Despite the systemic oppression of Palestinians, and the fact that the Israeli occupation makes it nearly impossible for young designers to pursue their dreams, Palestine remains a land where creativity thrives and prospers. Designers are using their lived experience, namely their life under the occupation, to transcend borders through fashion. With limited access to key resources creating challenging economic and social conditions for the local population, we talked to four Palestinian women about their lives as creatives and being a member of the creative diaspora.

When you order a piece
Yasmeen Mjalli launched Nol Collective in 2020, after working in design in Palestine and learning the nuances of what it means to be a creative under apartheid. She wanted to not only shed light on the political nature of fashion, but to also give people the opportunity to engage with stories beyond the garment itself. “We face particular challenges in operations which most brands and customers don’t think twice about. We are not the kind of brand which can get you your garment in 48 hours. This is because we work under apartheid, living in a state which doesn’t have control over its own borders,” she explains.

When you order a piece from Nol, its journey is unpredictable. Sometimes it takes three days, but if the borders are closed by the Israeli military it could take up to a few weeks, if not months, to arrive. “We make it a point to share these challenges with customers who have never really had to think about their clothes in this way. We live in a world where customers get the end result, they get the final product without thinking about the long chain of people who came together to create it, from fabric weaving, embroidering, and sewing, to packaging and shipping.” With that in mind, it is the brand’s mission to challenge the way in which customers shop — highlighting conversations around change, namely by showing the political, environmental, and human nature of clothes.

Excruciating circumstances
Anat International by Salma Shawa is a fashion brand that operates out of Gaza. “Each garment is made under the excruciating circumstances of the blockade and siege that has been imposed on Gaza for over a decade,” Shawa explains, “Most of the problems we face when producing our garments in Gaza are a direct result of the blockade’s limitations on the export and import of goods.” Some of these problems include finding opportunities to engage with other creatives outside of Palestine, gaining international certifications, developing skillsets, working on join design programs, as well as sourcing materials.

“For instance, when things were happening in Gaza or Sheikh Jarrah, to the scale that we saw back in May 2021, that impedes a creative’s ability to create or even think about creating,” she said. After the violence of 2021, the denim factory Shawa works with had difficulties in sourcing materials, taking up three months to secure the basic necessities. Additionally, sourcing simple items, such as buttons and embroidery thread, can be unpredictable, and this can limit the variety the brand can offer.

In the heart of Gaza
Creatives in Palestine tend to be unapologetically political, but how could they not be? Their mere existence is politicized. Meera Adnan, a ready-to-wear label, that also operates from the city, explains that while she produces abroad, residing in Gaza has proven to be financially costly, personally exhausting and has deprived her of various opportunities due to the challenging travel restrictions. However, her creative and personal life are both based in Gaza and operating or living elsewhere is not something she sees herself doing. On the challenges she faces in Gaza, Adnan says, “As simple as it may sound, the occupation is the root of all my personal trauma and daily life struggles. I was born carrying generational trauma in my blood, and grew up to face daily challenges that are there only to break my humanity, creativity, and ability to exist.”

The occupation has evidently limited economic progress in Palestine. Many thriving industries have been hindered by bombings and restrictions on movement, resulting in daily logistical challenges. Adnan says that “Gaza, in particular, has been the most affected area, where tens of factories and studios got shut down after the second intifada.” She further explains that due to the ongoing siege, the knowledge and experience of local artisans has been impacted.

Some of these problems include finding opportunities to engage with other creatives outside of Palestine, gaining international certifications, developing skillsets, working on join design programs, as well as sourcing materials.

“It’s easier to be creative in the diaspora”
Documenting the news and the ongoing obstacles Palestinian creatives face is important; however, UAE-born Palestinian interior designer and art teacher, Baraa Alwahidi raises an important point: The fact that the Palestinian voice is only heard when they’re in a vulnerable state. “It feels as if we are only heard when we are suffering, our work is only valuable when it’s tragic. But when producing work from a place of power, and at the same level as others it is less likely to prosper and it’s viewed as intimidating and controversial rather than referred to as abstract or contemporary,” she explains. “It’s easier to be creative in the diaspora because you have the privilege to be solely labeled as a creative first, let alone the improved access to opportunities and ease of movement,” further highlighting the basic human right violations that Palestinians are subjected to on a daily basis, she then bemoans that her country people at home are denied the right to move freely.

This year, thanks to social media and the ease of accessing information, people around the world were forced to listen to Palestine. But, what can the international community do to help? Adnan says acknowledging the “harmful solidarity movements and actions that rarely give Palestinians the lead voice to share their opinions and narratives,” is one way to start. “Our stories are often told by foreigners who can only grasp our reality to some basic level. Thus, when it comes to the creative industry, Palestinians are seen as victimized war survivors whose main characteristics and lives are mainly based around having their whole existence politicized for them. Their achievements or creativity are always seen as a reactive response to living under occupation and [they are] never seen as respected creatives who are able to create art.”

Mjalli adds, “Challenge what you know and challenge the world around you. In the last few years, we’ve all started asking questions about the way things have been for far too long, and now we’re in the pivotal moment in which we can actually build a radically different future.” When it comes to fashion, we all now know that a garment is never just a garment—it’s a story, so start questioning how and what you consume.