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February 11, 2011


Threads of Identity

In this spectacular volume Widad Kamel Kawar has created a work of art -- through photography, narrative and oral history -- as valuable as the women's legacy she describes. Stunning colour photographs focus on the thob, the colourful and richly hand-embroidered traditional costume produced and worn by the women of Palestine from the 1800s until today. Interviews with the women who made the dresses offer rare insight into the women's lives and characters - their intimate family relationships, roles in a changing world, political ideas and nationalist feelings. Grouping the costumes according to the areas from which they come in present-day and historical Palestine -- from the cities of Jerusalem and Jaffa, the villages of the Galilee, Gaza, and the Bedouin tribal areas of Southern Palestine -- Kawar introduces each place with a description of its unique history and cultural contribution. Inevitably, woven into every woman's story is the fact of the violent uprooting of the Palestinian people, , and a sense that the thob "attests to the Palestinians' determination to sustain their national identity and their hopes for the restoration of their rights."


Full-page photographs of the women's long dresses alternate with exquisitely detailed close-ups of the embroidery which has become "a powerful national symbol" and the different, often hand woven, textiles of which the thobs are made. The accompanying narrative describes changes that occurred in the costumes over time, as well as the prevailing influences -- whether visits by women from one village to another; exposure to Ottoman, European, and South American fashion, the importation of silk and cotton cloth woven in Syria, or, in more recent times, life in the refugee camps and the Palestinian' resistance to the continuing Israeli military occupation of their lands. Kawar's is the largest existing collection of Palestinian, Jordanian and other Arab traditional dress and accessories in the world, collected over 50 years, and most of the collection was bought from their original owners.


Born in Tulkarem and raised in Bethlehem, a fashion and weaving centre for many villages in different parts of the country, Kawar describes being enchanted as a child by the "rainbow of colours climbing the hill each Saturday morning" as the village women made their way to market. Her aim, she writes, is "to capture the complexity of Palestinian society through these personal histories and bitter-sweet memories of the women who owned the dresses." The book includes black and white photographs of life in Palestine in the early 1900s; paintings by Palestinian artists of women in traditional costume; maps; and colour photographs of gold and silver jewelry, coins, jackets, belts, headdresses and other accessories the women wore. It is a treasure trove of information about textiles, rug weaving, rural and urban customs, cuisine and festivities, and about Palestinian cities and villages (for instance, the name of the town Ramallah comes from the Aramaic, and means "the hill of god"). Kawar writes of shadow puppets, storytellers, gypsies; of festivals observed by Muslims, by Christians and by both. One woman she interviewed relates that "my mother and I traded eggs for spools of silk thread" and says that women from her village never bought ready-made dresses: they had to be "the work of the soul for the soul." Another woman describes trying to reassure herself when her husband strayed: "I knew that his feelings were like a passing cloud." Striking are the stories of the interactions among women whereby the different styles were carried from one area to another across Palestine - in homes, where mothers, daughters, grandmothers would embroider, or where women friends would hold informal gatherings; in workshops which became both social and economic enterprises, sustaining the families of the women who worked there and training young women in the art; in refugee camps, which led to a "totally new style based on a mix of traditional patterns from different villages ...."


The volume includes a glossary, index, bibliography, and list of exhibitions of the Kawar Collection in 19 different locations throughout the world, from Japan to Iceland, Paris to Jordan. Kawar has collaborated over the past 20 years with various scholars and museums. Her next book will feature the traditional costumes of the women of Jordan.


Review by Chivvis Moore