Handcrafted art by Hebron Palestinian artisans available in Ann Arbor

By Shifra Epstein

Because of the COVID-19 restrictions, it had taken my partner Miriam and me more than sixteen months to venture into downtown Ann Arbor on a Saturday night. During our first venture in on May 10, we enjoyed the closure to traffic of the downtown streets, which made strolling very pleasant. The first shop we visited was my favorite one in Ann Arbor, Ten Thousand Villages.

Ten Thousand Villages is a nonprofit, fair trade retailer with more than 80 stores in North America. According to the company website, “Ten Thousand Villages blossomed into a global fair trade movement providing sustainable economic opportunities for artisans in developing countries by creating a viable marketplace for their products in North America.”

More than 300 fair trade and specialty shops carry select Ten Thousand Villages products. The stores sell jewelry, home decor, sculptures, and all sorts of unique gifts from a wide variety of developing countries. Befitting a liberal city, Ten Thousand Villages was opened in Ann Arbor in 2004 and is still going strong.

When we entered the shop, we found several clients already there, all still wearing masks as was required by the poster from the State of Michigan on the door. Our visit corresponded with the recent ceasefire declared by the Israelis and the Palestinians. I was surprised to hear Jewish music, including Hava Nagila (Let’s Be Joyful) in Hebrew and Rozhinkes mit Mandlen (Raisins and Almonds) in Yiddish. I was disappointed that no Palestinian music was played during the visit.

Two objects attracted my attention. The first was Peace Wall Art, a kind of good luck charm, and the second was a decorative mezuzah, a doorpost amulet used to protect Jewish homes. The Peace Wall Art and the mezuzah shared the display area with objects made in Peru. On the cards attached to the Peace Wall Art and the mezuzah, their provenance was identified as Hebron Glass and Ceramics located the city of Hebron. Near the Peace Wall Art and mezuzah were glass objects made in Hebron.

Hebron, Al-Halil in Arabic, is a Palestinian city with a long history, located in the southern part of the West Bank, 30 km south of Jerusalem. Today, it is a divided city — the Palestinian Authority control 80 percent of it, is inhabited by nearly 750,000 Palestinians, and Israel controls an area inhabited by approximately 850 Jewish settlers and 2,200 Israeli soldiers.

Hebron Glass and Ceramic is a family-owned business. Today, the factory is run by Hamze Natsheh, the youngest member of the founding family. The Peace Wall Art is a relatively small object, 6 by 3 inches. A large modern peace sign adorns the top. Under the peace sign is an English text which reads, “It [peace] does not mean to be in a place where there is no noise, trouble or hard work. It means to be in the midst of those things and still be calm in your heart.” On the left and right sides, peace is written in Hebrew, Turkish, Kurdish, Arabic, Chinese and Assamese (the language of Bangladesh). Reading the text on the Peace Wall Art while Israeli and Jewish music was playing in the background was a surreal moment for me. Still, I thought, how true are the words, though how hard they are to follow. 

I must acknowledge that Hebron has a special place in my heart. In 1968, just several months after the 1967 war, I volunteered to teach Hebrew to a group of lawyers and teachers in Hebron. I believe that language is central to bring Palestinians and Israelis together. More than forty years later, in 2011, I traveled to Hebron with a group of students from Wayne State University as part of the program “A Journey to Israel and the West Bank.” I had the opportunity to discover how complicated life is in Hebron. A guide from the Israeli NGO, Shovrim Shtika, “Breaking the Silence,” led us into the Palestinian neighborhoods of Hebron. We also visited the Museum of the History of the Jewish Community in Hebron, in Beit Hadassah.

I learned from the store manager on the premises that, since 2018, when the Peace Wall Panel was first introduced, it has been among the most popular items sold in the shop. I bought the last two panels. One is hanging in our home in Ann Arbor, among diverse modern and traditional hamsas we bought in Israel, the West Bank, and Morocco.

I intend to give the second one as a present to my beloved sister, Dalia, whom I have not been able to see for more than a year and a half due to COVID-19. A long time peace-seeker herself, Dalia lives in Tenafly, a town in New Jersey, known by the many Israelis who live there as The New Tel Aviv. I hope Dalia, a follower and student of the Great Yoga Master B.K.S. Iyengar, will find the words of the Peace Wall inspiring in her yoga meditation for peace. 

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