Radical Objects: The Palestinian Tapestry: A People’s History

By Jan Chalmers

In 1969/70 I worked in the Gaza Strip.  I was employed by UNRWA [United Nations Relief Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees] and I worked as a maternal and child health nurse in a clinic in Jabalia refugee camp, which at that time accommodated more than 40,000 refugees.  I was young, and it was an adventure for me, particularly as I was accompanied by my future husband.  I was visiting the historical Holy Land and the places my uncle had talked about after he had served in Palestine during his national service in the British army in the 1940s.  Throughout the two years I lived in Gaza I was immersed in the love and hospitality of Palestinian friends, from which I have never recovered!

At the end of the nineteenth century, after suffering centuries of discrimination by European Christians, a movement among some Jews emerged calling for the establishment of a Jewish state. Concurrently, the Arabs of the Near East sought independence from Ottoman rule.  In 1917 Britain promised self-determination in Palestine to both these national movements and so established the basis for the tragedy that has unfolded ever since. The Jewish state of Israel that emerged has become the regional super power; the non-Jewish Arabs of Palestine have become one of the most politically abused populations in the world.  Today, along with others, and towards the end of my life, I want to show my support for Palestinians and to express my sorrow at Britain’s betrayal, and to say sorry for the dreadful wrong brought about.

In 2012 I invited two friends to join me in setting up a project for Palestinian embroiderers, who are among the most talented in the world.  I thought we should celebrate their skill and help to make it more widely known.  In addition, this would help provide income for Palestinian families by giving women employment, extend friendship and support to Palestinians in general, and record an insufficiently appreciated history of Palestine

The idea was to create embroidered story panels, each one not less than a meter in length, which could be stitched together to build a Palestine Tapestry. Following in the tradition of the Bayeux Tapestry, the Keiskamma History Tapestry  and the Great Tapestry of Scotland, the Palestinian Tapestry aims to tell and preserve the story of the Palestinian people, their livelihoods and traditions, and their struggle under colonial rule and Israeli occupation.

The project started with embroidery groups in Gaza.  Now we are receiving contributions of embroidered panels from Galilee, Bethlehem, Nablus, Ramallah, Hebron, the Naqab, Deheisheh and from Palestinians in refugee camps in Jordan.  We are currently actively exploring the possibility of receiving work from Palestinian embroiders in Lebanon.

The images for the panels are chosen by Palestinians, drawn by Palestinians, and stitched by Palestinians. The Palestinian panel creators are the only ones who are paid for what they do.  The Palestinian History Tapestry Project is a not-for-profit, volunteer-run, registered charity, and depends on public support and generosity in the form of money donations from those who would like to help it succeed.


‘GAZA ROOF TOPS’, designed by Adham Jaber and stitched by Hekmat Ashour of Atfaluna

Gaza Roof Tops was designed by Adham Jaber and stitched by Hekmat Ashour of Atfaluna, the association for deaf children in Gaza. It shows the Great Omari Mosque, which is situated in the Daraj Quarter of the Old City of Gaza, at the eastern end of Omar al Mukhtar Street, southeast of Palestine Square.  The building has been erected and destroyed many times over the centuries.  It is believed to stand on the site of an ancient Philistine temple.  The site was used by the Byzantines to build a church in the 5th century, but after the Muslim conquest in the 7th century, it was transformed into a mosque.

The mosque is well known for its minaret, which is square-shaped in its lower half and octagonal in its upper half, typical of the Mamluk architectural style.  It is constructed of stone and wood.  Through time Gaza has been renowned for its abundance of oranges and fish, and the clay pot industry, and all of them are depicted here in the Gaza Roof Top panel.   Continue reading

Radical Objects: The Bearded Man and the Bomb

Image L0076639: Correspondence regarding MCANW publication of "Nuclear Emergencies: A GP's Guide", 1991. From the Medact archive, ref: SA/MED/K/1/12/11.

Image L0076639: Correspondence regarding MCANW publication of “Nuclear Emergencies: A GP’s Guide”, 1991. From the Medact archive, ref: SA/MED/K/1/12/11.


