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Palestinian Embroidery

An Antidote to Compassion Fatigue - Bearing Witness

By Rachel RobbinsPublished 2 months ago 3 min read
Material Power: Palestinian Embroidery at The Whitworth, Manchester - Photo: Ruth Wedgbury

For anyone struggling right now, please remember, human beings are not equipped to deal with the bombardment of violent imagery on our news-screens. I cannot take in another broken child, a devastated family, a fragment of a lost life. I know I should be bearing witness. I know my pain is not equal to theirs.

I have found the news more and more difficult to watch. And nobody seems to have the language to convey what is lost. We know we are talking about peoples who have a history of being maligned and that words are the first weapon. And that it gets so hard to say the right thing.

Yesterday UK parliament descended into chaos about process over a debate for a ceasefire, whilst Gaza was being bombed, and Israeli hostages still remain captured. It was humiliating to watch. And peace felt a long way away.

The Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester UK

Two days ago I walked into Whitworth Art Gallery, with my art student daughter. It was a place of calm, of meditative reflection, of quiet challenge.

The Whitworth is part of the University of Manchester, founded by the industrialist Sir Joseph Whitworth. Manchester and the Whitworth fortune is built on the cotton trade, which means the history of the city is entwined both with the resistance and the collusion of the American slave trade. Textiles are literally the fabric of the area. And the Gallery regularly hosts exhibitions of textiles.

And now it is showing an exhibition of Palestinian Embroidery, spanning the last 150 years.

Dress from Ramallah, 1930s, from the collection of Maha Abu Shosheh

The embroidery is beautiful and intricate. It tells a human history of mothers sitting with daughters to pass on skills that adapt to the resources available and the fashions of the time. It is an intimate history. It is a domestic symbol of resistance and a call for acceptance, to be understood as human, as having a story to tell.

I spent time taking in the detail. Looking at the skill. Admiring the colour and patterns.

Embroidery is an important cultural practice in Palestine. Each area has its own styles, techniques and resources. It is a visual language of the women of the area. It is an historial practice and a contemporary one. Often produced in secret, passed from generation to generation. The stitches contain ideas of family, nationhood and memory. And as I stare at them, as individual stitches and rich patterens I am struck by the intricacy and care. I know that the pieces have been crafted by quickly moving fingers and the textiles lain against human skin. The textiles hold stories.

Jellayeh from Hebron (detail), 1900-1915, from the collection of Dar Al-Tifel Al-Arabi Museum for Palestinian Heritage

I love words. I love how words can create the light and shade of a situation. They can offer precision. Care and nuance in language leads us to write and talk about people with full attention to detail and context. But we have run out of words when it comes to Gaza. We are tripping over ourselves to get it right and then falling silent.

And then I look at the embroidery in detail. It takes time to build the neat precises stitches into patterns. Little stitches to make large geometric patterns, made to say something about the creativity of the human involved. Each piece filled with different shades of celebration, grief, loss and love. And I find the humanity to bear witness again.

I understand more fully than I did, when presented with harrowing news pictures of a broken city, what is under threat.

That beauty, artistry, culture and tradition are being strangled out of life.

The embroidery is a beautiful riposte to the clamour and anger that is drowning out tragedy.

And it was a privilege to bear witness.


About the Creator

Rachel Robbins

Writer-Performer based in the North of England. A joyous, flawed mess.

Please read my stories and enjoy. And if you can, please leave a tip. Money raised will be used towards funding a one-woman story-telling, comedy show.

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Comments (9)

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  • Marie Wilson2 months ago

    Beautiful & intricate, as are your words. Good work all round.

  • Exquisitely tragic & infinitely human. Thank you for sharing this, Rachel.

  • Raymond G. Taylor2 months ago

    Some great artwork and I will certainly take a look next time I am in Manchester. Art is often calming therapeutic and promotes humanity. Thanks for sharing

  • Such intricate and beautiful embroidery. Thank you for sharing such a timely and important topic.

  • Scott Christenson2 months ago

    The media consistently dehumanizes people our govt doesn't value in Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan,etc.. Good work bringing humanity to some of those forgotten people with an article about their culture!

  • Babs Iverson2 months ago

    Fantastic history and exhibit beautifully written!!! Loving it!!!💕♥️♥️

  • Kelsey Clarey2 months ago

    This is beautifully written. I love looking at embroidery from around the world. It's so amazing what people can create with it and how they can use it to share their stories. Thank you for sharing!

  • Love the designs you shared and the situation in Gaza is terrible. Excellent piece

  • Oneg In The Arctic2 months ago

    Thank you for writing about this, for bringing more awareness to the genocide that’s happening in Gaza, and how Palestinian culture and history exists and MATTERS

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