Fabric is Never Just Fabric: A Conversation with One of Gaza's Few Weavers
We talked with a majdalawi weaver based in Gaza who learned the craft from his father and continues the legacy of this artisanship and heritage today. Our conversation was held over whatsapp through a series of calls and voice notes as, under apartheid, Palestinians in the West Bank cannot enter Gaza and it is virtually impossible for Palestinians in Gaza to leave what has been called the world’s largest open air prison.
Many of the Palestinians living in Gaza today are not originally from Gaza but are third and fourth generation refugees displaced by Zionist militias in 1948, the Nakba. This is the story of al Majdal, a small yet vibrant village on the mediterranean sea, some 20 kilometres north of Gaza city. On April 22, 1948 Zionist militias invaded the village, forced its inhabitants onto buses, and bussed them to refugee camps in Gaza and ramle. The last 2 buses left for gaza on October 13 1950 and, according to the Zionist military “governors,” they had at least achieved a Palestinian-free al-Majdal, or “Ashkelon,” as it was to be renamed after the village was razed to the ground and built over.
Mr. Zaqout, the weaver we spoke with and purchased majdalawi fabric from, is a descendant of one of the many Majdalawi families which were once famous for weaving, including Maleeha and Hinnawi, among many others. His father was one of the men who helped to revive handwoven majdalawi fabric, and 23 years later, his son is one of only a handful of weavers carrying on the tradition.
According to Mr. Zaqout, al Majdal village collectively wove enough fabric to cover most of Palestine. By 1945, it was estimated that the village had some 800 looms in it. He pointed out that although each Palestinian village was unique in the tatreez and thob style, the one common factor between them all was the use of majdalawi fabric.
It might sound strange but for the first few days of the interview process, Mr. Zaqout would not tell us his name. He was extremely hesitant to share his story for one reason: his story, the stories of other weavers, the story of Majdalawi fabric has been manipulated by the oppressor. Most recently, an Israeli fashion label used the fabric in their SS21 collection, referring to al Majdal as “Ashkelon” and completely glossing over the fact that the residents were forcibly expelled, the village razed to the ground, and the craft pushed to the edge of extinction under the weight of military occupation and erasure.
Mr. Zaqout is adamant about weaving the fabric exactly as it was woven prior to 1948, to preserve our collective heritage. But what happens to the fabric once it leaves his weaving studio is a different story. Cultural appropriation is a reflection of power dynamics. According to professor of Art History, Victoria Rovine argues that “fashion serves as a measure of cultural attainment...Who has, and who does not have fashion is politically determined, a function of power relations.” So, we cannot help but point out the unequal power relations between the opressor and the oppressed, between an Israeli designer and a Palestinian weaver in Gaza.
We could not use Majdalawi fabric without first shedding light on true story of the attempted erasure of al Majdal village, passing the microphone to Mr. Zaqout, and illuminating the cultural appropriation continuously executed by the oppressor to simultaneously fetishize and erase Palestinians. To talk with Mr. Zaqout, learning more about the story of the fabric, and showing him the pieces we created with it, was a sobering experience.
Fabric is not just fabric, and fashion is not just fashion. History, racial power dynamics, and politics make it so much more than that. That’s okay though because what the oppressors use to erase us, we can use to unleash the power of our collective heritage and story.
Nol: Weaving Threads of Palestinian History
Beginning as a community-based initiative to bring people together over shared struggles, we have grown into a collective dedicated to illuminating the extremely human nature of fashion and politics. Nöl Collective is far more than just a fashion brand: We work at the intersection of feminism, Palestinian culture, ethical fashion, and social justice.
At Nöl, we manufacture our apparel and accessories with small family-run businesses and women’s cooperatives across the West Bank and Gaza, supporting local production, talent, and craftsmanship.
Curious about our name? Here's the story.
a bit of background:
Before diving into the fate of the loom in Palestine, it is well worth taking a moment to explore the intricate process of wool to loom.
