Seamstress is a multimedia documentary song-cycle based on oral history interviews I conducted with Palestinian women from different generations and social sectors in occupied Palestine (The West Bank and Gaza) from the summer of 2012 through the winter of 2017. Blending audio interviews, photography, raw and archival footage with live chamber orchestra and dance performances, Seamstress aims to create a moving and powerful portrait of love, strength, and resistance in the face of injustice and misinformation. The women interviewed include my aunt, who lives in Ramallah, a seamstress named Shahrat who fled from Jaffa to Nablus pre-Nakba, former students from the Deir Ghassaneh music center, and current artistic collaborators and colleagues, including Palestinian multi-instrumentalist and songwriter Huda Asfour. Song texts are adapted from the interviews, weaving together their different voices, perspectives and experiences in a way that challenges current existing media stereotypes of Palestinian culture and womanhood, providing a global context for Palestinian women’s narratives by focusing on shared universal themes of memory, identity, exile, displacement, femininity and love. The oral histories draw unifying connections between Palestinian women’s individual and collective memories in response to an undermining geographical separation across the West Bank, Israel, Gaza and the Diaspora.
To catch the next screening of the film, check out the 6th Ann Arbor Palestine Film Festival website!
I sat drinking tea and coffee with my aunt Sania in Ramallah. She was fond of telling stories, and I recorded her often as we sat huddled beneath the blankets, safe from the clashes and protests nearby at Qalandia checkpoint.
On this particular evening Sania told me a story about her first love. Years later in my apartment in Ann Arbor, I stumbled upon the recording and was inspired to tell her story through song. I listened to the recording over and over again, and decided I would go back to collect more information from her about what happened. I even went in search of the people she mentioned in her stories, people she hadn’t seen or heard from in decades, including the woman who used to sew her dresses for her when she was a young girl in Jenin, a seamstress named Shahrat.
I convinced myself I had to score a musical portrait about the mystery seamstress. I had it all laid out in my mind: I would find Shahrat, interview her, photograph her, maybe even commission her to design a dress for my aunts again, introduce them all to each other, and organize a great reunion.
“Is Shahrat still alive?” I asked the many different women of my family.
“No, of course not! She must be dead by now!” They’d respond.
I called my aunt Itaf in Jenin to see if she remembered any details about Shahrat.
“The last I heard, she had sewn a coat for Umm Tawfiq Jarrar’s daughter!”
So I hopped on a yellow caravel service van to Jenin, where my aunt and I went in search of Umm Tawfiq’s number.
We called her. She had the number for Shahrat the Seamstress ‘in a drawer somewhere.’ She’d have to look for it. In the morning she called us back.
“I have the number here, it was in my daughter’s wedding dress.”
I called it and the seamstress answered. With just 24 hours left in Palestine, I hugged my aunt Itaf goodbye and journeyed to Nablus to meet the fabled Shahrat. The service driver dropped me off on the main street and told me Shahrat lived near the bakery and gas station. I asked the young boy in the bakery if he knew where Shahrat lived, and he directed me towards an elderly man asleep in a chair outside an auto repair shop next to the gas station. I woke him up, and he directed me to knock on the green door down the street, and surely Shahrat would answer. The problem with this is that every door in Nablus is the same, faded sea green. Eventually I was able to borrow the man’s phone and call Shahrat, who directed me to walk into the middle of the street and look up towards a set of balconies, where she was waving down at me in a flowery nightgown and thick-rimmed glasses. I crossed the street to climb a set of stairs leading up to her apartment.
A short woman with brown hair and a sour-apple green combed headband and tortoiseshell glasses opened it. Here she was before me, the woman who designed all the beautiful dresses my eyes lingered over in old family photographs. Her dimples shone through the wrinkles of age like a lone ripe fig amidst my grandfather’s trees. She invited me into her home for a lunch of fish and told me the history of each and every family in Nablus, how she had fled Jaffa during the Nakba in 1948, how she had provided for her entire family through her sewing business, how she had lived a long life because no man had ever married her to bring her down with child rearing and marital duties. She even remembered the details of my grandmother, her measurements, her attitude. It took me by surprise. In all my excitement, I’d forgotten that here was a woman who knew the most intimate details of my grandmother, whom I’d never known.
I felt this brought me closer to her, somehow.
Shahrat didn’t like me recording her, and she certainly didn’t want me to take pictures of her. “I remember everything here,” she spoke softly while gracing her forehead with the tip of her finger. She had sewn her last item the previous fall and was no longer working. After 53 years, sick and unable to lift and work with fabrics any longer, she had finally retired.
I had gone in search of Shahrat with the aim of telling her story, hoping she would be the missing link I was searching for. What I found instead was that I, like Shahrat, had been sewing the different threads and fabrics together of so many different voices in my attempt to understand my own history and the history of the women I lived, worked and created with so closely. Whose story was I telling here? Who belongs to the voice and whom does the voice belong to? How much of our stories are shaped by what others have told us, and how much are shaped by our lived experiences? At what point do the stories, the voices of our ancestors, become our own, and at what point do the stories, the voices of our colleagues and contemporaries, become woven into the shared fabric of our histories? How can contemporary classical performance help shape our understanding of marginalized communities and function in reclaiming a space for their voices, and how can it re-shape our understanding of the theories and histories we have encountered about ethnic conflicts and their subjects? How does performance as resistance in marginalized communities extend beyond the boundaries of politics and nation-states?
It is my pleasure to share with you my archive of family and community histories as I gather them here in the form of intimate conversations, song, story, film, photography and musical settings.