Seamstress is a multimedia documentary song-cycle based on the collected oral histories of Palestinian women. It premiered at the 6th DC Palestinian Film and Arts Festival on Oct. 7, 2016.

Visit the Seamstress Project Website to listen to the oral histories, read transcriptions, and see the photographs https://seamstressproject.com

Who belongs to the voice and whom does the voice belong to? How much of our stories are shaped by what others have told us, and how much are shaped by our lived experiences? At what point do the stories, the voices of our ancestors, become our own, and at what point do the stories, the voices of our colleagues and contemporaries, become woven into the shared fabric of our histories? How can contemporary classical performance help shape our understanding of marginalized communities and function in reclaiming a space for their voices, and how can it re-shape our understanding of the theories and histories we have encountered about ethnic conflicts and their subjects? How does performance as resistance in marginalized communities extend beyond the boundaries of politics and nation-states?

As an artist my work is primarily focused on the musical representation of contemporary Palestinian women’s narratives from a decolonial, transnational, and intersectional feminist lens. As a former refugee of war born to a Palestinian father and an Egyptian-Greek mother, who grew up between Kuwait, Egypt, the West Bank, and the United States, my personal experiences have strongly shaped my compositional voice, leading me to explore the universal themes of memory, identity, exile, displacement, femininity and cultural narrative. More specifically I have worked extensively in documenting the voices of marginalized communities within occupied Palestine and in juxtaposing contemporary media narratives of these communities with collected oral histories. The resulting research is both interdisciplinary and collaborative in its aims to expose contemporary Palestinian narratives and theorize Palestinian culture within the realm of contemporary classical composition and performance.

In producing Seamstress, my hope was to provide fresh perspectives on Palestinian women’s culture and histories, where much of the previous and current work has been guided by the political landscape in relation to Israel, and limited by the preferences of many researchers and professionals who work there in collecting stories and data on the subjects of terrorism, occupation and the two-state solution, what Palestinian author Rhoda Kanaaneh refers to as “the politics of reproduction and homogenization of Palestinians as ‘terrorists’” in her book Birthing the Nation.

Based on over two years of fieldwork in Ramallah and the surrounding villages of the West Bank, focusing on autobiographical documentation, contemporary cultural production within rural and urban communities, and the artwork of Palestinian women contemporaries, I aim to:

1) re-theorize Palestinian women’s narratives as more complex, nuanced and humanized against an otherwise dominant Israeli narrative by providing an audio-visual exploration of their voices and emotionally powerful episodic memories drawn from their collected oral histories

2) provide a global context for Palestinian women’s narratives by focusing on shared universal themes of memory, identity politics, exile, displacement, femininity and love

3) utilize contemporary classical performance and production to evoke empathy and compassion within American audiences, shaping an understanding of the women of these marginalized communities by creating a safe space for their voices to be heard

4) highlight Palestinian women artists as vital cultural and historical authorities in regional, local and global contexts.

5) draw unifying connections between Palestinian women’s individual and collective memories in response to an undermining postcolonial geographical separation across theWest Bank, Israel, Gaza and the Diaspora.

Seamstress, a documentary song-cycle composed and produced by Donia Jarrar, and based on the collected oral histories of Palestinian women.

Film and photography footage: edited, produced and directed by Donia Jarrar
Photographs by Donia Jarrar
Screen Dance Direction: Yusuf Karajah

Conducted by Arianne Abela, and choreographed by Maher Shawamreh and Meropi Makhlouf, the piece is dedicated to my former student Ibrahim who was killed during a protest last November. He was 16 years old.

 

I sat drinking tea and coffee with my aunt Sania in Ramallah. She was fond of telling stories, and I recorded her often as we sat huddled beneath the blankets, safe from the clashes and protests nearby at Qalandia checkpoint.

