How Palestine’s last keffiyeh factory is helping olive trees to flourish

Hirbawi Textile Factory, located in Hebron, is the only producer of the original keffiyeh in all of Palestine. The factory was founded in 1961 by Yasser Hirbawi. Photo by Eloise Bollack

Environmental activist Morgan Cooper found a sustainable way to fund the planting of trees in Palestine for its people: selling local artisanal products online. She spoke to Brooke Benoit.

Just over a decade ago Morgan Cooper of California, USA visited a friend in Palestine, admittedly being ignorant about the historical occupation of Palestine and her own government’s key role in the ongoing oppression of Palestinians. Her heart became cemented to the land and people, and after being “adopted” by a local family and eventually even marrying a Palestinian man, Palestine became home for Morgan. During her decade of falling in love with and in Palestine, Morgan has naturally grown into an activist rooting herself in several projects connected directly to the land and its people.

Last year, Morgan and her husband Saleh Totah began Mashjar Juthour, a green project to preserve the native flora and fauna of the region and help reconnect the increasingly alienated people and land. After facing difficulties getting funding for the much-needed project, she found a way to support the work more sustainably with Shop Made in Palestine. The sales of locally made goods such as keffiyeh from the only factory in the country, jewelry from a women’s co-op and olive oil-based products, keep all the funds circulating in and supporting Palestine.

During the recent attacks on Gaza, the business was as usual for Morgan Cooper, who talked with me at length about her projects’ goals, successes and hindrances.

Herbawi Textile Factory, located in Hebron, is the only producer of the original koffiyeh in all of Palestine. The factory was founded in 1961 by Yasser Herbawi

Brooke Benoit: What brought you to living and working in Palestine?

Morgan Cooper: I first came to Palestine over 10 years ago, to visit a friend who was living and teaching in Ramallah. I had known all of one Muslim family growing up. I didn’t even know what hummus or falafel were! I asked if someone might host me, and a family lovingly adopted me. I lived with them for several months a year every year when I visited Palestine. It wasn’t until four years ago that I met the man who is today my husband. He’s a passionate tree lover and it’s really his idea to give our community a space to learn about and protect our natural heritage. So we created Mashjar Juthour.

“Mashjar” means in Arabic “a place of trees” and “Juthour” means “roots” – both culturally and botanically. While we could trumpet ourselves as the “first arboretum in Palestine,” we think of it more than just a botanic garden for tending flora. Trees, whatever value we imbue them with, they ultimately embody the future, lives and events and civilizations beyond our own lifespans or imaginations. Cultivating plant life to sustain and whether the days ahead and preserving the spread of growth around the plants is the highest act of selflessness because there’s no benefit for our individual selves after we die and the trees outlive us.

To continue to tout our selflessness and at the risk of sounding too humble, Juthour aims to see the future and raise it one. We espouse the fierce activism of Palestinians: the rocks in hand, the swelling numbers of marching protesters, the rebuilding of decimated cities. And we recognize that at base level, the fight is for land justice. The Zionist project began as a goal to own the entire land of Palestine, and they have not achieved this after sixty-plus years because Palestinians reject their disenfranchisement.

Jawde Hirbawi sets up the factory’s newest machine. It was recently purchased as a result of increased business, the highest in more than a decade. Photo: Eloise Bollack

Recently, the UN issued a statement that they will rebuild Gaza one last time. With so much work to do on the ground, at least 500,000 Palestinians have been displaced, I can imagine that many people think something along the lines of “people before plants” and most rebuilding will focus on homes and infrastructure. Will you please explain why projects like Mashjar Juthour are so vital to happen side by side with the rebuilding?

Certainly. We were very unsure at Juthour what we should do about the continuation of building projects and encouraging friends to donate, etc. Coordinating any sort of events seemed at once futile, hopeless, unfocused and disrespectful. We felt weakened and lacking agency, and also unfit for expressing mourning beside the reason for mourning – thousands of our people yet again wiped out.

