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The Palestinian Thobe: Cultural and Historical Complexity

The thobe is a traditional Palestinian dress that features handmade embroidery designs and although its origin dates to the 11th century, it gained major cultural significance after the first intifada in 1987. This date marks the beginning of a series of non-violent Palestinian protests against the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.

During the establishment of Israel in 1948, 850,000 Palestinians were expelled from their homes, many of which only took their dresses with them. In this way, the thobe represents a once pure and untouched Palestine. The sociology of art approach under material culture comprises a wide array of theories that can be utilized to understand the way that meaning is associated with objects in different temporal locations, but it fails to consider the way in which it can play a role in creating hierarchical differences.

The sociology of culture and art approach looks at the material world through a lens that prioritizes the relationship between the subject and the object by focusing on the production and reception of said objects. The thobe is often utilized to make Palestinian culture visible to the public eye through the construction of different meanings that are then associated with it.

For example, the embroidery designs on the dresses vary across villages and each individual dress holds a certain uniqueness and tells a different story about the lives of the Palestinians. For example, orange trees are used as a symbol for Jaffa, a red flower for Ramallah, branches for Hebron, a camel for Jenin, and flowers for Beersheba. This ties to Wendy Griswold’s ideas in The Fabrication of Meaning, where she defines objects as “shared symbols embodied in a tangible and expressive form”.

The symbols on the dresses are used as a means of signifying and communicating an individual’s heritage and traditional identity, which are collectively understood and do not require any spoken language. Objects themselves hold a particular capacity, either limited or expanded, to embody a type of meaning that is then interpreted by the group of people who consume those objects. This relates to the fabrication of meaning, a term that Griswold coined that is used to refer to the tendency of people’s expectations and prior knowledge to shape the meanings that they associate with objects.

Griswold also describes the cultural diamond as a tool that can be used to understand a cultural objects’ relationship with the social world more holistically and accurately. This device allows us to view the thobe as it relates to broader macrostructural forces by looking at the relationship between the producers and receivers, and the social world in which they reside. In this case, the people who produce the cultural objects are also those who consume and interpret it in their everyday lives.

The designs and embroidery techniques used to create these dresses have been passed down from generations of Palestinian mothers to their daughters, who comprise the main traditional producers of this object. The manufacturing process begins with the decision of what fabric to use, followed by the creation of the embroidery pattern, deciding which colors to use, and finally the execution of the dress itself. Moving on to the receivers of the dress, they are the people who experience the cultural object and make use of it in their everyday lives.

The thobe is used as a reflection of Palestinian women’s unique, and at the same time, cohesive cultural identities. It also provides an eternal link between Palestinian people and their homeland and acts as a walking representation of the ongoing struggle. Cultural objects, however, do not operate freely in time and space and they are situated around a particular context. This is referred to as the social world, which is another element of culture and a part of Griswold’s diamond.

With time, the thobe began to signify resistance against the occupation and challenged the Israeli ban on public displays of Palestinian nationalism through vibrant and striking embroidery designs of Palestinian flags and maps. In this way, the disruption that the occupation created to the social world transformed the thobe from a symbol of freedom to a symbol of resistance. This demonstrates the intersection between receivers and producers of a cultural object with the social world that they operate within and the way in which their socially constructed meanings of them can change over time.

Although this device is successful in highlighting the traditional methods used within the production process of cultural objects and the dynamism of the meanings associated with them, it fails to consider the aspects that are lost in modern-day reproductions of the thobe.

Nowadays, different groups of people, particularly Israelis, are engaging in cultural theft by claiming the thobe as part of their culture and traditions. More specifically, the embroidery designs and patterns are being culturally appropriated, and mass produced for their own financial gain. For example, brands like Louis Vuitton and Israeli designer Nili Lotan have featured embroidery patterns in their clothing, which were being sold in large-scale department stores like Nordstrom. Well-known Israeli figures have also been spotted wearing the Palestinian thobe in international events like the Cannes Film Festival as an attempt to add cultural depth and a national character to their public image.

These reproductions, although physically identical to the thobe, lack a specific uniqueness that cultural objects encompass in their original form. This characteristic was referred to by Walter Benjamin in The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction as the “aura” of a work of art, which relates to its original emotions and historical value.

When non-Palestinian groups of people replicate an object that embodies significant cultural importance like the thobe for something other than its intended purpose, the authenticity, traditional value, and uniqueness are lost in the reproduction process. This is an important aspect of the thobe to draw upon because it plays a significant role in the preservation of hierarchical differences between Palestinians and Israelis.

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