It sounds like a set-up for a joke: a bearded man creeps into the office of the Medical Campaign against Nuclear Weapons, nervously asks for a copy of their latest publication on the medical consequences of nuclear warfare, and then quietly slips out. He is a civil servant, working in defence.

But aside from the amusing image of this tiptoeing bearded chap, the letter unveils some interesting truths about a period of intense hostility between East and West. It demonstrates the air of secrecy surrounding nuclear issues, the lack of concrete information publically available on the grave implications of a nuclear accident or attack, and the outspoken position of doctors in this fight against the proliferation of weapons.
Continue reading

Radical Objects: The London Policeman Songsheet


The London Policeman Songsheet
People’s History Museum

In March 1984 over half of the UK’s 187,000 miners came out on strike over planned pit closures and job cuts. Against a backdrop of political outrage, flying pickets rose to action across counties, blocking goods coming in and out of mines and hounding ‘scabs’ (miners not on strike).

Tensions were high; with no ballot the strike was technically illegal. Margaret Thatcher deemed striking miners ‘the enemy within’ and 20,000 police mobilised, patrolling pickets, roads and towns.

Relationships between police and striking miners and their supporters were delicate. At a local level familial and community ties sometimes softened the unease. But having no such ties, the London Metropolitan Police – brought in to bolster local branches – proved a fractious force.

The London Policeman portrays the cynical image of the Met officer; with riot gear, horse and baton in hand, they were in it, so the song suggests, for the money, for violence, to dehumanise the miners. One South Yorkshire officer recalls Met Police saying they were ‘up for it’ and antagonising pickets, waving £20 notes at the hard-up miners.

Close up of The London Policeman Songsheet, people's history museum

The Met shored-up police efforts in several violent strike incidents, of which the infamous ‘Battle of Orgreave’ was the worst. Purportedly provoked by some of the estimated 10,000 miners hurling bricks and stones, around 5,000 riot-gear clad police charged with batons, dogs and on horseback. Famously, the photograph featured in this copy of Labour Weekly captures a policeman raising his baton to a female reporter helping an injured miner.

Labour Weekly

Poster – ‘Labour weekly supports the miners’, Labour Weekly issue no. 642.
Working Class Movement Library

All 95 miners prosecuted for alleged riot and unlawful assembly were acquitted a year later after police oral and written evidence was discredited in court. And following a BBC Inside Out documentary in 2012 and Hillsborough developments, the South Yorkshire police referred itself to the IPCC over the handling of Orgreave.

Of course the London Met was not alone in policing these incidents. Officers from all over the country were present at Orgreave and miners talk about intimidation from local officers too. But this song shows clearly a perception of the London Metropolitan Police as the divisive heavies, facing down miners with whom they had no affiliation, whilst ironically going some way to preserving relations between local police and the pickets.

“And suddenly a silence reigned
And both sides looked at me
‘You arrant bloody fool’ they cried
And straight away did agree
To strike me down with fist and club
And shake each other’s hands
And march down into London
Led by their famous bands.
While I went into hospital
A martyr to the Cause
Of bringing man together
By the breaking of their jaws.”

By Catherine Robins, Unlocking Ideas Project Assistant for People’s History Museum and Working Class Movement Library.

Radical Objects: The Common Man’s Gandhi Cap

The current Indian election – the counting is on May 16th after staggered voting which began on April 7th – has seen a re-invention of the country’s most politically iconic headwear. The old Gandhi cap, a symbol of India’s non-violent pursuit of self-reliance and independence, has been revived – not, as Andrew Whitehead explains, by the Congress party with which Gandhi was once associated but by a new, insurgent political party:

In the back streets of East Delhi the other week, I witnessed a curious sight. As scores of people waited patiently late into the evening for a Parliamentary candidate to come and address them, party workers handed out dozens of cheaply made hats. Gandhi caps. Youngsters pushed and jostled to get one, and by the time the main speaker arrived, the small but enthusiastic crowd was a sea of white headgear.


Photo by Andrew Whitehead

Each cap bore the name of the wildcard party in India’s elections, the Aam Aadmi (it means ‘common man’ in Hindi) Party, and its election symbol, the jharoo, the traditional dried grass broom. Why a broom? Well, the AAP is a single issue party which wants to sweep away corruption … and it has recently proved its popularity by sweeping to power (albeit briefly) at state level in Delhi.

