Toufoul Abou-Hodeib

University of Oslo | Oslo, Norway

The Politics of Palestinian Folklore: Embroidery in the Diaspora

Folkloric dress has played a dominant role in providing a visual vocabulary for Palestinian nationalism during the 20th century. From the black and white male headdress (kafiyya) to female regional dresses, its pervasive presence in political posters and cartoons and in children’s books symbolizes the political persistence of Palestinian identity and a form of nationalism defined “from below.” Particularly female costumes, traditionally embroidered by rural women, have a near-codified status reflecting a variety of regional styles. From the collection of Widad Kawar to the publications of the British Museum, the colorful patterns have become emblematic of Palestinian rural culture and its rootedness in the land. But how did this peasant and beduin tradition survive given the uprooting, dispersion, and destitution of Palestinian society, and what form did it take in exile?

Based on oral interviews and published cultural material, this paper looks at the role Palestinian institutions in Lebanon played in the production of peasant culture as a repository for Palestinian nationalism during the late 1960s until the expulsion of the PLO from Lebanon in 1982. It looks specifically at the institutions—Palestinian Red Crescent Society, Society for the Resuscitation of the Camp (al-In`ash), al-Najda Association, and SAMED—that undertook embroidery projects among Palestinian women living in camps. Originally conceived of as a project for the preservation of Palestinian heritage and for providing a source of income for the camps in Lebanon, embroidery projects also reflected the multifaceted Palestinian presence in Lebanon and were a vehicle for the articulation of the cultural politics of Palestine. More importantly, I argue, the embroidery projects involved disparate constituents of Palestinian society in Lebanon: upper-class philanthropists, middle-class revolutionaries, and destitute refugees. In other words, embroidery was not just an expression of Palestinian nationalism, it was one of the places where a nation in exile was, so to speak, woven together.

In relation to the topic of the symposium, the paper looks at the role culture played in the reconstitution of Palestinian society in exile after the fragmentary shock of 1948 and the loss of 1967. It forms part of a larger project on the role of cultural institutions in articulating Palestinian nationalism from below and in the absence of a state. The political import of documenting folkloric and rural cultures has been of interest for Palestinians since the Mandate period, most notably with the work of Tawfiq Canaan. The revolt of 1936-39 furthered the symbolism of rural culture with the headdress. With the topic of embroidery, the paper takes up the relationship between folkloric national identity and politics, and the context-specific role it takes in the case of Beirut as a Palestinian cultural capital.

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