Reweaving Palestinian tradition

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By Raya Al-Jadir

Untha is a rare Jerusalem-based label which reimagines traditional Palestinian fashions for the 21st century and pays tribute to Palestinian women.


Tuesday 17 November 2015

Untha is a new and upcoming fashion collection by Natalie Tahan that is set to revive traditional Palestinian fashion. Untha in Arabic means “female”, making this particular collection a kind of tribute to all the Palestinian women who for decades have endured the heavy burden of carrying the Palestinian identity under occupation. Untha is almost a celebratory recognition of the talent, resilience, patience and perseverance of every woman that has fought and struggled to succeed and survive in or out of Palestine.

Natalie Tahhan is the fashion designer behind Untha, whose own name is used on a Jerusalem-based luxury womenswear label. The brand, she says, is the first of its kind to bring international fashion expertise to Jerusalem. The concept is to weave traditional Palestinian elements of intricate hand-sewn embroidery and print into contemporary designs, to create exclusive pieces marked by elegance and innovation.

Fashion has always been a private fascination for Tahhan. Even as a child, she filled endless sketchbooks with designs, colour, and anything that she was drawn to. After completing a degree in womenswear from the London College of Fashion, she continued to pursue her passion by collaborating and working with various design companies in the UK and the Middle East.

“I’ve always been inspired by fashion as an individual sense of expression. What we wear on a daily basis communicates our personalities, our interests and even how we feel and I find that immensely interesting,” Tahhan explains. “Coming from a background with a rich cultural history I was definitely inspired by the historical expressionism of 19th-century Palestinian embroidery, as it was a communicative language in itself.”

With the guiding hand of Al Mortaqa Women’s Organisation, and the creation of Untha, Tahhan was able to put into practice her love of art and design. “‘Untha by Natalie Tahhan’ is my latest visual brainchild, and my most significant creation to date, as it is close to home,” she notes. “Having been designed, produced and showcased in Jerusalem, it is the ultimate expression of contemporary Palestinian fashion.”

With funding from the Community Resilience and Development Programme for East Jerusalem (CRDP), Al Mortaqa Women’s Organisation was able to provide Tahhan with a platform to create her line, offering a fully equipped fashion studio and a vibrant team to work with. The end result was Untha’s Spring/Summer 2015 collection which incorporates floral elements into all of the exclusive prints and Palestinian embroidery motifs. Tahhan felt it was important to create something contemporary that celebrated and highlighted the intricate art of Palestinian embroidery and present it in a novel way.

Palestinian hand-sewn embroidery is very close to Tahhan’s heart. “I feel it is a dying art in this day and age. The practice no longer exists on a large scale in our homes and is no longer passed down from mother to child, and so I feel its important to preserve and showcase the beauty of it.” The challenge was in finding the right, skilled artisans to produce the embroidery for the collection.

Palestine, like many other countries in the region, is fighting to keep its identity and maintain national unity which is why throughout the design and production process of the collection, the team behind ‘Untha’ were very adamant on creating something in Jerusalem. The Palestinian Arab community in Jerusalem, now physically separated from the surrounding Wesst Bank by the Israeli occupation, is embattled and often overlooked. As such, there is difficulty in preserving its identity and place within Palestine. “‘Untha’ was an opportunity for us and for Jerusalem to shine through a different light than to what the international community is used to,” Tahhan notes.

Any project or initiative is bound to encounter problems but if it is in Palestine then these obstacles are likely to be doubled.  Palestinians living in the West Bank require permits to enter Jerusalem, which are often difficult to obtain. Tahhan faced some issues with trying to obtain work permits for sewing specialists to come in from the West Bank and work in her Jerusalem studio. This heavily set back the production line and caused problems. “Sometimes the simplest of things are difficult to do in the political environment we live in.  However, my work hasn’t personally affected me negatively as I am always trying to focus on the positive side of things,” she insists. Tahhan strongly believes that “our strength should lie within what we achieve, and I believe that in itself holds a sense of resilience.”

Tahhan has worked widely in Europe and the Middle East, including with Adidas, the English National Ballet, the QASIMI fashion label and HauteMuse magazine. She was also a finalist of Harper’s Bazaar World of Fashion Illustration Competition in 2011, and was selected to redesign a space at Wahm Lounge in the W Hotel – Doha as part of their Cabana Nights Exhibition.

Although she has had showcased her designs in London and Dubai, Tahhan’s latest collection is the closest to her heart: “It was truly a labour of love, and being able to achieve it all here in Jerusalem meant a great deal to me.”

Tahhan is putting the finishing touches to her winter collection which is due to be showcased internationally. Keeping to her house style, the collection involves a lot of print and embroidery, but this time the focus is on different Palestinian design elements inspired by the Ottoman era.

The ambitious designer would love to see the line develop and flourish into an intentional brand, and be recognised for its quality and craftsmanship. “Hopefully, it can encourage other Arab designers to manufacture locally despite the hardships, because ultimately it is for our own benefit,” Tahhan concludes.



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Europe’s invisible “Islamisation”

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By Khaled Diab

The murderous Paris attacks have reignited fears of “Islamisation”. But Islamic civilisation is encoded in Europe’s cultural and intellectual DNA. 

