An Artist Explores Her Palestinian Roots through Food and Embroidery

Two themes cropped up again and again in Sanaa El Habbash’s interviews with 16 people who either lived in or had emigrated from, Palestine.

The art student was looking into Palestinian culture for projects at the National College of Art and Design.

“I didn’t really know much about the culture,” says El Habbash, whose parents were born in Gaza and moved to Ireland 34 years ago.

The culture is often overshadowed too, El Habbash says. “When you think about Palestine, all you think about is war and men throwing rocks.”

When she talked to people, though, they talked about much more – and, in particular, they talked about food and about embroidery.

El Habbash has refashioned those themes into her artwork, with pottery and needlework that aims to show a broader picture of what is meaningful to Palestinians.

“College gave me a chance to learn about it myself and share it with people,” she says.

A Starting Point

“People just think that Palestine is a war zone and you don’t get to see the people that are actually living there,” says El Habbash.

In her interviews, women told her about their love for embroidery, she says.

“I thought it was really interesting that they had a life outside of war and that is not something you really see much of,” she says.

Food featured again too, as in an interview with one woman who moved to Galway from Palestine.

“When she came to Ireland she brought a big jar of olives with her,” El Habbash says.

It was from her grandparents’ house. “She wanted to bring part of Palestine with her,” she says.

Food is a major part of Palestinian culture, says El Habbash’s mother, Suzan Migdad. “We love inviting people in and sharing our food.”

Maqluba is one of Migdad’s favourite meals to make, she says. “If you translate that it means, ‘upside down’.”

It involves meat fried with onions, salt, pepper, and cardamom, then topped with fried aubergine, a layer of chickpeas, tomatoes, and rice.

Baked in the oven, it’s then flipped over onto a platter. “It becomes like a cake. You can see all the layers in it,” Migdad says.

El Habbash showcases her Palestinian cooking on her Instagram Page, Susus Kitchen.

Food also features, indirectly, in her final year project is A Lot on Your Plate. (As did the conflict which did come up in some interviews.)

The hem of the plate is circled with images. From a distance, the pattern might be mistaken for the nature scenes on china dinnerware.

But the images are instead of life in Palestine disrupted by war, division walls, and emigration.

On one side, El Habbash drew army tanks. On another side, refugee camps. There are dark images in simple line drawings.

The images on the plate tell a story inspired by a woman who El Habbash interviewed, detailing her journey out of Palestine to Ireland.

She hasn’t made a real-life copy of the plate yet, she says, just an image so far.

“It was meant to be a physical object but I couldn’t find anywhere that was making a physical object,” she says.

Rediscovering, Together

Migdad was a baby when her family moved from Palestine, she says. She lived in Morocco, Algeria, and Libya.

But “it’s important to learn about your own culture,” she says.

“I always knew how to do crochet and knitting,” she says. But not embroidery.

“But this year I learned it with Sanaa,” she says. “It was really nice.”

Palestinian women in refugee camps often cross-stitch, El Habbash says. “The women sell their embroidery and make an income.”

For one of her art projects, Empty Pockets, El Habbash learned cross-stitch.

She made patches to represent three of the most populated refugee camps in Palestine, reflecting an aerial view of the shape of the camps and the surrounding environment on maps.

She sewed the patches onto the pockets of three pairs of jeans.

As people move from one refugee camp to another, they can’t bring much with them, she says. “The small pocket size represents how little they have.”

The project was awarded the Institute Designers Ireland graduate award.

Her artwork Patches of Palestine draws on embroidery too.

She sewed 58 patches onto a black quilt, the dark background highlighting hundreds of individual stitches.

Each patch holds a different image: a pomegranate, say, a variety of birds, or a mosque.

“I wanted to create something that showed the prominent features of Palestinian culture,” she says. “Palestine is known for its fresh fruit and their wildlife as well.”

El Habbash had never embroidered before this project. “It actually wasn’t too hard to pick up,” she says.

The quilt took three months to finish.

Last month, El Habbash was awarded the Graduate and Research Development Award from the Arts Council, which means she can continue her research for the next five months.

That means she’ll be interviewing more people about Palestinian culture, she says.

“It’s important to address what is going on in Palestine,” El Habbash says.

“But there’s so much more that needs to be shared,” she says. “I think by sharing this you will raise awareness for Palestine and the people of Palestine.”

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Donal Corrigan: Donal Corrigan is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer. He covers transport, and the southside. To get in contact with him, you can email him on [email protected]

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