by Alexa Smith
Fida Bannouuih has hand-stitched countless Jerusalem crosses.
Any given Sunday, her work is wrapped softly around the shoulders of pastors in any given country in the world:
Selected online. A gift from a pilgrim parishioner just back from the Holy Land, or, purchased in Jerusalem's Old City, delivered to the Melia Shop there by Fida from her home outside of Bethlehem, about eight miles away.
That's not to mention the pillows, table runners, and other items that stack the store's shelves
"I like it that my work is all around the world," she says. "I think about that ... (that's part) of my dreams."
A resident of Beit Sahour, Fida has been embroidering for more than 20 years, sitting at home alone, or, working with other women in her town who also send parcels to the Melia Shop of handmade goods. With an injured husband and two children still at home, she is the financial support of her family now.
"And we need her," says Hala Jahshan, praising her versatility with a needle and adding that renewing Fida's permit to travel into the city from the countryside isn't always easy - but very necessary. She designs new patterns and is able to put finishing touches on the fabrics on the shop's sewing machine. With the rough edges neatly done, the fabric becomes a stole or a napkin or a shawl.
Typical stoles done by the cooperatives that feed goods to the Melia Shop are Jerusalem crosses, the fourth century symbol that embodies the city's sacred history. It has a large cross at its center surrounded by four other small crosses.
Interpretations vary about the meaning of the symbol, but vendors say, it could represent Calvary in miniature, the four Gospels, the wounds of Christ, or the kings of Europe who launched the Crusades.
Stoles may be garnished with neatly stitched wheat and grapes, symbolizing the bread of life and the wine given freely at communion. Others include a fish, an early symbol of the faith prevalent in eastern spirituality.
"Many, many pilgrims like the traditional one, the Jerusalem cross," says Hala, adding that more than 100 designs for stoles are currently in stock. "And that's all. But we keep developing new lines... else you stay just as you are."
So new lines it is. Some coming out of the imaginations of women like Fida who begin by putting a pattern onto paper and then stitching until the design takes shape. Other shoppers send drawings by computer and asked the Melia seamstresses if the image is do-able. If it is possible, the women are quick to give it a try.
The Easter season - and there are three in Jerusalem: Orthodox, Armenian and traditional Catholic - is one of the boom seasons for tourists to visit the shop, exploring the ancient streets after visiting the holy sites in the Old City.
Tourism, these days, is slow, says Hala.
But that doesn't deter the creativity inside the Melia Shop, which new designs continue to come to life.