What if one of the most important libraries in the Middle East is not a library at all, but a collection of dresses stored in the house of a single woman? What if it is not books, but wedding dresses and century- old robes, sewn in a dizzying array of colors and with delicately embroidered sleeves and chest pieces, that contain the most complete stories of the world of cities and villages in pre-1948 Palestine that have now all but disappeared?

The chest piece of a dress with couching of Bethlehem, from the Tiraz collection of Widad Kawar

When I set out to find Widad Kawar, the owner of what is thought to be one of the largest existing collections of Palestinian costumes in the world, it was because I suspected that this is the case—that Palestinian dresses contain secrets not only about the women who embroidered them, but about the entire chain of relations that existed in the Middle East before 1948 between fabric merchants and dyers, weavers and silk producers, traders and embroiders, and brides on their wedding days. Though a few women worked on a single dress, an entire region made it possible.

I was particularly intrigued by a story Kawar recounted in her book, Threads of Identity, when she told of a Palestinian refugee named Halimeh who had approached her in Jordan to sell her embroidered dress after the 1967 war, known as the Naksa by Palestinians. By that point Halimeh was twice displaced—once in 1948 and a second time in 1967— and reduced to poverty, with no other choice but to part with her beloved thob. She told Kawar: “I want to sell you my dress because I know you will keep it. If I sell it to a shop, they will cut it into pieces. I want mine to be preserved.”

I was curious. Why had Halimeh been so desperate to keep her dress from being cut into pieces? What secrets lay hidden not only in the embroidery of Palestinian traditional dresses, but in the way the different pieces of the dress are stitched together: the fabric, the threads, the embroidery, the patterns, all sewn together into a whole? What if the dress was not a dress at all, but was also a story, a map?

Bethlehem stitching, the Tiraz collection of Widad Kawar

Bethlehem, Ramallah, Aboud: A Journey Stitched in Destiny

I met Kawar in her home in Amman last year, a space decorated with mother-of-pearl Syrian furniture and embroidered tablecloths, located just behind the Tiraz Museum, the new space created to house pieces from her collection of Palestinian and Jordanian dresses and jewelry. Though I had given scant notice of my arrival, she welcomed me eagerly, anxious to ask about my Palestinian students and to hear about Bethlehem, her childhood hometown. The only details that betrayed her age is her long, personal knowledge of Palestinian embroidery culture—one that stretches all the way back to its pinnacle in the British mandate Bethlehem of her childhood, when the city was a famous embroidery center.

When I asked her what inspired her to begin collecting dresses more than sixty years ago, a decision she made when she was only a teenager, even she finds it hard to find the answer. It was almost out of instinct. “There were things around,” she explained to me. “There were women, politics, people who I met. Things around.”

Looking back, it is easy enough to feel that everything in Kawar’s life was leading her to collect Palestinian dresses. Born in the 1930’s in Tulkarem, she was raised in Bethlehem, where she grew up watching the local women embroidering in their homes. During this time, Bethlehem women were famous for their couching technique, and their chest pieces, sleeves, jackets and other embroidery became prized for the wedding dresses of women throughout Palestine. Kawar would watch on market day as women from the Jerusalem villages descended on her city to buy threads and fabrics, or to order embroidered pieces. She vividly remembers their colorful gatherings: she could have no way of knowing that these villages, famous for their dresses, would soon be depopulated in 1948.

Bethlehem women at home, in traditional costume. Photo dated between 1898 and 1914. American Colony Photo dept, collection of the Library of Congress.

Kawar attended school in Ramallah, another well-known embroidery center, where she became familiar with an entirely different embroidery technique: the red cross-stitch on a linen background for which the city is renowned.

A woman wears the traditional Ramallah embroidery, 1939. From the G. Eric and Edith Matson collection, The Library of Congress

But it was her summers in her ancestral village of Aboud, an ancient Christian village in the northern West Bank that were perhaps most important of all. There she became familiar with village culture and the women who sewed their stories into their dresses, particularly for their wedding days, and she began slowly and tentatively collecting her first pieces. These three diverse experiences—Bethlehem, Ramallah, and Aboud—all prepared her for the diversity of Palestinian embroidery, where each of hundreds of Palestinian villages developed their own unique patterns, and where it was possible to recognize a woman’s hometown based solely on what she was wearing. But soon, this entire culture would be upended.

