Once a vibrant agricultural village on the outskirts of Jerusalem, the Palestinian town of Lifta now lies abandoned. The villagers who lived there were forced out in 1948, in what came to be known as the Nakba. After the founding of the Israeli state, the government confiscated the town’s land and turned it into a nature reserve, to prevent its inhabitants from returning to their homes. Today, the ruins of Lifta sit beautifully on a hillside above a gurgling spring.
Exiled from their homes, most of Lifta’s villagers and their descendants live in Jerusalem. As an act of defiance and belonging, many of them pay regular visits to the crumbling town and tend to their olive groves. They also lead educational tours that narrate Lifta’s history.
The heritage and history of the village remains very much alive for these displaced Palestinians. One of the most visible and vibrant parts of this heritage is Lifta’s tradition of hand-made embroidery. Embroidery, in general, is an important part of Palestinian culture. As with many Palestinian villages, Lifta’s residents gave their own particular twist to the cultural practice. Today, these villagers and their descendants are spreading the town’s unique embroidery across Palestine, and passing it down to the next generation.
I spoke with Sabah Zuhur, whose family is from Lifta, about the town’s unique embroidery style and the practice’s importance to keeping Lifta’s memory alive. Sabah currently teaches embroidery at a school in Ramallah, called Inash.
Nada Dajani: What is unique about Lifta’s embroidery?
Sabah Zuhur: Lifta is famous for the Al-Ghabani dress, which is a type of malak dress worn by brides-to-be. Other villages near Jerusalem also share the Al-Ghabani dress style. It’s marked by eye-catching embroidery with vibrant colors and designs. Malak dresses are a unique type of dress that use coarse metallic threads in lively colors, heavy fabric like velvet, and circular designs.
People sometimes save their mothers’ and grandmothers’ dresses or thobs to preserve the history of the lost village. They’re still produced, but maybe not 100 percent like the old days. I have personally tried replicating an old Al-Ghabani thob as a gift for my mother to wear to my brother’s wedding. That was five years ago. It’s true to the original design in pattern and shapes, but the fabric is different from what has been traditionally used.
Back then, Syrian fabrics, especially from Aleppo, were quite common and some had subtle and soft motifs that added to the embroidery. A variety of fabrics were used. Some were made of silk or were silk-mounted, and some had gold and red stripes.
Our embroidery features lively colors and patterns that symbolize nature. Lifta’s embroidery is very similar to Bethlehem’s in that way. Through the threads, we communicate the beauty of our village’s land and flowers—especially the poppies that carpet the hills of Palestine in the spring.
What are some of the meanings of different patterns and designs?
To depict the leaves of a vine, we use green patterns in varying shades and sometimes other colors. Sometimes multicolored twigs symbolize the give-and-take relationship between a mother-in-law and a daughter-in-law, while always emphasizing their unity. Continuous bickering and making up is sometimes portrayed through the thread colors, intertwining twigs and flowers that face one another then face opposite directions. For that, we sometimes use a thread with more than one shade to give that changing effect without tampering with the feeling of unity.
What are the typical thread colors used in Lifta?
We use a lot of green to symbolize the earth’s fertility. Brown represents the trees and branches, which contrast with green for leaves and young twigs. Red remains the most dominant color in Palestine’s traditional embroidery.
Like the old days, we use high-quality cotton threads. Silk threads were also used in the past.
How common is it for Palestinian women in Lifta to know how to do embroidery? Is it passed down to them by their mothers?
I’d say it’s quite common. Almost all the women of the older generation knew embroidery and passed it onto my generation, women in their thirties and forties. Most women in my generation practice embroidery. Younger women are interested in embroidery, too, and try to introduce it into modern styles of dress. The young women I train come to me with regular items of clothing they would like to embroider, like shirts or jeans.
Many mothers encourage their daughters to wear an embroidered dress for the pre-wedding henna ceremony. During the event, the bride has her hands painted with a dye paste as the women of the village dance and sing around her. Women usually treasure these dresses and keep them for the rest of their lives as mementos, especially since they receive them from their parents.
It’s not only women who do embroidery. We have men who are skilled at it, as well. Young men come to Inash to learn it, as well as tailors who would like to develop their businesses and skills, which is quite encouraging.
How did you become interested in embroidery?
When I finished high school I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I knew embroidery, but I wasn’t very interested in it as a career. Then my father died and I was compelled to find something to do. I was the second oldest child in my family—we were eight children and my mother was a housewife. My older brother was a driver, and he had to provide for the whole family. I felt the need to help him out.
[Related: Palestinians Bedouin Dress at New York Fashion Week Reveals Stakes of Israeli Cultural Appropriation]
I’ll never forget my father’s words to me as he neared the end of his life. He talked to me about preserving our village’s history and traditions, namely through embroidery. I took to heart his advice and wisdom and later felt as though I was destined to do embroidery work. It was something that completed me.
How does embroidery tell the Palestinian story?
We are retelling the Palestinian story and preserving it just by holding onto our history and traditions. If you look at the final products, you don’t only see dresses, but art pieces that depict farmers in their fields, picking and pressing olives, dancing dabkeh. You see weddings, the map of Palestine, flowers and plants, revolutionary figures, religious symbols, and villages and homes.
Heritage is exactly like the land we tread upon and call Palestine. They are one and the same. And that heritage, as expressed through embroidery, has a treasured place in our homes and daily lives.
The organization American Near East Refugee Aid (ANERA) is featuring the theme of Levantine embroidery in its upcoming gala in Washington D.C. on October 13. The theme is Tapestry of Humanity: The Common Thread that Binds Us All and tickets can be purchased here.