This was my first time striding purposefully through the alleyways in the Old City of Jerusalem. During previous visits, I’d always strolled along taking in the sights and smells of the bustling market surrounding me, peeking into a pottery shop here, stopping into a textile shop there, pausing to breathe in the aroma of herbs and spices.
But this time was different—we were headed to Omar’s shop.
Jonathan, my older brother, knew it wouldn’t take much to convince me. “He has fabulous textiles, traditional ones, not like the newer shops—you’ll love it.”
As an ethnic textile aficionado and collector, it wasn’t a question of going or not going, it was a matter of timing—how soon could we go?
It took a couple of years, but we finally made it to Jerusalem, to Omar’s shop. I waited impatiently at the entrance to the shop as Omar and his brothers greeted Jonathan enthusiastically. Finally, it was time to cross the threshold.
As soon as we entered, my eyes popped out. Piles of pillow covers saturated with Palestinian embroidery, Druze designed place mats in earth tones. And what was this, suzanis? Pillow covers, wall hangings, embellished with the chain stitch embroidery in the Uzbek tradition. What were they doing in the region, in the Old City of Jerusalem? How did they get here?
After Jonathan told Omar of my interest in ethnic textiles, he pulled me away from the entrance to his shop, to guide me into a well lit interior. I forgot to breathe—wherever I turned, I saw stunning textiles. Even more spectacular suzanis, lively block-printed wall hangings from Persia, Indian mirror-work, and so much more.
Mouth agape, my gaze swept back and forth, not knowing where to start, until a pile of suzani pillow covers caught my eyes and held them. Unlike those in the entrance to the shop, these were silk on silk, the embroidery even, the yarns variegated in color… natural dyes? I was mesmerized.
I turned to Omar. “I don’t understand—these aren’t locally made.”
He smiled and nodded. “Suzani, from Uzbekistan.” then added, “You know textiles. Sit down and I will bring to you.”
And boy, did he. He disappeared into yet another room in the back and came back, laden with a pile of folded suzanis. He spread one gorgeous textile after the other at my feet. I gasped at each one. The colors… the designs…
The bigger ones, the most exquisite ones, cost more than a thousand dollars. Perhaps one of the smaller ones. But no, though less expensive, the prices were in the hundreds. Perhaps… No. I couldn’t. I’d set myself a one hundred dollar limit when we set out on our trip. I tried to rationalize—I could justify two hundred if I promised myself not to buy anything else. But I’d originally come here for Palestinian embroidery… Perhaps... No. There was no way I was walking out of here without a piece of Palestinian embroidery.
Omar saw my struggle. “I have some pillow covers you might like.”
He trotted out to the back room, and returned with his arms laden with beautiful suzani embroidered pillow covers. I breathed a sigh of relief—I’d be happy with a couple of those.
After choosing two of them, Omar unrolled a rug out on the floor. “You know textiles. Where is this from?”
I took a close look. “It looks like a Berber rug from the Atlas mountains in Morocco, but the design is not traditional.”
Omar beamed. “That’s right. It’s a modern design.”
I could see Jonathan beaming too. With pride?
I wandered around the shop, admiring the ikat woven coats from Uzbekistan. I looked at the prices and turned away. Maybe on my next visit.
I noticed a pile of the Palestinian embroidered pillow covers in the front room. I pawed through them but couldn’t find what I wanted. I approached one of Omar’s brothers and pointed to them. “Do you have better quality ones?”
Like Omar, he went into the back room. He approved of my choices. “You have good eye.”
I came away with four stunning pillow cases, a Persian wall hanging, a book about Palestinian embroidery written by Omar’s father, a goofy smile on my face, and the conviction that I’ll be stopping by on my next visit to Israel.