Preserving Palestinian heritage one stitch at a time

Nawal Salameh, founder of the Women in Hebron cooperative, as featured in the short documentary Hebron Embroidery Co-op.

Fil Kaler

A walk through the markets of the Old City in Hebron is a sobering reminder of the effects of the Israeli occupation on the everyday lives of Palestinians. Though the city is deep in the occupied West Bank, more than 600 Jewish settlers have established themselves in several settlements inside Hebron’s town center. The streets of the Old City have been caged in mesh and are full of bricks, bottles and garbage hurled down by settlers in the houses above — an act silently authorized under the watchful yet passive gaze of the ever-present Israeli military.

The military has become a formidable presence in Hebron. The often violent settlers are protected by up to 2,000 soldiers and a combination of military checkpoints, watchtowers, roadblocks, iron gates and shop closures have had a dire effect on Hebron’s economy. Movement restrictions have tightened since the second intifada, making trading almost impossible for the Palestinians and turning a once bustling and thriving marketplace into a ghost town. Streets of shops lie empty and padlocked, and soaring unemployment and a dwindling population make this West Bank city one of the bitterest casualties of the continuing occupation.

Yet in these deserted streets, there are flickers of enterprise and hope. A few businesses still survive in the old marketplace, among them Women in Hebron, a shop and cooperative in the heart of the city, selling traditional Palestinian crafts such as kuffiyehs (checkered scarves), embroidered dresses, cushions, bags and wall hangings, along with slightly less traditional items, including purses emblazoned with the slogan “Women Can Do Anything.” All of the products have been handmade by local women, many of whom rely solely on the cooperative for their income.

Emily Lawrence interviewed the cooperative’s founder, Nawal Salameh, about the challenges and opportunities facing Women in Hebron today.

Emily Lawrence: How did you come up with the idea of the Women in Hebron cooperative?

Nawal Salameh: Our project started eight years ago. I was at home without work, and it was the first thing I could think to do without leaving my home and my two small children. I did a lot of embroidery designs and I collected many traditional items, thinking one day I could sell them. In Hebron, even if I finished university it was hard to get a job that I wanted. I had done volunteer work for a long time so I had to do something to bring in money without having to leave my children.

EL: And how did it grow into the cooperative we see today?

NS: I started out by myself and then shared the idea with my friends. I brought together groups of women in the same situation as me to try to help them sell their work. Then I tried to source a place to market our work and found a shop in the Old City. Day by day people started to hear about the only women’s shop in the Old City in Hebron, and many women from the nearby villages came to ask for help. Soon I was selling for 120 women from eight villages around Hebron.

EL: What do you think are some of the most immediate concerns of women in the West Bank and specifically in Hebron?

NS: Women around here are concerned about the occupation continuing. How about our children? Will they suffer like us or will there be peace soon? Will women have more rights than they have now? Some of our women know prisoners. Is there any hope for those in prison? Can we work together to remove the wall? All we want is a free Palestine.

EL: It is obvious to any visitor to Hebron that the Israeli occupation and the presence of settlers have had severe consequences for businesses in the area. What are the main challenges you face in the day-to-day running of the business?

NS: Our shop in the Old City of Hebron has been affected by the occupation, like the whole of Palestine. There is a settler tour every Saturday passing through the old souq [market] to the [Kiryat Arba] settlement. Many times they have created problems, with more than thirty soldiers to protect them from the Palestinians. The other problem is that the shop is close to the settlement, so there are often problems. When the news says there are problems, they scare people from coming to the Old City. It’s a tourist place but there are no tourists, so there is not much business in the Old City. It’s always the same story: don’t go to Hebron because it’s a dangerous place. But I say, come and talk to the people, you will like it very much. We are not going anywhere. This is Hebron and this is the Old City and this is our way to resist all these challenges.

EL: Your website ( says that one of your main objectives is to preserve Palestinian cultural heritage. Why is it so important that this heritage is maintained? Do you see this cooperative as a form of resistance to Israel’s occupation?

NS: Embroidery is something we take from our mothers and grandmothers. My mother taught me how to do the embroidery when I was small, and she did the same with my other four sisters, to make sure each of us could keep the Palestinian heritage alive. We take the designs from the old dresses of our mothers and our grandmothers. My mother’s work is better than my work. It’s a little different because we do traditional work but we alter it for international taste. I use the same patterns but in a new way.

When we first started to sell we found Hebron’s Old City was closed. A lot of owners had left in the second intifada and had forgotten about it. I liked the idea of staying there, kind of showing our resistance in the Old City.

EL: What next for Women in Hebron? Are your products available internationally?

NS: We are working on opening a new organization in my town, Idna, for women’s handmade products. We will open as soon as we get permission [from the Palestinian Authority]. And we want our organization to be one of the strongest in Palestine, with your help and support. Our work is available internationally and we are ready to come to the UK if someone invites us. We also invite volunteers to stay with us and participate in the work of the cooperative. I love embroidery and that’s why I feel I will succeed in this work. We are planning for a good future.

Emily Lawrence is a recent graduate and independent writer currently based in Lincoln, UK. She can be reached at emilywarda AT gmail DOT com.