Deeply rooted in Palestinian folklore, Palestinian handicrafts have always been living examples of their national identity. They reflect the steadfastness and ingenuity of the Palestinian people and are a crucial part of their cultural treasure.
Handmade Woven Straw Trays:
Handweaving is a ritual heritage common amongst rural communities in the north of the West Bank today. The hand woven tray that my grandmother used to serve meals on to her guests is symbolic of the utmost hospitality that encompasses Palestinian culture. We also use it as a wall decorative or make them into practical items such as baskets, trays, and containers. They are made from wheat straw or different colored twigs from olive, almond, and terebinth trees.
One of the most ancient vocations in Palestine is rug/carpet weaving. The oldest spinning wheels/looms were discovered 5000 years ago! The main weaving tool used is the loom; it’s a “wooden device that holds 400 parallel-wrapped lengths of yarn in place. A flat wire comb, called a reed, is secured to the top of the loom to regulate the space between threads” (Abou-Jalal). Used to decorate floors, woven rugs have taken on a new role in the household: decorative wall-hangings. Handmade rugs need meticulous accuracy and detail, which can take the craftsman on average up to ten days of work. These colorful, tailor-made rugs are of high-quality and can last up to decades. The Palestinian coastal cities Majdal and Ashkelon were notorious for carpet making and passed down the craft from one generation to the next. After the 1948 Nakba displaced the Palestinians living in those cities, they transferred the craft to Gaza. Because of the Gaza Strip blockade and the resulting electricity crisis, the constant power outages hamper rug production. Through vocational training programs, the remaining rug-weavers hope to keep the tradition alive.
Modern Palestinian pottery is not far off from its ancient counterparts. As in ancient times, present-day jugs are handmade using clay with similar composition and shaped, smoothed, and baked in like manner. The artisans shape them into large globular jars–like the First Semitic barrel-shaped jars (“Pottery History”). The surfaces are decorated using painted, incised, or molded techniques. A ledge-handle (like the ones used in the Arab period) and a jar-cover (like Second Semitic ones) with two loops in the middle of the saucer are attached. Finally, the jugs are hand painted using colorful flower and arabesque patterns. The pottery is crafted in historic villages such as al-Jib, Beitin, and Sinjil (where my family is from!).
The majestic and ancient olive tree is the national symbol of Palestine and symbolizes Palestinian steadfastness. More than an economic role in Palestinian lives, the draught-resistant and robust olive tree symbolizes Palestinian resistance and resilience. Prolific, the olive tree bears fruit for thousands of years–parallel to the history and the endurance of the Palestinians.
While olive trees are consumed primarily for its olives and olive oil, they are also used to carve olive-wood handicrafts. Resistant to decay, olive-wood carving is an old craft that began around the 4th century CE in Bethlehem. Today, artisans use a rough cutting method with machines to carve the wood according to their customers’ preferences. Fine work, such as with facial structures, must be chiseled by hand. Finally, the items are sanded down, polished, and coated with olive wax to give the object a natural shine. The entire process is labor intensive and could take up to 45 days. Professionals go through six to seven years of training.
Olive-wood carvings are important to the tourism economy; local artists make over a thousand types of crafts such as urns, boxes, bowls, vases, picture frames, covers for historical and old books, and candleholders.
A tradition brought from Jaffa in 1948 and struggling to survive in Gaza, bamboo furniture making was once a thriving business from the 1970s to 1990s. The Palestinians have a long history in creating both furniture and household objects. Bamboo made its way to Palestine from the Far East along the Silk Road. The bamboo furniture is man-made; it’s boiled, scraped, burnt and then dried to harden it into products such as sofas, baby beds, rocking chairs and walking sticks.
A Castile soap, Nabulsi soap is produced in the West Bank city of Nablus. Based with olive oil, the soap comprises virgin olive oil, water, and a sodium compound. Its unique smell signifies the quality and purity of its ingredients. Nabulsi soap is an important part of Palestinian cultural heritage and has been handmade and manufactured since the 10th century.
The compound is produced by mixing the powdered ashes of the barilla plant (qilw) that grows with locally supplied lime (sheed) along the banks of the River Jordan. Then, over fermentation pits, in large copper vats, the sodium compound is heated with water and olive oil. Water solution and sodium compound gradually accumulate in a sequence of 40 cycles repeated over eight days.
During that time, the liquid soap is stirred continuously with a dukshab–an oar-shaped wooden tool. The distributed liquid soap is then set in wooden frames. After setting, it is cut into the classic cube shaped Nabulsi soap and stamped with the trademark seal of the brand.
Thereafter, the drying process–lasting from three months to a year– the soap cubes undergo involves stacking them in ceiling-tall structures resembling cones with hollow centers that allow air circulation around the cubes. Before leaving the factory, the individual bars are hand-wrapped and waxed on one side.
In the heart of Al-Khalil, Palestine, is a famous family glassware and ceramics business called Hebron glass. Al-Khalil is home to an over 500-year-old history of ceramics and glass. The glass was produced using sand from the village of Bani Na’im, east of Al-Khalil, and sodium carbonate taken from the Dead Sea. In the 1900s, Palestinians used to burn the Arthrocnemum fruticosam shrubs, which grow by the Dead Sea, and afterwards sold the ashes to the glassmakers. Recycled glass instead of sand is the primary material used to make Hebron Glass today.
