Voices and Hands

Keeping traditional Palestinian embroidery alive

Through the Sulafa Embroidery Center in Gaza Strip, voices of Palestinian women are being heard. First established in 1950 by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the center provides employment opportunities for hundreds of Palestinian refugee women in Gaza’s refugee camps, while keeping the traditional art form of Palestinian embroidery alive. By 2010, UNRWA joined forces with The Poverty Alleviation Fund—based in Cambridge, MA—and launched a project called Voices and Hands. The aim of this project was to collect life stories from women embroiderers in order to help people know more about the makers of Sulafa’s stunning embroidery.

This joint effort took on the special task of collating the women’s stories, which resulted in a small book entitled Voices and Hands. Many of these poignant recollections are by women who fled their homeland due to the Arab-Israeli war in 1948. Common themes in their narratives include homeland, childhood, marriage, making embroidery, family life and day-to-day life in the camps. Claire Burkert, who coordinated the Voices and Hands publication, states, “These stories are powerful and allow us to more deeply understand these women and the lives they have lived.”

Burkert further explains, “This initiative gives a chance to meet Palestinian women, young and old, who are making some of the most beautiful embroidery in the world. Older women recollect a simpler life in the villages to which they cannot return, younger women who grew up in rural Gaza are similarly wistful about carefree days doing farm work and playing games. Most joyful are the remembrances by women of all ages of the wedding parties and family life. It is clear that for all of the women, embroidery plays a central role in their lives, providing not only income, but an opportunity to meet and share experiences, and to perpetuate their Palestinian identity.”

According to Burkert, “When we think of Palestine, we think immediately of the conflict, as we read about it in the media. But most of us don't know too much about the people. I felt that most especially I had not heard women’s voices. So I thought that through the Voices and Hands project, we could help people meet the artisans and realize how important the craft of embroidery is to them. Embroidery has so much meaning. It is not a weapon of war, it does not create conflict. It is, however, a means of creating pride and reinforcing identity.”

With unemployment in Gaza at a rate of 45 percent, embroidery work plays a central economic role as well. Men are often without jobs; therefore, this income is crucial for sustaining entire families. It also has another significant benefit, as it allows women to get together, which in turn helps to create an important social network, and maintain their cultural heritage.

Over the years, the Sulafa Embroidery Center has been actively reviving the patterns that adorn traditional Palestinian dresses. Embroidery made in the camps is returned to the center where a professional sewing team assembles everything from gorgeous dresses and capes, to cushion covers and small purses. Burkert points out, “To date, the center's best customers are local women who come to Sulafa to order traditional dresses for wedding parties and other special occasions. TPAF’s project focuses on expansion of Sulafa’s current product line so that it can reach new markets, particularly in the US.”

Since 2010, Burkert, TPAF President Arthur Holcombe and sewing expert Susie Vickery have been helping Sulafa to develop products that use a number of traditional patterns, some of them Bedouin, which are notably vibrant, dense, and often geometrical. Burkert added, “I was surprised how contemporary these patterns look when applied to new products, but I think the pieces are still uniquely Palestinian. If we can widen Sulafa’s market, then it can employ more women. Already through our project we have added trainers to Sulafa's team and also started training groups of younger women to ensure that the embroidery knowledge carries on.”

For more information please visit, sunbula.org. Products will also be available at this year’s annual Santa Fe International Folk Art Market. Following the Market, information on purchasing Sulafa products will be available through The Poverty Alleviation Fund’s sales manager, Kristine Jones. She can be contacted at  kjinbih@hotmail.com.

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