Delicately, embroidery stitches two clashing worlds together
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Delicately, embroidery stitches two clashing worlds together

2 women, Palestinian and Israeli, partner to sell stitchery, and intimations of normalcy, across the security barrier

Najla and Yael log sales in Yael's sitting room in Jerusalem (photo credit: Shaina Shealy/Times of Israel)
Najla and Yael log sales in Yael's sitting room in Jerusalem (photo credit: Shaina Shealy/Times of Israel)

Najla was frightened the first time she visited Yael in her upscale Jerusalem neighborhood. It was 2004, Najla was 66, and she had never been in an Israeli home before.

On that afternoon, the Christian Palestinian woman chatted in English over tea in the sitting room of the Jewish Israeli, now 84. The room — its walls decorated with expressive paintings, photographs and hanging metal trinkets from Israel, Morocco and Iran, and its couches, chairs and tables draped with textiles from Indonesia, Hungary, India and the Palestinian territories — felt like a museum souvenir shop, Najla recalled. She had never seen art from so many countries.

More than a decade after her first nervous visit, Najla now has a key to Yael’s front door (due to the sensitive nature of their endeavor, both women declined to disclose their last names). The two founders of Cross Stitch for Palestine are “more than sisters,” Najla said. They are best friends and business partners.

Najla collects embroidery from Palestinian women in six villages in the West Bank and one in the Gaza Strip. Weekly, she carries it on buses from her home in Bethlehem through Checkpoint 300 to Jerusalem’s Old City, and from there to Yael’s home. Yael, in turn, sells about 3,000 NIS ($750) worth of the embroidery — stitched onto cushion covers, table runners, scarves, and handbags — to Jewish Israeli friends and colleagues each month.

Thread and Palestinian embroidery photo credit: Shaina Shealy/Times of Israel
Thread and Palestinian embroidery (photo credit: Shaina Shealy/Times of Israel)

Najla and Yael have distinct roles in their business partnership: Since it is illegal for Israelis to enter the West Bank and Gaza, Yael cannot purchase Palestinian embroidery directly and so she relies on Najla for pickup. Each textile that Najla delivers to Yael is labeled in English with the place in which it was stitched. It is important, they agreed, for customers to know where the products were made. “Crossing borders and connecting people,” Yael said, “is an unintended consequence of our work.”

Stitching to make ends meet

One afternoon last winter, Najla drove with her husband George to Surif, a Muslim agricultural village near Hebron, whose craggy, narrow roads thread up and down steep hills, to collect embroidery. There, 65-year-old Om Ahmed had assembled 14 coin purses that she had collected from her informal network of 12 to 15 local embroidery artisans into a black plastic produce bag.

Within minutes of her arrival, Om Ahmed, her face wrapped in a red velvet hijab over a thick neck scarf, served black tea infused with sage to Najla and three visiting younger women. The women, also veiled, had come to Om Ahmed’s house with their threads, needles, and textiles to exchange embroidery for shekels.

They gathered in her sitting room around a gas canister fueling a flame for warmth, surrounded by walls decorated with photographs and embroideries. Among them were black-and-white photos of Om Ahmed’s parents and her sons in traditional dress; framed university diplomas and certificates of achievement; a large frame encasing an embroidered map of “Palestine” and a picture of Yasser Arafat; and a red and white wall hanging that read in English “God bless our home” stitched above embroidered triangles, which are said to bring luck in the Palestinian tradition.

Najla shows Om Ahmed how to sew zippers onto pouches photo credit: Shaina Shealy/Times of Israel
Najla shows Om Ahmed how to sew zippers onto pouches (photo credit: Shaina Shealy/Times of Israel)

Om Ahmed has made a living from embroidery for over 15 years, using skills she learned from her mother. She gives materials — patterns, backings, threads and needles — to other women in need of work. They take the materials home to embroider in their free time or while doing other chores. When they finish, Om Ahmed checks the embroidery for quality and provides instruction if needed. She pays the women for the embroidery and sells it to Najla.