The reference back to M.K. Gandhi, the Indian political leader with arguably more moral authority than any other, is not accidental. The AAP has revived one of Gandhi’s most renowned political props to seek to benefit from the respect accorded to ‘Bapu’, the father of the nation. In East Delhi, one of the best Parliamentary prospects for the AAP, the Gandhi association is even more explicit – the party’s candidate here is Gandhi’s grandson.

The origins of the Gandhi cap are not entirely clear. They appear to lie in Gandhi’s initial excursions into non-violent protest in South Africa in the years before the First World War. Nagindas Sanghvi (in The Agony of Arrival: Gandhi, the South African Years, New Delhi, 2006) has suggested that Gandhi and other Indian protestors confined to South African jails at this time were obliged to follow the dress code of black prisoners, which included the cap that Gandhi was to make his own. It’s a simple white side cap, pointed at front and back, with a wide band which gives it almost a military aspect.

Gandhi + cap

From 1917 onwards, Gandhi’s campaign of non-cooperation with Imperial power in India became associated with the wearing of ‘khadi’, made out of homespun cloth. Simple, coarse white clothing became the informal uniform of the Gandhi’s campaign for swaraj or self-reliance, something rather more than simply political independence. The Gandhi cap in particular became an important symbol of opposition to British rule. During the non-cooperation movement, says the historian Lata Singh, (Popular Translations of Nationalism: Bihar, 1920-1922, Delhi, 2012), it was sold at all major political meetings and on street corners. By 1922, a substantial proportion of the Indian male population was wearing the Gandhi cap – and Lata Singh argues that its significance was created as much by British responses to it as by Gandhi’s personal attempts to promote it. ‘The British had for long been trying to control Indian headwear and they now began to clamp down on Gandhi cap-wearers by dismissing them from government jobs, fining them and at times physically beating them. The government employees were forbidden to wear the Gandhi caps in the office and risked dismissal if they wore khadi dress and caps.’

The dress code which Gandhi promulgated became indelibly linked with the nationalist movement, and – by association – with Congress. Gandhi’s assassination within months of India achieving independence added still greater force to the emulation of his style of dress. To this day, Indian politicians when at Parliament or on official duty normally wear khadi-style simple white clothing.

As for the Gandhi cap, Jawaharlal Nehru, the Harrow-educated politician who was India’s Prime Minister for its first seventeen years of the independence era, habitually wore a smart cap in the Mahatma’s style. Of later Prime Ministers, Lal Bahadur Shastri and Morarji Desai in particular embraced Gandhi’s choice of headgear. But over the decades, the Gandhi cap faded out of fashion. It came to be seen as dated, parochial, unmodern.

The political revival of the Gandhi cap came with the rise to prominence in 2011 of the social activist and campaigner Anna Hazare. As with several of the leading figures in India’s increasingly strident anti-corruption movement, he championed right-to-information legislation as a way of seeking greater accountability in governance. Anna Hazare was lauded by India’s urban middle classes, who wanted greater meritocracy and viewed both politicians and much of the system which sought to implement their decisions as tarnished almost beyond redemption.


Anna Hazare. Source: Wikipedia

Anna Hazare adopted one of Gandhi’s hallmark methods of campaigning, the public hunger strike, and his choice of headwear further strengthened the association with the most effective and admired of the country’s campaigners. The Gandhi cap had once more become a political statement – and associated not with Congress but with a rival political force.

The movement Anna Hazare led quickly fractured – in part because he resisted moves to form a political party dedicated to tackling corruption and divisions were further accentuated by his perceived illiberalism (advocating,for example, the death sentence for the most corrupt public officials). When the Aam Aadmi Party was founded in November 2012, its leader was Arvind Kejriwal, a younger right-to-information campaigner and former civil servant, and he too made a point of wearing the Gandhi cap, blazoned with AAP slogans.

