The Ramallah quilt project

See the Ramallah galleries for images from the Ramallah Quilt Project.

The Ramallah Quilt Project was inspired by Tania Nasser, sponsored and run by the Khalil Sakakini Cultural Centre, and involved three major groups in Palestine. These were In'Ash El Usra, the YWCA and The Womens' Training Centre, run by UNRWA and all provided twelve students for their groups.

I stayed in the hostel at the In'Ash El Usra. My biggest fear about this trip had been that the hostel I was to stay in would have communal showering facilities for the girls, like a men's locker room! I was therefore relieved to find I had my own room at the In'ash El Usra Hostel and Woman's College- simple but very serviceable. It was narrow and very basic. So too was the bed - a narrow single with a firm but adequate mattress.

I had my own tiny bathroom with a western toilet which was totally unexpected and a great relief. The shower was a small square of white plastic floor with a long metal wrapped hose and shower head on the end. If you put it down while showering, it twisted to push water in whatever is the worst possible direction. I learnt to leave everything outside and to put shampoo into my hair before turning on the water.

For teaching I had a small room in the YWCA -but it was neat, small and heated and equipped with six small desks and one larger side table which we used for cutting. There were a couple of extra plastic tables in the entrance area that we also took over. Two out of the three sewing machines worked, and one of those was the Bernina 153QE donated for the month by Bernina.

My translator was Nadia Dibse. She is pretty and very good - totally fluent in English and Arabic. Her father was a Palestinian surgeon, her mother is British. She had finished a law degree in Paris, (add in fluent French) and had just passed her Israeli Bar exam (so add in totally fluent in reading and speaking Hebrew. She is quick, brisk and efficient and lovely, and became a good friend and an invaluable helper.

I had asked that all women taking part should have good sewing skills and be, or be training as, sewing professionals. Many also did beautiful Palestinian cross stitch.

Quilts are made with four inches of pure wool in Syria - and one inch stitches - but it is not a tradition really in the rest of the Arab world - though a few Syrian quilts work their way through the system. I was told in Palestine that the quilting stitch was called 'civilian stitch' and thought it interesting that there was a name for it. In Egypt there is a tradition of decorative and stunning applique, usually done by men, but these pieces are not quilted. There had been a wonderful project, also run by the Khalil Sakakini Cultural Centre, which made quilts to celebrate Palestinian deaths in recent problems.

I had spent the last few months before the course looking carefully at Palestinian cross stitch embroidery and adapting their patterns to patchwork. While many of the patterns are the same as the ones we know, some are subtly different. I had made seven tops and one finished quilt to take as quilting samples. With the need to carry other samples and rotary cutters, rulers, and mats, I was ten kilos over my 20kg baggage allowance before I even started packing my clothes.

There are local versions of nine patches and arrow patterns, and patterns which feature half square triangles and quarter square triangles. The only finished quilt I took with me was a sampler featuring six traditional patterns. One was made in the style of a log cabin, but then crosscut and with the sections turned to create a glowing pattern based on a block the women call El Reesh - the feather. One quilt top featured scraps of Palestinian embroidery and traditional Syrian striped fabrics frequently used in the dresses - and this was the design my students used for the quilts they made and completed during the classes.

They worked in teams to do this - as we only had two machines in the classroom so individual quilts were not possible. On from each class went to the Khalil Sakakini Centre, one to the organization who had selected that class.

The project continued after my departure, as the Khalil Sakakini Centre offered the students a chance to exhibit in their gallery. The exhibition has been held and beautiful work was made for it

The Project is intended to help the students to earn some extra money making marketable pieces. Most will still be a luxury item that most of the families making them will not be able to afford as a hobby. I stressed the salability of smaller pieces to the tourist market (if it ever returns) like cushion covers and baby quilts. I am sure will be made for new family members.

This is an excerpt from an email sent to friends in Australia:

If you want to start a day as I do - try pulling yourself out of bed in the cold and dark at 5.30 am! Wash in cold water in a tiny bathroom - (I have warm water at night for a couple of hours). Pull on clothes. I only have four shirts and two pairs of pants so not a lot of choices to make - because of my desperate problem of keeping the baggage down with a great deal that had to be brought.

Sit down to an amazing Arab breakfast. This morning was hot Palestinian bread, oil, olives, zatar (mixed dipping spices of oregano and toasted sesame and sumac), creamy cheese with a texture of Neufchatel, sheep's milk cheese in brine with tiny black kizha seeds (served often on Turkish bread), hummus with a line of allspice and cumin and a swirl of green olive oil, tiny golden globes which I always keep to last as they are delightful. They are an explosion of flavour - a blast of cumquat cooked in syrup. Also something similar - a preserved and sugary date sweet. Then by 7.15 I am out in the mud and rain waiting for my regular taxi, with the day's samples tucked into my briefcase. I wish I had brought my raincoat!

It is hard to get to the YWCA. The building is low on a very steep hill, cupped in a dip before it drops again. It is a beautiful site, next to a well known swimming pool, surrounded by pine trees. You wind down and down the hill from Arafat's moqata - his bombed headquarters.

The road is really frightening. Not because it is steep though it is. Not even because it has hairpin bends all the way down although there are! The problem is the cut away and washed away gravel beside the narrow strip of broken-edged tarmac, that means that there are places that if you pass another car, both of you have only half a wheel on the road, with a drop of up to ten inches beside it! If you are on the downhill side of the road at he same time there is nothing between you and a very long steep drop. I keep mentally seeing the cars dropping of the edge, tilting and rolling down the hill. The problem is that there are a collection of cars in the gully which have done just that so the reminders are constant.

I made the best friends. I was so proud of what my students accomplished, and look forward to going back. I miss Reem at Khalil Sakini and want to thank Reem and Adila for having the faith and endurance to push the project through. I miss Nadia, my very effective and competent translator and friend. I miss Amina who cooked the most wonderful food - I really looked forward to going home at the end of a day, knowing that there was a delicious and nutritious meal waiting for me. I miss Samira who came each evening to find me for "Shay" - tea fragrant with marimiah - a herb very like sage.
I miss the orphans who talked to me as I waited each morning. I miss my very good friend Tania, who sang for me at the Students' Graduation.

I loved my month in Ramallah.