The production process is a trade secret passed down generations by learning children and maintained by the Palestinian families who run the factories; apprentices must learn the craft from a young age to master it.
The blowing technique follows this procedure: First, a thin metal blowpipe called kammasha is thrust into the furnace bowels and then into the molten silica incandescent tub. Then, with the twist of the pipe, an igneous glob called a “gather” is pulled out. It’s placed on a metal plate. Holding the blowpipe to the tongue, the red-hot glass is puffed and rolled until it grows. It is then removed from the plate and blown again. | Click here for: Glass Making Video
The pottery history in the region began in what is sometimes known as Pottery Neolithic or the Late Neolithic period. Palestinian ceramics are known for their intricate details of native flowers and traditional handmade arabesque motifs such as birds, peacocks, gazelles, fish, and various floral patterns. Skills are handed down through generations of family-owned businesses. The procedure involves hand-shaping the clay, leaving it to dry for a few days, cleaning and smoothing it, and firing it in a kiln. Once it’s baked, the artists draw and paint the design. After drying, glazed pieces are fired to set.
Palestinian Tapestry uses embroidery skills to show facets of Palestinian land and cultures from the Neolithic to the present. Unifying our culture around the world, tapestry honors the history of Palestine and conveys the memories of people through embroidery. Tapestry is a way for Palestinians to document their unique experiences and perspectives. Examples of images stitched in tapestries include the olive harvest, the Nakba, Jaffa oranges, and words from Palestinian poems. The first images (from the Stone Age) included the ancient walled city of Jericho, with the latest being the Great March of Return.
Palestinian embroidery dates back to the 1800s–fundamental to our rich culture and unites us wherever we are. Tatriz (embroidery) is the art of using needle and thread to cross-stitch decorative designs on fabrics, and sometimes with objects such as shells and beads. Until the Nakba in 1948, Palestinian embroidery embellished primarily rural and Bedouin women’s clothing; dresses (thawbs), headdresses, pants, overcoats, and veils were styled with colors associated with their particular region. On dresses, embroidery decorates the chest panel, along the shoulders, down the sides and along cuffs of the sleeves, and in bands along the front, back, sides, and hem of the skirt. Embroidery served as an outward expression of a village woman’s character and personality, as well as her economic status. To neighborhood members, it served as a social status symbol. The embroidery stitches were geometric patterns but developed to depict variations across space and time. Examples include the woman’s surroundings (i.e. cypress tree, pigeon, mill wheel), positive attributes such as good health and prosperity, political upheavals, and social and economic changes. Before the Nakba, one could name the specific geographical region and cultural landscape the Palestinian woman was from based on her dress designs; most Palestinian villages had their own unique pattern, color combinations, and design of the cloth. After the Nakba, designs amongst different villages merged and it became difficult to pinpoint the region where the garments originated. Modern-day embroidery is done on a variety of items such as decorative pillows, fashion accessories, frames, apparel, and wall décor.
Rashida Tlaib's Palestinian thobe at her Congress swearing-in
Palestinian Bridal Headdress (Kuthla):
Palestinian brides started wearing the wedding ceremonial headdresses in the nineteenth century and still do until this day. The headdress is encrusted with coins called the wuqāyat al-darāhim’ (money hat). ‘Wiqāya’ means ‘protection’ in Arabic. Adorned with packed rows of coins, beads, pendants, and charms, the headdress symbolizes a woman’s marital status and her family’s social and economic worth. The value of the coins on the headdress depended on the agreed-upon dowry between the father of the groom and the father of the bride. The headdress varies in embroidery, shape, material, and coin placement depending on the style of the region.
Mother of Pearl Carvings:
One of the most skillful and elegant handicrafts is the Palestinian mother-of-pearl. Dating as early as the Bronze Age of the Shang Dynasty of China, and observed by the ancient Egyptians, this craft has flourished throughout history. The luminous shells come from mollusks such as the green snail, the nautilus and the sea-ear (Palestine-family). Workers source them from the rich and abundant marine life in the Red Sea. Artists cut the shells into various shapes to form mosaic images. They then adhere the pieces to items such as plates, trays, and covers of jewelry boxes. They make these in local workshops in Bethlehem. Exceptional work has been done as gifts given to royalty and other high-ranking leaders. Gifted to King Farouk of Egypt in the 1940s was a large model of the Dome of the Rock; a model of the Church of Nativity in the 1930s was sent to the Vatican; a model of one of the Holy Sepulchre was sent to St. Petersburg. Simple tools such as cutters is required to work with the mother-of-pearl. Some chemicals are used to glue to mother-of-pearl pieces; they are then polished to preserve them (“Mother of Pearl from Palestine”). The work requires long labor and patience. The emergence of modern tools (i.e. small motors and carving tools) in the second half of the twentieth century made the process simpler. Nowadays, artists copy figures and carve them using industrial tools.
Workers in mother-of-pearl in Bethlehem. Photo taken 1900–1920 by American Colony, Jerusalem.
Author: Tasneem Ibrahim