Modern Indian politics is littered with parties which began amid a thunderburst of attention but failed to establish the support or grassroots organisation to achieve any measure of electoral success. The AAP has, to date, avoided that political graveyard. At the close of 2013, this new party stunned the political establishment by winning twenty-eight of the seventy seats in the state assembly covering Delhi and the adjoining area. Delhi’s Congress Party chief minister lost her own seat, and while the AAP was not the largest party in the state assembly, Arvind Kejriwal took over as state chief minister at the head of a minority administration. It’s been described as one the biggest breakthroughs of a new party in modern Indian politics.

Source: Wikipedia

Arvind Kejriwal. Source: Wikipedia

The dramatic success of the AAP, harnessing the enthusiastic support of the hitherto anti-political Delhi upper middle class and of the urban poor, meant an even more emphatic return to fashion of the cap its leaders wore. The normally staid and austere pages of the Economic and Political Weekly in February 2014 published an article by M.S.S.Pandian entitled ‘Radical Chic: The Rebirth of the Gandhi Cap’. The ‘Indian glitterati’, Pandian averred, ‘has embraced the Gandhi cap as the next new fashionable item of radical chic. At the Lakme Fashion Week, actors like Vidya Balan, Sridevi and Vidya Malvade sported Gandhi caps. What’s more, Bella Ragazza, a Delhi-based fashion boutique, announced its intention to launch a designer Gandhi cap collection.’

From humble headwear to haute couture, from political emblem to style accessory, the Gandhi cap had undergone quite a transformation.

Forty-nine days after he took office, Arvind Kejriwal resigned as chief minister, complaining that the mainstream parties were blocking his proposals to empower a new anti-corruption task force. By then, India was embarking on a nationwide general election campaign. Kejriwal and his AAP, lagging far behind the two main parties in resources and grassroots reach, have used two symbols as statement of their political purpose – the broom and the Gandhi cap.

Image from the Aam Aaadmi Party website: http://www.aamaadmiparty.org/

Image from the Aam Aaadmi Party website: http://www.aamaadmiparty.org/

The caps given away liberally at AAP rallies are not made of khadi or indeed cotton, but of cheap material known as China net. Some of the AAP’s rivals have seized on this to suggest that the campaign caps have been shipped in from China, which appears to be unfounded. For tens of thousands of party workers and supporters, the Gandhi cap is an emblem both of their ambition and the political tradition in which they stand. Whether the ‘aam aadmi’ version of the Gandhi cap will be a fleeting political fashion or a radical object with greater resonance and staying power … that’s for India’s 814 million voters to decide.

Andrew Whitehead is an editor of History Workshop Journal.

Radical Objects: The Black Fist Afro Comb

By Sally-Ann Ashton
Senior Assistant Keeper, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

The black fist Afro comb is an evocative symbol of the second half of the twentieth century. Coming into production at some point in the 1970s, the comb’s marriage of object and iconography was a perfect one. With its reference to the Black Power movement, and its historical links to the re-emergence of the popularity of the wider-toothed hair pick in the USA to serve the Afro hairstyle, , the comb has become more than simply representative of an era and a political affiliation. It also symbolises Black pride and identity.

Fig. 4During this period many African Americans sought to reaffirm their cultural identity by not straightening their hair to follow mainstream European fashions. The traditional ‘Afro’, which first emerged in the 1950s, is a style not a natural phenomenon: the hair needs to be cut in a certain way and maintained with a pik or comb. Because many types of African hair are tightly curled or coiled, a wider- toothed comb is a healthier way of grooming combing through the hair. For those who chose to grow their hair in an unprocessed state, the longer teeth of the pik were perfect for maintaining an Afro hairstyle. The earliest comb of this form to emerge was patented in 1969 by two African Americans, Samuel H. Bundles Jr., and Henry M. Childrey (Tulloch). It was not long before variations of this useful new tool began to emerge and be patented. This included the folding comb, the patent for which was filed in 1970 and granted in 1971 (fig. 1).


This particular design was demonised by some sectors of British society in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Participants in the Origins of the Afro Comb project recall being stopped and searched by the police and having their combs confiscated because they were viewed as potential weapons.


