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A Nation’s Tale
By Khader Musleh
Embroidery for Palestinians represents a bridge that connects the current context to their history before the Diaspora. This is one of the main reasons that Palestinian women adhere to the traditional attire that has powerfully portrayed their lifestyle and traditions for hundreds of years.
Many of the motifs we now see on modern Palestinian dresses can also be seen on ancient mosaics, carvings, and graffiti. Unfortunately, there are not many available examples to illustrate embroidered Palestinian textiles before the mid-19th century other than some descriptions in the memoirs of a few travellers and the paintings of some European orientalists. In general, the motifs, colours, themes, and material of Palestinian embroidery have been modified through the ages to reflect the lifestyle changes in the Holy Land.
Palestinian traditional embroidery was typically produced by village and Bedouin women rather than town dwellers, who have usually worn Western or Ottoman attire. This fact probably explains why most of the research done to date on Palestinian costumes and embroidered art has focused mainly on the rituals and social ceremonies in rural and Bedouin areas.
Since the beginning of Islam in the region, the traditional costume for men in Palestine has been very simple in design, and its style has become identical to that worn by men throughout the Arab world. In contrast, women’s costumes, and in particular those costumes for special occasions, were regionally and stylistically diverse and placed great emphasis on ornamentation. The detailed visual elements of these costumes reflected a correspondingly detailed meaning system that centred on identity and status.
Historically, both Bedouin and village women made their own costumes for festive occasions, namely weddings and religious feasts. Until the end of the Mandate period, most village women made and embroidered their own dresses. In some areas, such as Ashdod, Gaza, and the Galilee, the women themselves wove and dyed some of their fabrics. Bedouin women, however, have never woven their own material and have often sought the help of village women in embroidering their garments.
Palestinian embroidery can be divided into four categories-ritual, technical, geographic, and structural. It must be noted, however, that the entire tradition of embroidery in Palestine has revolved around preparations for bridal trousseaus, given that wedding ceremonies are considered to be the most important occasion in the life of the Palestinian family. Normally, wedding gear would begin to be assembled several years before the wedding day. It used to be a collective effort that involved the bride, her relatives, and sometimes the neighbours. Designs and colour distribution would be determined by older women who have more expertise and a better understanding of the significance of each motif.
Palestinian women used various techniques, including appliqué, in order to embroider and connect the fabrics. The metallic threads that were used in couching work in the Bethlehem and Jerusalem areas were hand spun in Aleppo from cords of silver or silver gilt. At the beginning of the British Mandate in Palestine, machine-made threads of artificial silk began to be imported. The fine texture and precision of the older types were no longer apparent on the garments that were embroidered with imported threads.
There are two types of ceremonial wedding gear: Bedouin and village. Bedouin wedding gear consisted of a black dress (thob), a head cover (quna’a), a veil covering the face (burquo’), earrings (schinafat), and wrist bracelets (khulkhal or asawer). The Bedouin wedding dress is made with wing-like sleeves, a chest panel, side panels, and a back panel. This is distinguished from the village dress by the extensive cross-stitch embroidery on the front panel, the soft, black material (habar), and the absence of the couching stitch.
The village ceremonial wedding gear consisted of the thob or jillayeh, the head veil (known as ghudfeh in the Hebron hills and the southern plains, khirqah in the Ramallah region, or schall elsewhere ), the hat (known as shatweh in Bethlehem and samdeh or takiyeh elsewhere), the belt (zunar or ejdad), the jacket (taqsireh or jubbah), the handkerchief (mihrameh), and the trousers (sirwal or libas). Though most of the main garments had an overall resemblance in design, their motifs were not identical. Jewellery was mounted on the hat and often called the wiqayeh (protection against economic hardships).
Until the beginning of the Mandate period, Palestinians used their own raw material except for raw silk and metallic threads, which were imported from Syria. The weaving and dyeing of the cloth and raw silk were done locally as the cotton was cultivated in the coastal plains and the dyes were produced locally from natural extracts such as indigo, sumac, pomegranate shells, saffron, or cochineal. The art of dyeing was monopolized by a few families who kept the blend a secret. By the turn of the 20th century, synthetic dyes had reached Palestinian markets from Germany and, consequently, the whole industry of dyeing collapsed.
Weaving centres that produced linen and other fabrics were founded in the cities of Majdel and Gaza in the south, Safad in the north, and Nablus, Ramallah, and Bethlehem. Though Palestinian weaving never rivalled the sophistication or the intricacy of that of neighbouring Syria, the most important Palestinian textiles were embroidered on locally woven linen.