Wadiah Safadi from Aboud shows off her embroidery of St. George

In 1948, the Palestinian Nakba sent hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from historic Palestine into exile, completely upending Kawar’s world. The villagers who had come to Bethlehem on market day in their colorful clothes were no longer there. The women of al-Maliha, Lifta, and ‘Ayn Karim were now spread out in refugee camps across the region. Kawar felt that something needed to be done to preserve their memory. “Each item calls to mind an individual or a place: a wife, a mother, a daughter, a family, a house, a village, a town, a field, a market,” she wrote in Threads of Desire. The thob, or Palestinian dress, was no longer simply a costume, but proof of how rich and diverse Palestinian society was before its people were uprooted.

It was after the Nakba that Kawar really started to collect, more out of a feeling of intuition than a real understanding of what she was doing. “I wasn’t even in university then,” she explained to me. “I was just in high school and then right out of high school. We were well acquainted with village life and we appreciated the heritage, and so it wasn’t easy to see these people move to refugee camps. I didn’t understand it then as much as I understood it later—that it was an entire life uprooted. And yet I understood a little of it—not much, according to my age, but a little. So I loved embroidery, and I wanted to keep something from this heritage. I took not even pieces, but fragments. But it grew and it grew.”

Kawar attended university in Beirut, where she was met Phyllis Sutton, an English teacher who was also a pioneer in collecting and studying Palestinian embroidery, and who formed a circle to teach embroidery to Jordanian and Palestinian students. Momentum was building. In the early 1950’s, Kawar married and settled in Jordan. Her husband’s family, Damascenes who had settled in Nazareth, added the final missing piece of the puzzle—an appreciation for the Syrian textile culture that was an essential element of Palestinian dresses. Soon she was learning about silk textiles from Aleppo and Damascus.

A Palestinian men’s qumbaz, made from the ghabbani fabric of Syria. From the collection of Widad Kawar.

In the meantime, thousands of refugees had been displaced from their villages and were filling up refugee camps throughout the region, especially in Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. Spurred by intuition, she knew that an entire world of heritage was disappearing, and she would need to act quickly if she was going to save it.

The Widad Kawar Collection

Today, the Widad Kawar collection is thought to be one of the largest collections of Palestinian dresses in the world, a result of decades of collecting dresses from the length and breadth of historical Palestine. In as many cases as possible, Kawar insisted on buying dresses directly from the women themselves, taking the opportunity to interview them about the historical background of every piece. Though in the beginning she collected only pieces she liked, after the war of 1967—when the scale of the threat to Palestinian heritage became fully apparent—she began to collect complete costumes from every region of historical Palestine. She recognized that the pieces were not only stories: they were personal testimonies.

“There was so much identity in a dress for a woman—especially since these dresses were made for their weddings,” she told me. “Each dress has many, many memories, and the woman would have loved to pass her dresses on to her daughter. And she wanted to preserve her heritage—this is important to understand.”

Folded dresses showing couching stitching from Bethlehem. The private collection of Widad Kawar.

For Kawar, the proof that Palestinian dresses were vehicles through which women passed on their heritage was evident in the fact that the patterns remained consistent in villages over very long periods of time. “I noticed it among them all,” she explained to me, “otherwise they would have changed their dresses a lot over time. But the change in dresses was so slow, very slow.” She was also struck by the extent to which women were reluctant to part with their dresses, even in very challenging circumstances. “In most cases, the women held onto their dresses as long as they could, selling them only because of extreme duress,” she said. “They were attached to their dresses, and what proves it is that in 1948, during the war, they didn’t sell their dresses. It took them a year or two years, until they became very, very poor, to finally sell.”

For Kawar, Palestinian dresses tell the story of family and community. When I asked her why Halimeh had not wanted her dress to be torn apart, she explained that a dress was not only about the embroidery, but about the connections that were formed in the fashioning of it. A girl would begin to learn to sew when she was as young as seven years old. Slowly as she grew older, she would embroider the individual pieces for her bridal trousseau. But when the engagement came, the women of the family—sisters and aunts—were obligated to come together to help sew the pieces together. The dress was a work of community.

