Crafts heritage of Palestine is rich with history influenced by cultures and civilizations that passed through this land since ancient times. Embroidery, the most recognized craft that is almost synonymous with the Palestinian cultural identity, adorned women’s dresses in styles differing from region to region across historic Palestine. Bedouin women in the Naqab (Negev), Jordan Valley and Tiberias areas wove sheep, goat, and camel wool into tents, rugs, and ornaments. In the agricultural villages of the north, fellaheen (farmers or peasants) women made baskets and trays with qash (wheat stalks) and olive twigs from their surroundings. While many of the crafts made by women were for personal use, there was also a thriving crafts industry in Palestine’s ancient cities, from glassblowing in Hebron to olive oil soap production in Nablus. In the coastal Majdal, a city that once boasted more than five hundred looms, the craftsmen and craftswomen wove Majdalawi, indigo-dyed cotton fabric for dressmaking. In Bethlehem, local olivewood has been carved into religious relics and souvenirs sold to pilgrims for centuries.
This crafts heritage survives in today’s Palestine in modernized forms, with the adaptation of traditional designs and methods in contemporary handicrafts. While generations-old family businesses continue to supply their specialties, mostly to tourist market these days, handicrafts production has become a popular method of income-generation for grassroots initiatives that work to address economic needs in the local community. Many such projects sprung up in response to the turmoil that befell Palestine: Al-Nakba (“the Catastrophe” the creation of state of Israel and the mass dispossession of Palestinian communities in 1948), Al-Naksa (the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1967), and the two Intifadas (Palestinian uprisings in 1987-1993 and 2000-2004).
Handicrafts production is one of the few sources of livelihood available to women with limited means; those who gave up schooling at an early age, married young, lack employable skills, or live in remote areas. Producer groups in refugee camps and villages run workshops where women can work in sewing, felting, pottery, jewellery, silk-screening, and weaving, or distribute embroidery work that mothers can take up from home between family responsibilities. Producer groups also include centers for people with disabilities, who are provided with an opportunity to learn skills and earn an income.
Producer groups in the West Bank and Gaza Strip operate with numerous challenges under Israeli military occupation that obstructs economic activity and the development of Palestinian society. Under the tight web of movement restrictions on people and goods, it is extremely difficult for the producers to access Jerusalem, the primary touristic destination with the most prominent handicrafts markets in Palestine. Additionally, the availability of raw materials and crafts-making tools or equipment is limited, especially in the besieged Gaza Strip. Fair trade organizations such as Sunbula work to support the producers by facilitating market access and procurement of materials.
Handicrafts production has made an impact on women’s lives across generations. Through acquiring skills and earning money, many have broken away from complete financial dependence on their spouses. Some have become the first woman in their community to obtain a driver’s license or learn accounting. University students would cover their expenses with their earnings from embroidery work, while some mothers managed to put their daughters through higher education, something that was not afforded to them. Crafts production also offers people with disabilities meaningful participation in society.
The traditional crafts have endured a volatile last century in Palestine. Today, it faces the threat of modernization as traditional heritage around the world does, the aging of the skilled artisans, the gradual loss of time-honoured knowledge and local materials, and the scarcity of young generation entering the trade. Still, the hope for revitalization is found in the new generation of designers and artists who work to incorporate tradition in their creation, and in the unwavering love, passion, and pride that Palestinians hold for their cultural identity and heritage.