Widad Kawar, known as Umm I’bas Al-Falastini, "mother of the Palestinian dress," has devoted her life to preserving the ethnic and cultural arts — dress, costumes, jewelry and textiles — that have been scattered across the region.
For Kawar, born in 1931 in Bethlehem, the dresses recall a happier life before the Nakba — “the catastrophe,” as Palestinians call the establishment of Israel in 1948 — when 700,000 Palestinians were expelled from their homes.
Ma’an clothing in vibrant colors
“What struck me the most was how greatly women in villages were affected. Before the war, they were happy. But afterward, when they found themselves in the camps of the neighboring countries like Jordan, many became very depressed,” she told Al-Monitor. “It took them a long while to get used to the camp life.”
“Women came to us from Wahdat camp and I really liked their clothes. Despite the rapid transformation that went on in their lives, the embroidery tradition remained a constant,” she said. “Embroidery provided female relatives the chance to gather and socialize in the evening. It was like a university education.”
Very early in her research, Kawar predicted that the mass influx of Palestinian refugees would change Jordan’s own traditional costumes and create more variety in the Jordanian costumes that were already varied.
So, while many collectors focus on the traditional dress of Jordan before 1948, Kawar took an interest in what has happened to folkloric costumes in Jordan over the past 50 years, after the arrival of Palestinians.
Today, her private collection of Jordanian and Palestinian dress is displayed at Amman's Tiraz Center: Widad Kawar Home for Arab Dress, which opened in 2015.
Tiraz's catalogue shows two traditional costumes, that of Ramallah on the left, Bethlehem costıme on the right
“The Jordanian dress is simpler from the Palestinian because there is a general style, whereas traditional patterns for Palestinian dress include designs and symbols of daily surroundings,” explained Kawar. “The second component that distinguishes Jordanian dress are the tight sleeves that contrast with the baggy, loose body and low neckline.”
There is much overlap between traditional women's costumes in Bilad al-Sham, the region encompassing modern-day Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan and most of Syria before Sykes-Picot’s imperial cartography divided the nations. For example, in the 19th century, most textiles used for clothing in Jordan were purchased in Syria or Palestine. In general, women in the region wore intricate embroidery for special ceremonies such as weddings, and simpler garments at home.
Nearly all the traditional costumes use black linen, but other colors occasionally creep in — like the blue wedding dresses of the agricultural (fellahin) societies of northern Jordan. A notable exception to the rule are the clothes of Jordan’s southern province of Ma’an, where both nomadic and settled communities sport a rainbow of colors. Serving as a rest stop for passersby along the Hijaz Railway, which ran from Damascus to Mecca, local bedouin began collecting and making dresses from fabrics all over the Islamic world, bringing color into their clothes.
Al-Salt, an ancient agricultural town and administrative center in west-central Jordan, boasts one of the most unusual dresses in the Arab world with its immense length and width. The thob 'ob, double or folded dresses, provided a secret place for women to hide precious items such as jewelry and important papers in a pocket formed by the extraneous fabric. Women also used the pocket to hide tax money from Ottoman soldiers making the rounds after harvest season. They could even store groceries — tomatoes, onions, potatoes — in the pouch on the way back from the souk, or market.
On their heads, women in Jordan also typically wore a rectangular scarf, often black for older women and red for younger, accompanied by a hand-woven scarf in metallic silk, an 'asbe, worn around the head and falling to the shoulders.
Kawar's personal collection at home
When asked how society has preserved its clothing traditions, museum employee Youssef Mrawyy lamented the current state of affairs. “Look around the university today — this is what happened to the traditional dresses. There are none.”
Kawar confirmed the decline of traditional dress in contemporary times. “Today, the dresses are only worn on special occasions. It is sad what has happened to traditional costume, which reflects our rich heritage. I have few visitors coming to my museum and I’m not sure why. I think the new generation has slowly stopped taking interest. Maybe they do not know that the mix of Jordanian and Palestine dress reflects the intricate system of identity and status across this country.”
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