Clothing has served more than one purpose since the dawn of time. On the one hand, it provides concealment and protection from the elements. On the other hand, it acts as a statement of identity.
Palestine is one of the earliest centres of civilisation and its textile arts offer rich and vibrant testimony to this fact. As part of the Fertile Crescent, it always served both as a trade route as well as a destination for pilgrims of different religions. Even in ancient Canaan, the mountains and valleys of Palestine possessed sites that were sacred to the gods and which featured in many ancient myths and tales.
Palestine is a fairly small area geographically and yet it contains a wealth of different traditions. From region to region, village to village and tribe to tribe, individual cultural identity was strong and well-defined. Often the clothing that a person wore identified him/her instantly in terms of tribe, village or region. Even now, in the era of mass production, instant media as well as internet exchange of ideas and visual symbols, certain styles instantly are recognisable as being from Gaza, Hebron or Bethlehem. (So much for the Zionist claim that Palestine was a barren wasteland devoid of people before they descended upon it like a plague of locusts!)
In terms of textiles and embroidery, Palestine both has been influenced by and has influenced cultures as distant as Scandinavia, Russia and China. Some patterns and symbols are universal in nature, but there is a clear historical line of communication between Palestine and the Northern peoples from as far back in history as the 1st century. The Roman Empire in its conquest of the world brought warriors from Gaul to the Arab Nation. Arab scholars as well as merchants traveled north as well, and were familiar with the northern outposts of trade both in Europe and in Russia.
A few centuries later, Viking hordes of silver and gold were buried, and contained as many silver and gold coins from the Arab Empire as treasures from any other part of the world.
Some writers have seen the appearance of symbols common both to Scandinavia and to Palestine as evidence of European influence, but the influence traveled in both directions.
In the east, the 'Silk Road' offered a conduit for an exchange of symbols as well as goods. Religious myths and theories never existed in isolation. Early history shows that people often would travel vast distances and sometimes even abandon their own homelands permanently in order to pursue rumours of a new seer or prophet. This is by no means a phenomenon that is known only in contemporary society.
Furthermore, some symbols appear to be truly universal and there are many patterns found in the Americas in Mayan textiles and art that are found both in ancient Sumer and on bedouin thobs of the 20th century from the Sinai. One can see the same patterns in traditional embroidery from Cambodia. Certain symbols cannot be claimed exclusively by one culture or heritage.
Artists who express native culture act as carriers as well. When they see something that appeals to them or are convinced of the potency of a symbol from another culture, they often will 'borrow', use it or even incorporate it into their work. The textile arts illustrate this again and again.
Although symbolism in textiles can be considered universal to some extent, traditional Palestinian clothing exhibits its own unique identity and a use of these symbols that is wholly Palestinian.
I hope to be able to explore all the traditional symbols found in Palestinian embroidery on this site.
As well as being a symbol of identity, clothing always has been linked to status and human vanity fuels much that is done in the way of fashion.
As I am fond of folktales and myth, I hope to be able to weave symbols in embroidery with ancient tales both to amuse and to illustrate the enduring nature of Palestinian culture and traditions.
An old folktale, similar to that of the 'Emperor's New Clothes', illustrates the way in which vanity and social status can be manipulated by fashion. This is not a distinctively Palestinian tale, by the way but there are other tales I hope to share that are.
The Turban of Truth
There was in ancient times a great Sultan. One day, a scoundrel presented himself at court to declare: 'My lord, I request permission to weave a turban for you that has no equal in this world. This turban can distinguish between one who is born in virtuous wedlock from one who is born in sin and shame. Only one who is born from wedded parents will be able to see the turban. To all others, it will be invisible.'
The ruler eagerly commissioned the creation of this extraordinary turban and awaited its completion impatiently. At length, the man returned to court with a parcel, and bore it with great pomp and circumstance to the ruler.
The entire court watched with bated breath as he carefully unfolded the paper to display the treasure within. Having done so, he looked expectantly at the ruler to gauge his response.
The ruler saw nothing but a sheet of paper. His immediate reaction was the thought: 'Oh, how unfortunate am I! My entire life and position is based upon a lie. I am a creature born of sin and shame! This marvelous turban will be my own undoing!'
He realised then, however, that he was the only one who knew that the turban was invisible to him. Cleverly, he exclaimed, 'What wondrous beauty you have created here! This turban indeed is beyond price. Its exquisite beauty alone makes it one of the greatest treasures in my realm. How much more valuable it is for its power to separate the virtuous from those who were conceived in shame!'