With her earnings from embroidery, Om Ahmed supported six out of her seven children through university. When she embroiders, she said, she feels more active. “I feel like I can get money without my husband. I can do whatever I want.” Her hope is to find more people to sell to because, she said, if she brings in more money, she can provide jobs to more women.

Traditionally, embroidery in Surif is cross-stitched with red thread onto an off-white backing, but the embroidery that Om Ahmed collects from the women, informed by its market demand, is blue and green and orange and brown. Most of the people who purchase this colorful embroidery live on the other side of Israel’s security barrier.

Najla finishes embroidered products in the evening (photo credit: Shaina Shealy/Times of Israel
Najla finishes embroidered products in the evening (photo credit: Shaina Shealy/Times of Israel

Najla told The Times of Israel she was surprised that Israelis like Palestinian embroidery. “It means they like us. Maybe it helps in the future. We can get to know each other more.”

‘Israeli Jews buy our embroidery for peace’

Najla was born in 1948, when Israel was created. That year, she said, she and her family were driven from their home in Haifa and sought refuge in the West Bank. Najla now lives with her husband George in Bethlehem.

Until 2004, when Israel erected a concrete security wall between their home and the Israeli capital, Najla and George worked at St. Andrews Scottish Church in Jerusalem’s Old City. When the barrier was built, George was no longer permitted to enter Jerusalem and lost his job at the church. Soon after, he lost his second job as a bus driver when the Palestinian bus company he worked for could no longer maintain a steady stream of passengers to transport from Bethlehem to Jerusalem. But Najla received a permit from the church and continues to enter Jerusalem weekly.

Najla shows a tablecloth she embroidered for her wedding photo credit: Shaina Shealy/Times of Israel
Najla with a tablecloth she embroidered for her wedding photo credit: (Shaina Shealy/Times of Israel)

Both Najla and Yael had studied embroidery as young girls and stitched for leisure, the beauty of the craft having captured them. Yael began visiting Najla at the church every Saturday to purchase textiles. During her career as a principal of one of Jerusalem’s most progressive schools, which she based on the concepts of integration and dialogue, Yael built a network of progressive Jewish Israelis whom she knew would appreciate Palestinian embroidery. When the church halted embroidery sales for nearly two months as it underwent renovation, Yael made an offer to Najla: she could sell embroidery from her West Jerusalem home so that the women could continue generating income from their craft.

Najla began bringing embroidery from the women she knew in the West Bank directly to Yael’s home in 2004 as Yael assembled her network of purchasers. Their relationship matured during the height of the Second Intifada, when Najla spent nights at Yael’s home because an Israeli-imposed curfew prevented her from returning to Bethlehem.

An Israeli woman sits on a sofa with Palestinian stitched cushions in her home in West Jerusalem (photo credit: Shaina Shealy/Times of Israel)
An Israeli woman sits on a sofa with Palestinian-stitched cushions in her home in West Jerusalem (photo credit: Shaina Shealy/Times of Israel)

The business was so successful that in 2007, Najla left her job at the church to dedicate her time to sourcing embroidery for Yael, who has since been keeping track of all sales by hand in a thick ledger. Financially, Najla and Yael said, the arrangement benefits all parties involved: it eliminates middlemen and avoids fees associated with retail stores.

Both women know that embroidery will not solve their nations’ conflict, but nevertheless choose to see it as a tool to promote peace, understanding and progress among those they can reach. While intricately handcrafted textiles are at the core of their success, the idea of integration is key.

“They [Jewish Israelis] buy for the idea,” Yael said. “For peace, for the relationship. And they come back not only for the embroidery, but because they love the idea.”

Finding a home at the Israel Museum shop

Several years ago, Yael had the idea of introducing Najla to Hani Zalmona, a Jewish Jerusalemite who has worked at the Israel Museum since 1988 and curates Israeli products for its store. Since that meeting, Najla has delivered embroidery every month directly to the museum, meters from the Knesset and Supreme Court in West Jerusalem. There, tourists can purchase neatly folded embroidery stitched by women in Surif and other Palestinian villages alongside handcrafted Judaica.

“I was worried that people would say, ‘How dare you have Palestinian things in here?’” said Zalmona, who has never yet faced criticism for on that count. “Probably somebody will say it, but I hope not,” Zalmona said.

