About five years ago, when Salma Shawa wore a denim jacket that featured her mother’s traditional Palestinian embroidery, she found it sparked both compliments and conversations.
Not only did the garment lead to dialogue about her heritage, but it also ignited within Shawah — who lives and works in the US — a desire to launch a clothing brand that would produce jackets, embroidered and handcrafted from start to finish in Gaza, in an endeavour to revive the textile industry there.
She founded Anat International at the end of 2019, naming it after the Canaanite goddess of fertility, the Canaanites being direct ancestors of Palestinians.
Embroidery for everyone
“My parents still live in Gaza, and my mother plays a big role in the business as she oversees the production there,” Shawa tells The National. She says her mum, Muna Masri, is an avid lover of all things design and craft, in addition to her considerable embroidering talent.
Shawa is also keen to emphasise that Anat represents slow and genderless fashion. The genderless aspect, she explains, stems from the fact that both women and men embroider the jackets, which are unisex.
“Unemployment is at 52 per cent in Gaza, and it affects men as much as it affects women, so it is a good source of income for everyone. That’s why we wanted to make [the brand] open and accessible to both,” she says.
Shawa believes the time has come when we move away from perceiving embroidery as being only a feminine craft; men, too, can and should participate in its making, as well as enjoy wearing it. Anat’s jackets also come with deliberately oversized cuts so men who wish to support Palestine, and see value and beauty in embroidery, can include it in their wardrobes.
While the brand philosophy is heartening, the production process is riddled with challenges. The making and shipping of the garments from Gaza is an arduous journey that encounters several hurdles, a stark reflection of the Israel-imposed blockade, which has been in place for more than a decade, and its implications. Following the attacks on Gaza in May, for example, it became very difficult to outsource denim, which created a massive delay.
“Once the factory creates the jackets, we take them to an embroidery workshop, where the head then takes the garments to different Gaza embroiderers and gives them three to four jackets to work on,” explains Shawa. If the electricity happens to be cut off, which happens often, the craftspeople can only accomplish so much work before it gets dark, adding yet another layer of delay to the production cycle.
Embroidering a single jacket can take up to three weeks, after which the garments are shipped to West Bank, where a friend of Shawa takes a box of them to DHL. The designer then receives the jackets in the US before sending them out to customers.
“It’s a very hectic, time-inefficient process. In normal circumstances, we would ship the jacket directly to the customer from Gaza, but in this case, 50 jackets at a time have to be sent from Gaza to West Bank,” she explains.
In that sense, Anat is what Shawa describes as “slow fashion, literally” — both by design, because the jackets are not produced in bulk, as well as by necessity. “There is a lot of intention [needed] to get it done,” she says.
While Shawa and her mother are constantly ideating about expanding the line, for example, creating non-denim jackets or incorporating embroidery into dresses, trousers, hoodies and shirts, they face obstacles in producing and sourcing materials due to the blockades. “It limits our creative capacity and we are unable to bring to life our ideas for new designs,” Masri tells The National from Gaza.
Shawa therefore hopes that those wearing the designs will encourage important and necessary conversations about Gaza, such as the tough conditions the jacket was produced in, for example.
Shawa also delineates the role the brand plays in generating income for the embroiderers of Gaza. When people contact her regarding links or fundraisers supporting Palestine, she emphasises that hers is not a charity-based business model.
“It is not what I am trying to do. People in Gaza just need normal jobs, and being an embroiderer is a full-time one for those working on our jackets.”
If more pieces are sold, more work and, subsequently, income is generated for the embroiderers, Shawa says of her brand vision.
One female embroiderer in Gaza, who prefers to remain anonymous, reiterates this sentiment, mentioning that every time the workshop gives her a denim jacket to embroider, she is happy because there is a lot more embroidery to create compared to the smaller articles, such as headbands or bracelets or wallets, she usually works on.
While the patterns are intrinsically Palestinian, the contemporary twist is that they are placed on jackets. “We use a lot of vibrant colours as opposed to the traditional black and red. We also incorporate multiple elements into the jackets, such as beads, coins and other fabrics woven into the denim, to make them entirely unique,” she says.