Serene Husseini Shahid (b. 1920 in Jerusalem) was a distinguished embroiderer who had an important role in promoting Palestinian heritage. She went into exile to Lebanon as a child, yet she held on to the living memory of life in Jerusalem both through her extensive embroidery designs as well as through her memoir.
Serene Husseini Shahid
Husseini Shahid was born in Jerusalem in September 1920. Her family background from both her paternal and maternal sides undoubtedly influenced her worldview. Her mother’s father, Fadi al-Alami (known at the time as Fadi Effendi), was mayor of Jerusalem between 1906 and 1909, when Palestine was part of the Ottoman Empire. Her maternal uncle Musa al-Alami was assistant attorney general of Palestine during the British Mandate.
Her father, Jamal Husseini, was the second cousin of Amin al-Husseini, then grand mufti of Jerusalem. He was Secretary to the Executive Committee of the Palestine Arab Congress. Jamal Husseini had an instrumental role in promoting Arab nationalism. In 1934, he was arrested by the British authorities because he called for demonstrations against government policy. A year later, he founded the Palestine Arab Party and continued to publicly express his views, which would ultimately lead to his rearrest. In addition, he was both publisher of and a journalist for al-Liwa’ (The Banner) daily newspaper, published in Jerusalem for two years (1935–37). His political activity would later result in the family’s uprooting from Jerusalem.
A Political Awakening
Husseini Shahid spent her childhood in the family home in Musrara (across from Damascus Gate). When she was eight years old, she was sent to the Islamic Girls’ School, located by al-Aqsa Mosque in the Old City of Jerusalem. This school, which was known for its academic excellence, was shut down by the British Mandate authorities in 1930. Husseini Shahid, who was ten and a half years old at the time, was then sent with her siblings to a boarding school. She was later enrolled at the Ramallah Friends School.
It was through al-Liwa’ newspaper that Husseini Shahid read the news about her father’s arrest in 1936 while she was in school. Years later, she would recall her shock and tears upon reading the news, but also her dismay: in her mind, an arrest meant that the person had committed a criminal act. She quickly learned that the British Mandate authorities would punish anyone who was part of the Arab resistance. “For us schoolgirls,” she recalled years later, “this was a political awakening.”1
Exile in Lebanon
Circumstances would force on Husseini Shahid a level of political awareness that exceeded that of other girls her age. Soon after her father’s release, he went into hiding because he had received word that the Mandate authorities intended to rearrest him. Husseini Shahid’s mother acted on the plan the couple had agreed to previously, that if the family should ever be separated, she was to take the children to Beirut and wait for him there. The family relocated, and weeks later her father joined them. Husseini Shahid enrolled in the American University of Beirut (AUB).
The family settled in Beirut for what they understood would be a long stay. For most of those years, the family was separated from the father. The family moved to Baghdad in 1939 (along with several other Palestinian political families) in an attempt to avoid the British authorities; they later returned to Beirut. Her father continued with his political activities before and after his arrest and exile to Southern Rhodesia (1941–46).
In her memoir, Husseini Shahid noted how much her mother had struggled in exile. As a family, they lived through long periods of anxiety and separation.
She graduated from AUB in 1941. In 1944, she married Munib Shahid, a doctor at the American University Hospital who was born in Acre. The couple had three daughters: Maya, Zeina, and Leila.
Husseini Shahid was deeply invested in helping Palestinian women, particularly those who were displaced. In 1969, she was on a visit to New York City. As she was walking on Fifth Avenue, she saw a gorgeous dress full of Palestinian embroidery displayed in a shop window. The shop was owned by Ruth Dayan, wife of Israeli defense minister Moshe Dayan. When Husseini Shahid asked about the dress, she was shocked to hear the salesperson describe the dress as Israeli made; she promptly corrected her. This was her introduction to the appropriation of her cultural heritage.
Later that same year, Husseini Shahid shared this experience with Haguette Caland, who had established INAASH: The Association for the Development of Palestinian Camps in Lebanon to support women refugees through knitting cooperatives. Caland was the daughter of Lebanon’s first president, Bechara El Khoury, and she was a prominent Lebanese painter, sculptor, and fashion designer who had lived in Paris, Venice, Los Angeles, and Beirut; she had collaborated with famous designers including Pierre Cardin. After this episode, INAASH shifted its focus to preserving Palestinian embroidery while helping Palestinian families in the refugee camps within Lebanon. The organization continues to serve a vital role for Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, who are prevented from accessing a whole range of educational and employment opportunities. Through INAASH, refugee women are taught how to master the art of embroidery and to sell it.
