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The Hidden Thobes

By George Al-Ama

The Palestinian thobe is a vital symbol of our cultural heritage and identity, with its skillful stitchery, rich colors and patterns, the thobes preserve stories of a people and a homeland. While today we have access to extensive research and collections on thobes and embroidery, much of our history remains untold as it lies within thobes unknown to us in our own homes. Recently I had the honor to witness such a discovery with the Mukarker family in their home in Beit Jala, and together, we were able to complete a missing piece in their family history.

I have known the Mukarkers for some years now and was told that an heirloom thobe al-malak from the early 1900s had been passed down in the family, yet no one from the last two generations had seen it – it was not to be mentioned or talked about. In the winter of 2019, I joined Rula Nasser Mukarker on a visit to her mother-in-law’s home. It was my first time meeting the notable Sophie Yousef Shamieh, a remarkable woman who has lived through the hardships of Palestine over the last 90 years. Sophie was dedicated to her late husband, Suleiman Mukarker (1927–2011), an activist and leader in the Palestinian People’s Party, supporting him throughout the resistance and struggle. I was amazed by her vivid memories as she recollected stories of life in Jerusalem prior to the Nakba, of her father’s photography studio, as well as how her family was forced to move to Bethlehem. She struck me as the matriarch of the Mukarkers, a strong, educated, and determined woman holding her family together.

Maqta’ khedary (roll of cloth).

While we conversed and shared stories from the past, Sophie brought out and entrusted us with a perfectly preserved ‘abayeh (cloak) and jibbeh (sheepskin overcoat), the latter of which is a rare item that dates back more than 150 years. The garments, which belonged to her late father-in-law, Salameh Mukarker (1869–1961), a wealthy tradesman working between Bethlehem and Chile, remained in her custodianship after her husband passed away. I was thrilled to see these items and the condition they were in, and couldn’t help but imagine the glamor of the thobe al-malak in her care. When we inquired about it, Sophie stealthily evaded our curiosities and shrugged us off.

We waited patiently for two years, until in January 2022 I received a phone call requesting that I visit to inspect the jibbeh and treat it for moth infestation. I couldn’t help but ask about the thobe, seeing this as an opportunity to preserve it and inevitably, to reveal it. Sophie was intent on protecting the garments and agreed to take them out for inspection. Immediately upon hearing this, her son Imad rushed over and collected the bukjeh, the bundle of fabric in which she had carefully wrapped the garments, bringing it back to his home for us to see. In his home, we were joined by his wife, Rula, their children, Razy and Sliman, and his sister, Mary. Together we unwrapped the bukjeh and were astonished to find a woman’s complete wardrobe: thobe abu-metein/jiljileh, thobe al-khaddameh, and maqta’ khedary (roll of fabric), amongst them a hizam (belt) and a piece of crochet. Our eyes were fixed on the thobes as we examined each item, the refined and rich embroidery, and vibrant colorful fabrics. We all were amazed by the thobes, and bewildered and equally curious as to why they had been hidden away all these years.

Details from thobe Abu-Metein, jiljileh (malak).

We sat together in an intimate and familial way, each sharing memories and recollections, as we tried to piece together the missing information to complete the story of the thobes. We carefully examined the thobes, studied them to better understand their significance and how they shed light on the prosperous region of Bethlehem and the life of the woman who wore them.

Thobe abu-metein/jiljileh (a variation of a malak dress), is the most elaborate dress in a woman’s trousseau, initially worn on her wedding day and then on festive occasions. The malak style emerged in the Bethlehem region and became a must-have item in every woman’s trousseau in Palestine. The fabric in this dress is a blend of linen and silk striped in red and black, decorated with patches of deep orange and green heremzi (Syrian silk taffeta) along the sleeves and side skirts, as well as imported cotton and broadcloth in pink and purple encircling the neck. Yet the qabbeh (chest panel) is the most important and intricate part of the malak that is finely embellished with tahriry (couching) stitch, a unique style developed in Bethlehem using silver, gold, and silk cords that are twisted into elaborate floral and curvilinear patternsi and additionally framed with colorful menajel (herringbone) stitch.

