Iconic Palestinian robe fashions a new political symbol

The thobe is gaining prominence as a softer symbol of Palestinian nationalism, competing with the classic keffiyeh. (AP)
Updated 12 February 2019
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Iconic Palestinian robe fashions a new political symbol

  • The Palestinian thobe traces its history to the early 19th century, when embroidery was confined to the villages
  • Young Palestinian women are adapting the ancestral dresses to modern tastes and trends

JERUSALEM: The traditional brightly embroidered dress of Palestinian women known as the “thobe” was not the type of garment one would expect to become a pop political symbol.
Now it’s gaining prominence as a softer expression of Palestinian nationalism, competing even with the classic keffiyeh — the headscarf donned by young stone-throwing Palestinian men protesting Israel’s occupation.
The robe, adorned with elaborate hand-stitched embroidery, requires months of grueling labor. Some thobes fetch thousands of dollars. The traditional textiles call to mind a bygone era of Palestinian peasant women sewing on a break from the fields.
Last month, Rashida Tlaib proudly wore her mother’s thobe to her historic swearing-in as the first female Palestinian American member of Congress, inspiring masses of women around the world, especially in the Palestinian territories, to tweet photos of themselves in their ancestral robes.
“The historic thobe conjures an ideal of pure and untouched Palestine, before the occupation,” said Rachel Dedman, curator of a recent exhibit at the Palestinian Museum focused on the evolution of Palestinian embroidery. “It’s more explicitly tied to history and heritage than politics. That’s what makes it a brilliant symbol.”
The Palestinian thobe traces its history to the early 19th century, when embroidery was confined to the villages.
Richly decorated dresses marked milestones in women’s lives: onset of puberty, marriage, motherhood. The designs varied from village to village — special three-dimensional stitching for the upper class of Bethlehem, big pockets for the nomadic Bedouin women, orange branch motifs for the orchard-famous city of Jaffa, said Maha Saca, director of the Palestinian Heritage Center in Bethlehem.
Thobe patterns also expressed women’s different social positions: red for brides, blue for widows, blue with multi-colored stitches for widows considering remarriage.
While Arab women across the region have worn hand-made dresses for centuries, the thobe has taken on a distinctly Palestinian character, particularly since the establishment of Israel in 1948. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians either fled or were expelled from their homes during the war surrounding Israel’s creation. Many took only their dresses with them into the diaspora, Saca added.
The war, which Palestinians call their “nakba,” or catastrophe, transformed the thobe.
“Suddenly, in the face of dispossession and cultural appropriation by Israelis, embroidery became an urgent task,” Dedman said. “The dress was taken up and politicized.”
Over decades of conflict that has claimed thousands of lives on both sides, Palestinian nationalism has taken on many forms.
In the early days of Israel’s establishment, it was associated with calls for Israel’s destruction and deadly attacks. Armed struggle later gave way to calls for the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem — lands captured by Israel in 1967. Peace talks have been interrupted by spasms of violence, and for the past decade, a deep freeze in negotiations.
Today, the internationally recognized autonomy government of the Palestinian Authority, which administers parts of the West Bank, continues to seek a two-state solution with Israel. The Hamas militant group, which seized the Gaza Strip in 2007, still seeks Israel’s destruction, while many Palestinians, particularly the younger generation, now talk of a single binational state with Israel in which they would enjoy full equal rights.
Along the way, the thobe has grown in popularity and evolved, with dress designs reflecting history’s many dramas.
During the first Palestinian intifada, or uprising, in the 1980s, the thobe bloomed with guns, doves and flowers. When Israeli soldiers confiscated Palestinian flags at protests, women wove forbidden national maps and colors into their dresses, according to the Palestinian museum exhibit.
Now, Palestinian women of all social classes wear thobes to assert national pride at weddings and special occasions.
“It’s a way of defending our national identity,” Saca said.
The care, toil, and skill that go into making a thobe prevent the garment from becoming everyday streetwear — or protest-wear. But cheaper, mass-produced versions of the dress have sprouted up.
“A woman typically has one thobe to wear on occasions throughout her life — it’s very expensive and impractical,” said Maysoun Abed, director of a thobe exhibit in the West Bank city of Al-Bireh, near Ramallah. “But demand for the thobe still runs high as a way of expressing patriotism.”
Although the robe shares potent patriotic subtext and roots in peasant life with the black-and-white checkered kaffiyeh — made famous by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat — the thobe is infused with nostalgic, almost mythical associations.
“Embroidery evokes the timeless connection of Palestinians to the land,” Dedman said. “It’s a soft image, referencing a deep past with which people have positive associations.”
Young Palestinian women, especially those in the diaspora, are adapting the ancestral dresses to modern tastes and trends. Girls are asking for shorter and less embroidered versions, said Rajaa Ghazawneh, a thobe designer in the West Bank town of Al-Bireh.
Natalie Tahhan, a designer based in east Jerusalem, produces capes from digital prints that replicate traditional embroidery stitches, “connecting tradition with what is new and stylish.”
Tlaib’s now-viral Palestinian thobe, which the Michigan Democrat called “an unapologetic display of the fabric of the people in this country” and said it evoked memories of her mother’s West Bank village, rekindled enthusiasm worldwide about the dress.
“Rashida has become a model for Palestinian women everywhere — a strong woman proud of her national identity who can reach high,” said Saca.
Tahhan agreed, saying that “Tlaib’s thobe spread a beautiful picture of Palestine, when usually the media only show the wars.”
For Palestinian women born abroad, and refugees barred from visiting their ancestral homes in what is now Israel, thobes are a tangible connection to the land and a way of keeping their culture alive.
“These dresses are our link between the past and future,” Saca said.