Palestinian Embroidery and Cultural Heritage
Husseini Shahid conducted countless embroidery workshops, organized projects, and arranged exhibitions for INAASH. One such display of collections was in 1991 at the British “Museum of Mankind,” which was known at the time for housing exhibitions and showing artifacts in reconstructed buildings and for its public activity programs. She also donated several items that she crafted to the Palestine Costume Archive. In addition to the skills she provided, she also wrote about Palestinian embroidery and costumes.2
Inspired by their mother, Husseini Shahid’s three daughters took on prominent social and political roles. Maya, the eldest daughter, became the vice president of INAASH, while Zeina, the youngest, has organized several embroidery exhibitions. Leila, the middle child, would become the first female ambassador of Palestine (serving the PLO in Ireland in 1989, in the Netherlands in 1990, and in France in 1993). She also became the General Delegate of Palestine to the European Commission. In an article published in 2001, Leila described how the prominent French novelist and playwright Jean Genet was fascinated by her mother’s ability to embroider for hours on end. Watching her mother’s needle embroidering the fabric, Genet seemed to have found symbolism in the relation between the political reality of refugees and embroidery. Leila eloquently articulated how each one of the patterns that her mother and aunts studied “go back a thousand years. Each one has a significance, a name; they evoke a village, a region. For the idea was not just to embroider but to make Palestinian culture live, to resist the negation of their identity.”3 She added:
My mother lived through the whole war in Palestine, the whole war in Lebanon. She was exiled from Palestine and from Lebanon. Embroidery was her therapy. Each time you stick the needle in the fabric, you have the feeling of renewing your tie with something. For the cross-stitch is like a knot. That was her way of resisting. My generation resisted by making revolution; her generation resisted by embroidering.4
Nostalgia for Jerusalem and Writings
Living in exile, Husseini Shahid wrote vividly about her childhood in Jerusalem. She referred to her early walks in the Old City of Jerusalem as a path that took her into “a world of mystery and strange stories. Once I passed through the gates, I found myself in a large open space leading to the steps down into the heart of the old city. Here, the cobblestone streets were rubbed smooth by the feet of all those who had walked over them over the centuries.”5
She identified Sharafat (a village near Jerusalem) as the place that her family had spent most of their occasions. This was partly because her grandfather, Fadi al-Alami, had fallen in love with an oak tree there that was believed to be more than 1,500 years old. “Sharafat in the summer,” Husseini Shahid described, “was heaven for me.”6 She wrote how as a child, she used to play in the garden during the day. In the evenings, the family gathered there to listen to folktales and music.
Many years later, while she was living in Beirut, Husseini Shahid heard on the radio that the village of Sharafat had been attacked. Their neighbor, close friend, and his family had been killed. Her childhood friend Miriam, together with her little daughter, died days after they were found under the rubble, while their house was blown up.
Husseini Shahid shared these personal accounts about her childhood in the critically acclaimed autobiography Jerusalem Memories. In the foreword, Edward W. Said described the book as a “personal testimony, yes, but it is also literature—informal, humane, sincere, generous and eloquent.”7
Meanwhile, her daughter Leila describes the book as a “memoir of the city of Jerusalem,” which “is no longer the city that it once was.”8 The city from which she had been abruptly severed is one she remembers as an almost magical place: “It is always spring in Jerusalem for me.”9
Accompanied by her mother and siblings, Husseini Shahid was able to visit their old childhood home in Jerusalem in 1972. The large family home had been seized after the 1967 War, and in it Jewish families were settled, a family in each room. She waited outside with her siblings while her mother entered what had been her home. When she returned to her waiting children, there was a long and mournful silence. She then recounted her conversation with the woman now living in their house, telling her that her father had built it.
Husseini Shahid understood the importance of preserving Palestinian embroidery and teaching future generations the traditional patterns that are part of their cultural heritage. Her account of her Jerusalem childhood is an important snapshot of the city as it was experienced during a period of political unrest:
I have written these pieces about my childhood and family life in Palestine for my children, and for the later generations that may never know about us, or our way of life. Keeping the memory of those long-ago days is important, I think, and the hope of better days to come for all of us can only be based on the true knowledge of the past.10
Husseini Shahid died in Beirut in 2008.
Arab News. “Meet the Palestinian Women Who Changed the Paris Art Scene.” June 9, 2020.
Burt, Ben. The Museum of Mankind: Man and Boy in the British Museum Ethnography Department. New York and Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2019.
Harper’s Bazaar (Arabia). “The Philanthropist Nadia Abdelnour.” October 1, 2018.
Husseini Shahid, Serene. Jerusalem Memories. Beirut: Naufal Group, 2000.
Husseini Shahid, Serene. “A Jerusalem Childhood: The Early Life of Serene Husseini.” Jerusalem Quarterly 37 (Spring 2009): 5–13.
INA Arditube. “Leila Shahid on the Book ‘Jerusalem Memories’.” [In French.] June 12, 2014.
Jerusalemites. “Memoirs—Serene Husseini Shahid.” December 6, 2015.
The National Library of Israel. “Al-Liwaa.” Accessed September 13, 2021.
Shahid, Leila. “Jean Genet and the Position of Sudden Departure.” Autodafe, no. 2 (Autumn 2001).
Weir, Shelagh, and Serene Shahid. Palestinian Embroidery. London: British Museum Press, 1988.
Wikipedia, s.v. “Jamal al-Husayni.” Last modified July 11, 2021, 07:49.
Wikipedia, s.v. “Serene Husseini Shahid.” Last modified May 2, 2021, 13:08.
Serene Husseini Shahid, “A Jerusalem Childhood: The Early Life of Serene Husseini,” Jerusalem Quarterly 37 (Spring 2009): 13.
Shelagh Weir and Serene Shahid, Palestinian Embroidery (London: British Museum Press, 1988). The work of INAASH proved to be successful. Since its establishment in 1969, more than 2,000 women refugees directly benefited from selling traditional embroidery products. Over 400 women in five camps still benefit from the NGO. Concurrently, maintaining the craft of embroidery has left a positive impact on the families. Worldwide, the products of INAASH gained prominence and were featured in venues including the Smithsonian Museum, the British Museum, the Pompidou Center, and many others.
Leila Shahid, “Jean Genet and the Position of Sudden Departure,” Autodafe, no. 2 (Autumn 2001).
Shahid, “Jean Genet.”
Husseini Shahid, “A Jerusalem Childhood.”
Husseini Shahid, “A Jerusalem Childhood.”
Serene Husseini Shahid, Jerusalem Memories (Beirut: Naufal Group, 2000).
INA Arditube, “Leila Shahid on the Book ‘Jerusalem Memories’” [in French], June 12, 2014.
Husseini Shahid, Jerusalem Memories.
Hussein Shahid, Jerusalem Memories.