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Palestine's Embroiderers: An interview with Helen Loussi



On the occasion of the World Embroidery Day, Sunbula interviewed Helen Loussi, who manages the embroidery center at the Bethlehem Arab Women’s Union, one of the longest-running women’s organizations in Palestine.  Through her life story from the early 20th century to the present, Helen tells us of the special place that embroidery holds in the lives of Palestinian women.

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Can you tell us about your childhood memories of embroidery?

I was born, raised, educated, and have worked in Bethlehem all my life.  My family have been living for generations in the historic Kawawseh Quarter.  As a young girl, I remember seeing my grandmother always wearing a toub (traditional dress).  Her everyday toub was simple, made of black cotton and was only lightly embroidered.  Her special occasion toub, however, was gorgeously embroidered with coaching technique, using gilded chords and silk thread from Damascus.  She embroidered all her dresses just as every woman did in her time.  I remember seeing older women coming to the church in their toubs still into the 1950s and 60s.  

How did you start to embroider, and what life trajectory led you to this work?

I learned to embroider from my mother and my grandmother.  Embroidering was also taught at school from the age of eight.  I went to public schools that were first under the British Mandate and later the Jordanian rule following the 1948 war.  After finishing my education, I worked as English teacher at Bethlehem-area elementary and preparatory-level schools.  

In 1991, when I retired from teaching, I started to work as the manager of the embroidery center at the Bethlehem Arab Women’s Union.  The Union was established in 1947 to serve the community, and the embroidery center was added in 1972 in response to the turmoil of the 1967 war and the Israeli military occupation over the West Bank that followed. By this time,  toubs were starting to disappear from everyday use with the passing of my grandmother’s generation.  The Union decided to provide an income source for families in need through production and sale of handicrafts and to preserve the local craft heritage at the same time.  

What is unique about embroidery from Bethlehem?

Bethlehem embroidery is known for motifs that are inspired by nature and local landscapes, like stars and trees.  Women in Bethlehem embroidered with two distinct techniques: the cross-stich and the couching.  Many traditional toubs, like my grandmother’s, were beautifully decorated by combining these two techniques.

To create items to sell, the women would study embroidery motifs from old toubs and rearrange the patterns to suit bags, make-up purses, cushion covers, table runners, and such.  We also experimented with different color combinations to give our products a more modern look. 
 

      
Chest panel of a Bethelehem toub with cross-stitch embroidery   Details of a sleeve of a Bethlehem toub with couching-stitch embroidery


Who are the women embroiderers you have worked with?

Over my three decades at the center, I have met a lot of women who supported themselves and their families with their earnings from embroidering.  For example, I remember several women with chronic disease who embroidered in order to buy their medicines.  I also fondly remember two sisters from Teqoa village who paid their entire university tuition by embroidering.  Presently, we have twelve students who are working their way through university like this.  They usually ask us to hold their payments until it is time to pay their tuition.   

Some families have multiple members embroidering, involving even their neighbors.  The women would coordinate their work and pool their incomes to cover big family expenses like a wedding.  

Before the pandemic, we used to give work to about 100 women, including 30 students, mostly from villages in the east of the city where jobs were scarce.  Today, the number is down to about 35 women because of the bad economy.  At the same time, the demand for embroidering work has increased. Quite a few women, whose husbands became unemployed under the pandemic, have come to us asking for work.  We never say 'no’ to anyone -- if there is no work to give at the moment, we always tell them to check back when they are in the area the next time.  

Where can people find you?  

Our center is located near the Church of Nativity, in a three-hundred-year-old building in the oldest neighborhood of the city.  Visitors can buy our handicrafts here, and see our small museum that displays a Bethlehem family home from the 18th century and a collection of original, antique toubs.  

What are your hopes now?

I hope we will start to receive tourists in the city again someday.  It makes me feel happy and proud to show to people from around the world the Palestinian embroidery -- our heritage and identity.  
 

  



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Interviewed by Shirabe Yamada, Executive Director of Sunbula, at the Bethlehem Arab Women’s Union, Bethlehem, Palestine, July 27, 2021