RAMALLAH, October 26, 2009 – In her sparsely furnished home in a village outside the West Bank town of Ramallah, Naama Asi embroiders dresses that fetch hundreds of dollars from Palestinians scattered around the world.
The 48-year-old is not only able to support her ageing father and mentally disabled brother, but to help keep alive an artistic tradition that stretches back generations and ties a far-flung Diaspora to its homeland.
“By doing this work, which is part of our Palestinian heritage, I feel that women can renew our heritage and save it from extinction,” Asi says as her calloused fingers rapidly thread the needle through a new dress.
In recent years Palestinian women in the Israeli-occupied West Bank have embraced traditional embroidery as a way to support their families while their husbands and male relatives have found it increasingly hard to find work.
A hand-embroidered dress will fetch between 1,200 and 1,500 dollars on the international market, and the women are typically paid around 300 dollars for the work, which is usually done over a period of one to two months, according to figures from a cooperative in the town of Al-Bireh near Ramallah.
Asi, who has been practicing her craft for more than 20 years, now teaches it to other young women at the cooperative, helping them to weave abstract and vaguely floral patterns out of colourful yarn, beads and golden coins.
Farida al-Amed, the cooperative’s director, says embroidery provides not only a source of income but a creative avenue for the women, most of whom live in poor villages and refugee camps.
“The embroidery had opened the door for Palestinian women to provide a source of income for their families, especially since their husbands are unable to work because of the Israeli closures,” she says.
Since the outbreak of the second Palestinian uprising in 2000, Israel has strictly limited the movement of Palestinians in the West Bank and greatly reduced the number of work permits for labourers to work in the Jewish state.
“The women have entered this line of work to fill the gap left by their husbands,” Amed says. “Because they can do it inside the home it gives them a way to provide for their families.”
Nearby, in downtown Ramallah, Suhail Shamaa, 40, hawks customers outside his shop, which specialises in locally-made handicrafts purchased from several nearby villages.
“The women enjoy doing it, especially since they spend so much time at home without work and without being able to go to recreational places,” he says.
“One of the things that distinguishes traditional Palestinian embroidery is that it caters to the tastes of Muslims and Christians in Palestine,” he says. “That’s part of what makes it a symbol of Palestinian culture.”