Creation in Times of Turbulence/ Disarming Design from Palestine

An ambitious, heart-and-soul-felt project is underway in Ramallah. Dubbed Disarming Design, a team of designers from the International Academy of Arts Palestine, ICCO, and Studio Devet, is collaborating in the development of a collection that incorporates the ancient traditions of their homeland, including carpentry, smithery, building and tailoring, to arrive at an authentic interpretation of contemporary ideas. Travelling cross-country to explore the workshops and learn about everything from traditional techniques to materials, these intrepid designers are proud to be producing what is deemed to be the very first collection of Palestinian products of the current time.

Fairylike Industry At Toukan Soap Factory, Nablus. Photo: Annelys De Vet

This is a new design collection of useful objects that reflect upon the Palestinian reality; at the time of going to press, it’s a reality that in the West Bank and Gaza is in a state of hypertension after recent conflicts, a majority vote to change the Palestinians’ status to that of non-member observer state at the UN, and the authorisation of 3,000 more housing units in occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

Palestinian artist Khaled Hourani and Brussels-based designer Annelys de Vet started ‘Disarming Design’ in September 2012 with a design workshop at the International Academy of Arts Palestine. The duo invited artists, designers, and craftsmen to make contemporary products using existing production processes. A couple of vibrant, unpredictable, and very fruitful weeks followed in which two-dozen Palestinian cultural practitioners and three students from the Sandberg Instituut in Amsterdam collaborated. They visited several workplaces, not only in Ramallah, but also in Nablus, Hebron, and Bethlehem, to investigate the production processes, learn about the small-scale factories, and run experiments with the craftsmen and their materials. What follows are edited extracts of de Vet’s observations as the project unfolded…


Weaver Abid Keraki next to the machines that are specially made for keffiyehs, and can only be used for that purpose. Photo: Annelys de Vet

Driving from Ramallah to Hebron would normally take less than an hour, but since Palestinians in the West Bank are not allowed to go through Jerusalem, we have to make a long detour that takes at least two hours. In Hebron, one of the workplaces we visit is the Hirbawi Textile Factory, the only factory in Palestine making the iconic patterned scarf, the keffiyeh. Although the factory was closed a few years ago due to the prolifery of cheap, low quality, Chinese copies that dominated the market, production is now rising again and around 100 scarves are made per day. Compared to the 600 of before, that’s not so many, but at least the factory is doing reasonable business.


Photo: Rudy J. Luijters

A century ago, Nablus used to have over 30 soap factories providing soap for all of Palestine. Now, only two remain. We are welcomed in the Toukan Soap Factory, which is the cleanest and most fairy-like industry I have ever seen. That’s not just because of the fragrance of the soap, but because of the scarce use of tools, the precise use of resources, and the incredible skills of the workers. Spreading the soap mixture, stamping each bar, cutting, drying, and packaging them in paper – all of it is done by hand. It is highly skilled manual labour, which we almost can’t follow with our eyes. Magic.

In Nablus we visit the flagstone factory Jalal Aslan. It’s one of the few traditional tile factories still active in the region. All concrete tiles are made by hand in the same way, piece by piece. The owner, whose grandfather founded the factory almost 90 years ago, invites us in. Entering the workshop we are all amazed by the craftsmen. For many of us, it’s the first time we understand how these tiles, which we have seen so often, are actually made. Photo: Annelys de Vet

We take a walk through the old city of Nablus. Our fine host and talented artist, Majd Abdel Hamid, warns us that if we don’t have a guide, we will get lost. And this is exactly what happened. We ask a passer-by to guide us and are immediately shown a path through an almost illusionistic labyrinth of houses, streets, people, small shops, and oriental smells. We encounter many workplaces – carpenters, smiths, builders, tailors, and more. Each one is a treasure within their small-scale and personal arenas. These kinds of shops have disappeared in the West, either to become bankrupt or commercialized, move to industrial zones, or disappear to low-income countries. Here in Nablus, it’s enlightening to see so many of them embedded in daily life.