What is unique about this dress is the subtle deviation from the classical malak patterns as the seamstress added six circles in the chest’s centerpiece as opposed to the usual five, and introduced the ‘erq al-tufah (apple branch) pattern, replacing the usual sa’aa (watch) on the ends of the embroidered strip along the benayiq (side skirt). The ‘erq al-tufah became known mostly in Bethlehem, amongst prosperous Christian families who wanted to create new and distinct trends in their dresses. These particular details suggest that the woman who made this dress intended to personalize it and distinguish it from others, leaving her signature mark on it, possibly to be worn by herself or someone dear to her.

Thobe Abu-Metein, jiljileh (malak).

Thobe al-khaddameh is a simpler and plain dress intended for everyday use. It is made from habar (a light black silk) fabric and has a cross-stitch embroidered chest piece as opposed to the glistening tahriry stitch in the malak dress. The sawa’id (sleeves) are embellished in patches of deep red heremzi, and malak fabric, with a tishrimeh (zig-zag stitch) edge, and a small yet elaborate panel at the sfifeh (cuff of the sleeve) filled with colorful and dense tahriry and manajel stitching. Despite its simplicity, the thobe is rich and noble in its colors, skillful stitchery, and fabrics attributed to the Bethlehem style. It is claimed that Bethlehem women preferred modest thobes embroidered with the cross-stitch, possibly as a reaction to the growth and popularity of the couching that was appropriated in dresses in villages and other cities.ii

The maqta’ khedary is a roll of fabric striped in red, green, and orange, we can only assume was intended for a khedary dress and that the woman was still in the process of preparing a new dress to add to her attire.

As we recollected pieces of the story, we learned that the thobes belonged to Sophie’s mother-in-law, the late Maria Jiries Saba-Mukarker (1900–1942). After reviewing the birth and death dates on the family gravestones, we confirmed the heartbreaking story of Maria’s sudden death while she was baking a cake in the taboon on the occasion of her son’s fifteenth birthday. Losing his mother at such a young age was a traumatic experience for the young Suleiman. He couldn’t bear to see the thobes and be constantly reminded of the pain brought on by her death. Yet he cherished the thobes, as they were the only remaining memory of his mother, and thus carefully hid them away to preserve her memory. Sophie felt her husband’s pain and, respecting his wishes, followed through in safeguarding the thobes.

Thobe al-Khadammeh.

The story continued to unravel as we spoke to Khaled, Sophie’s youngest son, to inquire further about the thobes. He informed us that he knew of an additional malak owned by Maria, which he personally had seen upon opening the family tomb some years ago. He recalled identifying the silk tahriry stitching as well as a shatweh (head-dress) in the casket, like the ones commonly worn by brides and married women. With this information, we are able to attribute four thobes to Maria, which would have been expected of a woman of her stature living in Beit Jala during the 1900s. Khaled also shared that he was told by his aunt and father that Maria was well-known for her skills as a seamstress and sought after by her sisters-in-law and relatives who would ask her to prepare thobes for them. With this detail, we were able to confirm our earlier assessment that the thobes were personalized and indeed sewn by the hands of Maria herself.

It was such a magical and intimate moment to witness the Mukarkers uncover the hidden thobes and the untold stories of their family history. Surely, there are more stories of Maria and the thobes amongst family members in the diaspora who hold her memory, yet on that evening, the thobes were finally liberated from the traumas of the past and redeemed when Mary finally wore her grandmother’s thobe. With every thobe, we remember those who came before us, and celebrate our cultural identity as we preserve it for future generations.

  • George Al-Ama, an academic, researcher, and collector who specializes in Palestinian material culture and visual arts, is the founder of Dar Al Sabagh Diaspora Studies and Research Centre. He currently lectures at Dar Al-Kalima University and Birzeit University. He also heads the Centre for Cultural Heritage Preservation, works as an adviser to the Bank of Palestine in the fields of arts and culture, and serves as a member of the scientific committee of the Terra Sancta Museum.

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