MENACatalyst spoke to Majdi Habash, project coordinator at Handmade Palestine, one of the country’s most impactful social enterprises that is uplifting artisans and breathing new life into the handicraft sector. We met up to learn how this inspiring enterprise is providing a platform for local crafters to use their art to overcome boundaries and share their stories with the world.
What is Handmade Palestine?
Handmade Palestine was born gradually from being a small display in La Vie, an online store on Etsy, selling 2 or 3 products to a website hosting over 250 handcrafted gifts from the work of more than 640 artisans.
Who are you targeting with Handmade Palestine?
We are looking to be the place where Palestinians living abroad, or people related to or interested in Palestine but living abroad, come to feel re-connected to Palestine. Through our handicrafts, they can listen to the stories and shop high-quality cultural gifts that connect them to home and history.
Where did the idea behind this socially motivated enterprise stem from?
It started in 2012, with the founders Saleh and Morgan. They pooled their savings and bought a piece of land to the west of Ramallah, with a vision of building an arboretum. They wanted to invest in an environmental initiative focused on planting trees, preserving nature, and involving the community in learning and taking action to save wildlife in Palestine.
Fast forward ahead to 2016, Morgan gave birth to her first child. The baby started teething at 2 months old. Being a “crunchy” mother, Morgan didn’t want to give her baby plastic chewers. So she decided to make all-natural olive wood teething rings from the prunings of olive trees at Juthour. This gave birth to Morgan’s first all-natural baby teethers, a line she called Little Olea.
Through the process of making baby teethers—the excitement of finding, working with, and supporting artisans, who were mostly women working to sustain their families—Morgan was inspired to work with more artisans. And all of this was, of course, to raise money to plant more trees at Juthour with the proceeds from sales of Morgan’s teething project.
What inspired you to turn this idea into a reality?
Handmade Palestine was born after many inspiring interactions Morgan had with artisans in markets she participated in to promote Mashjar Juthour and Little Olea crafts. Morgan believed that it was a vital part of our mission to support the artisans she’d befriended.
On one hand, listening to their stories, many of these women come from marginalized areas due to occupation and many other societal and economical factors. Many of them depended solely on selling their crafts to sustain the lives of their families. On the other hand, those artisans make crafts that are of high cultural value and their skills and traditional knowledge should be valued.
Little by little, Morgan has worked to make an online presence where she sells handicrafts made by artisans (and herself) from Palestine, and that’s when I (Majdi) started working with Handmade Palestine, first as a volunteer, then as the project coordinator.
When did you begin to incorporate local artisans into Handmade Palestine?
In 2017, Ashraf, the founder of Jelld Leather, who works with women artisans from Idna, a village to the south of Hebron, came to La Vie Cafe in Ramallah—where we are based and asked Saleh to sell his handicrafts. Saleh was one of Ashraf’s first clients and decided he wanted to support his initiative.
Saleh and Morgan believed in the value of supporting and empowering local industries and the artisans. Since then, learning about artisans and supporting their work has become our mission.
How has Handmade Palestine grown since then?
Today, Handmade Palestine works with 25 cooperatives and independent artisans from villages and refugee camps, including Nisf Jbail to the north of Nablus, Idna to the south of Hebron, Al Dheisheh refugee camp in Bethlehem, Beit Sahour city, Beit Duqu, and Al khan al Ahmar in Jerusalem governante, Ramallah, Jenin, and Gaza City.
Can anyone join Handmade Palestine?
We have plans in the near future to make Handmade Palestine open for more artisans to join our network and be able to sell their crafts online.
Our number one guideline is that it’s made in Palestine. Second, it must have cultural value. It’s our mission to provide friends of Handmade Palestine with crafts that connect them to their homeland. At the same time, that doesn’t mean sticking to traditional motifs and designs only. We believe in the importance of adopting new patterns, designs, and materials that also develop new connections with Palestine.
How do you spread awareness about what you do? And what are some meaningful issues that you seek to highlight via Handmade Palestine?
We try to tap into issues relating to ethical consumerism, and raising awareness about cottage industry, telling our audiences about the stories of our artisans, addressing where they come from, what, how and why they do what they do and under what circumstances. We do that also through Handmade Palestine Artisan Markets, which we do our best to host bi-annually.
How can people who support your cause get involved?
Spread the word. Small businesses are becoming more reliant, especially in Palestine, on social media to promote their businesses. For me, as a marketer, I believe that one should host and maintain their own platform, be it a website, blog, or email marketing. But we still believe in word of mouth. Instead of buying gifts from giants like eBay and Amazon, try looking up smaller, ethical, and independent vendors. Take my word for it, we have gifts that suit your every occasion, for all ages.
How do you support local artisans, and what is the impact you are working to achieve?
We support local artisans by bringing the community and artisan together in one place. We have had over the course of 3 years hosted more than 7 artisan markets. We think it’s vital that locals and tourists meet with the artisans and develop a tangible relationship, to exchange stories, open discussions about their lives and struggles, to share themselves, and of course to sell.
And it’s important to acknowledge the fact that due to restrictions of movement imposed by the Israeli occupation on Bedouin communities in Area C, many girls and boys in these communities find it difficult to pursue their dreams and live their lives. Thus, often times, they stick to learning traditional skills on which they can sustain themselves and their families. With every piece they make, they have a story that tells of their daily lives, their daily struggles—a piece of craft that carries with it their hopes and dreams of a better future for themselves and their children and community.
To learn more about Handmade Palestine visit: https://handmadepalestine.com
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