In the jewellery shop, Tashakil, in Ramallah, owners Salma and Hiam show us their pieces. Hiam explains how she uses old Palestinian embroidery to make modern jewellery. She also talks about her mother and about the type of embroidery she makes. Making jewellery this way, she reflects upon the Palestinian heritage. We try to discover which local materials are used for the necklaces, but since gemstones or corals don’t exist in the West Bank, the stones are imported. An Arabic conversation follows, which Majd Abdel Hamid later translates, explaining that the most precious stones in Palestine are actually those smuggled by prisoners from the jails. Often, they are beautifully decorated or crafted into a little toy as presents for family members. Salma says she is willing to design and make a necklace with such a stone, if we are able to find one. When we leave, Majd sees friends on the street and walks up to them. When he comes back, he excitedly acclaims that he has found a stone: his friend is willing to give him one.

Designer: Majd Abdel Hamid A handmade hourglass, with crushed cement from the Separation wall in the West Bank. Photo: Majd Abdel Hamid

At the academy, we talk with the Palestinian artists and designers about their proposals. Taqi Aldeen is making kites from used materials and Palestinian newspapers. Like most of the local children, as a youngster he used to make lots of them to sell. This was his way of saving money to buy a bicycle. Meanwhile, Ahmed Nassar has made a set of coffee tables and bowls, and brings us the prototypes. They are beautiful, and are literally made of the ‘old news from Palestine’. A similar title for these objects seems relevant. Designer Amer Amin presents the idea of a shower curtain with an image of the Separation wall on it. The others speculate as to whether this work would celebrate the wall or not. A Danish art student mentions that at home it would be a strong anti-wall symbol. A long discussion arises, with Hasan Daraghmeh explaining how he has been thinking about Palestinian products and finally realises that he, as a Palestinian citizen, is the real product. He feels that he is being used as an object both by the occupation and by the Palestinian real estate investors who demolish the old houses to change them into multi-storey buildings. We receive a penetrating insight as to how different people ‘live the occupation’.

A kite made out of used materials. To be sold as a pack, with instructions and a Palestinian newspaper. Photo: Annelys de Vet

At the end of the workshop, everybody presents his/her prototypes. Sam Bahour – a Palestinian business developer invited as an external guest, says that he is amazed, even ‘shocked’ by the high quality of the works. To be honest, I am more than moved as well, especially by the narratives, the heart-warming encounters and the quality of thinking of the Palestinian cultural practitioners. Artistically, there are extremely good and relevant things happening in Palestine. With this project we hope to present that energy in another perspective and evoke new questions about “the aesthetics of this country, its products, and us as cultural practitioners,” as Majd Abdel Hamid puts it. “It infulences the discourse of art as a culture itself.”


The first prototypes of the design collection were exhibited at the Palestinian International Art Biënnale, Qalandia International, in November. A selection of these designs, and others, are being developed and produced as series-based products, to be represented and distributed by the new design label, Disarming Design. Next year, a mobile design shop will travel pass various cultural institutes, and the products will be sold online as well.

Text by Annelys de Vet

Concept: Khaled Hourani (IAAP), Annelys de Vet, Mieke Zagt (ICCO)
Production: Majd Abdel Hamid, Bayan Shbib
Supported by: ICCO (Dutch inter-church organisation for development cooperation), UNESCO

Workshop hosted & organised by: International Academy of Arts, Palestine, in collaboration with the Sandberg Instituut,Amsterdam

Guidance: Khaled Hourani, Majd Abdel Hamid, Rudy Luijters, Annelys de Vet

This article is reproduced from DAMn°36.

Categories / Annelys de Vet, DAMn Magazine, Disarming Design, ICCO, International Academy of Arts Palestine, Khaled Hourani, Majd Abdel, Studio Devet