Nöl is the arabic word for "loom" (نول). A loom is a device used to weave cloth and tapestry. This manual instrument was a crucial element in Palestine’s textile history. In fact, Palestine has been popular in dyeing and weaving for centuries, with many textile practices centered on the loom.
The first stage is the preparation of the raw material, and it is either camel's hair, sheep's wool, or goat's hair. The colors of the raw wool are then separated from each other, then it is treated by drying and sending it to spin and converting it into threads.
The threads are then sent for dyeing to turn into bright colors, and then wash with the sea water of Gaza to stabilize the colors.
Dyes were produced from local plants and insects: red was made from pomegranate and madder root, blue from the indigo plant, yellow from grape leaves or saffron, black from walnut shells, and yellow-green from sumac. With time, many villages came to be associated with the use of certain colors and threads.
Using the loom, the threads are then woven into many things, including horse saddles, rugs, gowns, carpets, children's swings, etc.
In many areas, the dyeing was often left to men and the weaving to women or vice-versa, both tasks done in groups (as was the case for many processes from agriculture to cooking). It seems that this process an intimate and communal one, not only between people but between Palestinians and their land as well.
what happened to the loom?
Weaving was central to many areas of Palestine including Al Majdal, Gaza, Ramallah, Nazareth, Hebron and Nablus. Handwoven fabrics were largely linen or cotton—anything more expensive like silks was imported from Syria at the time. In fact, much of traditional Palestinian costume relied heavily on silk brocade fabrics imported from Syria, although this is not the case anymore.
The costumes and styles of the Galilee are one example of the collective regional textile industry. Cotton was grown in the Galilee, Silk imported from Syria, and linen from Egypt. The Galilee was also the source of the indigo and sumac dyes used for fabric used in costumes all over Palestine.
It's even said that the proximity of Syria to the North of Palestine, influenced the styles of costumes there. Much of this, of course, came to end with the Israeli occupation and the demolition of entire villages by Zionist militias in 1948.
In recent years, Syria’s textile industry has dwindled, leaving those interested to hunt for the fabric in old shops nestled within old cities across the Levant. Syrian silk brocade has sadly become a symbol of both a once-intimate relationship between Palestinians and Syrians and a contemporary world which looks to be only a shadow of what it once was.
Weaving in Palestine also dwindled for a number of reasons. Israel’s military occupation warped Palestinian culture and identity, leaving us to piece the puzzle together ever since—much like colonization did for cultures throughout the global south. For example, al-Majdal village, only twenty kilometers from Gaza, was one of the largest and most critical centers of weaving in the region. Up to the mid-19th century, it was still equipped with more than 500 active looms. In 1948, al-Majdal was demolished by Israelis and its inhabitants literally put onto a bus and driven to Jordan. Some decedents, who were then forced to call refugee camps in Jordan “home,” attempted to carry on the practice from there. The practice was not passed down to newer generations, however, and was largely lost.
Furthermore, under the weight of industrialization and globalization, manual looms were replaced with industrial looms. Those few weavers left in Gaza today face exceptionally difficult circumstances as they live in what can only be called an open-air prison, under siege for over a decade. Those weavers face difficulty in importing threads and in exporting products across an Israeli military checkpoint which does not even allow medical supplies across.
The team at Nöl Collective fell deeply in love with the loom because signifies a part of our identity lost to history. It also signifies the intimate connection between Palestinians and their land, as they use their livestock, plants, insects, and sea water to create beauty. The loom was and is a vehicle for this collective creative effort. And just as a loom brings threads together to create one beautiful piece, we also dedicate ourselves to bringing people together for something greater.
We hope that this brief overview will bring the term (نول) into your vocabulary and its history into your conversations. Do not mistake this instrument as a relic of the past, simply something upon which to create fabrics or rugs—but rather use this as a lens to begin exploring the intricate intersections of femininity, labor, earth, art, colonization, industrialization, displacement, and persistence.
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