [and some, seeing his interest, gave those to him]. Once in his possession, he would embark on documenting their forms, symbols and meanings in special records. His family kept the collection until 1995, when [they] donated it to the Birzeit University," Tamari said. "This is a unique collection. It deserves attention and study because it reflects the Palestinian cultural and social aspects of that period."
According to the Birzeit University Museum website, which displayed pictures and data about both traditional costumes and amulets, the earliest object in the collection is dated 1912 and the latest 1946. The amulets and jewelry are made of different materials, including silver, glass beads, stones, paper, animal bones and teeth, plants and wood. They were meant to be worn or attached to the body for the healing of specific diseases or to ward off the evil eye, or for other dangers in folk belief.
The Bedouin costumes are part of a larger collection of Palestinian costumes of the Birzeit Museum, composed of more than a hundred traditional dresses and costumes and an additional hundred accessory items such as headdresses, jewelry and belts. The costumes are representatives of the different geographic and urban regions in Palestine. Each of these garments carries a specific identity, with typical features pertinent to its origin. They usually can be distinguished by the type of embroidery, fabric, pattern and colors.
Baha Jubeh, a curator at the Palestinian Museum, said, "These collections are very important because they bear cultural meanings. They tell us how women would embroider on clothes. To each color and thread, there was a different message and significance. While some ward off envy and disease, others served as a protection against sorcery," he explained.
Amulets also served a similar purpose. Jubeh said that amulets were an embodiment of the popular beliefs that prevailed in the social fabric of the period — they showed how Palestinians used amulets to protect themselves from issues related to occult practices, sickness, envy and sorcery. While a blue bead is used to ward off the evil eye, the black bead was used to prevent depression.
Just like beliefs, the embroidery and the amulets changed with time, said Samia al-Botmeh, professor of economics at Birzeit University and a researcher at the university’s Center for Development Studies.
Speaking at a seminar titled "Embroidery Economics" on June 24, Botmeh explained how embroidery moved from being an individual form of creativity to a source of livelihood. "Particularly after the 1948 Nakba, Palestinian women turned to embroidery as a means to earn some money — quite a difference compared to when they stitched motifs on the clothes of the family. This meant that the shapes and colors were no longer dictated by personal taste. [Once embroidery became a business], patterns, shapes, colors and stitches kept changing in order to meet the market requirements," Botmeh said.
Zina Jardaneh, chair of the board of the Palestinian Museum, told Al-Monitor that the general program of the "Labor of Love" exhibition was aimed at "diving deep into embroidery" and showing this part of the Palestinian heritage remained intact, despite all the social and economic changes in Palestine.