Tracking down the original fist comb proved to be difficult. It was only days before the exhibition’s opening in July 2013 that I received a comb from the original manufacturers and was then able to track down the patent at the United States Patent Office. The original black fist comb, shown above next to a 5,500- year- old comb from Egypt, (fig. 2), was designed by Anthony R. Romani in 1972; this much I had established by speaking to Mrs Romani, who still works at the company in Pennsylvania. The comb, known as a ‘styling pik’ was submitted to the US Patent Office in 1974 and the patent was granted in 1976 (fig. 3 below).

patent_pic2Fig. 3

This iconic comb represents the ethos of the civil rights movement, with the power of the clenched fist and the peace sign in the centre. For subsequent generations the comb has a range of meanings. In preparation for the 2013 exhibition ‘Origins of the Afro Comb’ at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, whenever I met someone who had a black fist comb I asked what it meant to him or her. Answers have ranged from: ‘Black Power’; ‘Black pride’; ‘Nelson Mandela’s release’;‘ it’s just a nice shape’; and ‘unity’. For younger generations the combs also seem to take on a sense of the retro or ‘old skool’. It is perhaps the comb’s multiple associations that have ensured its success across generational divides and time. Whereas some of the young people I spoke to were not aware of the details of the American Black Power movement, their own associations with the design were nonetheless linked to ‘Black’ culture and identity.

Fig. 4(2)Fig. 4

The original combs are not readily available in the UK; most of the fist combs that are sold here are manufactured in China (fig. 4 above). A variety of different forms of picks and combs are also now available to serve different types of hair and hairstyles. These include a number of versions of the comb with metal teeth (fig. 5 below), which many people find preferable to the plastic ones, which are liable to bend, and their surfaces to become worn and damaged. Many of those interviewed said that the plastic combs they had used were not strong enough for their hair; there is a notable difference in rigidity between the original combs and those manufactured outside of the USA.

Fig. 5Fig, 5

A version of the clenched- fist comb was also manufactured in Nigeria, at least from the early 1980s (fig. 6 below). This provides a good example of unity and cultural exchange between people of African descent in North America and in Africa. The comb illustrated here belonged to the artist Grace Salome Kwami, who purchased the comb when visiting her sons who were working in the Cross River State, Nigeria, in 1982 or 1983. They are still made in Nigeria today in a variety of colours and are readily available in shops and markets, having replaced the rich variety of traditionally carved combs that once existed (fig. 7).


Fig. 6bFig. 6

Fig. 7Fig. 7

Many people who are not of African descent use an Afro-style haircomb. Some were introduced to the combs in the 1980s, when the ‘perm’ was a popular hairstyle. For others this design works better for combing wavy, longer or wet hair. However there is something about the ‘fist’ Afro combs that would make their use by someone of non-African descent uncomfortable. Thanks to friends and my own passion for this particular design of comb, I have over 30 versions of the fist comb, but as a white person I would feel uncomfortable using one of them on my hair. Why? Because these combs are more than simply an attractive tool for combing hair, they are embedded in Black history, culture and identity and are more than simply just another comb.

Sally-Ann Ashton is Senior Assistant Keeper in the Department of Antiquities at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. She was curator of the special exhibition Origins of the Afro Comb (July-November 2013). She and runs a project teaching Black history in English prisons.

Further reading:

S-A. Ashton, Origins of the Afro Comb: 6,000 Years of Culture, Politics and Identity. Cambridge: The Fitzwilliam Museum, 2013.

S. Gittens, ‘An overview of African type hair for the Afro comb project’ in
S-A. Ashton, (ed.) Origins of the Afro Comb, pp.20-23.

A. Kwami, ‘Drawing a comb’ in S-A. Ashton, (ed.), Origins of the Afro Comb, pp.30-33.

M. McMillan, ‘Good hair/bad hair: Black styling, culture and politics in the African Diaspora’ in S-A. Ashton, (ed), Origins of the Afro Comb, pp.48-59.

C. Tulloch, ‘The resounding power of the Afro comb’ in G. Biddle-Perry and S. Cheang, (eds.), Hair: Styling Culture and Fashion. New York and Oxford: Berg, 2008, pp.124-38.