On this particular evening Sania told me a story about her first love. Years later in my apartment in Ann Arbor, I stumbled upon the recording and was inspired to tell her story through song. I listened to the recording over and over again, and decided I would go back to collect more information from her about what happened. I even went in search of the people she mentioned in her stories, people she hadn’t seen or heard from in decades, including the woman who used to sew her dresses for her when she was a young girl in Jenin, a seamstress named Shahrat.

I convinced myself I had to score a musical portrait about the mystery seamstress. I had it all laid out in my mind: I would find Shahrat, interview her, photograph her, maybe even commission her to design a dress for my aunts again, introduce them all to each other, and organize a great reunion.

“Is Shahrat still alive?” I asked the many different women of my family.

“No, of course not! She must be dead by now!” They’d respond.

I called my aunt Itaf in Jenin to see if she remembered any details about Shahrat.

“The last I heard, she had sewn a coat for Umm Tawfiq Jarrar’s daughter!”

So I hopped on a yellow caravel service van to Jenin, where my aunt and I went in search of Umm Tawfiq’s number.

We called her. She had the number for Shahrat the Seamstress ‘in a drawer somewhere.’ She’d have to look for it. In the morning she called us back.

“I have the number here, it was in my daughter’s wedding dress.”

I called it and the seamstress answered. With just 24 hours left in Palestine, I hugged my aunt Itaf goodbye and journeyed to Nablus to meet the fabled Shahrat. The service driver dropped me off on the main street and told me Shahrat lived near the bakery and gas station. I asked the young boy in the bakery if he knew where Shahrat lived, and he directed me towards an elderly man asleep in a chair outside an auto repair shop next to the gas station. I woke him up, and he directed me to knock on the green door down the street, and surely Shahrat would answer. The problem with this is that every door in Nablus is the same, faded sea green. Eventually I was able to borrow the man’s phone and call Shahrat, who directed me to walk into the middle of the street and look up towards a set of balconies, where she was waving down at me in a flowery nightgown and thick-rimmed glasses. I crossed the street to climb a set of stairs leading up to her apartment.

A short woman with brown hair and a sour-apple green combed headband and tortoiseshell glasses opened it. Here she was before me, the woman who designed all the beautiful dresses my eyes lingered over in old family photographs. Her dimples shone through the wrinkles of age like a lone ripe fig amidst my grandfather’s trees. She invited me into her home for a lunch of fish and told me the history of each and every family in Nablus, how she had fled Jaffa during the Nakba in 1948, how she had provided for her entire family through her sewing business, how she had lived a long life because no man had ever married her to bring her down with child rearing and marital duties. She even remembered the details of my grandmother, her measurements, her attitude. It took me by surprise. In all my excitement, I’d forgotten that here was a woman who knew the most intimate details of my grandmother, whom I’d never known.

I felt this brought me closer to her, somehow.

Shahrat didn’t like me recording her, and she certainly didn’t want me to take pictures of her. “I remember everything here,” she spoke softly while gracing her forehead with the tip of her finger. She had sewn her last item the previous fall and was no longer working. After 53 years, sick and unable to lift and work with fabrics any longer, she had finally retired.

~

I had gone in search of Shahrat with the aim of telling her story, hoping she would be the missing link I was searching for. What I found instead was that I, like Shahrat, had been sewing the different threads and fabrics together of so many different voices in my attempt to understand my own history and the history of the women I lived, worked and created with so closely. Whose story was I telling here? Who belongs to the voice and whom does the voice belong to? How much of our stories are shaped by what others have told us, and how much are shaped by our lived experiences? At what point do the stories, the voices of our ancestors, become our own, and at what point do the stories, the voices of our colleagues and contemporaries, become woven into the shared fabric of our histories? How can contemporary classical performance help shape our understanding of marginalized communities and function in reclaiming a space for their voices, and how can it re-shape our understanding of the theories and histories we have encountered about ethnic conflicts and their subjects? How does performance as resistance in marginalized communities extend beyond the boundaries of politics and nation-states?