Early in the morning, the main street of Beit Sahour, a suburb of Bethlehem, looks like any other street around town - empty. Nothing hints that on the second floor of building No. 45, somebody is working to design a glamorous evening gown, cutting the silky fabric and dreaming of becoming the first Palestinian Versace. The Fashion and Textile Institute in Beit Sahur (FTI) is the only educational facility in the PA and Jordan that concentrates exclusively on fashion and style. Studies continue there for two years, after which students receive a certificate from the Palestinian Authority Ministry of Labor enabling them to pursue work in this field. Haute couture in Bethlehem? "Why not?" reply the students and teachers (all of whom started their education in fashion in this very institute, which was founded in 1994 when it seemed that prosperity and peace were just around the corner for both Israelis and Palestinians). No matter how tough the situation, there will always be an interest in fashion. "Even in refugee camps you can see bridal shops and elegant wedding gowns; people will spend their last penny to marry in beautiful clothes," says Tulin, a high school student who lives in east Jerusalem and plans to enroll in the institute next year. FTI's executive director, Elie Hannah, 31, came to the field of fashion by chance. Born and raised in Haifa, he studied marketing at Haifa University, transferred to the University of Bethlehem and then continued his education in England. During the intifada, he came to work at one of the largest Palestinian firms in Ramallah, the National Security Company. In the beginning of 2006, he was asked to run the fashion institute. Dressed in an elegant black suit, Elie says students are drawn to fashion despite the harsh reality and the economic crisis. "Today we have 18 students - nine freshmen and nine seniors. It may not sound like much, but you have to realize that studies here are practical and not theoretical, so each student needs a special desk, materials and tools. Most of our students live in Bethlehem or East Jerusalem, and there are both Christians and Muslims. "Before the intifada began, we also used to have students from Israel - Nazareth and Haifa - and from West Bank cities such as Ramallah and Nablus. But now the Israeli students do not come because of the difficulty of travel, and the Palestinians can't come for the same reason; the roads between cities are often cut by checkposts and roadblocks." The FTI once enjoyed close cooperation with the Israeli fashion and textile institutes and the students used to visit each other's shows and exhibits, but this now seems like ancient history. The commutes are difficult, although east Jerusalemites (who are used to roadblocks and checkpoints) still enroll. Hannah says that, as a result of economic hardship, the institute has had to develop a smart business approach. "Expenses here are just as high as in Israel, but the tuition is significantly lower, so we decided to take on some contracts such as creating uniforms and logos for various Palestinian companies so that we could cover our expenses and perhaps make some extra cash," he says. Today the Institute offers textile print designs for silkscreen, heat transfer prints on T-shirts and fabrics and flock print designs for the Palestinian market. Hannah also dreams of opening a unique designer shop affiliated with the Institute and offering Palestinian shoppers genuine, Palestinian exclusive products. As can be seen from the designs the students are diligently working on, many dream of becoming much more than uniform makers. Sketches of elegant evening and wedding gowns, sportswear and business suits hang from the walls of the small facility. At the end of the year, the students organize a fashion show in which local models (men and women) flaunt their best designs. Yes, most of the evening gowns were sleeveless and had low necks, but this did not seem to bother the young models at all. Hannah says that although the institute is connected to the Latin Patriarchate, his goal is to keep fashion apolitical. "We have both Christian and Muslim students, but try very hard to stay neutral. For example, we don't have crosses or photos of Mecca, and our students try to focus on the craft and not on the politics." During a break, Muna, a young student in the traditional, head-covering hijab works on a design for a sleek evening gown. She explains that it is not inappropriate for a Muslim woman to wear such a dress, provided no non-mahram men (men who are not from her immediate family) can see her. "Christian families often have mixed weddings and celebrations and girls can wear whatever they want. This is also true of some progressive Muslim families, but most hold separate celebrations for men and women, and the women wear the latest designs from abroad... as long as they are not meant for strangers' eyes." So what kind of career do students of the only Palestinian fashion college dream of? Some say they will try to get involved in the Palestinian textile industry and develop it further. Others dream of glamorous shows and catwalks. Rami, who left his native Tulkarm to study in Bet Sahur (going from Tulkarm and back on a daily basis is impossible due to the closures), says he wishes to continue his education abroad and eventually open his own business in Bethlehem. "If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere," Rami concludes.

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