Zennar: Palestinian embroidery and heritage sewn into modern fashion
In the bustling streets of Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip, Amal Al-Abadsa and Iman Al-Abadsa are weaving their dreams into reality. The two sisters have embarked on a remarkable journey to modernize Palestinian embroidery and bring it to the forefront of contemporary fashion. Inspired by the traditional belt symbolising unity in Palestinian society, together they have established a unique boutique named Zennar.
“Our father inspired us and instilled a deep appreciation for our Palestinian culture including clothing," Iman, in her mid-thirties, fondly recalled. "He encouraged us to embrace our heritage and recognised the importance of preserving our traditions.”
The seeds of Zennar germinated during the COVID-19 lockdown. Although the idea blossomed during that period, the sisters realised that the timing was not ideal to embark on their entrepreneurial journey, given the prevailing instability.
"Embroidery is part of our identity and a tangible showcase of the unparalleled beauty and richness of our Palestinian heritage"
The sisters, along with their other siblings, had embarked on a five-month field research journey to gauge the acceptance of their idea and determine the best course of action. "We thought of opening a shop solely for Palestinian Thobe (dresses)," Iman reflected. "We soon realised that this concept had been implemented a lot elsewhere and lacked the uniqueness we sought."
Driven by their innovative spirit, they expanded their vision to include soirée dresses and gowns. They combined modern aesthetics with embroidered elements, infusing their designs with a touch of tradition. This fusion of contemporary fashion brought forth a unique and captivating collection that resonated with customers seeking the perfect blend of elegance and cultural significance.
"This is what sets Zennar apart from any other shops or boutiques," Iman explained with a spark of enthusiasm. "We discovered that by infusing the art of embroidery into wedding gowns, we could offer something truly distinctive. It was an innovative way to celebrate the beauty of our Palestinian heritage into modern wear and create a connection between the past and the present."
Armed with her BA degree in multimedia production, Amal, 23, utilised her skills to breathe life into Zennar's brand identity. Eager to create a cohesive and visually striking image, she reached out to a talented friend for assistance in designing the entire brand.
"It was an exciting collaboration," Amal shared, reflecting on the process. "The idea was already well-formed in our minds, so it didn't take long to bring it to fruition. We drew inspiration from the geometric patterns in the traditional Palestinian embroidery stitch, which symbolises our cultural heritage. We also chose a vibrant green colour palette, symbolising our deep connection to the land."
Word quickly spread about Zennar's unique offerings, and soon, the boutique became a sought-after destination for renting henna party items. The affordability of Zennar's prices and the option for embroidered dresses and gown rentals made it an ideal choice for hosting the traditional pre-wedding henna parties, which are considered to be expensive.
Despite the beginnings’ challenges, the two women have witnessed a remarkable turnout of young women flocking to Zennar, seeking to shop some dresses and celebrate their special occasions with a touch of Palestinian authenticity. Summer Ali, a visitor to the boutique, shared her experience, saying, "I initially came to rent a Thobe for my henna party. However, when I saw the stunning embroidered gown at a reasonable price, I was captivated. I immediately urged my mother to rent that gown instead." Then she added, “We can wear a modern dress with Palestinian embroidery on it.”
Recognising the significance of social media in today's digital age, both sisters wholeheartedly embraced its power as a vital marketing tool for their boutique and its exquisite products. “We wanted to maximize the boutique's online presence and engage with their target audience.”
Through their online social media platforms, Zennar also aimed to educate and empower a new generation about Palestinian embroidery. Amal, deeply committed to this cause, emphasised, "Zennar is not solely driven by commercial gains. Our mission extends far beyond that. We want to educate people about the beauty and importance of Palestinian heritage” said Amal while tying the Zennar of one of the dresses.
Through their platform, they shared traditional Palestinian songs. They also offered insights into the customs and practices that women typically engage in during henna and wedding parties, showcasing the rituals that have bound communities together for generations.
The sisters understood the significance of acknowledging the painful history that had shaped their heritage. Amal expressed her heartfelt intention for Zennar, stating, "We are currently creating Palestinian dresses that serve as symbolic representations of each Palestinian village particularly those from which our parents and grandparents were forcibly expelled during 1948 Nakba."
The sisters were eager to deepen their knowledge about the history of embroidery. In their quest for understanding, they actively sought out conversations with the elderly, valuing their insights into the various types of stitches. Additionally, they sought information from the limited number of books available on the topic like the Guide to the Palestinian Art of Embroidery.
Zennar employed around 10 skilled women who were proficient in embroidery. “We provide women with design patterns and necessary materials, closely following up on their progress,” said Amal. Zennar products are extended beyond their local clientele. Recognising the beauty and craftsmanship of their dresses and gowns, Zennar began exporting their designs to the West Bank and abroad sharing the essence of Palestinian heritage with a broader audience.
As the sun sets over Khan Younis, Iman and Amal stand side by side, their eyes filled with hope and pride. Amal ardently proclaims, "Embroidery is part of our identity and a tangible showcase of the unparalleled beauty and richness of our Palestinian heritage."
Ghada Abed is a freelance journalist based in the Gaza Strip