Birzeit festival immortalises Palestinian heritage

Sunday 24/07/2016
A Palestinian woman dances while holding a tray of henna during a wedding march marking the beginning of Birzeit Heritage Week. (Photo credit: Mohammad Farraj)

Birzeit - As the sun sets over Birzeit, a small town north of Ramallah, hun­dreds of Palestinian families from across the West Bank flock into the histori­cally Christian town to take part in Heritage Week.

Held annually since 2007 by the Rozana Association for the Devel­opment of Architectural Heritage, the festival observes Palestin­ian traditions, customs and historic professions struggling to withstand industrial evolution and the test of time.

The festival began with a huge traditional wedding of four cou­ples, some of whom were already married. Although the weddings were staged for the occasion, the emotions could not have been more genuine.

The brides wore Palestinian dresses, handcrafted, long-sleeved and colourfully embroidered cloth­ing, which traditionally reflected a woman’s economic and marital status and her town or district of origin.

Although less rich in colours and patterns, the bridegrooms wore white shirts, headwear, golden-lined black cloaks known as abaya, and sirwals, cotton trousers baggy from the waist down but tailored tight around the calves or ankles.

A dozen elderly women danced in a circle in front of the couples while carrying copper trays filled with wild flowers planted in home­made henna paste, a dye prepared to stain the brides’ and grooms’ hands.

Some accounts indicate that unique shapes were painted on a bride’s hands the night before the wedding, known as henna night, to avoid bride swaps. The majority de­scribe it as a practice to express joy and bring good luck to the couple.

The women sang traditional songs with lyrics that celebrate the beauty, chastity and good upbring­ing of the bride and the groom’s luck, courage and chivalry.

Hundreds of people followed the wedding procession, known as zaffa, which wound through the streets of Birzeit. Although such processions are a common part of Palestinian weddings, other as­pects, including the clothing, music and transport have been slowly re­placed by less traditional ones.

Aside from the festival’s signifi­cance as a window to the past, it also offered a chance for home-run businesses to display their prod­ucts, many of which have been sidelined by mass production.

In a tent between the town’s olive groves, Umm Raed kicked off worn-out leather slippers and kneeled in her black abaya over a primitive wool-weaving machine.

With strength unexpected from a small, aged body, she worked her fingers through the threads to weave a red and black carpet. Visi­tors, including foreigners, watched in fascination as she created an item usually seen only on television pro­grammes depicting Bedouin life.

For the woman with piercing green eyes that contrast with a much darker skin, this is simply her life. Umm Raed said: “I have been weaving wool since I was a very young girl. My mother learned it from her mother and I passed it along to my daughter, who is now in university.”

Umm Raed travelled from Samou’, about 50km from Birzeit, to display her work and teach new Palestinian generations and for­eigners about “the art of weaving wool”.

“An average-sized carpet takes roughly 20 days to complete,” she said. “This festival is a valuable opportunity for me to remind peo­ple to appreciate hand-made wool carpets and to revive our heritage that is struggling against time and Israel’s stealing attempts.”

On the other side of the old city, where dozens of kiosks were set up to allow business owners to show­case their products, Ayat Mardawi and Remah Abbas, two women from Jenin, 47km from Birzeit, sold homemade olive pickles, honey and olive oil.

They said they take part in the festival every year, relying on the word of mouth and personal con­nections to market their products.

While many Palestinian families continue to produce their own ol­ive oil and pickles, a large percent­age relies on less expensive factory products.

“The festival is a chance to meet new customers, dealers and make connections, which might help us expand our businesses,” said Ab­bas.

Other products at the festival in­cluded embroidered clothing, bags, accessories, plants, drinks, furni­ture, pottery, sweets, soap and ce­ramics. Several local, but non-tra­ditional businesses — such as beer, tattoos and piercings — promoted their products and services.

Rozana Association Chairman Raed Saadeh said the festival is an effort to encourage sustainable rural development and local busi­nesses and empower women and youth through existing and obtain­able resources.

“It presents a model of sustain­able rural development, based on available cultural resources, com­petencies and energies of Palestin­ian youth and women,” he said.