Conflict stalled an embroidery business and left it after years as stitches in time
Heike Weber organised women in fine craft work in Palestine and Syria before trouble intervened
Heike Weber: “The women are very artistic . . . They used their earnings to pay debts, repair their houses.”
Heike Weber is a woman with a mission. For the past 32 years, she has worked to better the lives and lot of Palestinian and Syrian women by providing work in embroidery, weaving and dress design. Today she is in despair. She may have to abandon her mission due to the civil conflict that has killed between 100,000 and 160,000 across Syria.
Over tea and apple strudel with ice cream in the spacious courtyard of her 200-year-old Ottoman-era house near the eastern gate of Damascus’s Old City, she says, “I was born in Berlin and studied literature and musical science at the Free University of Berlin.”
She married a Palestinian and arrived in Beirut just before Israel launched its 1982 war against the Palestine Liberation Organisation, then based in Lebanon. “We were evacuated to Syria, where I held courses for Palestinian refugee women.”
In 1988 she decided to launch a project to provide them with an income. “We wanted to make something out of nothing. ” They started with $200. The project, named Anat after the ancient Semitic Earth mother who battled death, set up shop near the Omayyad mosque in the Old City. “We could not pay the girls . . . so I went to Germany to sell what they made.”
Anat prospered and grew. Syrian women who had come into the Damascus suburbs looking for a better life “said help us, too. They showed us their embroideries, which are quite different from Palestinian cross-stitch. In 2003 we bought a car and started to go to the villages.”
She recruited women in Jabal al-Hoss, an impoverished area near Aleppo where residents dwell in domed “beehive” mud houses; in a quarter of Aleppo City; in the northern province of Idlib; and in Sweida, the largely Druze area in the south.
Praise and criticism
She had to educate the women, spur them to do good work with extravagant praise and gentle criticism, to keep work clean in dusty homes without running water and finish it well. “At first the work was poor quality and we threw it away. When it was better, we paid double.”
The embroideries became so good Anat exhibited in Germany and Britain and sold them at a high price. “The women are very artistic . . . They used their earnings to pay debts, repair their houses, and buy animals.
The women grew independent and the men became jealous. “During a funeral in a village, I was warned, half-jokingly, by the man sitting next to me that I had made a revolution and should take care and do something for the men.”
With their share of the profits, the villagers of Jabal al-Hoss, where schooling stopped at the sixth grade, opted for three mini-buses to take their children to the secondary school at a nearby town. “The families paid one-third and we paid two-thirds. Nearly half were girls.” These were usually kept at home after a few years of schooling. “Girls were more interested than boys ... When the first boy passed his baccalaureate, he came with a box of chocolates.”
Unfortunately, the mood in some villages darkened. Ultra-conservative clerics warned women against depicting animals or birds in their work. “Cut the head off that bird,” one woman was told, “or it will steal your soul.”
Anat opened a new shop in an Old City mansion with arches and a fountain in its spacious central room. Clothing was made to order for customers, including the president’s wife, Asma al-Assad, and Spain’s Queen Sophia.
A workshop was constructed near Damascus: a bright place with heating and cooling where women could do good work. It was set to open in April 2011 but war intervened.
“When the troubles started, we stopped the buses” in Jabal al-Hoss. They gradually lost contact with most of the 1,000 women who worked for Anat. The 700 in Aleppo and Idlib provinces have fled to Turkey or are scattered across Syria. She can phone and visit some in Sweida. But they no longer work, the supply of embroideries has dried up and Anat’s inventory is shrinking. Heike commutes to Beirut and Amman to consult for agencies operating outside Syria. Dreams die in Syria as well as people.