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.