Stitching Dreams in Gaza

PALESTINIAN PRIDE: Amna Mhanna uses colored silk to create neat patterns. Hand embroidery in Palestine is a highly revered art.

A former banker laid off from her job has found relief in embroidery

BY Sami Abu Salem

Palestinians in Gaza have had to turn to creative ways to earn a livelihood as the decade-long Israeli siege has led to dire economic situation. One such creative outlet—handicrafts—has seen a resurgence in the past few years; an abandoned art form now provides a source of living to many who once saw handicrafts as hobbies.

Amna Mhanna, 54, lost her job at one of the local banks in the Strip in 2006. A few years later, her husband was diagnosed with cancer, forcing her to take the decision to return to work in order to be able to put bread on the table for her husband and three sons. Ten years later, Amna still creates artwork in embroidery.

Her house is scattered with hand-made embroidered items—from embroidered mirror covers to a clock with embroidered background, to pieces hanging on walls or lying in the corners.
She believes embroidery is viewed as a well-respected profession in Gaza as people are aware of how hard it is to produce the intricate pieces which reflect Palestinian heritage. Each embroidered dress or accessory reflects a person’s tribe, town, even status.

Since childhood, Mhanna remembers seeing old women embroider dresses which were worn on a daily basis. Today, however, “women of the new generation only wear such dresses during special occasions to show their prestige.”

The hardworking mother says her sons “are doing their best to [pitch in] but the general situation does not help.”
Her youngest son Thaer, 26, is unemployed, while Awad, 37 and Rami, 35, have their own families and work in ordinary jobs that hardly cover their own families’ needs.

As she swiftly draws symmetrical red patterns across a white canvas, Mhanna tells Newsweek Middle East that she “prefers” to sell to individuals rather than go into the wholesale business with other traders and stores.

“People pay much better prices than stores who try to downplay the value of home-made products,” she says with a smile.

She notes that most of her work is custom made to orders like shawls, handbags, shoes, soft tissue covers and pillow cases.
Mhanna does not make dresses because they “need a lot of time and they don’t generate enough profit.”
Though Gaza is cut off from the rest of the world because of the Israeli occupation’s imposed siege, she says she keeps up to date with “contemporary embroidery” by reading whatever books she can find and browsing the internet.

Handmade embroidery is a costly indulgence for ordinary people, she says. She points to a mirror frame and says it costs “NIS 450, ($118).”
Each piece is priced according to the quality of the cloth and silk used.

Mhanna taught herself embroidery and over the years improved on her technique.
“I attended a workshop at one of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency schools to enhance my skills,” she says, adding that she continues to learn new things every day.

Her marriage at the young age of 17 nearly four decades ago saw the end of her studies. But she quickly adds, with a note of pride, that she returned to academia after she had her three children.
“I finished high school and studied accounting,” she says, adding that she started work at a bank before she had even graduated and worked there for eight years.

However, the Israeli siege followed by Hamas’ control of Gaza, have had a negative impact on the economic situation in the Strip. The situation deteriorated, forcing the bank to cut jobs including hers in 2006.

Since she began working for herself, she describes her main challenges as continuous blackouts which prevent her from working at night as well as the near-zero ability to market her products. She also suffers from severe neck pain because she strains herself when she is creating her pieces.

Gaza has been suffering from power outages and long periods of blackouts ever since Israeli jet-fighters destroyed the strip’s sole power plant in 2006.
“We have just five to six hours of electricity every day; sometimes I finish my household chores then try to work at night but the electricity goes off.”

Her sales dipped by at least 50 percent because the Israeli siege on Gaza prevented people from traveling to and from the Strip.

Palestinian embroidery is an integral part of the nation’s heritage and finds mention in literature too.
Poet Khaled Juma’s poem “My grandmother has a dress and a shawl” has his grandmother speaking fondly of the embroidered details on her clothes:

“My grandmother has a dress and a shawl,
A deer is embroidered on the dress.
Deer side by side with flowers and spikes
Oh grandmother what a beautiful dress.
She says I embroidered it with my own hands.
I embroidered it a stitch by a stitch
This stitch is from Yafa
And this stitch is from Gaza.”

 

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