by Rania Kataf
Aghabani fabric is one of the most admired textiles of Damascus, uniquely connected to the city and its surrounding towns. Although this craft has gained fame through the merchants of Damascus, the true creators of this embroidery based fabric are the women working behind the scenes, in Duma and elsewhere. Duma is a major city which lies to the northeast of Damascus, in the Ghuta region. “Every woman in Duma owns an Aghabani embroidery machine; it comes with our dowry, and Aghabani embroidery-making is a custom the women of Duma have practiced for generations,” explains an elderly woman from the Jowhar family. The Jowhar family has a good reputation in Aghabani textile production. They have been practicing this craft for three generations now, like many other well-known families from the city of Duma such as al-Malik, al-Najjar and Sheikh Bzeneh.
“Each Aghabani piece is uniquely designed by one women, just like a painting.”Samir Hamoudeh
Aghabani fabric is a unique handmade design of silk, organza or cotton decorated with white, gold and/or silver embroidery viscose threads. Originally, those were familiar as the primary colours of Aghabani fabric, but today many new colour combinations have been introduced to please market demand. “Each Aghabani piece is uniquely designed by one women, just like a painting,” explains Samir Hamoudeh, an owner of an Aghabani warehouse in Damascus. “I used to buy the cotton fabric myself, take them to the woodblock printer, choose the designs with him, then come back the next day to pick them up and send them to the women in Douma. Men did their part, but the actual work was on the women,” he continues. Different patterns were printed on the fabric using washable blue ink to help guide the women who did the embroidery. Each piece of tablecloth contained a minimum of three patterns. Using smaller and larger woodblocks, woodblock printers repeatedly stamped the patterns to cover the centre, the middle and the corners of the fabric.
Many merchants believe that Aghabani dates back to the Ottoman period in Damascus, at a time when customized embroidery fabric was made specifically for men of high religious status or position. Even then, women were the pioneers of this craft. Women are taught by their mothers or aunts all about embroidery at a very young age. It is estimated that before the war almost 5000 women worked from their homes in Duma in Aghabani production. Today the number has dramatically decreased as a result of seven years of war in Syria. In an interview with one of the current practitioners of this craft, Lina Sheikh Bzeneh explains that Aghabani relates to all and any embroidery work created by the women of Duma, insisting that without the effort of women in Duma, there would be no Aghabani at all. On the other hand, Laila Jowhar connects the worldwide fame of Aghabani specifically to tablecloth and to the handcrafting technique used by her ancestors. “When you ask people about Aghabani, all they can think of is the tablecloth, this is what is most popular today.”
For Lina, who has been working in this craft since she was ten years old, tablecloth embroidery has established a beginning of a new Aghabani era. She believes that the shift from basic embroidery made on clothes to a more delicate range of texture and design finely stitched on a large piece of fabric has helped safeguard their city’s identity. She asks her mom, “Ummi, how long have we been making Aghabani?” For her, time is measured by the number of stitches made by the women in her family. “Ask your grandmother how old she was when Damascenes came and ordered their first piece of tablecloth,” replies her mother.
Fig. 1: A sample of the handprinted fabric prepared for the women of Duma (© Rania Kataf – CC-BY-NC-ND)
Fig. 2: Stitch design for Aghabani (© Rania Kataf – CC-BY-NC-ND)
Because of their conservative background, women of Duma worked from their homes. This made it impossible to find a substitute for their method of embroidery work, since no one ever actually saw how those women created Aghabani masterpieces. During the war in Syria many women left Duma without their needles and embroidery machines, hence Aghabani making stopped for years and was on the verge of extinction. However these women found a way to smuggle their machines out of their homes and revived this craft. The women of Duma started making Aghabani from their new homes in safer neighbouring villages, some even moved to Damascus and reconnected with merchants they had worked for before the conflict. When Duma was declared safe in 2018, most Dumanian families returned to their homes, bringing the craft back to its original source. The Damascene warehouse owner Samir Mahmoud is sure: “The women of Duma have saved the craft. No hands are like the hands of Dumanian women. They create magic.”
Rania Kataf is a Damascus-based visual artist working on documenting the city’s memory through stories and photographs. With her Facebook community group “Humans of Damascus” she tries to engage Damascenes into this process online.