Palestine has long been a subject of public discourse, and the mere mention of its name, for most people, conjures up images of war and volatile political situations. But there are four women for whom Palestine has an entirely different meaning. To them, it is home. It is where their parents, grandparents and ancestors grew up. Being Palestinian, and having that heritage, is something each of them is incredibly proud of. This pride isn’t politically motivated, because as Nimati Shuhaibar, 28, founder and event director of Polkadots & Ribbons, whose mother was born in Gaza, whose father is from Jaffa, and whose grandparents and great-grandparents were raised, educated and started their lives in Palestine, tells us, “At the end of the day, we can’t change anything that has happened.” The pride is deep and genuine, rooted in family history and inspired by personal experiences. To each of them being Palestinian, “is just who they are”.
Laila Shaheen, 26, Faux Consultancy’s social media manager, explains how the conflict has affected her family. Her mother, who is from Jerusalem and grew up in Nablus, has two brothers and a sister that still live in Palestine, and Laila, who spent a year living there at the age of four, says that although they “live in peace in Palestine, mostly in Jerusalem,” travel restrictions make it hard for them to be able to see their family. “I haven’t been back in 14 years. I mostly see my Palestinian family when they are travelling abroad and stop in Amman, Jordan.” She also recounts the story of how her father came to leave Gaza, after having grown up there. “He and his best friend studied engineering in Egypt, and once they had finished, they travelled back to Gaza to collect what they needed to interview for jobs. My dad was able to leave and come to the UAE, but his friend got stuck in Palestine. It’s so crazy that you can take the exact same path as someone, but the political situation alters your life plans. It’s unfortunate.” She adds, “It’s good to hear these stories because it reminds you that it’s actually real. We’re sheltered here in the UAE, and I think people are immune to what’s happening in Palestine here now because they’ve heard it for so long.”
Which is why Nimati is “extremely proud” of fellow countrywoman Ayah Tabari, 28, the founder of cult label Mochi, who has dedicated her latest collection to the place her father grew up, as “it gives people the chance to talk about Palestine in a really constructive way.” Ayah elaborates, “[When the war] started, my dad had to leave [Palestine] and never went back. Hearing stories from him and the way he grew up, and how he and my mother, who is also Palestinian, raised us, there’s a deep connection to our country.” Mochi, in its very essence, Ayah tell us, is about giving back to the community. “What I strive to do in all my collections is to empower women artisans around the world to rise above poverty and support their families. Creating jobs and work opportunities for women in Palestine positively affects their well-being, standard of living and purchasing power.” The collection “uses typical Palestinian fabric, which is richly embroidered and has been worn since the 19th century. It has always played a significant role in the lives of the region’s women because it reflected her economic and marital status as well as her district of origin.”
Ayah admits that creating this collection was not without its struggles due to the current situation in Palestine. “The lady I was working with was moving around from Bethlehem to Ramallah to Jerusalem. It was hard for her to go back and forth, to transport items. I’d speak to her one day and the next she’d disappear for a week.”
When it comes to supporting their country, each of the girls is exceptionally passionate. With a grandfather that grew up in Palestine, left in 1927 and returned in the ’50s, and extended family that still lives there, Lina Mustafa, 24, the owner of The Luxury Arcade boutique in Abu Dhabi, is active in her charity participation. “I always take part in clothing drives where we send used clothes and blankets back to Palestine. Many Palestinians don’t have the basic necessities, which is why it’s so important.” Both Nimati and Laila agree. “We love attending charity events held by the Palestinian Children’s Relief Fun (PCRF). And in my family, it’s tradition to send a percentage of our yearly income to help our people,” Layla explains. Nimati is also a supporter of PCRF, saying, “Most recently I participated in planning an event with them to raise awareness for Gaza.” She has also participated in rallies in London, which she called “an incredible and eye-opening experience.”
Most poignantly, perhaps, the four Dubai and Abu Dhabi-based women have their sights set on visiting their motherland at some point. As Nimati explains, “I feel strongly about the cause because it’s a place we can never really go back to and live in and call home. I want to see where I’m from and where my heritage is, where my ancestors were and where my grandparents grew up, their farm, you know? Obviously I want to go because it completes you as a person, being able to go home.” The reality of the situation is that it is unlikely they will be able to return anytime soon, but they remain hopeful for the future of the country. “My hope, along with many other Palestinians,” says Laila, “is for peace throughout the region there. The future of Palestine is shaped by many of us Palestinians living outside of it – what we do with our time to help the cause. All we can do is be the best version of ourselves and show the world that although we are far from home, we hold it close to our hearts.”
Bold, beautiful and determined to bring hope to their people, Nimati, Ayah, Laila and Lina are proving that there’s always another side to every story. — Maddison Glendinning
This article first appeared in the December 2014 issue of Harper's Bazaar Arabia