Footnote, heirloom, architecture: the rug in Palestine

Commissioned by MacGuffin Magazine for their issue on The Rug, 2021

The humble rug occupies something of a footnote in histories of Palestinian cultural production, although weaving is one of the planet’s most ancient technologies, and Palestine among its most ancient places. Perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising. The international market for Middle Eastern rugs is obsessed with nebulous notions of authenticity and age, based largely on the finest examples from Ottoman Turkey, Afghanistan and Iran. The Palestinian rug is a quieter thing. Woven, not knotted, in a limited palette, it was always a craft of the margins.

Until 1948, wool-weaving for rugs was practiced in the villages around Hebron and Gaza, and among Bedouin communities from the Galilee to the Naqab. The systematic physical and economic violence of the Israeli occupation has slowly devastated Palestinian crafts since, as well as the human communities in which they were embedded. These are places and people on Palestine’s geographical edges, as well as its cultural fringe, which may be why rug-weaving has been little addressed in scholarship. But margins can be compelling spaces for the articulation of alternative narratives, and the Palestinian rug has left its traces in image, text and textile.

The weaving of rugs in Palestine was described in the Bible, and a trend among nineteenth century travellers to Palestine was the visiting of sites mentioned in the Old Testament. Here they hoped to find ‘native’ people untroubled by modernity, existing as they might have in ancient times—the living projection of the Western biblical imagination. An engraving in The Holy Land and the Bible. A book of Scripture illustrations gathered in Palestine, etc, written by John Cunningham Geikie, published in 1890, pictures two women weaving on the flat roof of a house. They are each working at a loom, with the rest of the village visible around them: simple white buildings with shaded entryways, hills rolling gently in from the background, studded with birds and palms (fig. 1). Geikie recalls witnessing this scene in the village of Beit Jibrin, between Gaza and Hebron. He describes the women as “busy at the most primitive looms, with their fingers for shuttles, producing work at once firm and thick in its substance. […] Outside the town, long strips of ground beside the paths were used by the yarn-makers and dyers in preparing the threads before handing them to the dusky weavers. There were a good many flocks and herds, and the shepherds were all armed, with both guns and axes, to protect their charge from the wolves.”[1] In the space of a short walk, Geikie is witness to the weaving process from sheep to loom, noting with aloof paternalism the labourious nature of the practice, and the intimate way it was embedded in village life.

As the engraving suggests, wool-weaving was women’s work, and though a seasonal practice, weaving occupied an important position in household and community life. Older women would teach the craft to their daughters and granddaughters, including the designs and patterns common to local conventions. Rug-making was a complement to embroidery, a female craft practiced in almost every corner of Palestine. Women embroidered from girlhood to build a trousseau of dresses and household items to accompany them into married life, and rugs might be bought or woven as wedding gifts to decorate the marital home. Both clothing and carpets mediated this crucial rite of passage, and textiles were intimately entwined in the performance of identity and status.

The colonial biblical imagination also used rugs as an exoticising textile in photographs. In one image from 1914 (fig. 2), three Palestinian women sit close together on a rug. They all wear embroidered costume, the style of which tells us they hail from a village near Bethlehem: rich stitchwork on striped fabric dresses, pointed sleeves peeking beneath cropped jackets, veils draped over tall headdresses. They sit cross-legged, surrounded by the accoutrements of the Oriental—an arguileh smoking pipe, a pot of Arabic coffee, a tray of dainty cups—with one woman paused in the act of pouring. The image is black and white, so we might only guess at the rug’s colour, but it is bold in design: repetitive bands feature interlocking diamonds of different sizes, and a central spine of zigzags. The textiles tell us that the image is tightly staged. The rug looks Bedouin, or perhaps even made in Turkey,[2] so not necessarily one the women had at home, and they are in their very finest dress, not what they would have worn daily. Far from alighting upon this spontaneous, charming scene, a foreign visitor has likely paid the women to put on their most elaborate clothing and pose with props. If the backdrop feels mundane, this is because it didn’t matter—such images were made for cropping (see fig.3). The women and rug would be re-exposed onto a more suitably biblical backdrop of hills and sky, and the image perhaps sold as a postcard. The rug in such an image acts as a kind of exceptional space, upon which the women’s exoticism is inscribed. The rug demarcates the Orientalist zone, the limits of its gaze, separating the women from their lived reality, which is of course more complex and nuanced than the colonial imagination might account for.

In photography studios of this era, however, Palestinian families who could afford a portrait could reclaim determination of their self-image, and the rug was used in subtler ways. In one image (fig. 4), a photographer has been invited to the family home on the occasion of a wedding. The bride and groom, Najla and Mansour Odeh, sit surrounded by their family. Multiple generations are reflected sartorially: the elders wear traditional Palestinian dress, the women in embroidery and men in long robes, while the younger folk sport European suits and ties, with the Ottoman tarboosh. The bride and bridesmaids are in white, hair pinned in 1920s style, testament to the import of Western wedding fashions. The rug underfoot is unassuming but enormous, its presence perhaps symbolic of the village origins of this now well-to-do urban household. While in the previous photograph the rug is reduced to a signifier of the exotic, reinforcing the women as anonymous character types, here the rug plays a quieter role in the portrait of a family in transition. It ties a group of dynamic individuals into the same space. The rug is representative of—perhaps, indeed, a relic from—their common origins, operating as the shared fabric within which the generations and their degrees of modernity exist together.