And if sewing was the reflection of community, then the dress itself was even more so: made possible by a complex network of production and trade that extended the length and breadth of the Middle East. Silk for the silk threads was produced in Lebanon and Syria. Fabric such as the famous ghabbani came from Syria, linen and cotton came from Egypt, some cotton from Palestine. Pattern stamping was done in Syria in cities like Aleppo, Damascus and Hama. Dyes came from roots, plants, and fruit peels from throughout the region. Specialized pieces of embroidery could be bought in embroidery centers like Bethlehem. “They did not need to get a thread from outside,” Kawar marvels. “Between Egypt, and Lebanon, and balad al-sham, and Jordan—it was a beautiful world.”

Winding and weighing silk in a silk store in Syria, 1914. The Library of Congress Collection.

It was in this beautiful world that Palestinian dresses took on their unique character. Woman from a Palestinian village might make use of a special fabric imported all the way from Syria, embroidering it with colored silk threads imported from Lebanon, but with stitch patterns unique to their own village. Patterns reflected their own world: Flowers and crops like cauliflower, birds and keys. “There is even a pattern in embroidery called The Road to Egypt,” Kawar says. “There are names of flowers—whether wildflowers or flowers that they plant. And then trees, trees, trees! There are many trees.”

“The Road to Egypt,” a traditional pattern of embroidery

I asked her what dress could be considered a map, and she gave me the example of a dress from Lifta, a prosperous village on the outskirts of Jerusalem that was famous for its dresses before it was depopulated in 1948. If she met a woman who sewed a dress in Lifta in the 1930s, she would be full of questions about the dress. “It [the dress] would teach me something about the economic situation of Lifta between 1925-1948— about the vanity of the women and about where they shopped,” she said. “About their connection with the cities around— because they must have bought fabric and the threads from somewhere. About the habits of their weddings. Where did they embroider their dress? Who embroidered it? What was the fabric? Where was the fabric made? What was the procedure of the wedding week? When did they wear the dress? Was it the first day of the wedding? The second day? Third day? And then the accessories that were used at that time—I’m speaking about the twenties and thirties. I would learn from the accessories that were used with the dress at that period like the belt, the headcap and the head veil. And the shoes. I would also go as far as asking about the jewelry that that bride that I’m talking to used. Where did she buy it from? What jeweler? If it was in Jerusalem we would have to ask: where in Jerusalem? What was the name of the jeweler? With the accessories I forgot to mention jackets…”

The ruins of Lifta, a depopulated village on the edge of Jerusalem once famous for its dresses. Photo by Claire Kouatli

In addition to her many authoritative books on Palestinian embroidery, in 2014, Kawar opened Tiraz: The Widad Kawar Home for Arab Dress in Amman, a museum that exhibits rotating selections of her dress collections from historical Palestine, Jordan, and the larger Arab world. It assures that this most valuable library will be available to future scholars, as well as to Palestinians hoping to connect with their heritage. In addition, Tiraz holds regular workshops to teach a new generation about ancient arts such as embroidery, dying, and weaving.

A workshop on traditional indigo dying from the Ghor al-Safi region at the Tiraz Center.

In the meantime, embroidery has managed to remain a vital part of Palestinian culture. Young Palestinian designers are continuing to incorporate it into their work: the well-known designer Rami Kashou recently added hand-stitched Palestinian embroidery to a line of ball gowns, and brands such as Taita Leila are modernizing Palestinian embroidery by adding it to shirts cut in the latest fashions.It remains alive in Palestinian diaspora communities around the globe, with women’s cooperatives in refugee camps in Lebanon and Jordan producing items for sale.

Despite all of the upheavals in Palestinian society, Kawar remains confident that Palestinian embroidery, and the stories it carries, will survive. “As long as it is being modernized and young people wear it,” she said, “it will not disappear.”

A collection of hanging dresses show off the diversity of textiles and embroidery in Palestinian dresses.