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The Woman Preserving Handwoven History | editors Choice

Ammon News – “Embroidery was often linked to milestones in a woman’s life,” says Widad Kawar, who amassed what is said to be the world’s largest private collection of traditional Levantine dresses. “Some dresses were made by girls as part of their trousseau. Women in the family – mothers, aunts, grandmothers – often helped with the embroidery. The knowledge was passed down from mother to daughter and enabled generations to stay together,” she said.

For more than 60 years, Kawar has been collecting women’s embroidery, becoming a pioneer in raising awareness of the value of Palestinian, Jordanian and Syrian costumes. In 2015, she opened a museum named Tiraz – an old Arabic word for embroidery – next to her home in Amman, Jordan, to showcase some of the 2,000 pieces from her collection of dresses, textiles and jewelry from the region. The oldest piece in her collection is a dress from the 1880s.

“Each piece in my collection has a story to tell,” says Kawar. “Each region has an embroidery design and each design has a story.”

Collect dresses and women’s stories
From a young age, Kawar, who is Palestinian and grew up in the West Bank, was used to seeing women around her embroidering the elaborate designs of traditional dresses, known as thob.

Originally made and worn in rural areas, the embroidered dress became widespread, with each region displaying its own design. Patterns and colors also indicated women’s economic and marital status.

Kawar loved seeing women in their best embroidered dresses at weekend markets in Bethlehem, where she grew up, and Ramallah, where she went to school. But after the 1948 war that led to the establishment of the State of Israel and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, the costumes began to disappear.

With the destruction of villages and the disruption of rural life, women lack the means to continue making richly embroidered dresses. “The beautiful scenes I had seen before of women wearing their finest embroidery in the weekly markets were gone,” she says. Dispossessed and impoverished, many Palestinian women became refugees and were forced to sell their dresses.

“I bought some of these costumes, but I also spoke to the women who owned them to hear their stories,” Kawar says. “The more I spoke to women, the more I realized the importance of these role models and the need to preserve them.”

For Kawar, collecting dresses and listening to the stories of women over the decades has been a bittersweet experience, as many dresses have been separated from their owners by tragedy, impoverishment and displacement. But, she says, while many stories revolve around trauma, loss, war and devastation, the dresses also contain threads of love, humor and personal fulfillment.

Her collection is a way to celebrate the hard work, creativity and talent of women who have been historically overlooked. The museum’s exhibits aim to tell the story of the region’s dresses and patterns, but also to pay tribute to the women who made them.

Preserving local heritage
When Kawar got married and moved with her husband to Amman, she was also exposed to Jordanian and later Syrian heritage and traditions. She began to collect not only Palestinian embroidery from different regions of her native country, but also Jordanian and Syrian dresses.

“The collection is so comprehensive that it gives you an overview of the region’s textile region,” says Salua Qidan, a designer and textile heritage researcher who works closely with Kawar. “The clothes reflect the way people lived, you can see it in the patterns, the beliefs are reflected in the dresses.”

With rapid modernization and the adoption of Western dress styles, Kawar realized the importance of preserving the region’s rapidly eroding local traditions and knowledge, as the memory of brightly colored dresses began to fade. blur.

The globalization of the textile industry has seen artisanal techniques replaced by machines and local production unable to compete with cheaper industrialized imports. “Syria was once a very important center for textiles. It was the main source of silk and fabric in the region,” Kawar explains. After the Six Day War, the West Bank was cut off from the Arab world and textiles from Syria ceased to be available.

Since 2011, the war in Syria has devastated the country, destroying cities and displacing millions of people. The loss of local heritage adds to the tragedy of the hundreds of thousands of lives lost in the decade-long war. To pay homage to Syria’s traditions and crafts, the Tiraz Museum has opened the 2021 “Syrian Glory” exhibition, showcasing the country’s rich brocades and intricate embroidery.

But for Kawar, Tiraz is not just a place to reminisce about the past. It is a place of restoration and renewal of embroidery, where the traditional meets the modern and where heritage counts for the future.

Working with different organizations and experts to bring local heritage and crafts to life, the museum frequently hosts workshops, lectures and events. A new initiative in partnership with designer Salua Qidan is producing embroidery kits of Palestinian, Jordanian and Syrian designs to make them accessible to anyone who wants to learn them and bring local embroidery to life.

Palestinian embroidery listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site
Last December, the United Nations cultural agency (UNESCO) added the art of traditional Palestinian embroidery to its list of intangible cultural heritage.

“I was very happy with the recognition from UNESCO. It’s something that will help us protect our heritage,” says Kawar, who sees the thob as the symbol of a vibrant society determined to maintain its national identity.

Her collection includes dresses embroidered with Palestinian flags and national symbols. Ever since Palestinian flags were banned in public during the first uprising against Israeli occupation in the late 1980s, women have embroidered national symbols on their dresses.

“The soldiers could take the flags, but they couldn’t take the women’s dresses,” Kawar explains. For her, UNESCO’s decision to add Palestinian embroidery to the World Heritage List is an acknowledgment of Palestinian women who refuse to be silenced and persist in embroidering their identity – preserving their heritage for future generations. .