Palestinian embroidery belongs in the store because it is “authentic and local,” Zalmona said. “It is from this area.”

A craftswoman at Om Ahmed's house (photo credit: Shaina Shealy/Times of Israel)
A craftswoman at Om Ahmed’s house (photo credit: Shaina Shealy/Times of Israel)

Zalmona is also committed to contributing to the incomes of Palestinian women since, she said, it is hard for them to earn their own money. It’s important to “encourage women to do what they know to do and to make money out of it,” she said.

Echoing Zalmona’s concern, Om Ahmed, back in Surif, lamented that there are few opportunities for women to earn money in her area. Om Ahmed’s daughter-in-law has a university degree in chemistry, but the only income she has generated since graduating has come from embroidery. Obtainable jobs for women in Surif, Om Ahmed said, include teaching and selling clothes. But women can’t leave their children at home when they go to work, so they find it easier to embroider at home.

The women who bring embroidery to her are mostly housewives and about one-third of them have university degrees. “They do this because they want to buy bread for their children,” Om Ahmed said. Usually, they cannot save money because they have to spend it on immediate needs. When women ask for payment advances, Om Ahmed never denies their requests.

Om Ahmed’s neighbor Wadiha recently borrowed money from her to pay medical fees. She will repay the loan with embroidery. This happens often, Om Ahmed said, especially in September, which is the time for school-fee payments. If these women had other jobs, they wouldn’t be doing embroidery, Om Ahmed said.

One woman, Om Ahmed recounted, speeds up the pace of her stitching when she’s especially in need. When the woman nears the end of a piece, she has her sister call Om Ahmed for more work so that she does not have to remain without work “for even one minute.”

Om Ahmed and her embroidery collection (photo credit: Shaina Shealy/Times of Israel)
Om Ahmed and her embroidery collection (photo credit: Shaina Shealy/Times of Israel)

Rami Elhanan and his wife Nurit Peled Elhanan, seated by a wood-burning fire in their living room decorated with Palestinian-embroidered throws and cushion covers, are among Yael and Najla’s clients.

In 1997, the Elhanans’ daughter Smadar was killed days before her 15th birthday in a Palestinian suicide bombing while she shopped for school supplies on Jerusalem’s Ben Yehuda Street. Rami, who, like his wife, is now in his sixties, had two choices, he said, “to seek revenge or to forgive.” He chose the latter and, in 1998, joined the Parents Circle-Family Forum, an organization for bereaved Israelis and Palestinians that supports reconciliation.

The Elhanans, who are noted around the world for their peace activism, give Palestinian embroidery to Israelis and foreigners whenever they have the chance. Rami said that “when you give a present like this [embroidery] to a family that is not involved politically, it’s a message: you will have on your wall something that came from the dark side of the moon.”

While Nurit said she liked the Palestinian embroidery for its artistic value, Rami stressed its political message.

“Jews and Arabs are hugging and kissing and eating hummus together,” Rami said. But, he continued, “At the end of the day, Israelis go home to their safe democracy and Palestinians go back to the occupation.”

***

On a hot August morning during the height of Operation Protective Edge, Najla and Yael were preparing breakfast at Yael’s home. The two bantered over whether the vegetables that Najla diced would be an Israeli salad or an Arab salad. “Arabs chop their vegetables very small,” Najla said. She had cut the carrots into large one-inch chunks.

As the women worked on the meal, Najla recalled the first time she brought her family to Yael’s house. She had wanted her children to meet an Israeli, she recalled, “to see that they are human like us.”

Najla in her sewing room photo credit: Shaina Shealy/Times of Israel
Najla in her sewing room (photo credit: Shaina Shealy/Times of Israel)

When the family reached Yael’s front door, Najla’s balked and had to be persuaded to enter. Najla’s daughter Amira was so nervous that she didn’t say anything during the visit. After she left the house, Amira finally spoke: “They are good people like us. You know she [Yael] is a good lady,” Najla recalled.

“War is sitting as a cloud above our life always,” Yael said. “If we can change that, we try.”

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