The scoundrel, delighted by the success of his ruse, declared, 'Oh master of masters, will you not allow me the supreme honour of placing this turban upon your majestic head? Will you not order that a cap be brought so that you can wear this treasure as it was intended to be worn?'
The Sultan quickly commanded his retainers to bring a cap to the weaver and it was done. The cap having been positioned on the Sultan's illustrious head, the scoundrel then proceeded to wind the invisible marvel round it, deftly and rapidly moving his fingers and hands to create the impression of great skill, completing his efforts with a final flourish.
'Ah,' he breathed, 'It is magnificent. May God be praised! I have been given the greatest honour of all in being allowed to present the highest lord of the land with the greatest treasure in the world! I thank you, great master, for allowing me to serve you in this fashion!'
The Sultan, seeing nothing but the unadorned cap when he gazed into the looking glass, nonetheless assumed a pose of great dignity and pride. 'What do you think of my new turban, o my people?' he asked.
His distinguished advisors were the first to respond. 'It is a great work of art!' exclaimed one. 'It is magnificent!' exclaimed another. The third, more honest than his peers, simply murmured, 'O wise ruler, surely its value cannot exceed the appreciation you show to it.'
The common people, bewildered by this performance, nonetheless were motivated to show themselves as sophisticated and virtuous as their social superiors. Furthermore, they were deeply envious of those who could prove their virtue and legitimacy by describing the beauties of this incredible turban they themselves could not see. They therefore roared with approval, believing that a show of great enthusiasm would be the best way to conceal their lack of vision.
The Sultan acknowledged the admiration of his subjects graciously, while inwardly seething with rage and helpless betrayal over the dishonourable conduct of his parents, who evidently had been individuals without any honour and who yet had managed to conceal his illegitimate status not only from him but from the entire world.
He paraded up and down, to all outward appearances pleased with his extraordinary new turban, while his mind and soul became increasingly tormented. When at length he retired to his private chambers, he could think of nothing beyond the shame that he would be forced to conceal for the rest of his life.
Meanwhile, two of his retainers were discussing the events of the day as they walked towards their appointed quarters.
'Abed, you are my best friend and closer to me than a brother. I cannot keep this to myself forever, as it threatens to destroy my sanity. I must trust you with my secret.'
'What secret is that, brother?'
'Tell me first, did not our fathers grow up together in the same village and did they not marry women who were sisters? Who but your father would know more about my own parents than any one else?' asked Hamid.
'What is it that you wish to know?'
'I must question him on a matter that is vital to my future and my honour,' Hamed declared.
'You can tell me. I swear no word of this will pass my lips.'
'I believed always that my mother, like yours, is a virtuous woman. Our fathers are known throughout the region as men of great honour and integrity.'
'Yes. I always believed the same to be true.'
Abed stopped abruptly and faced his friend. 'But what?'
'I cannot speak of this.'
'You must!' Abed replied with some fervour. 'You have my vow: I will take whatever you tell me to my grave.'
At this, Hamed began to weep.
'There is nothing more terrible, my friend, than to discover that the entire basis of your life is a lie. That is what I have discovered today!'
'How so?' asked Abed, although by now he had guessed the subject of his friend's distress.
'I am a man born in shame!'
'What?!' cried Abed, 'Surely that cannot be!'
'It is so,' Hamed responded. 'For I could not see the exquisite turban that our Sultan now wears. If I had been born of an honourable union, that turban would not have been invisible to me!'
Oh, my dearest brother!' Abed exclaimed, 'Can it be so?! I too could not see even a glimmer of that turban!'
The Sultan, overhearing this discourse, realised the had been the victim of a clever ruse.
'How could I have been so lacking in the trust my parents deserve! How could I have been hoodwinked by a stranger into doubting not only the honour of my family but the very evidence of my own eyes?' the Sultan admonished himself.
Not being able to remove a turban that did not exist from his head, he had to content himself by flinging the cap across the room. 'That scoundrel was able to defraud me because I was too proud to admit that I could not see something I thought was obvious to every one else! If I had been honest in the first place, my actions could not have persuaded my entire court to behave as fools! The responsibility, like that ridiculous turban, was on my head alone!'
As if he had overheard the Sultan's musings, however, Abed remarked, 'If neither of us had been honest enough to tell the truth, this dreadful deception might have poisoned all our lives forever. Surely there is a lesson or two in this. We should not be too proud or too afraid of the opinions of others to speak the truth and we should have more faith in our own vision!'