As the portrait attests, Palestinian rugs are often visually subtle: stripes laid into colour fields, or geometric patterns of squares and diamonds. Village weavings tended to be simpler than more elaborate Bedouin pieces. Palestinian rug designs have been chronically understudied, but several motifs are shared with embroidery practices—the rug in figure 1 has echoes of a Bedouin embroidered dress (fig. 5). The hujub, ‘amulets’ motif, and the qeladeh, ‘necklace’ motif, common in embroidery, are perceptible in weaving. The former was used frequently on Bedouin embroidery, and the latter on dresses from Gaza—stitched onto the chest as a kind of permanent pendant (fig. 6). Such symbols were designed to ward off evil and encourage good fortune, complemented by physical talismans carried on the person (fig. 7). The shared visuals of rug, dress and amulet speak to the agency that clothing and carpet were perceived to have on the body.

These intimate connections between embroidery and weaving, the body and textiles, are central to Bedouin practices more broadly. Indeed, the closer one looks at Bedouin weaving, the more the term ‘rug’ feels inadequate to the task. A Bedouin woman wove the sides, roof and floor of the tents in which she and her family lived, as well as elaborate curtains for creating private space within the tent. She made carpets for sitting to eat and to sleep, bags for harvest and storage, belts for clothing, saddles for camels.[3] Bedouin weavers used local dyes, wool from their sheep and goats and camel, and wove on ground looms (fig. 8), which require four weighted posts hammered into the floor to hold the warp. Women worked together on wide pieces to manoeuvre the weft and beat each successive thread into place. Such looms enabled the scaling up of production, the making of vast swathes of material. The Bedouin weaver was both the architect and builder of her family home (figs. 9 and 10). Her preferences and creativity shaped its patterns and flourishes. She generated its surfaces and contents with her neighbours and daughters. The word ‘rug’ does little justice to the elasticity and potential of weaving in this context, and as a semi-nomadic people, the Bedouin challenge assumptions around origins and identity, reminding us of the limitations of ideas of ‘Palestinian-ness’. Bedouin communities, whether in the Galilee, the Naqab, or the Jordan River, met, traded and intermarried—and did so with Bedouin in Jordan, Egypt, even Iraq.[4] There was a shared language to Bedouin crafts and practices, traditions that transcended notions of the nation.

So much of this nuance has been lost since 1948. The events the Nakba (meaning catastrophe) changed the lives of every Palestinian, and with it the practice of traditional craft. In May 1948 the British dissolved the Mandate government that had controlled Palestine since the end of WWI. Zionist forces seized control of the country and declared the foundation of the State of Israel. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were forcibly displaced from their homes in the process, and many were killed or injured in the battle to keep their land from occupation, and their villages from destruction. Life changed overnight, and with it embroidery and weaving, embedded as they had been in the lives and local economies of rural people. Despite their weight, people carried their looms with them as they fled, if they could, but the industries that supported such crafts were decimated by the poverty and Israeli occupation that followed the Nakba.

Faced with the loss of land and ways of life, the Nakba prompted the urgent project of establishing Palestinian nationhood, in part via the reclamation of heritage. It was embroidery that emerged as the foremost visual symbol in the assertion of Palestinian history and political legitimacy.[5] By the 1970s, embroidery had become ubiquitous on posters circulating in local and international contexts, a shorthand for Palestinian identity and solidarity. The pastoral past depicted in Orientalist photographs was reclaimed and reoriented in the service of Palestinian nationalism—with embroidery replacing the rug as the ‘authentic’ backdrop for traditional heritage (fig. 11).

Rug-making, decimated by the Israeli occupation, and marginalised by the emergence of embroidery as principal heritage product, still persists in pockets. In Gaza it is made mostly by men today, although the economy is stymied by blockade.[6] Among the Bedouin, weaving practice continues under the auspices of NGOs.[7] There has been both erosion and transformation of tradition. But the Palestinian rug, if it ever existed in such terms, should be understood as a varied thing—both object and idea. At times the reflection of Orientalist desire, at others the common fabric of family; always the manifestation of the labour of women. The rug in Palestine is more process than product, a lived and living thing, and—most compellingly, perhaps—an ancient form of female architecture.

[1] John Cunningham Geikie, The Holy Land and the Bible. A book of Scr

ipture illustrations gathered in Palestine, etc
., 1890, p. 274.

[2] Conversation between the author and Khader Musleh, 19.08.2020.

[3] Shelagh Weir, The Bedouin, British Museum: London, 1976.

[4] Conversation between the author and Khader Musleh, 19.08.2020.

[5] See Rachel Dedman, Labour of Love: New Approaches to Palestinian Embroidery, The Palestinian Museum: Ramallah, 2018.

[6] It is hard to know when or how rug-weaving became a predominantly male practice in Gaza. I hazard that it was prompted by the erosion of the local cloth-weaving economy, which was historically male labour in Palestine. After 1948, rug-making shifted from the home to the workshop, onto the male-operated treadle looms once used for linen, cotton and silk. For more on the pressure the Israeli blockade has put on the contemporary rug economy in Gaza see Rasha Abou Jalal, ‘Power cuts, cheap imports fray Gaza's handmade carpet industry’, Al-Monitor, 11 May 2017.

[7] For instance the Lakiya Bedouin Weaving Project, a project of the NGO Sidreh.

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