“Those women who remained in their homeland were accused of non-existence. It was said to them: You are not here. They responded: We are not a lie inside a plot, we are here.”
So begins a fascinating, surprising and heartbreaking documentary of loss, survival and exile. Caroline Mansour’s Stitching Palestine opened this year’s Palestinian Film Festival Australia, and it was an exploration of the impact of occupation filled with stories and imagery that belong to women, told by women.
In it, 12 women talk about thobe – a traditional Palestinian form of cross-stitch – and its significance in preserving or reconnecting to home, an apt metaphor for how they weave their own life paths. The women’s stories are dramatic, sad, joyful and authentic, and they eclipse a cultural tradition of embroidery to talk about the messiness and beauty of life, even as a refugee or an exile.
But perhaps most refreshing is that the women, even as they talk about men and family, are the heroines of these stories, committing ordinary acts of resistance and finding courage in dire situations.
So often the mythos of Palestine and its associated imagery is hyper masculine. It proffers the idea that men suffer and women in relation to them, rather than existing in their own experiences. The everyday lives of Palestinian women, like in so many cultures, are narrated in connection to others.
It takes female writers and filmmakers to disrupt the drawn-out narrative of women being and existing in relation to men. We may be daughters, sisters, wives and/or mothers, but the intricacy of life doesn’t cease to exist because of broader political and social issues.
It takes female writers and filmmakers to disrupt the drawn-out narrative of women being and existing in relation to men
Indeed, in a Palestinian mythos that is plentiful – stuffed with stories of justice, heroism and struggle – women are often sidelined to emblems of suffering. In Stitching Palestine, suffering is not absent, but the voices of the women inject the narrative with threads of humanity. Many are exiled from their homeland, or forced to salvage any remnant of their family’s legacy so that their history is preserved.
When these women thread their narratives like a tapestry, the result is personal stories that merge into a collective one, all of which many people can relate to, and feel for.
This is why it’s so significant that on stage and on screen, outside of reality but based on it, Palestinian stories flourish. There are wonderful male filmmakers like Elia Suleiman (Divine Intervention, The Time That Remains) and Hany Abu-Assad (Omar, Paradise Now and The Idol), the latter of whom has recently transitioned into Hollywood with The Mountain Between Us.
But the women telling stories have other insights to offer. Filmmaker Suha Arraf dives into human pain with her films (including her most recent festival success Villa Touma), but is not limited to telling women’s stories. Her explorations are human ones that consider memory, attachment and the shape of life. Author Susan Abulhawa sets heart wrenching novels (The Blue Between Sky and Water, Mornings in Jenin) in Palestinian territories, including Gaza, but her characters and their journeys are central to the stories, not the occupation.
Thobe is a symbol and a story, allowing women to share their individual experiences.
Meanwhile, playwright Samah Sabawi faced the struggle of telling truthful stories about life for Palestinians in Gaza when her play, Tales of a City by the Sea, was placed on a Victorian high school curriculum. A love story amid tragedy set in Gaza, which highlights the cost of occupation but doesn’t give into it, it had its share of controversy when there were demands the play not be taught because of how it depicts Israel. The idea that Palestinians are not allowed to tell stories that are honest about how occupation impacts them is another pressure writers are dealt.
All of these stories delve into the experiences of belonging, the power of memory and the existence of diaspora populations with experiences that are entirely human and relatable.
In Stitching Palestine, the threads of embroidery are a metaphor for the threads of real life, of what is and what could have been, the way something takes on new symbolism amid restriction and cultural theft. Thobe is a symbol and a story, allowing women to share their individual experiences. As our narrator tells us: “The surface of the robe is now the storyteller … Each woman sits and tells her story. She speaks of her present and of the distant past, with fervour, lucidity and passionate love. With every stitch, the woman is hiding a story, a thought, a sigh. The individual threads do not melt in some collective narrative even though they embroider that narrative.”
Stitching Palestine is a collective of individual experiences, in a festival that celebrates experiences of life that transcend occupation, rather than lives defined by it.
The Palestinian Film Festival runs until November 16.
Watch States of Undress: Palestine on SBS On Demand