Work and Labor: Palestinian Embroidery in Exile

By Toufoul Abou-Hodeib
Submitted to Session P4409 (Palestine: Capital and Material Culture, 2016 Annual Meeting
Lebanon; Palestine;
19th-21st Centuries; Cultural Studies; Folklore/Folklife; Nationalism;
LCD Projector without Audio;
In political posters and in children’s books Palestinian female costumes symbolize nationalism defined “from below” and the persistence of Palestinian identity despite adversity. Traditionally embroidered by rural women, these costumes have a near-codified status reflecting a variety of regional styles. Over the past four decades, such embroidery has broken away from the idyllic photographs of peasant women, becoming more common on everyday items such as phonebooks, eyeglass cases, cushions, table runners, and coasters. This paper investigates the journey of embroidery from idealized images of Palestinian women to items characteristic of settings such as middle-class and upper-class homes. The paper looks at the various institutions that sponsored embroidery projects in Lebanon. Based on oral interviews and published cultural material, it focuses on the juncture between the War of 1967 and the expulsion of the PLO from Lebanon in 1982 as key in this transformation.

Embroidery became part of two definitions of “work” in Lebanon after 1967: female work and Palestinian work. The first was forwarded by benevolent societies run by middle- and upper-class women aiming at providing work for women in the refugee camps of Lebanon. The second was forwarded as part of the PLO’s wider project of Palestinian labor, which sought to provide Palestinians with work in a restrictive Lebanese market. Studies on embroidery usually highlight its significance as Palestinian heritage and its symbolism in the construction of national identity. In addition, this paper argues, embroidery projects helped reconstitute Palestinian society in exile through definitions of work that involved the various socioeconomic classes partaking of such projects: upper-class philanthropists, middle-class revolutionaries and activists, and destitute refugees. At the same time, embroidery projects put forth incongruous assumptions about work and turned refugees of primarily peasant background into producers of items meant for consumption by the middle and upper classes living outside the refugee camps. By looking at how material culture and class constitute each other, the paper discusses how the commodification of embroidery papered over class tensions within Palestinian society in Lebanon and highlights the importance of relations of production and consumption to understanding the formation of Palestinian identity on the regional level.