Since Jordan gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1946, Jordanians’ national identity has overlapped with Palestinians’. Jordan used to control the West Bank, which will likely compose the bulk of any future Palestinian sovereign state. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) has also counted two million Palestinians in Jordan. With important exceptions, these Palestinians — many of them the descendants of refugees from the 1948 Arab-Israeli War — hold Jordanian citizenship as well.
Tiraz Center, often known simply as Tiraz, is a community organization based in the Jordanian capital of Amman and seeks to explore another aspect of Jordanians’ and Palestinians’ shared history: common aspects of their cultural identity that go back centuries. Tiraz, which also goes by the names “Arab Dress Center Society in Jordan” and “Widad Kawar Home for Arab Dress,” describes itself as “dedicated to promote and preserve the disappearing Arab Textile Heritage.”
The center’s website notes that, in the centuries before European great powers divided the territories of the Ottoman Empire among themselves in the aftermath of World War I, the art of embroidery, “a story of tribes and memory,” bound together communities in the lands of what became Jordan and Palestine — “from Nablus to Bethlehem, Ramallah to the West Bank, from Madaba to the Jordan Valley.” Scholars have studied the growth of the textile industry in the region to as far back as the ninth century BC, an era that likely coincides with the Hebrew Bible.
According to Tiraz, Arab textiles played a role in “cultural and family affiliation, birth, marriage and death, as well as social structure” throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. However, the cultural center argues that the creation of Israel, the Arab-Israeli Wars, and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians — the Nakba — redefined embroidery’s significance for the region. Jordanians and Palestinians started looking at the art through a new lens.
“After the 1948 and 1967 wars, this form of embroidery became a national symbol for Palestinians in particular,” says Tiraz’s website, painting the art as a way for Palestinians to continue to celebrate the heritage connecting them to their Arab neighbors, even as Palestinian refugees spread across the Arab world. “Relegated to refugee camps and scattered across the corners of the Middle East, these imaginative patterns woven into fabric began to evoke, like the orange trees of Jaffa or the village life of Nablus, a beauty lost through war.”
Embroidery was a way for Palestinians to continue to celebrate the heritage.
Tied to Palestine but based in Jordan like so many Palestinians themselves, Tiraz offers an opportunity for Palestinians, Jordanians, and foreigners alike to learn more about embroidery’s little-known place in the region’s cultural and national identity. The cultural center, a project decades in the making, aims to go well beyond the traditional museum’s goal of “preserving the past,” instead “renewing it, for many generations to come.”
Tiraz began as the private initiative of Widad Kawar, an embroidery collector from the West Bank city of Tulkarm. As Kawar came of age in the 1940s, she spent time living in the neighboring cities of Bethlehem and Ramallah, as well as the village of Aboud, where she gained an appreciation for embroidery’s contribution to the Palestinian tradition. After a family member gifted her with a 19th-century thawb, a garment worn in much of the Arab world, Kawar had the inspiration to begin curating a full-scale collection.
When Kawar married her husband, who lived in Amman, she relocated her expanding collection to Jordan, where she also worked with UNRWA and YMCA and wrote about embroidery.
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Today, Tiraz says its holdings comprise “more than 2000 pieces of wedding garments for women and men, everyday wear, children’s garments, head veils and dresses for women and men, as well as jewellery and amulets, home utensils and religious robes.”
Today, Tiraz says its holdings comprise “more than 2000 pieces.”
In the spirit of Tiraz’s focus on outreach as well as preservation, the community organization is working to court supporters in Jordan and further afield. Tiraz has held exhibitions not only in Amman but also in Bahrain, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), eight European countries, and even Japan and Singapore. The group has also collaborated with Gender Museum Denmark and cultivated a number of local sponsors, such as Capital Bank of Jordan, GAC Jordan, and the A.M. Qattan Foundation, a Palestinian nonprofit.
Tiraz’s effort to engage with stakeholders coincides with Western cultural organizations’ growing interest in Arab textiles. In 2016, the Metropolitan Museum of Art launched the exhibition “Transformed: Medieval Syrian and Iranian Art in the Early 20th Century.” A year later, Fahmida Suleman, a curator for the British Museum, published the book “Textiles of the Middle East and Central Asia: The Fabric of Life,” which discusses Jordanian and Palestinian textiles.
As scholarship advances, academics are trying to correct earlier misconceptions about Arab textiles. Suleman, for example, observed in a 2018 interview with Arab Weekly that, in the 20th century, British missionaries assumed that “the village dress in Palestine had not changed since the time of Jesus.” Sylvia Houghteling, an expert on Islamic art, also wrote in a 2016 article for the Met that, “with such high valuations for these textiles and the lack of knowledge about the cloth of this early period, the situation was ripe for exploitation and forgeries immediately followed.”
Tiraz has an opportunity to become a critical ally for academics as they battle misinformation about Arab textiles.
Steeped in the cultural heritage of Jordan and Palestine, Tiraz has an opportunity to become a critical ally for academics like Houghteling and Suleman as they battle misinformation about Arab textiles. The cultural center might also serve as a key voice in the push to reclaim artifacts, bringing them back to their original Arab homes. According to Houghteling, many textiles taken from the Middle East in the 20th century now sit in Western museums.
Tiraz failed to respond to Inside Arabia’s repeated requests for comment, leaving its position on these issues a bit of a mystery. Nonetheless, the community organization’s significant cachet overseas gives it an opportunity to reshape debates about textiles in the Arab and Western worlds. Kawar, Tiraz’s founder, has received awards from the governments of Jordan, the UAE, and the Netherlands for her work. In mid-April, the cultural center even organized a Ramadan tour of its collection for Eva Högl, the parliamentary commissioner for the German military.
However Tiraz chooses to deploy its influence in the years to come, the community organization will continue to remind the world of how textiles bind Jordan to Palestine.
“The 50 years of work, care, and investment that Widad Kawar and her family have put into this collection has helped save Palestinian, Jordanian, and other Arab heritage from the threat of extinction,” reads a note on Tiraz’s website. “Now, it is up to all of us to keep this heritage alive, not only as a source of beauty and cultural identity, but as the basis of sustainable livelihoods for current and future generations of artisans.”