Ziryab is the most unsung cultural, style and musical icon in European history.

Ziryab is the most unsung cultural, style and musical icon in European history.

Monday 12 January 2015

The brutal and tragic murders of 10 people at the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris, two police officers and four customers at a kosher supermarket by masked gunmen has triggered an outpouring of shock and grief, not only in France but around the world.

Large, spontaneous vigils filled the streets of many French cities, while social media was awash with solidarity and condemnation, including the hashtags #JeSuisCharlie and #NotInMyName, which was used by Muslims condemning the attacks.

On Sunday 11 January, this culminated in rallies across France which drew nearly 4 million people from all walks of life who walked shoulder to shoulder in solidarity against extremism.

Eyewitness accounts reveal that the attackers shouted “Allahu Akbar”, and the designer who was forced to let the assailants in says they told her they were with al-Qaeda. According to AFP, the police claim that one of the killers remarked: “We have avenged the prophet.”

Why Muhammad would need anyone to “avenge” him is beyond me. The prophet endured far more mockery, humiliation, insult and rejection during his lifetime without needing or ordering hitmen to defend his honour than that meted out by a group of equal-opportunities French cartoonists who despise and satirise all forms of organised religion.

Despite the massive show of solidarity, the collateral damage to French and European Muslims has already been done, even though one of the fallen police officers was a Muslim and the “hero” who saved a number of customers at the kosher supermarket was also of Muslim background.

Le Pen is mightier than the sword... of Islam.

Le Pen is mightier than the sword… of Islam.

The far-right Front National has already cynically and undignifiedly taken advantage of the tragedy. Declaring that Islamists have “declared war on France”, FN leader Marine Le Pen called for the reintroduction of the death penalty. Claiming that the atrocities were predictable, FN founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, no friend of Charlie himself, engaged in classic fear-mongering: “This attack is probably the beginning of the beginning. It’s an episode in the war that is being waged against us by Islamism.”

Exhibiting shameless self-promotion, Jean-Marie has already launched his daughter’s presidential campaign by tweeting a poster in which he suggests that Le Pen is mightier than the sword… of Islam. The poster features a photo of Marine with the English caption: “Keep calm and vote Le Pen.” Ironically, this slogan is lifted from a anti-fascist British poster published at the outset of World War II.

The ethno-regionalist and xenophobic Bloc Identitaire which advocates “remigration” believes that “no-one can claim to fight against jihadism [and] not question the mass immigration and Islamisation of our country.”

But like Muslims who fantasise about an a-historical caliphate, conservative Europeans who dream of a bygone utopia of a Europe uncontaminated by Islam or immigration, miss the reality that the “Islamisation of the West” occurred centuries ago.

Islamic civilisation is so hardwired into Europe’s cultural, social and intellectual DNA that it would be impossible to expunge its influence. The same applies in the other direction, in light of Christendom’s and the West’s powerful influence on Arab and Islamic society.

In addition to the philosophy, science, literature and art of the Muslim world which profoundly shape the European Renaissance, Islamic culture had some far more unexpected and surprising influences on Western civilisation.

One man in particular, for whom no statues or memorials stand anywhere in Europe and very few Westerners have heard of, is possibly the most unsung cultural, style and musical icon in European history.

In the ninth century, Ziryab, Cordoba’s most sought-after hipster, brought into vogue the idea of seasonal fashions, steering history’s catwalk towards the fashion slavery of the 21st century.

This Sultan of Style also added a fifth pair of strings to the Arab oud, paving the way to the European lute, which would become the modern guitar. He also introduced Europe to the idea of dining etiquette, from table cloths and crystal decanters to the three-course meal.

Fashion, fine food and rhythm are not what Europeans tend to associate with Muslims or Islam today. Instead, they are haunted by images of fundamentalists, not fun-loving eccentrics, and fanatics, not fans of refined culture.

As someone who is well aware of the destructive influence of violent Islamism in the Middle East, I can, at a certain level, sympathise with fears in the West over radicalisation. But Islamic extremism is mostly a threat to Muslim societies, not to Europe, as a minority has never, in history, imposed its will on a majority, except in the form of a military conqueror.

This exaggerated sense of threat can be seen in the enormous hysteria in segments of the media and among some politicians regarding the small trickle of European jihadists who have gone to fight in Syria. Although one gets the impression that Europe has sent forth a veritable Islamic army to the Levant, the real number is around 3,000 from across the continent, including the dead and returned, according to an estimate by Gilles de Kerchove, the EU’s anti-terrorism chief.

While it is important to be vigilant and to find effective ways to deal with the threat posed by returning fighters, society must steer clear of stigmatising Europe’s already marginalised and distrusted Muslim communities.

This is because it is unfair to blame an entire group for the behaviour of a tiny minority and it is also counterproductive, as marginalisation is a significant, but not the only, factor in radicalisation.

In addition, the demonisation of minorities is what nurtures the truly threatening radicals in Europe’s midst: the far-right and neo-Nazis. Since the end of World War II, Western Europe has worked consciously to build and celebrate diversity. Despite its weaknesses and failings, Europe needs to cherish, build and strengthen its multicultural experiment.


Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is an updated version of an article which first appeared on Al Jazeera on 8 January 2015.

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