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 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.
Gaza Fisherman was also designed by Adham Jaber. It was sewn by a member of the Society of Women Graduates in Gaza Strip (SWG). The Mediterranean Sea has for centuries yielded its fruits to the Gaza fishermen. Fish has always been a mainstay of the Gazan diet. As part of the siege of Gaza since 2007, Israeli gunships have controlled Palestinians fishing off the Gaza coast, and this continues even after the August 2014 ceasefire. The blockade has severely affected both the work of fishermen and food security for Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.
Thousands of people are dependent on Gaza’s fishing industry. Israeli naval forces have harassed those Palestinian fishing boats that have dared leave the harbour. Israeli gunboats have carried out hundreds of attacks, shooting at fishing boats and forcing them back to shore or detaining those on board. See the gun boats on the horizon of the Gaza Fisherman panel.
Women Dancing is a traditional design worked by Albeit Alsamed [The Resilient Home] embroidery group in Gaza. In Palestine a henna night was a night used to prepare all the necessary wedding decorations and last minute arrangements. It was also a chance for the families to celebrate together before the wedding. The women would mix henna to use as a temporary form of skin decoration of the hands and feet of both women and men. The families danced and sang to traditional Palestinian music. In many Palestinian families this is still the tradition. An important element of the henna night is dress. The women wear traditional hand embroidered gowns, known as Palestinian thobes, the traditional dress of Palestine women, as seen in the Women Dancing Panel.
The embroidery in Gaza has obviously recently been very much on hold as a result of the devastating Israeli assault in July and August 2014. We were anxious and not sure about who or what would survive. Samah Hallaq, a Palestinian coordinator for the project in Gaza, and eight months pregnant, was tragically killed with her two small sons when her ‘safe’ house was bombed and collapsed on her, killing her, her boys and the child she was carrying. She is greatly missed.
We are Steadfast, [Samidoun] is Samah’s embroidery. The image symbolises solidarity with women prisoners incarcerated in Israeli jails. The Hebrew letters on the bottom right stand for Shabas, the Israeli Prison Service. Samidoun developed out of the September-October 2011 hunger strike of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails.
‘We have on this land that which makes life worth living’ is calligraphy designed by Ibrahim al Muhtadi and embroidered in black and white by Hekamt Ashour, of Atfaluna, the association for the deaf children in Gaza. The work is from the poem ‘Palestine’ by Mahmoud Darwish.
We have been in a state of shock, not only over our own loss, but for all the death and destruction delivered during this third Israeli attack on Gaza in six years. We tried to keep in contact with friends during the bombardment, but it was difficult. There was danger and hopelessness all around, and what could we say that would help. Now, for the moment, it’s all over and like a phoenix, Gaza is rising again from the ashes, and the embroidery work on four commissioned panels has recommenced.
The project, panel contributions, ideas, sketches and sewing are open to all Palestinians, whoever they are, whatever their story is, and from wherever they happen to live. The Palestinian History Tapestry Project website provides all the details of how to contact us, how to donate funding and how to contribute to the work
People have asked, “How long will the Palestinian History Tapestry be?” “Where will the Tapestry hang?” Answers to these questions are uncertain and we talk regularly about them. My personal wish is that the Tapestry should be over 100 meters long and, in the fullness of time, hang somewhere in the Palestinian Parliament Building.
Jan Chalmers has had an interest in Palestine since the late 1960s, when she and her husband lived in Gaza for two years, where they worked for the United Nations maternal and child health programme. Jan is one of two British women who recently taught embroidery to South African village women, and assisted in supporting them in creating a successful South African History Tapestry. These experiences led Jan to hope that a Palestinian History Tapestry could be made, and that it might be equally successful.