Palestinian Embroidery by Region
Until the end of the British Mandate in 1948, the garment was one of the features that indicated regional identity. The most distinguished regions in this respect were the Galilee in the north; Nablus, Jaffa, and Ramallah in the centre; and Bethlehem, Jerusalem, the Hebron hills, Majdel, the Gaza Strip, and the Negev in the south. Each of these regions had its own embroidery techniques and motifs.
The most popular women’s ceremonial attire in the Galilee consisted mainly of trousers, a very fine muslin robe that was worn beneath an open coat (jillayeh), and for headgear, a hat decorated with coins. The jillayeh is characterized by its short sleeves and the patched appliqué (iqat) on the front and side panels. Geometric motifs were embroidered in cross-stitch on the back. The ceremonial sirwal was often embroidered on either white or indigo linen with motifs that resembled those of the jillayeh.
The dress of the Nablus region was much simpler than the others. Some researchers attribute this to the fact that women in the Nablus region had less time to embroider because they were too involved in agricultural work. Early examples of the Nablus dress show that embroidery was done on locally woven white linen, with green and red silk stripes that signified hell and heaven. It is very rare to find any embroidery on the wing-like sleeves, the side panel, or the back panels of the Nablus dress.
The costumes of the Jaffa and Ramallah regions had many similarities in terms of fabric colour and motif distribution. Both used black, indigo, or white linen with geometric and floral motifs. The Ramallah dress contained abstract pictorials of the tall palm, the leech, stars, birds, and the Ramallah moon. In the western regions of Jaffa, Ramleh, and Lod, the cypress-tree and almond-blossom motifs are dominant.
The Bethlehem and Jerusalem garments can be distinguished by their fabrics, motifs, and couching techniques. The couched motifs, commonly known as watches (sa’aat), are representations of the tree of life. The Malak dress, which refers to the dress that must not be washed, is known as the royal dress of Bethlehem. Another distinguishing factor for costumes embroidered in the villages of Bethlehem and Jerusalem is the variety of Syrian fabrics that were used to make the thob. Such distinctive, silk-mounted fabrics are striped with yellow, red, or gold.
At some stage, women from other regions sought the help of the Bethlehem embroiderers to introduce the couching technique into their own costumes. Such a welcome intervention can be clearly seen on the reputable dresses of Beit Dajan and on the famous jillayeh of the Hebron hills. Furthermore, the Bethlehem artisans excelled in making embroidered mini-jackets and the finely embroidered hat that was harmoniously decorated with coral, gold and silver coins, silver bracelets, and the ‘seven-souls’ chokers.
The villages of Hebron are as distinctive as the others in the world of Palestinian embroidery. Women in the Hebron region embroidered handkerchiefs, belts, head veils, cushions, and jillayahs. The most famous villages in this respect are Idna, Samou’u, Iraq al Manshiyeh, Beit ‘Ummar, Deir Samit, Bani-Na’im, Beit Jibrin, Dahriyyeh, and Dura.
The motifs used in these districts were illustrated by several types of stitching that included couching, the cross and satin stitches, and the running stitch. In addition, the appliqué technique was broadly used on the front of the wedding jillayeh. The motifs on the white wedding veil were mirror images of those on the dark or indigo jillayeh.
What distinguishes the Gaza costume (zainiyeh) from that of neighbouring Hebron is the colour application, the motif distribution, and the fabric type. The motifs known as ‘amulet’, ‘butterfly’, and ‘comb’ of the Gaza dress are predominantly purple, whereas the motifs in its Hebron counterpart are predominantly maroon or red. The cloth for the Gaza thob was traditionally woven in nearby Majdel, either on white cotton, in the case of the very old examples, or on black or blue cotton striped with mauve and green linen.
The Bedouin style of the Negev is different from that of the villages. The main difference is the embroidery on the front panel of the dress and the use of the cross stitch only. It is maintained that Bedouins embroider the front panel of the dress as a way to show respect to others. The face veil (burquo’) and the back head veil (the quna’a) represent the main distinction between the two in terms of overall appearance.
The examples above illustrate the richness and diversity of Palestinian embroidery as a means to preserve and communicate history and identity. The art of embroidery, even as it continues today, reveals a comprehensive set of values, traditions, and ethnic beliefs as well as a deep association with the landscape of the country.
Khader Musleh is an expert on Palestinian costumes and can be reached at Nuhamusl@netvision.net.il.
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