A one-of-a-kind handbag: 'Made in Gaza'

Sophia Trotoush-Argaman’s factory in the Strip closed down years ago, so why does she still mention it on her label?

Palestinian woman work in a clothing factory in the southern Gaza Strip in August 2007. Those working in the textile industry in Gaza before 2007 numbered 35,000; today that number is around 3,000. (photo credit: ILLUSTRATIVE: REUTERS)
Palestinian woman work in a clothing factory in the southern Gaza Strip in August 2007. Those working in the textile industry in Gaza before 2007 numbered 35,000; today that number is around 3,000.
It’s been almost 10 years since Tel Aviv-based handbag designer Sophia Trotoush- Argaman was forced to close down her factory in the Gaza Strip.
Her company, Es.Tee Handbags, has been in business for almost two decades and despite being forced out of the Strip following the 2005 disengagement, the Gaza name still remains on her label.
Trotoush-Argaman moved her factory to Nablus, selling her wares in six stores in Jerusalem. She chose to set up in Nablus because she wants to continue to contribute to the Palestinian industry in the West Bank.
But it’s clear she’s still hurting from the closure of her factory in Gaza.
And that’s partly why nearly every one of her Italian fabric bags mentions the name on its label. It’s also good for business, she told the The Jerusalem Post.
The decision to put Gaza on her label in the first place wasn’t a hard one, despite plenty of opposition. “Everyone said ‘Don’t do that; the people in Israel – they will hate it.’ But for me, I didn’t care, because it’s my statement. Sometimes it’s helped in this business, because the European woman like it, but others – the locals, the settlers – sometimes they hate it.”
Trotoush-Argaman has been sewing since her schooldays.
Her main studio is on Yehuda Street in south Tel Aviv, but she began designing handbags while staying at home with her first newborn.
“I was home with my boy a little bit, and I just started doing stuff… which is something I always do, I always sew my own clothes. I come from fashion. I produced some bags, just to keep going while I was at home with my boy.
It was really quick, my home soon looked like a factory and I couldn’t move.”
TROTOUSH-ARGAMAN is clear that her business hasn’t been affected by recent international moves towards an economic boycott of Israeli products.
“I have two kinds of customers – the Israeli customer who lives here and buys bags, and I have very, very good prices, which is something I have had from the first moment [I began selling]; prices range between NIS 200 and NIS 250. Others are pro-Palestinian and they think my label is good and is supporting the good people. And the second group of customers are tourists and foreigners in Jerusalem... I have big business there, and I don’t think they care.”
The former journalist and photographer said she had a very good relationship with the Gazan people and her former factory manager, Moussa Mattr. Trotoush- Argaman can’t quite get her head around the hurt and heartache caused by the current conflict between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. While she feels for those living in constant fear of missile attacks in Israel, her heart is with her former factory manager Mattr in Gaza and all the Gazans under siege.
Familiar feelings of despair, worry and sorrow remind the designer of operating her factory during the second intifada. “It was terrible. I mean suddenly, it was not happy days – there was no money. People weren’t buying, and I couldn’t work with the regular factory I worked with in Gaza.
“I owed money to people in Gaza and they were like ‘Never mind, never mind, when the war is over, we will meet again.’ It was just so funny. I didn’t have money to pay them in Gaza and me, I’m here in Tel Aviv and they have to tell me never mind, never mind.”
She remembers the day well when she was forced to withdraw from there: It was the same day IDF soldier Gilad Schalit was kidnapped by Hamas – June 25, 2006. Trotoush-Argaman said she was planning to take delivery of about 500 summer handbags when Mattr called her.
“He was crying and yelling and said, ‘I don’t know what happened, there are tanks inside Gaza and airplanes and the sound of war. I don’t know what happened.’” News of exactly what had happened was slow to hit the headlines. After about four hours it became clear – a soldier had been captured in Gaza, and the borders had closed.
BOTH TROTOUSH-ARGAMAN and Mattr were left wondering what to do next – there were 500 bags waiting, and she didn’t have anything to sell.
“After six months, we got back the bags. They were on the border for six months. We got them on a very rainy day and we just took the delivery out, and it was summer bags in light colors and here it was raining. I was crying.
And that was the very last time I got to work with Gaza, they don’t let me inside the Strip.”
Given the chance again, she’d jump at returning to Gaza.
“First of all, Moussa was an artist for detail; nobody has the same eye. Also, we love him a lot, he’s a great person and he’s a very good friend – so yes, of course I like to work with Gaza’s people, they’re happy, cool people. All the people I know from Gaza are quite cool.”
Speaking in April to the Post from his home opposite the Mediterranean in Gaza City, Mattr said he would also jump at the chance to be able to work once more for Es.Tee Handbags. He said that before Hamas took over and the siege on Gaza in 2007, he employed up to 150 people in his factory working for seven different companies. But virtually overnight, $500,000 worth of production was wiped out and he was forced to sell the factory. He ended up selling the machines for $55,000 less than the original price of purchase.
As of February, he has another failed clothing company under his belt.
“The economic situation now and prior to 2007 is very different. And I’m not just talking about Gaza, it’s also in Israel. Many companies I’ve owned have closed and stopped working because of the economic situation, and others started to import their materials from abroad, not from Gaza.
“All of these things, if the siege was lifted in Gaza – we could open a business in Gaza, we could ask businessmen from abroad to come and open their business here, we could open our own factory because there are the workers.”
In light of the current confict, Trotoush-Argaman has been trying for days to contact Mattr and his wife, but has only managed to once last week. She couldn’t speak on his behalf, but said he was irritable and sounded terrible.
But at the time of the interview, Mattr and his wife were upbeat about the future, hoping they could once more operate a factory. Yet the former factory manager admitted the cost of starting from scratch again was likely to be prohibitive.
For the last seven years, the industry has mostly survived on cheaper imports. A shortage of materials has meant only 3,000 workers remain in the industry; before 2007, 35,000 were employed.
It is unclear how the current conflict will affect the industry moving forward, but it could be years before it recovers.
Muhammad Abu Shanab is the president of the Palestinian Authority’s Garment and Textiles Industry Association.
He says those 32,000 people who’ve lost their jobs have had to take anything they can get.
“I would [rather] close my eyes [than] look at them working in cleaning or a laundromat. Some of them have received help from the ministries, because they haven’t had a chance for work.”
Mattr said the economy needs to improve, the bans on exports need to be lifted and restrictions need to be placed on imports.
Israel has previously cited security reasons for placing restriction on exports, claiming anything could be a security risk because Gaza is controlled by Hamas.
BACK IN Tel Aviv, Trotoush-Argaman is quite happy to be running her own business from her small studio – being her own boss, granting her flexibility.
But increasingly, she’s turning to politics to make a difference.
“I have statements I really need to say and to move. Because I’m very, very miserable about the State of Israel and the situation we’re in. I’m really afraid for the future.”