Dream versus Realityannelys
Disarming Design from Palestine in co-creation with Gaza refugee camp in Jerash
by Annelys de Vet
Last September a team of Jordanian, Palestinian and Dutch designers collaborated with local craftswomen and men from the Gaza refugee camp in the Jordan city Jerash, to develop a series of thought provoking products. On the invitation of Amman Design Week, and hosted by cultural center Darat al Funun, we put together a program where the participants worked in teams to design items and interchange with the artisans. They investigated their process, skills, and made works that could pass on the stories that were shared and could reflect on the complex reality of the camp. Alongside our existing collection of products these items will be internationally exhibited and sold, to address the situation of the refugees. We aim for a continuing relationship through more future orders. Additionally with this workshop we want to reflect upon the function of creative practices in situations of conflict because, as Amman Design Week aslo states in their program line, “problem-solving, enhancing communities and bringing concepts to life; design has the power to reshape the future”.
“The only thing that gets me going is sharing stories.” This is why the Jordanian designer Nour Nsheiwat participated in this program: “in every corner of my life I have pursued a job that included some narrative methodology, I’m into listening to a story told by a product.” “At this moment my perspective on the Palestinian cause is based on western media and stories, I would like to challenge my view with real life experience,” expressed Dutch designer Tessa Meeus at the start of the program. “The questions I ask myself are: what is this state of being like? What do people embrace? What do they hate on a daily basis? What are the values of the place and how can design play a role?” Designer Sherida Kuffour, a Woman of Color from the Netherlands, is particularly interested in anti-colonial, and anti-imperialism movements and how people push back against these strongholds: “I’ve come to realize that, as the ‘colonized’, regardless of race or religion, we share somewhat similar struggles of revolution and pushback.” For Haya Bustami, who is doing the education and community outreach of the Amman Design Week, it was the human centered element of the program that made it special to her: “it creates an enriching and humbling experience to everyone involved”.
Gaza refugee camp
Gaza camp is a refugee camp near Jerash, where almost 40,000 Palestinian refugees are living. They, their parents or grandparents, fled from Gaza in 1967, when Israel invaded the Gaza strip, which was at that time under Egyptian rule. These Palestinian refugees never received Jordanian citizenship. Until today they don’t have a national number and are therefore stateless. As such, they aren’t allowed to work, don’t have access to regular healthcare, and they can’t afford to further their education outside the camp. If they would like to get a job, they need to buy a working permit of 500 JOD (± € 600), which is only valid for 6 months. So for most people this doesn’t make any sense at all. One cannot understand how these people aren’t offered any way out, no right to return, no status, no opportunities, no future. These Palestinian refugees have lived under inhumane conditions for 50 years now.
Although we were aware that we were visiting one of the poorest camps in Jordan, nobody expected that the refugees struggle this much. We were silenced, speechless, saddened, angry, but above all we felt powerless and were struggling how to relate to this uncomfortable truth. Some felt really depressed, others were fighting with feelings of guilt for not taking enough action, and at the same time we felt unease in being part of a van with international visitors, being dropped at places in the camp to visit, watch and leave. It underlined our privileged position and the bubble we live in.
As soon as we were able to spend time in the women’s craft center they started to make things, different stories crossed the tables, humor entered the room, and imagination started to bloom again. We were relating on the basis of strength and creativity, on an individual and human level. We saw the beauty of these women and were particularly impressed by their persistence. This inspired all of us.
The days that followed were full of noise: ticking needles, curious questions, whispering experiments, rhythmic embroideries and a ping pong of ideas. With a touching diligence the artisans soon found ways to accomplish proposals for prototypes, that embodied applied translations of their narratives. Different patterns of olive-trees were made, a doormat was established and all kind of origami shapes were folded with textile.
The people of the Gaza Camp produced incredible things, but resources are limited. With Disarming Design we want to work as much as possible with local and natural materials, but the best textiles and leather used to come from Syria. Most production and export from there has stopped for obvious and horrifying reasons. And Jordan seems to be, as a salesman explained ironically, “a country of consumption, not of production”. So products from China and India dominate the market more and more. But the participating designers were persistent, did their field research and traveled from shop to shop in Amman. With some luck local wool was found, some pieces of leather from Syria, and other useful local and up-cycled materials.
Impact on society
During a tour through Amman where we learned more about the heritage and crafts, we were honored to meet the remarkable ‘Duke of Mukheibeh’, who received us in his Design Center. “It’s easy to make money” he explains to us “but what counts is the impact of what you do on society. Culture brings people together and that is what we should focus on”. The crafts and product designer May Khoury also stressed this in the guest-talk she gave: “Design has a substantial role as a key tool for community development, social engagement and ultimately sustainable economic development”. Originally from Ramallah, May has established an incredible practice in Amman and developed a collection of handmade and up cycled products. She says how in fact the heritage is her national identity and that through the heritage she can emphasize who she is. Architect Reem Marji from Darat al Funun adds: “Design is a global language; a huge platform that contains different backgrounds and cultures, while maintaining the authenticity and identity of each one”.
The designers discuss their first ideas and prototypes with May Khoury and some stories clearly move her. With others she stresses how they have the potential for an extraordinaire beauty. However, she wonders if some of the products are right, since their design emphasizes the unbearable reality and doesn’t leave space for hope and imagination. May seeks to design the final product to still show the extreme misfortune that the people in the camp experience, by framing it differently, which would allow the space for dreaming.