However, a toweringly influential activist friend – in fact, a woman who created the International Solidarity Movement in Gaza and the West Bank and who has dedicated her life to creating a family and grassroots movements – reminded us harshly and inarguably that building, rebuilding, mourning, resilience and the power of charging forward despite hardships was what the Palestinian community represented. We live to serve the Palestinian community, so we were grateful to be reminded that we need to be stewards of unstoppability – in essence, plants may be wiped out, but their roots remain – Juthour.

Members of the family work at the factory; here they prepare the coloured threads for machines. Photo: Eloise Bollack

I think that many of us will also wonder: what is the point of planting trees if Israel is just going to cut, burn, bomb and destroy them?

Juthour exists on 10 dunnams (about 10 000 square meters) on the top of a hill on the suburban outskirts of rural Ramallah, the West Bank’s center for commerce, government and cosmopolitan life. However, one of the many hypocrisies of the 1993 Oslo Accords was that the for-show handshake for “peace” seen around the world meant that Israel merely drew its forces out of major Palestinian cities (so many exceptions to this), but controls still over 85 percent of the West Bank. Area C is fully under Israeli military jurisdiction, and that’s where Juthour is.

It’s not melodramatic to be frightfully concerned about burning or demolishing, because it happens all too often in the West Bank. If Israel decides to build a settlement on our fertile ground, then we say goodbye to our land. If settlers decide to come and break branches on our trees or harass our skilled craftspeople as they work on the land, we are virtually powerless to that as well, because their actions are always colluded by the Israeli state and its military. And this again isn’t just positing – the settlement of Dolev is over a few hills from our land and the Palestinian village of Ein Kinya down below, which has seen its fair share of surrounding land being stolen and carved up.

We could find another way to rephrase what’s already been said about the importance of building under a blanket of destruction, but that’s the universal trope of perseverance, isn’t it? Thematically, we can all identify with Juthour’s version of disobedience towards ongoing abuse.

The looms are decades old. In the past 10 years, there was a time when only four of them were running as the factory struggled to stay open. Photo: Eloise Bollack

You are working with the Hirbawi family’s keffiyeh factory, which is the only such factory in Palestine. All the other keffiyeh that flood the market are produced either in China or Israel. A few years ago factory sales and work had dwindled to depressingly low numbers. How is the factory doing today?

I hadn’t been to the factory in nearly a year, so I went today specifically to talk to them. In the 10 years that I’ve been going to that factory, I have never ever once seen it so, well, operational. From the second I walked in, I was smiling ear to ear and giving them all thumbs up, as it’s all but impossible to hear over the roar of the looms. Every one of the 14 looms was hard at work. Four men worked the looms, walking the aisles and checking the threads on machines. I’ve never seen more than one worker – the same older man who usually works only two or at most four of the machines.

I asked them later, in the far quieter storage space where women sew and package keffiyeh, about business. They smiled and answered, “Hamdulilah, it’s very good these days. We work at 80 percent of our capacity. Seven or eight years ago, we were working at 15 to 20 percent. We stayed open through it all and today we have all 14 machines working and 15 or so staff members.”  I honestly couldn’t stop smiling throughout the interview, I was just so pleased for them.

They started that factory in the 40s. The original founding family patriarch still goes to the shop and sits there greeting customers every day. Originally, it was in the old city of Hebron where all of the family lives. Over time they purchased more looms and hired more staff, and moved out of the too-small space. The fact that they recently purchased new equipment and hired so many more employees is a testament that all of us buying from them is having a great impact on them and the community.

The factory looms in action. Photo: Mashjar Juthour

The Hirbawi factory is located in an area of Hebron that at times sees daily violence. How, if at all, is the factory protected? What will happen if it too is destroyed?

Palestinians are not protected, even by their own government and police force, who are required to step aside at the whim of a military or settler incursion.

