There was a time in the 19th and 20th centuries when stories of family relations, birth, death and marriage were woven into traditional costumes – each with a different style, color and pattern. Widad Kawar was key in keeping those stories alive as she has become a patron of the preservation of Arabic dresses in the Arab world and beyond.
Widad Kawar was born in the Nablus area of the West Bank. She received her education in Ramallah Qauaker school. In the 1940s, not only was Widad exposed to Palestinian embroidery in the villages, but also learnt about the intricate social relations among women. Later, Widad married Kamel Kawar and settled in Amman, Jordan, where she continued her collection. In 2015, Widad opened Tiraz Center in Amman, a non-profit organization that is home to the world’s largest collection of Arab traditional dress.
Describe the impact your childhood and education had on you growing up?
My childhood and education had a lot of impact on me because of the school I was in. I was in an American Ramallah Quaker school that cared a lot for anything to do with handwork. The Principal of the school, Mrs. Jones, even collected the patterns that were used in Ramallah at that time – I still have her pamphlet. Later on, when I was living in Bethlehem, I noticed that wherever I went, someone was always embroidering. So, embroidery was very popular in the two places I lived in—Bethlehem on one side, where they did couching stitch and Ramallah where they did cross-stitch.
How difficult was it to lead this large initiative without having institutional support?
It is very difficult to go on in any subject without being supported by a foundation or organization and sometimes it could be easy to lose interest. However, because the interest to do with anything related to Arab culture was growing at the time, my interest never stopped.
“The larger subject of Arab heritage should be taught in schools because it gives the students a nice feeling of belonging.”
Did you get help from people you have met throughout your journey of collecting costumes?
Anybody who came from outside Palestine that was interested in embroidery or heritage, whether that be students, journalists, or researchers, would contact me to see the pieces that I have collected. My interactions with these people affected me because I learnt a lot about conducting thorough research and creating a stronger collection.
How did you start your collection?
I became interested in embroidery in Bethlehem. There used to be a market every Saturday for all women around the city who would gather on the steps and sell their pieces. In the beginning, the women were not selling complete costumes, but after asking them to, they gave me a few old dresses that are now very precious to me since I consider them to be the background of embroidery. In Ramallah, I was also given two very old costumes by a relative – one dates back to the 1800s. Since I started gathering a few costumes, I wanted to include more. Even though it was challenging because few were for sale at the time.
When did you start your collection?
Many years ago, I started in 1948. In the beginning, I only collected until 1950, until the war, because many of the women became refugees which impacted the style of their embroidery. It was no longer a certain stitch that was associated with the village they were from, but now their patterns were mixed up because of the diversity of people in the refugee camps. But after critics of my exhibition in Germany were curious about what happened after 1950, I began collecting the next 50 years. I saw the change— the change of their embroidery.
How much power does your collection of dresses and jewelry have in preserving the culture Arab women?
I think it is very important because my collection includes a good variety in relation to village and time. I attempted to look for traditional costumes I found to be special even when it would require me to take a long journey to find. I was passionately involved in completing this collection. My collection also covers most of “Bilad il Sham” (Levant Area), because once I moved to Jordan, I continued collecting costumes, then included embroidered costumes from Syria and Lebanon. This went on, until I felt that I created a foundation of a very good Arab collection of “Bilad il Sham”. That is why it is important for preserving Arab heritage.
What advice do you have for the younger generations in how they can help preserve culture and heritage for years to come?
First, I would like it to be given as a course in schools. It used to be more valued in schools, but they have taken it out of the curriculum. It must be given, whether it is Palestinian heritage, Jordanian heritage or Arab heritage. The larger subject of Arab heritage should be taught because it gives the students a nice feeling of belonging. Second, women organizations should give a special attention to embroidery and handwork or else they will die out. I have also realized through experience, that workshops are very helpful and successful. There is a foreign NGO that asked a few of us, ladies, to conduct a workshop in Zaatari camp in Jordan for Syrian women. It made them so happy.
FOR DIRECT DONATIONS TO TIRAZ
Account Name: Jamayet Markaz Al Thawb Al Arabi
Bank Name: Arab Bank PLC
IBAN: JO21 ARAB 1180 0000 0011 8283 0375 00
Swift Code: ARABJOAX118