Re-think Palestinian identity
In the specific socio-political situation in Palestine, there is another layer to ‘sensitive’ local design and production. After what Palestinians have experienced in the last century, there is a deep need for a redefining for a new identity, as it has been and is being distorted and transformed after many shocking and drastic changes. Through workshops like this we want to invest in the visual reality of Palestine, into the daily needs and experiences. “When it comes to our collective identity, we’re becoming one-by-one part of a new and dynamic design movement, as we try to tap into the social and political moment and cultural significance of our country,” says Palestinian designer and political scientist Fida Shafi. This workshop made her work harder to redefine the meaning of Palestinian identity as inclusive and all encompassing. She says she is still fighting to express it in different forms through and beyond design.
Identity is not something that is fixed, but something that corresponds to contemporary realities. It is a work in progress and that’s where product design serves part in this rediscovery. Crafts don’t just teach us about how things are made. It’s also a social act that relates to the sense of a place, how a community is built and what its values and rituals are. They are at the heart of who we are. Heritage is not history. It is something that lives. It is something we can learn from and which we as critical designers should activate. According to Disarming Designs production manager, Ghadeer Dajani, art, design, and crafts should all be part of the resistance against the occupation, as an element within a mosaic power against foreign rule: “it has to reflect the beauty and the strength of Palestine, just like poetry and literature are doing.”
After two weeks of deep emotions, intense work, crossing language barriers, and unpredictable design processes in co-creation with the artisans living in unbearable conditions, a new line of ten thought provoking products was presented. They represent the narratives found in the Gaza camp. Despite the difficulties faced by limited means, techniques and resources, and despite a very tight time schedule the designers were able to create magic. Nour Nsheiwat and Rebekka Fries captured the story of Maisa, who had the highest high school scores of The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. This would allow Jordanian citizens to receive free scholarship for university. However Maisa has no national number and did not receive it. On the contrary, she is obliged to pay international fees and can’t afford to continue her studies. She remained in the camp and diminished her dreams. Nour and Rebekka, in response, made a multi-functional apron of the textile of Jordanian school uniforms. Fida Shafi developed an embroidered baby blanket with the text of the lullabies that were song to the babies back home and the artisans were able to recall. When fleeing from Gaza and in need to protect their children, they sang it. Those memories are now hidden behind the folds of time, as the origami bag from Mariam Shukri and Qusai Saify shows with hidden embroidery behind the corners of the fabric. A large wooden cloth pin reminded Aya Abu-Ghazaleh to what her Palestinian grandmother said, and what she heard back in the camp “we left the laundry outside”, because they thought to be back home soon, 50 years ago. Aya’s pin contains a light, so it can be used for reading after sunset. Sherida Kuffour designed a hat called ‘Under the olive tree’ with embroidered olive branches on the brim, to find protection. To a certain extent all these stories come together in the wooden maze that Rebekka Fries and Nour Nsheiwat developed, with a path on both sides, top and bottom, forming the Arabic words for ‘Dream’ and ‘Reality’. Once the metal ball strolls through the lines of ‘reality’, it suddenly falls into the ‘dream’. Turning the maze around, eventually the same thing will happen, falling back in ‘reality’.
It is our ambition that through these products we can contribute to a greater awareness of the situation of Palestinian refugees as well as the understanding of how design can inspire a better reality. For Tessa Meeus participating in the workshop “changed everything actually”. It made her think a lot about the way The West views Arab people in general and how in Europe “we”, including herself, have programmed prejudice into our system. Mariam Shukri always wanted to experience working with artisans from different communities and this by far was the best experience in her life. Mariam says “the amount of feelings I have towards refugees has increased a lot through the workshop”. It inspired her to design more consciously for a cause.
We hope that the creativity and persistence that has been put into the developed designs, will be reflected though the use of the products. They will travel from exhibitions in Darat al Funun Jordan in October, to the Nieuwe Instituut Rotterdam (NL) in November, The Design Museum Gent (B) in February, and further. In addition they will soon be available on Disarming Designs website, investing in more production in the camp. It is now up to the items to speak, while leaving us silenced.
Disarming Design workshop took place from 4–16 September, the accompanying exhibition from 7–15 October at ‘The Lab’, Darat al Funun.
Workshop guidance: Ghadeer Dajani (Disarming Design’s production manager), Annelys de Vet (Disarming Design’s founder), Haya Bustami (Education and Community Outreach at Amman Design Week), Reem Marji (architect, Darat al Funun team), May Khoury (designer), Sara Mahasneh (intern), Isabel Zoetbrood (intern)
Participating designers: Rand Abu al-Sha’r (JO), Architect, Asja Keeman (NL), Master Student Design Sandberg Instituut, Mohammad Ishtay (PS), Product and interior designer, Tessa Meeus (NL), Master Student Design Sandberg Instituut, Fida Shaffi (PS), Political scientist and designer, Sherida Kuffour (NL/GH), Master Student Design Sandberg Instituut, Nour Nsheiwat (JO), Designer, Rebekka Fries (NL), Sandberg Instituut Design alumni, Mariam S. Shukri (JO), Designer, Qusai al Saify (PS), Founder Origami Palestine, Aya Abu Ghazaleh (JO/PS), Artist and designer.
Acknowledgments to Amman Design Week Co-Directors Rana Beiruti and Abeer Seikaly, Darat al Funun founder Suha Shoman and director Luma Hamdan for making the workshop and exhibition possible. A special thank you to the local crafts women and men from the Gaza camp in Jerash, especially the Amani Charity center.
English editing: Duane Madison