Embroidered exile: Amplifying Palestinian voices through art 

Image courtesy of Rasha Al Jundi.

Rasha Al Jundi, a Palestinian photographer and visual storyteller, brings forth a poignant project that transcends borders and generations. Her project, “When the Grapes Were Sour: Embroidered Palestinian Voices from Exile,” weaves together narratives of exiled Palestinians, echoing their shared struggles, identity dilemmas and unyielding resilience. Through her lens and the art of embroidery, Al Jundi crafts a vivid tapestry of stories that resonates far beyond the confines of geography. 

I encountered Al Jundi’s project amid a surge of political advocacy that appeared on my Instagram feed following Hamas’ attack on Israel and the retaliation in response on Oct. 7. During my own upbringing in Jordan as a displaced Palestinian amidst a predominantly displaced Palestinian community, solidarity for the Palestinian cause ran deep. In Jordan, the label of “exiled Palestinian” held no sway; we were united as one, a blend of Palestinian and Jordanian, bound by fraternity and sisterhood. Our hearts throbbed in unison for our kin in an occupied land, the only division being an arbitrary “border.” Now at Vassar, I admire those back in Jordan who harbored such a profound sense of pride and connection to a nation they only knew through the bitterness of loss that kept its memory alive. I often felt less tethered to that aspect of my identity. 

As I scrolled through my feed that evening, bearing witness to the horrors of the Oct. 7 attacks and the ensuing retaliations, fearing for the ethnic cleansing shrouded under the pretext of a war on terrorism, I found myself confronted with “the other perspective”—a surge of Zionism I was cognizant of but had never personally encountered. This marked a profound awakening of my new identity: that of an exiled Palestinian.  

On Oct. 20, I conducted a Zoom interview with Al Jundi, who is located in Nairobi, Kenya. I was keen on learning about her journey as an exiled Palestinian, how she navigates and champions this identity amidst a predominantly anti-Palestinian political climate today.

Al Jundi’s path to becoming an artist was influenced by her upbringing and her deep-rooted Palestinian identity. Growing up in the United Arab Emirates, Al Jundi’s family kept their heritage alive through literature and history, fostering a profound awareness of her Palestinian roots through art. Al Jundi noted, “From the moment I opened my eyes, I knew I was Palestinian… The whole history was on our bookshelves.” Despite studying nutrition, she described to me her 14-year journey in civil society work across the Middle East, North America and Sub-Saharan Africa. This diverse experience enriched her perspective, eventually leading her to her current residence in Nairobi, Kenya. The thread of art, particularly embroidery, was interwoven into her family’s heritage, influencing her artistic journey. “My father comes from the Hebron region (Yatta, يطّا), my mother comes from Bayt Dajan (بيت دجن), both regions well known for Palestinian embroidery,” she explained.

Al Jundi’s project arose from her desire to explore the complexities of Palestinian identity beyond conventional narratives. She sought to connect with fellow exiles who grappled with questions of privilege, survivor’s guilt and the persistent colonial lens through which their identity is often viewed. “Exiled Palestinians who felt the same agony, the same قهر (Qahir),” as she described them. The embroidery, meticulously applied by hand, serves as a tangible bridge between her subjects’ stories and her own experiences. “The embroidery is me putting myself in your story,” Al Jundi explained. Each stitch carries symbolic weight, referencing the regions and stories of the individuals captured through her lens.

Al Jundi acknowledged the inherent complexity that accompanies a project of such sensitivity. While not explicitly conveying a political stance, the stories depicted carry a dimension of political awareness and generational trauma, acknowledging the historical oppression and occupation of Palestine over the past 75 years. Rasha shared with me that, in light of the German government’s heightened scrutiny of pro-Palestinian activities, some individuals opted to step back from the project at different stages, fearing potential repercussions. 

I empathize with the fear that often restrains individuals from expressing their views. As an international Jordanian-Palestinian student, I was deeply disoriented to find my existence perceived as a threat or a “complex” subject matter in America. I had never anticipated the need to monitor my online presence or temper my opinions out of fear of being unfairly labeled. My views align with neither terrorism nor antisemitism, and yet the expression of my stance has been accused of being both. Each paragraph I write and every post I share online carries the weight of potential doxxing or inclusion on a list that vilifies those who speak out against human rights violations and injustice, as reported by ABC News. I turned to Al Jundi for guidance on how to boldly embrace our Palestinian identity and advocate against injustices in a world that often seeks to suppress our voices.

While she emphasizes safety and well-being, Al Jundi also champions the necessity of being outspoken. In our interview, she underscores the erasure of Palestinian identity, urging individuals not to hide but to use their voices as a tool for change. The media has largely overlooked the crackdown on individuals, including employees and students, who stand in solidarity with Palestine, Al Jundi explained. This extends not only to the United States but also to incidents in Germany, where police forces and even dogs and water cannons were employed to quell protesters, according to France 24. In her perspective, these actions constitute further attempts to erase the Palestinian identity, instilling fear in both exiled Palestinians and their supporters. “There is an entire generation of parents that didn’t even tell their children that they are Palestinian out of fear and trauma.” Despite understanding their reasoning, Al Jundi disagrees: “To me, that is not the answer, we should be instilling that identity. Palestinians are not resilient, they are stubborn. Palestinians are stubborn because we have a land that belongs to us and stubbornness breeds resistance.” Drawing inspiration from the Palestinian revolutionary and renowned author Ghassan Kanafani, Al Jundi affirms that words and pens can be as potent as any weapon in the pursuit of justice. “There is no peace, there is no talk between a colonizing case and the colonized persons. We will never win this ‘talk.’ Peace doesn’t exist at the moment and shouldn’t exist, any peace that comes about at this point is a white man’s peace.” Rasha’s remarks remind me of Kanafani, who in a 1970 interview staunchly opposed engaging in peace talks with Israel, likening it to “a conversation between the sword and the neck.”

“Embroidered Exile” serves as a bitter reminder that the Nakba, the Palestinian exodus of 1947 to 1949, endures as an ongoing event which haunts generations of Palestinians who have never stepped foot in Palestine. Al Jundi’s project challenges narratives that call for the displacement of Palestinians, emphasizing the need for a return to their homeland. “Amid the calls for opening up borders to Palestinian refugees, I hope this project shows the world why Palestinians should not leave their homes. These stories are the kinds of narratives that this will create. It will create people who are confused about their identity but will never stop holding onto it… The call for dispossession is not the solution. The solution is for us to return to our homeland.” It also seeks to bridge divides within the Palestinian community, reminding all that they share a common heritage and struggle. Through Al Jundi’s lens, the conversation about Palestine will persist, ensuring that the world never forgets the enduring spirit of the Palestinian people. 

Rasha often asks participants in her project: “When do you feel most exiled?”

For me, that answer is today.

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