The Palestinian Authority has “governance” over the H1 sector of Hebron, and the Israeli military controls the other 20 percent of the city, H2, which is basically about a thousand settlers who have with force taken top floors, full buildings and entire streets of the old city. They are statistically the most aggressive and violent of the colonizing population in the West Bank. When you walk through the Palestinian market place, above your head are chain-linked fencing canopies which have caught years’ worth of garbage that the settlers will throw down from their windows. Sometimes they pour faeces, urine and boiling water down on the Palestinian citizens below.

One barely sees the presence of Palestinian police in this city, instead various Israeli military checkpoints and watchtowers are interwoven through the streets, impeding, halting and humiliating the mobility of over 250,000 Palestinians. There have even been Zionist tours where, protected by soldiers, hundreds of visitors (mostly young American men) have descended upon the old city, disrupting the shopping district and breaking lots of the Palestinian crafts.

However, the businesses remain steadfast, like one of our partners, Nawwal Idna Women’s Cooperative, who operates right below a giant garbage pocket above the chain-linked fence protective frond. There is still a great spirit of life continuation, a bustling marketplace that still exists. Palestinians embrace sumud – the unbreakability which has carried them through sixty-plus years of colonization.

As for the Hirbawi factory, it used to be in the old city, but as most of the establishments in the old city are very hole-in-the-wall classic little bazaar shops, the factory needed to be in a warehouse, which is located about five minutes outside of the old city. This need to move and grow is also a testament to their progress and expansion as a business.

Morgan Cooper enjoying the serenity of Mashjar Juthour. Photo: Eloise Bollack

How do you logistically get the goods out of Palestine and the money into the hands of those who did the work?

Honestly, this is the most unsustainable part of our work. Palestinian post is absurdly, outrageously expensive and in my experience, not terribly reliable at that. We could use an Israeli post from Jerusalem, which is a viable choice. However, when I married a Palestinian, I became officially banned from entering Jerusalem and we aren’t at all keen to put money into their economy. Loads of people travel in and out of the West Bank, especially foreigners, and many are happy to help because they see this as a wonderful project. They carry our items in their luggage, and once they get to the US, they mail everything to our amazing volunteer Courtney Muhammad in North Carolina.

We really can’t change our reality here under occupation, so, for now, we have to find creative ways around and through it.

In terms of money going to the artisans, I buy everything at fair trade prices the second I take the products. I think what we’re doing really makes a difference here and it is the best practice to support and pay the struggling artisans immediately and fairly for their work.

What do you know about shady organizations claiming to support Palestine, and how can we consumers and donors best know who to trust?

We registered Mashjar Juthour as a non-profit business last year specifically as a response to the corruption we see. In fact, this afternoon I had a meeting with an auditor and we spoke at length about corruption and development, which is a very widespread phenomenon. I think it’s really hard to know who does good work, who is honest, who serves the community’s needs effectively. I like Middle East Children’s Fund, Palestine Medical Relief Society, Palestine Children’s Relief Fund to name a few. Of course, if anyone wants to donate, please choose us!

There are great needs in our communities, often times desperate needs. Many people struggle to understand initially why an environmental project is worth supporting at all. I’ll respond with this quote from a child, probably nine years old, from Jalazone Refugee Camp  – a community built just outside Ramallah with tall, rickety concrete houses separated with narrow lanes and facing an illegal Israeli settlement that often shoots at the kids’ schools. She came to summer camp at Mashjar Juthour. She looked up at my husband, smiled and said, “I wish we could move the camp here. I wish my home was always here.”

More than 750,000 Palestinians were forcibly displaced in 1948 by Zionist settlers. They live in slums today. These people who had land, who harvested their wealth throughout the seasons, they are so alienated from their natural heritage. A just future for Palestine includes both our people and our land. We are one.

Why did you keep returning to Palestine, eventually making it your home?

