Challenges Palestinian Artisans Face: Featuring Nadya Hazbunova

We spoke with our artisan Nadya Hazbunova from Bethlehem about her experiences, passions, and challenges with her life in craft making. We at Handmade Palestine love to highlight our artisans’ work and life stories – and we also want to bring light to the realities of making a living off creating and selling traditional handicrafts. 

As an artisan, supporting your livelihood from craft making is a challenging pursuit. But it is also incredibly fulfilling. Nadya told us about her thoughts on how this career has led her to pursue her passions and create an avenue to celebrate and pass down the traditions of craft to future generations of Palestine. And while this endeavor is truly one of the most important ways of preserving Palestinian culture, it has become increasingly difficult with the violence and restrictions that Palestinians endure – especially since October 7.

With these difficulties facing Palestinian artisans, it’s vital to understand their perspectives and experiences as well as how they navigate the barriers it places on the traditions of their craft.


Q: We understand you were selling your products locally in Bethlehem. Can you walk through the difficulties you’ve faced in selling to the local economy?


As a designer, I have been working since 2012. I set up an atelier for my clothing line where I used to customize clothing and make them ready-to-wear. I also opened a showroom near the Nativity Square by the church where I sold my olive wood Arabic calligraphy earrings.  Unfortunately, during COVID I was very much affected since I’m a small business and I could not keep up the running costs. A lot of my sales were dependent on tourists, foreigners, people from outside of Bethlehem, so during COVID I had to close down completely. I also closed my showroom for jewelry, and since then I haven't been able to reopen until this very day.

I've been putting my designs in a variety of places on display on a consignment basis. I also sell online on Etsy and cooperating with resellers like Handmade Palestine to resell my jewelry abroad. During the war, of course, the same drama happened like during COVID. Bethlehem lost all of the traffic and lost all of the tourists. Our sales went completely down in general on everything, especially in categories of products that are secondary like fashion. So local people started prioritizing products that are more relevant and basic like food. Basically nothing. So, at this point, our sales have dropped very much, even with online sales despite the fact that more people were interested to support our products from abroad.

We've been having a lot of difficulty getting our products outside of the country due to high costs and long postage times. Postage has tripled and now – just ship a little box of earrings – the shipping itself costs more than the earrings, which is ridiculous. As of November 2023, every package that was sent out of Palestine has been taxed or stopped by customs for checkup, which meant extra costs on the customer.

This has put our business in a difficult position and we are struggling – especially women’s micro-businesses. We are struggling to keep our businesses up, and we are doing our best with trying to get our products outside through international resellers. But also, it's been a big challenge. It's unfortunate that this is the situation, but we are trying our best to continue and to keep it going because this is a very important source of income me personally.

 As a designer, I have to find other jobs where I would have a stable income because I'm a single mom and I have many responsibilities. The costs of things have grown in the market and the living cost in Palestine is higher than the income, so it's been a big struggle right now. I'm trying to teach sewing and fashion design in order to have a stable income, and I also manage a fair-trade shop near the Nativity Church. This shop works with micro-businesses like mine, so this was my way of trying to help other women sustain themselves and improve their sales.

But now with the war, we have hit a wall. All of our struggles to get out of what COVID caused have been restarted with the launch of the war. Unfortunately, we are having other challenges too, like getting raw materials or fabrics. For example, with fabrics we used to rely a lot on Hebron with embroidery threads, and we used to rely on Jordan and Ramallah too. But now everything costs more because transport within or between cities has been raised. A lot of the women are struggling to keep their businesses functioning, be it home-based or be it micro-businesses with a workshop.

Of course, it's very important to say that the businesses that are not home-based have another layer of challenge: paying rent. Nobody is forgiving or doing any discounts on rent, so we are paying full rent within the months that we were closed. I have been paying rent for the last four years for a shop that's been closed because letting the shop go with all the stuff inside and finding a location for this price is difficult. It's very difficult to find a new place with the same rent because rent is now much higher. It's an ongoing struggle.


Q: What has been your experience selling through Etsy? Have you faced any difficulties selling on that platform?


My experience on Etsy has been very good. I've been on Etsy for almost 10 years now. Etsy is very nice because it targets customers directly who are actually looking for handmade products and value the handmade work.

Unfortunately, during the last a year, especially since the beginning of the war in October 2023, shipping costs have been ridiculous. As I mentioned before, it's been a real struggle. I am trying to get some products in bulk to my sister who's living abroad. She's trying to post things from there because that makes the shipping cost a little bit less.

I have been lucky to have somebody abroad who is able to receive payments because women and other micro-businesses who are here in Palestine have a difficulty of transferring money to their accounts. This is because transferring money to Palestinian banks is not possible, even through PayPal. This is a struggle that a lot of the businesses are going through.


Q: In general, what challenges have you faced as an artisan in Palestine?


Definitely the biggest challenge is marketing and selling. This is especially the case when you are making handmade quality products or when you are trying to do designer pieces that have a lot of work or very high-quality materials. The local market cannot sustain those products. The local market does not have a big demand for these products. So, we rely a lot on foreigners, and we rely a lot on what we call the Arabs of ’48, or the Arabs of Israel, because their income is much higher than the local people. Selling the product has been very difficult and challenging.

Pricing the products at a reasonable price for the seller has also been very challenging because the local market does not allow us to do so. It’s difficult to travel and get outside of the country to participate in fairs or in trade shows or in whatever opportunities we have – especially around holiday seasons – because of travel costs. We have to travel through Jordan, which doubles the time and cost of these travels. We have to say no to a lot of these opportunities due to those restraints.


Q: Can you expand on your experience in making a living off of craft making? Are there difficulties you faced with this?


