The Palestinian people have a long and complicated history. With it comes a rich cultural heritage, which is an essential part of their identity. It includes historical sites, cuisine, dance and embroidery, among other things, all of which have suffered tremendously through the waves of destruction ever since the 1948 Nakba, and remain under threat from the ongoing conflict.
As if occupying Palestinian land wasn't enough, Israel has also started to appropriate Palestinian culture in an attempt to eradicate Palestinian identity. On top of everything else, it is engaged in a culture war, but the Palestinians are fighting back with a unique project.
Founded in 2018, Palestine in a Box aims to share the natural beauty of Palestine and to reclaim and reaffirm Palestinian culture, art and heritage. It is an effort to unify the people of Palestine culturally and politically.
"Preserving our cultural and natural heritage is part of our national struggle," explained co-founder Odeh Quraan. "Every day it is becoming increasingly relevant and urgent to do so." He believes that it is a duty as a Palestinian in Palestine to show the rich culture of the people and raise awareness of the fight against the forgery of Palestinian history.
Born in Ramallah, the 35 year old still lives in Palestine and has been involved actively in the tech start-up scene. He has founded two start-ups, including Mostawada Inc., a Middle Eastern version of Etsy Inc. that connects artisans and consumers from Morocco to Oman.
The turning point in his career came when he met his co-founder Hanan Al-Murqaten, who was brainstorming ideas for how to share aspects of Palestine and have them celebrated all over the world.
"As we had the same aspirations," explained Quraan, "we teamed up and decided that in order to have a different unique value proposition from the other e-commerce websites, we will focus on the actual boxes that will consist of a variety of different items depending on the theme of the subscription, instead of buying just any random individual item."
He added that while he handles the tech and marketing side, Hanan, who lives in Hebron, focuses on vendors and discovering new, unique products that are not available anywhere else. Hebron is a hub for several industries producing craftwork and luxury products that distinguish it from other Palestinian cities. As the largest city in the occupied West Bank, with more than 200,000 residents, Hebron has been under Israeli occupation since the 1967 Six Day War. Its religious significance has made it a focal point for illegal Jewish settlers, who are determined to expand their presence in the heart of the Old City. This includes the virtual takeover of Ibrahimi Mosque.
"Hebron is one of the oldest cities in the world and it has a lot of industry," noted Odeh Quraan. "There are a lot of skilled craftworkers producing pottery, olive wood, embroidery, artefacts, mosaics, ceramics and traditional food." It is fun, he added, to discover something or someone new in Hebron all the time. "There are craftsmen and women there who I didn't even know existed."
For women in particular, he explained, the preservation of the skills that have been interlinked with female experience for hundreds of years is all part of craft's power. "The most unique items that the women design are the hybrid fashion trends that integrate traditional tatreez [embroidery] with new items like purses, shoes and jackets for men. It's very trendy, beautiful and unique. There's nothing else like this online, at least not manufactured in Palestine anyway."
The cross-stitch embroidery symbolises Palestinian heritage, and women are trying to develop and renew this activity continuously. The elaborate patterns and vibrant colours on traditional Palestinian dresses are unique to each community, so you can identify the village to which the wearer belongs just by design.
"The fact that we offer all these handmade items makes Palestine in a Box all the more authentic, because even though you might find similar items online, they're not made in Palestine. We find these vendors ourselves, and we go visit them for a whole day. We even have some videos online of some vendors who are doing ceramic and glass items. This creates a certain attachment between the customers and the craftworkers, not just the items that are bought."
However, although collecting and shipping Palestinian goods should be a simple proposition, in the local context it is fraught with difficulty. Segmented by the Wall and settler-only roads, as well as the illegal settlements, travel difficulties created by Israel across the occupied West Bank have an impact on exports.
Even meeting Hanan to work together is a challenge. "It gets difficult because Hanan and I cannot get to each other easily due to travel time. Last time I went to Hebron, it took me four hours instead of the usual one and a half, and that was because of Israeli checkpoints, so most of our collaboration is online via Skype and WhatsApp."
Israeli soldiers control dozens of checkpoints, barriers and closed military zones in Hebron, restricting Palestinian freedom of movement severely. The local people have to pass through several checkpoints every day, and are often detained for hours or even turned back.
The pottery available through Palestine in a Box is supplied by the largest family firm in the region. The Fakhoury family is based in the Old City of Hebron, where Israeli soldiers and settlers harass Palestinians physically and verbally as a matter of routine. In fact, "fakhoury" means "potter" in Arabic, Quraan pointed out to me. Despite the difficulties they face, the family is determined to keep their store open and their craft alive.
This, said Odeh Quraan, is ultimately what Palestine in a Box is all about: to keep it all going. "What we have here, and what we want to share are things that are manufactured by multibillion dollar corporations, or made easily in China. But we sell items crafted by individual men and women who learnt their skills from their grandparents and want to teach them to the younger generation. Our products are unrivalled in quality, both in terms of raw materials and the techniques developed in Palestine by Palestinians by which they are made. It's frustrating seeing people online claiming that culturally-significant items like the kafiyyah, zaatar and even olive oil from the Holy Land are Israeli."
In fact, Israel has used cuisine aggressively as one of its marketing and branding tools to try to divert attention from its violations of the rights of millions of Palestinians. "It's an assault on Palestinian culture in its entirety," insists Odeh. Cooking traditional dishes, he noted, is in part an act of preservation, a way to sustain an integral part of Palestinian cultural identity across time and distance.
That's why an initiative like Palestine in a Box is very important and deserves broader acknowledgement and support. Its presence in the global market place challenges Israel's systematic oppression that segregates Palestinians from one another and the rest of the world. If freedom of movement was guaranteed, the people of occupied Palestine could offer so much more to the world. In the meantime, we all have the chance to own a part of Palestine delivered to our homes in a box.