Despite economic challenges, four generations of the Aslan family have honed the craft in their Nablus workshop.
Ramallah, occupied West Bank – In the dead of a cold December night, Israeli soldiers came for Yasser.
They rummaged through the shelves and behind the looms of a darkened factory, searching for the little man, only half a metre tall. They knew he would be easy to spot, wearing his signature black-and-white keffiyeh and olive-coloured military fatigues. Finally, they found him, expressionless and hiding in plain sight, along with a dozen other plush clones.
The brainchild of Hilana Abu Sharifeh, a 32-year-old mother of four, Yasser is among the dozens of toys she designs and manufactures at her small, Tulkarem-based business. His confiscation, along with about 1,700 other toys, baffles Abu Sharifeh to this day.
“The soldiers ransacked the whole place, seized fabric and damaged some of the products in the process,” she said of the toy factory that her husband first opened in their garage more than two decades ago.
“They especially went after Yasser, in his military fatigues, and the keffiyeh looms,” Abu Sharifeh told Al Jazeera. “They said it’s because the toys incited violence. The dolls are meant to reflect our culture and heritage, nothing else. In the case of Yasser, he resembles the late President Yasser Arafat.”
Rotem Toys, named after a plant that grows in the Mediterranean, had just started to pick up steam when Israeli forces raided the factory. Abu Sharifeh had recently re-branded the toy line, which her husband had to discontinue during the second Intifada. With new designs inspired by Palestinian culture, she was about to kick off a fresh line of high-quality dolls.
The plush toys, made from cotton cloth woven in Hebron, have a signature trademark: They wear clothing made from recycled thobes (traditional Palestinian dresses) and intricate embroidery.
“I didn’t understand why something like a keffiyeh would incite hatred,” she said. “For children, these toys are a means to understand and be proud of where they are from. Perhaps the Israelis thought we were selling toys similar to the ones seized a few days prior.”
Abu Sharifeh was referring to a shipment of toys confiscated at the Haifa port on December 9. Israeli customs authorities banned the dolls, which sported keffiyehs and clutched stones, from reaching areas administered by the Palestinian Authority (PA). Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely even accused Palestinians of trying “to poison the minds of innocent young children” with the toys.
In the last quarter of 2015, a new bout of violence erupted, leading to the highest number of casualties since 2005 among West Bank Palestinians, as well as Israeli soldiers, settlers and civilians, according to a recent UN report. Israeli officials blamed the deaths on a Palestinian “culture of hate” bred by incitement.
Some experts believe that Israel, embarking on its 50th year of occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, no longer tolerates even the most innocuous of Palestinian symbols. The Knesset recently passed an anti-terror law – which applies in Israel and occupied East Jerusalem – that could criminalise flag-waving or slogan-chanting.
“The moment symbols are connected to anti-colonial practice, they immediately become a threat,” said Ala al-Azzeh, a professor of cultural anthropology at Birzeit University. “It’s also about controlling the indigenous population – not just physically, but by destroying national identity and collective symbols. The colonial structure is deep enough to go after the seemingly mundane.”
For children, these toys are a means to understand and be proud of where they are from.
In addition to defying Israeli restrictions, Abu Sharifeh is also challenging a trend in the Palestinian territories, where only 19 percent of women participate in the labour force, one of the lowest participation rates in the world. It is a staggering number, considering that female education rates are high, said Ola Awad, president of the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics.
“There are very [few] opportunities for women in the limited labour market we have, and there are few incentives for women to join it,” Awad said.
“Israeli checkpoints between the cities and closures make movement unpredictable, affect women’s mobility and discourage them from leaving their home,” she added. “Couple that with other associated costs, such as daycare for the children, and you can see that the Palestinian woman is paying a high price to work outside of her home.”
To get Rotem Toys back on its feet, Abu Sharifeh’s relatives launched an online crowdfunding campaign to replace what was damaged and confiscated in the Israeli army raid. She also took several training courses on production, leadership and commerce, which helped her to go from selling low-cost toys to manufacturing labour-intensive dolls, many with hand-stitched details.
She upgraded the toy line to meet safety standards, using only non-toxic raw materials and discarding any clipped-on or glued accessories, beads, wires or small objects that could be choking hazards. Because Abu Sharifeh does not own a store, she uses Facebook to promote her products, manage sales and deliver toys in many West Bank cities. She is also planning to ship internationally.
So far, Rotem Toys has sold more than 4,000 dolls, many with removable clothing and accessories that are inspired by different regions and towns in the West Bank. The Zeina collection comprises half of all sales.
“Zeina is the Palestinian girl next door,” Abu Sharifeh explained. “Her jet-black hair is often parted into a braid or a ponytail. Her outfits change, from the traditional, like a thobe, to the modern – a simple T-shirt with an accessory, like a belt or a hair clip, but always with intricate embroidery patterns.
“By contrast, Yasser only has three outfits: military fatigues, pants and a keffiyeh, or a trifecta of a male thobe [a long tunic or shirt], sirwal [a baggy pair of trousers] and qumbaz [a long coat]. He’s also dressed up as Santa during the Christmas holidays.”
These days, Abu Sharifeh is preparing to introduce her products to the United Arab Emirates, Holland and Germany. Exporting the toys using the old design, inspired by Disney and Pixar characters, was not possible because of copyright and quality issues. Similar but higher-quality, cheaper goods from China also made it hard to compete on the global market.
To offset some of these challenges, Abu Sharifeh registered Zeina and Yasser as a trademark and started designing the toys herself, turning to a niece and a friend who designs jewellery to help sketch out her ideas.
The factory currently produces 20 toys a day – 10 if hand-made stitching is involved – and employs five people, including three women. Cutting and sewing is done on machines, while wrapping and some of the embroidery is done by hand.
But keeping Rotem Toys up and running has been a struggle. The costs of operating the factory are high, and Israel’s control of border crossings has meant lofty customs fees on the raw materials Abu Sharifeh imports, which are also taxed by the PA.
“I don’t want my target customer to be from the upper class,” she said. “But getting taxed by both Israel and the PA drives up the prices.” Abu Sharifeh accordingly created a two-tiered pricing system: Toys slated for export will sell for between 100 and 150 shekels ($26-$39), while those sold locally are priced between 75 and 80 shekels ($19-$21).
“It’s a bit more expensive if hand-embroidery is involved or if specific requirements are needed,” Abu Sharifeh said. “But at the end of the day, these toys are a small way to support and promote our culture and symbols, which are increasingly facing appropriation.”