Em­broi­dery: Le­banon's cul­tural ta­pes­try

Lebanon Traveler - - CONTENT -

The her­itage of em­broi­dery is an im­por­tant part of Le­banon’s cul­tural ta­pes­try but it’s a tra­di­tion in fast decline. We meet the women of Ar­ti­sanat du Chouf and Ar­ti­sanat Mabrouk who are among the as­so­ci­a­tions pre­serv­ing its place in the fu­ture

The tra­di­tion of em­broi­dery in Le­banon stretches back gen­er­a­tions, from the hand em­broi­dery of moun­tain­ous vil­lages all over Le­banon to the work of nuns in iso­lated con­vents. It’s a fe­male in­her­i­tance passed from gen­er­a­tion to gen­er­a­tion that, de­spite its long his­tory, is at risk of dy­ing out, as a throw­away cul­ture of cheap ma­chine-made im­ports dom­i­nate the mar­ket and few of to­day’s younger gen­er­a­tion learn the time­con­sum­ing art from their fam­ily. Luck­ily a hand­ful of as­so­ci­a­tions are work­ing to keep the tra­di­tion alive, with some fo­cus­ing on hand­made em­broi­dery work and oth­ers us­ing in­tri­cate ma­chine work. With Le­banon be­com­ing the home for dis­placed com­mu­ni­ties in the re­gion, the coun­try’s rich ta­pes­try of cul­tures can be seen in its di­verse em­broi­dery. INAASH, the As­so­ci­a­tion for the Devel­op­ment of Pales­tinian Camps has worked on pre­serv­ing the her­itage of Pales­tinian em­broi­dery and pro­vid­ing work for refugee fam­i­lies in Le­banon since the 1960s and NGOS such as Bas­meh wa Zeitooneh help Syr­ian refugee women to make an in­come through em­broi­dery. In the same way that th­ese NGOS are giv­ing women both fi­nan­cial in­de­pen­dence and sta­bil­ity, many of Le­banon’s old­est em­broi­dery as­so­ci­a­tions started for the same rea­son.

Set in a beau­ti­ful tra­di­tional stone her­itage house in the vil­lage of Baak­line is Ar­ti­sanat du Chouf, which aims to pre­serve the Le­banese her­itage of hand-em­broi­dery and to pro­vide work for lo­cal women. In­side is a trea­sure trove of em­broi­dery pieces from a row of tra­di­tional abayas with in­tri­cate hand-stitched pat­terns that must have taken years of work, to a kitsch hand­stitched “Thank you for not smok­ing” sign along with tow­els, nap­kins, scarves and table­cloths all fea­tur­ing the del­i­cate hand­i­work in vary­ing stitches. A group of seven lo­cal women, the core work­ers of the ar­ti­san, are gath­ered in­side, with a big­ger net­work of women work­ing on em­broi­dery from their homes. Many of th­ese women, taught by their moth­ers and grand­moth­ers, have worked on em­broi­dery since they were kids and a few were young girls when they joined the ar­ti­san, founded in 1959 by Ja­mal Alamed­dine Takied­dine, who re­cently cel­e­brated her hun­dredth birth­day. “Ja­mal’s idea was to cre­ate work for women to make an in­come from their own homes,” says her daugh­ter-in­law and now the ar­ti­san’s direc­tor, May Takied­dine. “It was the first call for the eco­nomic in­de­pen­dence of women. At her time it was a very big step.” She pulls out and un­folds a large wall hang­ing in pur­ples, li­lacs and greys with ex­cep­tional de­tail. “In [the] 1970s Le­banon, Ja­mal had ladies work­ing all the way from the moun­tains to the south. Her work was boom­ing, but now peo­ple are re­luc­tant

to pay in th­ese dif­fi­cult times. This kind of em­broi­dery is a luxury,” says Takied­dine. “Be­fore you would take an em­broi­dered table­cloth for life and care for it. Now the trend is to buy some­thing cheap and only use it once. Ma­chine work from China is re­plac­ing it.”

Af­ter years of work­ing to­gether the women of Ar­ti­sanat du Chouf have be­come like fam­ily – their gath­er­ings are like so­cial meet­ings with women cro­chet­ing and stitch­ing while mak­ing jokes. Nouha Amer is the artist of the cen­ter and sketches or paints out the de­signs be­fore the other women gather and agree on the best se­lec­tions and colors. “I’ve worked here for 34 years. I haven’t been to a school to study it but I re­ally love this work,” Amer says. Each woman has her own spe­cialty which in­cludes tra­di­tional em­broi­dery tech­niques from makkuk – made from one thread with an old bone in­stru­ment – to needle­work and cro­chet and var­i­ous types of em­broi­dery from shadow stitch, a pat­tern worked from be­hind the ma­te­rial, to richelieu, where holes are cut out be­tween stitches. “Ladies who were push­ing this barely ex­ist any­more,” says Si­ham Khodor, an en­tre­pre­neur pas­sion­ate about Baak­line’s rich cul­tural his­tory and sup­porter of the ar­ti­san. “We are push­ing young girls to keep this kind of work. It’s our her­itage.”

It was the first call for the eco­nomic in­de­pen­dence of women

In a large brightly-lit base­ment in the back­streets of Bourj Ham­moud a room­ful of women work at sep­a­rate work­sta­tions with the whir of sewing ma­chines fus­ing with the laugh­ter of chil­dren play­ing above in a school play­ground. Ar­ti­sanat Mabrouk, a not-for-profit ini­tia­tive of St. Vin­cent de Paul, was founded by Mem­ber of Par­lia­ment Gil­berte Zouein Abou-ha­mad in 1986 and is run by a core team of women in­clud­ing Aline Fat­tal, Maude Khayyat, Alice Tamer, Marie Claude Bittar and Brigitte Khairal­lah. “We started dur­ing the [civil] war. The idea was to have women work­ing at home all year round, to al­low them to stay by their chil­dren rather than in a fac­tory,” says Fat­tal. “We de­cided em­broi­dery and sewing was some­thing they al­ready knew how to do and it per­pe­trates the tra­di­tion.” The work­shop though is not only about keep­ing a tra­di­tion of Le­banese em­broi­dery alive, it’s also a so­cial project to give fairly paid work to fam­i­lies in need.

The ar­ti­san started in Fa­nar with women com­ing to­gether one morn­ing a week with their work, which started with knit­ting. “It was a dis­as­ter,” Fat­tal jokes. “We had no idea how to make things at the be­gin­ning.” Since then the ar­ti­san has built up a solid rep­u­ta­tion for their work, which sells in a Down­town Beirut bou­tique, along with cus­tom­ized or­ders.

In­side it’s a hive of ac­tiv­ity; two women fold a huge table­cloth in front of a rain­bow wall of colored threads, a cloud of steam tem­po­rar­ily hides two women press­ing de­signs onto ma­te­rial. A cou­ple of women work on ma­chinework em­broi­dery, and an­other sews the fi­nal se­quins and beads on a del­i­cate jacket. Be­hind each woman’s work­sta­tion is a board with col­or­ful em­broi­dered de­signs of flow­ers, fruits, red-roofed Le­banese houses and an­i­mals, pinned

Ar­ti­sanat du Chouf, pho­tos cour­tesy of Myr­iam Shu­man

Ar­ti­sanat du Chouf

Ar­ti­sanat Mabrouk

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