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Fashionism
Apr / May 2013
Stitch by Stitch

WRITER: Nadine Khalil PHOTOGRAPHER: Elie Bekhazi

A charitable organisation dedicated to preserving the rich cultural heritage of Palestinian embroidery, while also providing financial support for destitute refugee families in Lebanon, Inaash is run by a team of passionate volunteers.

 

As I sit with Maya Corm and Susan Shammas, I immediately notice how close they are. They exude this sense of a long, shared history of secrets and at times, they complete each other’s sentences.

We are in the headquarters of Inaash, a small office space located in a discreet cul-de-sac in Ras Beirut, down an alley behind where Bliss Street drops down to the sea. Inaash, which means ‘revival’ in Arabic, is also known as the Association for the Development of Palestinian Camps. It proved a bit difficult to find when I was asking for it as Inaash but the two passersby I stopped for directions quickly said, “Oh, you mean the Palestinian organisation?” before directing me where to take the next turn.

“It is a bit like finding Aladdin’s cave, getting here,” Shammas remarks before mentioning that someone once told her that Inaash was like a hidden treasure. I nod in agreement as I look around at the intricate Palestinian embroideries stacked on the shelves around us. There are shawls and abayas, cushions and handbags. This woven narrative of an entire population is like an organised chaos of colour. The distinctive patterns and geometric floral motifs on each object were originally used to decorate traditional Palestinian dresses, with each town and village having its own pattern.

“Inaash has been working for 45 years,” Corm begins to explain, “it’s a bit like a battle for continuous change. There are ten members in the committee and we are lucky enough to have two of the original volunteers still working with us on design, Malak Abdul Rahim and Sima Ghandour. They help us maintain the continuity and quality of the patterns.”

Maya Corm has a playful sense of humour about her, even when she is speaking of serious matters. It reflects her generally hopeful attitude and I soon realise that it hasn’t always been easy at Inaash and that the team of women behind it have often had to handle extremely difficult and trying circumstances.

“It’s not as if we invented the wheel. We merely collected what was there in our cultural heritage and put it all together,” Corm continues. “It took about 40 years of research so that no motif would be forgotten.” “It is a pictorial history,” Shammas adds “and there are thousands of Palestinian motifs.”

When I point to the bright bursts of orange and fuchsia in some of the embroideries, remarking that many of the designs look contemporary to me, Corm smiles. “Tradition was much funkier than you think. We grew up with many of these colours and patterns, they seeped into our lives, like osmosis,” she continues, adding that even if Inaash is using a more diverse colour scheme now than in the past, as well as variations on traditional themes, they still remain very much true to their origins. “Plus, we learned to embroider like this at school and at home.”

It wasn’t the same for the Palestinians who came of age in the refugee camps in Lebanon. Since it was founded, Inaash has taught over 8,000 women the art of Palestinian embroidery and traditional needlework and Shammas adds that there are about 350 embroiderers working for Inaash at the moment.

“The very first workshop was started in 1968, I wasn’t born then,” Corm says mischievously. “Madame Caland wanted to see what the Palestinian camps in Lebanon were like, then having visited them, she wanted to do something for the women and so she taught them knitting.”

That would be Huguette Caland, the renowned painter, designer and sculptor, daughter of Lebanon’s first President after independence, Bechara El-Khoury. Weaving and tapestries figure prominently in Caland’s work. Corm’s mother, Serene Husseini Shahid, was another of the collective’s founding figures. Daughter of the notable Jerusalemite family, Serene was in the U.S. in the 1960s when she entered a store in New York that was full of embroidered Palestinian items, only to have the salesperson insist they were Israeli. “And so the idea took root in her head to save a cultural heritage that had been hijacked,” Corm continues.

These two women joined forces with a group of similarly concerned Palestinian and Lebanese women. “You know, they were part of the bourgeoisie which at the time was very charitable.  When I think of the ladies who started it all,” Corm says, this time to Shammas, “they used to go to every camp in the country and take a packed picnic lunch with them. They did more for the Palestinians than the government did. They built pre-schools for the children so the mothers could embroider at home. That is how we tried to keep the family structure together”.  

This focus on keeping families together is a key aspect of the way Inaash works. The embroiderers are provided with all their raw materials, the silk, threads and canvas and when the items are finished, the charity’s committee prices the products based on the complexity of the design and the embroiderers’ estimate. Even so, the price cannot adequately reflect the dedication that goes into to making these pieces. “Some need 8 to 10 months to produce,” Shammas explains. “That’s a year of these women’s lives. You cannot even count the hours it takes because of the frequent electricity cuts in the camps.”

All proceeds from sales and exhibitions go directly to the women. “Most of them are the breadwinners of the family, since many jobs are forbidden to the men,” Susan adds.

Over the years, Inaash has managed to raise money to help support the women’s livelihood through a variety of means. There have been dresses especially commissioned for auction by high-end Lebanese designers like Rabih Keyrouz or Milia M, sales through one-off events like the pop-up shop in the Beirut souks last summer and exhibitions at places such as Paris’ Institut du Monde Arabe and London’s Museum of Mankind. This July, for example, Inaash will take part in Jeddah’s Bisat Al Reeh.

Then there’s the creativity of the board members, who are always thinking up ways of keeping the tradition relevant, creating corporate gift packages and canvas coasters, lavender bags and spectacle cases, silk pouches and an array of other small presents, in addition to the more usual cushions and clothing. And when due to regional upheavals it has been difficult to acquire certain materials - like Najaf, a hand-woven Iraqi fabric that Inaash once sourced through Damascus and which is traditionally made from fine goat’s wool - they find replacements that are more easily secured, in this case a fine wool sourced in London that is traditionally used in nuns’ veils.

“We’re not designers,” Corm says, repeating something she mentioned earlier, “but we need to give these women hope by giving them work and an income.”

For a moment, she falters, emotion overcoming her ability to speak. “If you could only see how they are made, thread-by-thread, hand-stitched. They are objects of such beauty but they are created under the most awful conditions in the camps,” she quietly continues. “And that’s why we’re so very proud to wear these garments, especially when we go out."

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