The MENA fashion designers dressing up social causes

Updated 24 August 2019
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The MENA fashion designers dressing up social causes

  • How designers in the MENA region are making a different kind of fashion statement
  • The ethical fashion movement is spreading to the Middle East and North Africa

CAIRO: Fashion is about far more than just trendy outfits. The growing demand for ethical clothing is one example of how designers are seeking to leave a legacy beyond the runway.

The ethical fashion movement is spreading to the Middle East and North Africa. Recent initiatives include Talahum by UAE-based designer Aiisha Ramadan, who created coats that transform into sleeping bags for disadvantaged and refugee communities living without proper shelter.

In 2016, Cairo hosted ICanSurvive, an event to commemorate World Cancer Day. As part of the project, 32 cancer survivors were paired with fashion designers to help them create the outfit of
a lifetime.

“I consider this to be one of my biggest achievements,” said Egyptian couturier Ahmed Nabil, 28, one of the volunteers at ICanSurvive. “I still can’t let go of the moment I saw her crying from happiness when she got to wear her outfit at the event.”

Though a transformational experience for Nabil, this was not his first attempt at thought-provoking designs. He was only 23 when he launched his company, Nob Designs, in 2014 to begin a journey of exploration by designing clothes for unconventional causes and experimental concepts.

The company sells a diverse set of fashion pieces with designs that aim to inspire conversation. Nabil’s creations are much like art pieces at a gallery, but instead of being displayed on canvas, they are exhibited on t-shirts, tops, dresses and abayas.

His latest collection combines street fashion inspired by underground culture with Arabic calligraphy. The Halal Project endeavors to blur the lines between conservative and edgy to demonstrate that fashion designs can be accessible to anyone.

“It’s all about the idea of accepting one another regardless of differences,” Nabil said. “My main aim for this project is a call for all people to peacefully coexist.”

Nabil added that the shift towards tolerance is not something that just the general public needs to work on. Fashion designers themselves are sometimes biased in their perceptions.

Many millennial designers, particularly in Egypt, remain wary of exploring modest fashion, despite the trend’s rising popularity. Sometimes it is because they want to avoid defining themselves as conservative instead of being considered modern and trendy.

Fellow Egyptian designer Sara Elemary, who has been running her Sara Elemary Designs label for nearly a decade, agrees.

“Modesty is a big thing in Egypt. I can’t understand why they are neglecting it,” she said. “A woman doesn’t have to be in a headscarf to wear modest clothing. There are so many famous designers for whom modesty plays a big role in
their work.”

Meanwhile, events such as Dubai Modest Fashion Week have been promoting the concept and encouraging budding designers in the region to consider this trending domain.

“I believe that there’s a problem with modest fashion, but over the past two years, that issue has started to diminish as designers have incorporated more modest designs in their collections,” Nabil said.

The next step for him is getting into the couture domain with his long-awaited project, Nob Couture. The look of the new collection is still a mystery, but he seems determined to continue sending messages and starting discussions through his designs, which he said are inspired by his life experiences.

As for designers in the region, the time is ripe for them to start supporting the causes they believe in through their work. Whatever topic or fashion style they decide to pursue, they need to be fearless in triggering conversation in the Arab world with their creations.