Definitely. For me personally it's been a struggle. If you want to have a shop, pay the rent of a shop, and pay a sales assistant, then the running costs are very very high here. This is especially true if you want a location that is frequented by tourists that's close to the historical center of Bethlehem.

So, I always need a second source of income in order to sustain my business. It cannot be the only source of income for me, and I allow myself to speak for many of the women micro-businesses that are in Palestine. This is a secondary source of income for most of us so it can help us be able to make a living and deal with the high living costs that are in Palestine.


Q: How is Handmade Palestine providing market access for you?


Handmade Palestine offers a solution to many of the challenges we have, like shipping to the access to market. But also, it's very important to say marketing because Handmade Palestine offers services of promoting the products. This includes taking pictures of the products and describing the products in a nice way. All of these are challenging for women who are trying to run a small business while also having a family and having a job. It’s been a very nice opportunity to help with promoting the products and sustaining and promoting the brand identity by offering a new channel for selling the products. 

It means that the line can keep going and I can reinvest the money I make in making new products while continuing to produce my line. After the war started, I have been having a lot of issues with cash flow. Handmade Palestine has been a really promising new sales channel that hopefully will help me grow my business and sustain it so I can continue working on my passion.


Q: We’re excited to carry some of your beautiful earrings on our platform! What first inspired you to start making these earrings and their designs?


As a designer, it was always my mission in life to tell a story about Palestine. I studied interactive and communication media after getting my master’s degree. My family felt it was very important, despite my passion for fashion, for me to have a certificate because they believed that it's difficult to make money with art. It's not something that’s very easy, the competition is very big, and making it as a designer is very challenging.

When I started my business in 2012 there, the concept of a fashion designer was not very seen in Palestine. Until today, the understanding of the market for designer products is limited, which means it was very challenging.

I decided to use my studies of interactive media and my passion for fashion and mix them together and use fashion as a tool to promote the Palestinian story and bring to attention to the people in the world through a language they understand – fashion. My earrings and my clothing carry quotes by Palestinian poets drawing attention to Palestinian literature, to the beauty of our poetry, and to the importance of our story and our history.

I use a lot of symbols in my work that are relevant to Palestinian culture. I also experiment a lot with culturally inherited techniques in clothes making, such as cross stitch embroidery. This technique is common in Palestine, and is very popular in Bethlehem and surrounding areas. I use these techniques in a very modern way by mixing the old Palestinian inherited embroidery patterns and colors with Arabic calligraphy using innovative materials to create more modern clothing that people can wear casually every day and express their identity.

After living for a very long time in Europe, I felt it was very crucial for me to express my Palestinian heritage, and to tell the story of my people and promote Palestinian culture and fashion and literature.


Q: Why is this project important to you?


My project is my life. It's my baby. I express myself through it. I tell the story just like I think every designer does. A lot of the inspiration comes from my life and from the things that happen to me. The whole line was created actually when I finished my studies. and decided I took courses in fashion in London and then took courses of sewing and pattern making in Prague in the Czech Republic. In a designer’s atelier, I learned to make clothing that tells the story that promotes my culture.

In 2012, I was invited to Amman Fashion Week in Jordan where I showed my collection and showed the jewelry line for the first time. People loved the jewelry and asked questions about the quotes, the meanings, and the material because I used olive wood – which is very vital and very relevant to Palestine, our struggle, and our history.

This line has really summed up a lot of my own experiences and my mixed culture where I'm half Czech and half Palestinian. My line tells the story of who I am, so it has been very important for me. With every piece I make, I hear people telling me how they love the smell and the touch of the wood or the grain or the closeness they feel to Palestine by wearing the olive wood earrings. Even by wearing a tee-shirt with Palestinian quotes poetry or other relevant things that are embodied in my work.

I think all of this is kind of letting me know how important my work is to keep drawing attention to our story through beautiful items that I hope will live much longer than I will.  One of the first pieces I made was inspired by a poem by Mahmoud Darwish. The quote was: على قدر حلمك تتسع الارض (“in accordance to your dreams, the universe expands"). This is one of the quotes that kind of sums up the core of my work. I believe that if we keep going and if we dream big, we can make it we can reach big things.

Many of my quote designs are taken from Palestinian writers like Mahmoud Darwish and Edward Said. So, all of the designs tell the story of Palestinian poets and thinkers while reflecting my own story and the realities of my own life.


Q: Any last thoughts to leave us with?


People should understand that Palestinian craftsmanship and our cultural heritage is slowly, slowly dying out. Some of the crafts like mother of pearl and olive wood have been declining because there's not enough support. A lot of the people working in these crafts have inherited this craftsmanship from their ancestors, and embroidery is being attacked by machine embroidery.

It's very important for people to value our work and support it and understand that these things take a lot of effort, time, and energy. The raw materials are quite expensive here so it's very important for people to understand the hard work and the challenges that these makers in Palestine face. We hope that people understand and value this work, keep supporting and promoting it, and get the message out there.

I want to keep in people’s minds what and where this Palestinian embroidery came from as well as what it represents. Every stitch, every corner, every material we use, every word we incorporate into our work has a meaning and has a story. It needs support to keep going and to keep thriving. This craft also needs this support to encourage future generations of Palestinians to embrace these skills, learn them, and keep them going within a very fast, competitive, commercial market to keep this heritage going.

We need to keep the support going for these makers, designers, artists, and artisans. We need to help them sustain their businesses.

I want to thank everybody that ever bought anything from me or from Handmade Palestine or from any other place that is supporting Palestinian artisans because it is truly very challenging to make a business here. This is especially true for women, who usually have bigger challenges in this society with so many other responsibilities.

Shop Nadya's collection here.

Remember to keep boycotting and "buycotting" for Palestine.

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