I’m from a very wealthy nation. And yet homeless people sleep on our streets in the hundreds of thousands. People, children, starving on the streets. My father walks the streets, handing out hundreds of sandwiches a week. One time he offered food to a man under a tarp. The man uncovered himself and revealed to my father the dead pigeon he was gnawing on. That image haunts me. I just can’t imagine that ever happening in Palestine. Even here, where people have been abandoned by the international community to suffer under Israel’s brutal military occupation, we would never abandon each other to starvation. This community will rally for each other to defy homelessness, to defy starvation, and to defy defeat. I love and respect Palestinians for that.

Every time I walked through a checkpoint as an American, I felt the injustice my own government funded and I feared that injustice would touch my new family. That’s why I came back.

A student group checks out Mashjar Juthour. Photo: Eloise Bollack

Why is boycotting Israel a viable solution for consumers, and should we buy Palestinian-supporting products?

During the South African apartheid, a group of exiles living in England managed to jumpstart a very successful product boycott of all South African goods. Like a domino effect, the Labour, Liberal, and Communist parties openly backed this campaign. The African National Congress theorized: “When our local purchasing power is combined with that of sympathetic organizations overseas we wield a devastating weapon.” And thus began the decades-long international boycott of all things South African apartheid-related, including banning any team from playing international sports. This was how the draconian segregated state fell.

In Palestine, a similar version of this beautiful story is unraveling and very slowly yielding results. The Palestinian Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement (BDS) is starting to stand up tall. International academic societies, churches, and now countries (most of them Latin American ones since the Gaza bombing) have severed major ties with Israel on many different social and economic grounds. Especially the Western world is awakening to a realisation: that the apartheid is also in their name, because if they’re not paying taxes to fund Israel’s infrastructure which is upheld only by a military occupation, then most likely their government is vocally supporting Israel’s “right to defend itself”. Especially for Americans; the United States donates $4-6 billion dollars annually to Israel, one of the wealthiest countries in the world.

And then there’s Shop Made in Palestine, which is supporting Palestinian products and independent craftspeople to make a profit which then supports entirely the preservation of Palestinian heritage land up at Juthour. It’s extremely difficult in the West Bank because of Israel’s control of incoming goods to boycott products, but Shop Made in Palestine has achieved this. It’s brilliant, really, and we’re not ashamed to self-promote how much communal creativity has gone into funding our Palestinian environmental non-profit which takes zero dollars of government aid – an ongoing neoliberal and Israeli-collaborative trap many organizations here fall into.

There’s also the cultural aspect of selling keffiyeh, handmade soaps and recycled paper which are symbols of Palestinian stability (resistance, agriculture, artisanship) that Made in Palestine upholds.

In the last few years, there was quite a bit of bristling at hipsters and others thoughtlessly appropriating the keffiyeh, a symbol of resistance and Palestine. What is the difference between being fashionable and actually supporting Palestine?

I think the awareness that this is a Palestinian product, and that it is for us a very important symbol of resistance. Depoliticising the keffiyeh happens when people think it’s a scarf, an Arab scarf, or an Israeli scarf. I believe it is one’s awareness that this is Palestinian-made and -sold, and it is a historical symbol for us. People who buy keffiyeh whether to wear as a scarf, use as a tablecloth, or hang on the wall should know what that keffiyeh is called, what it means [middle pattern is a wire mesh fence representing the Israeli occupation, oblong-shaped patterns on the side represent olive leaves as a symbol for Palestine and peace] and why.

In the 30s, peasants wore the keffiyeh to protect themselves from the sun while working in the fields. In the 1936 Revolt, they used their keffiyeh to hide their faces. It has always been a symbol of our relationship to this land and resistance to colonization and oppression. Knowing that invests the meaning into the cloth. Always buy Palestinian.

Find Mashjar Juthour on its website and Facebook or sign up for their newsletter. Shop Made in Palestine to support environmental and artisanal activism.