Threads of Identity
Emma Russell (Government and Global Studies, ’19)
I spent the summer 2017 studying Arabic at the Qasid Institute in Amman, Jordan and volunteered 20 hours a week as a research assistant at “Tiraz Widad Kawar; Home for Arab Dress”. Widad Kawar, the owner of the museum collection, began preserving dresses when she was young. Growing up in Bethlehem she noticed the decreasing presence of traditional dresses and stitch patterns. What began as a hobby to collect beautiful dresses soon quickly became an active attempt to collect and preserve rare dresses before their stories were forgotten. The storage rooms of “Tiraz Widad Kawar; Home for Arab Dress” house the largest collection of both Palestinian and Jordanian dress, and also the largest collection of Syrian dress outside of the country. Through the material and stitch patterns of these dresses, researchers can trace the political, social, and cultural history of specific villages through time. Tiraz worked not only to educate the public about traditional dresses and artifacts, but also held workshops to teach groups the traditional stitch patterns and dyeing techniques that have become nearly obsolete in the face of mass manufacturing. In this way Tiraz not only preserves the past, but also actively works to ensure a future for traditional techniques.
My physical tasks at Tiraz were to help to remove Tiraz’s “Ya Hafeth Ya Ameen” temporary exhibit that exhibited protective silver adornments and talismans, followed by curating the new exhibit featuring a massive art installation entitled “Thirst for Solidarity” by the Naqsh Collective. I also was also delegated the creation of a Google Arts and Culture page and the maintenance of Facebook posts for advertisement purposes. At the end of my eight weeks, we hosted a large opening night event where hundreds of people came to see the new exhibit. The culmination of our effort was rewarded by all the people who were able to reconnect to their ancestral traditional culture and also learn about other cultures.
While at Tiraz I was also conducting my Monroe Research which focused on the traditional dresses of North Galilee. My researched investigated the systemic fear that forced Palestinian women, the transmitters of their own culture, to sell their identities as embodied by traditional dresses. My research told the story not only of the dresses that have been successfully preserved by Tiraz, but also the story of the dresses that were lost. I analyzed Galilee’s social and political climate that redefined the value of dresses which were essential to an identity of being no more than objects of trade, forcing the Galilee people to put a price on their culture for survival.
These dresses I researched were often labors of love that took months of intricate embroidery to create. Palestinian dresses can show familial lineage to particular villages, wealth, marriage status, and even religion based only upon the patterns of stitch and material. Each dress represents the Palestinian culture and individual story of the owner. Through my research, I wanted to reveal the historical context and the extreme pressure that would have led women to selling dresses that were so essential to their personal identity. Through my work at Tiraz and my research, I hoped to bring awareness to the continued need to preserve historical and modern Palestinian culture before it is all exchanged for the safety of assimilation.
Widad was a huge source of support throughout my research. She would frequently invite me to her home for lunch to discuss my progress and assign me new books to read. She read my complete research, gave me edits, and fact checked all my information. Leaving Tiraz I felt empowered, motivated, and enriched from my experience. I had learned so much, contributed to Tiraz’s beautiful mission, and found a family amongst the other interns.