“In Palestine, the women would gather together to embroider, usually in front of their houses,” said Jamileh Salim. “They would put a basket in the middle with their balls of thread and start to work—a word here and a word there, a stitch here and a stitch there. That’s how it had been for centuries. Now we sit inside our houses in summer and inside in winter.”
Jamileh Salim is one of thousands of Palestinian women who have reinvented the tradition of gathering with family and friends to embroider in their homes, which, in her case, is the Mar Elias refugee camp in Lebanon. Embroidery has been a focus of Jamileh’s life for over thirty years, since she completed her first piece at the age of thirteen. Regarded as among the most skillful contemporary Palestinian embroiderers, Jamileh and her sister Nazmieh have found a market for their work—and the opportunity to sustain an important part of their cultural heritage—thanks to the Beirut-based nonprofit organization Inaash.
Founded in 1969 by the artist Huguette Caland, whose father, Bechara El Khoury, was the first president of the newly independent Lebanon, Inaash enables Palestinian women living in refugee camps to develop marketable skills and earn money to help support themselves and their families.
The employment opportunities for Palestinians living in Lebanese refugee camps were very limited but they were particularly scarce for women, who, then as now, faced cultural opposition to working outside the camps. Inaash focused on fostering a transferable skill to which those women still had access: embroidering using techniques and styles that had been nurtured in Palestine for centuries.
In her book, At the Seams: A Political History of Palestinian Embroidery, Rachel Dedman charts how the rich heritage of Palestinian embroidery was imperiled, like so many keystones of Palestinian culture, by the Nakba, the displacement of more than seven hundred thousand Palestinian Arabs from their homes after the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. Having fled to other countries, many skilled embroiderers, especially those who ended up in refugee camps in neighboring states like Lebanon, found themselves cut off from former collaborators and unable to source the materials they needed to work.
Inaash’s support helped them return to embroidery while enabling subsequent generations of women, like the Salim sisters, to learn the necessary skills, thereby ensuring that the cultural traditions of Palestinian embroidery have not only survived but thrived. Inaash has done so by running workshops in the camps that both train women in embroidery and help those with experience refine their skills. These women can then generate income by embroidering shawls, scarves, cushions, and clothing developed by Inaash in traditional Palestinian styles that are sold worldwide. Despite early criticism of its intervention in the camps and more recent accusations that it reinforces outdated stereotypes of female employment, Inaash has worked with two thousand women over the last fifty years and is currently engaging with four hundred women in five camps, including Mar Elias.
Central to this process is the great Palestinian embroiderer Malak Al Husseini Abdulrahim, who has run Inaash’s workshops for over forty years, planning and executing many of its most ambitious projects. These include collaborations with artists, notably the sculptor Mona Hatoum, who was born in Lebanon and is of Palestinian heritage. Twelve Windows (2012–13), a series of large square panels, each of which represents a different region of Palestine and is embroidered in a style typical of that province, is her largest work made by Inaash’s embroiderers.
Twelve Windows has been exhibited at museums worldwide including Centre Pompidou in Paris, London’s Tate Modern, and the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. Beautiful, moving, and exquisitely made, it is a compelling testimony to the skills of the women who embroidered it, to the impact of their work on their lives in the camps, and to Inaash’s importance in sustaining a precious strand of Palestinian history.
Alice Rawsthorn is a London-based writer on design. The author of Hello World: Where Design Meets Life, published by Hamish Hamilton, and, most recently, Design as an Attitude, published by JRP|Ringier, she is a co-founder of the Design Emergency platform to investigate design’s role in building a better future.