Tatreez and Tea: Storytelling Through Embroidery

The room is abuzz with the inflections and intonations of Arabic, interspersed with English. Different age groups of women, many in beautifully embroidered Thobes* are huddled close together, fingers flying in a smooth motion, with flashes of jewel colors dancing in the air before disappearing for a moment, only to resurface, continuing the loop in an unbroken, cyclic motion. The fingers pause only fleetingly to have a sip of warm, comforting tea, before getting back to their task. An outsider could be forgiven for thinking it was a cozy gathering in someone’s home for an evening of conversation and creation, fostering the collective bonds of community.

The scene I just described did ensue - only outside of a home, and in the collective space of an institutionalized setting; a workshop on Tatreez, conducted by award winning Tatreez artist, Feryal Abbasi-Ghnaim and her daughter Wafa Ghnaim, as part of the MENAL Festival – Middle Eastern and North African Literature Festival, organized by the University of Washington, Bothell, on 1st February 2019.

Tatreez, an Arabic word for a specific kind of cross stitch embroidery, is a traditional Palestinian art form, centuries old, passed down from mother to daughter, and created over cups of tea. I had the good fortune to not only attend the workshop, but I also got the opportunity to interview both Feryal and Wafa, who graciously gave me their time, in an already hectic, busy day.

Workshop attendees embroidering the Singing Birds of Palestine Motif as taught by Tatreez & Tea

As Feryal and Wafa enlightened me, what makes Tatreez special is that in old Palestine, women didn’t always know how to read and write, and so they weren’t equipped with the ability to document their experiences in any sort of official way. They have been subjugated as a people, made invisible and voiceless through the political structure, and so there is a long oral history tradition that has been conveyed, and preserved through their textile art, and through their embroidery.

As Wafa says, “The Tatreez tradition is special because it is passed down from our maternal ancestors, and the very act of putting needle to thread, and the needle through the fabric, using the same motion that our great great great grandmothers did, connects us beyond our first generation in a really powerful way”.

The motifs are very special, in the way that stories are woven through the threads of Tatreez in an unwritten language. The motifs contain regional differences of social and marital status, and have deep symbolisms embedded in them, of Palestinian history and of a personal storytelling of the embroiderer. Historical stories depicted in Tatreez go as far back as the Pharaohs of Egypt, documenting the bonds and connections between the Egyptians and the Palestinians in their embroidery. For example, Feryal and Wafa have both embroidered intricate and nuanced pieces, The Story of Cleopatra, (Cleopatra as the leitmotif for a strong, independent woman), with symbolism stitched into each thread - the crown - a symbol of power, jewelry - a symbol of wealth, and a diamond shaped ring motif, with a small compartment in the middle, which contained the poison that Cleopatra kept, which she would use the moment the Romans entered Egypt and her palace.

Original 'Cleopatra' piece designed and embroidered by Wafa Ghnaim | www.tatreezandtea.com

The thread of political message embedded within Tatreez cannot be denied, because of the situation in Palestine and its position in the Middle East. The women of Palestine demonstrated their own resistance to the occupation and the political turmoil and violence by incorporating political messages on to their dresses. For example, in areas that witness heavy bombing and shelling, the women use motifs of missiles and guns, upside down trees, (all denoting destruction), in their Tatreez embroidery as a form of documentation, and as a form of protest against the violence that destroys lives around them. Depicted in the same dress are also floral motifs, birds and animals, signifying how life can thrive in areas of peace. This is a powerful message that is implicit in its delineation, but speaks volumes where words fail!

Lecture by Wafa Ghnaim (L) and Feryal Abbasi-Ghnaim at the University of Washington Bothell, January 31, 2019. Photo Credit: Angelica Mendoza

Tatreez & Tea endeavors to elevate the narrative of Palestinian women to ensure that their very skillful and expert artistry is preserved in history for what it is. Tatreez is not just a craft executed by women; it is a fine art, with deep symbolism and meaning, a repository of a rich visual storytelling tradition.

As a Cultural Studies student, I expressed my concerns and apprehensions of cultural appropriation of Tatreez to Wafa, who stressed the importance of education and awareness in disseminating the deep roots and histories of Palestinian embroidery traditions.

“Keeping this art alive, in and of itself, is a way to prevent cultural appropriation. It is when the traditional form dies and people are just consuming it, in a commercialized, capitalized manner, commodifying a traditional art form, that it becomes dangerous territory. But if Palestinians have the correct knowledge, then they can identify and also defend their opinions about cultural appropriation”.

For Feryal and Wafa, the preservation of Palestinian culture is, in part, dependent upon preserving the art forms, and the whole purpose of their work is dedicated to ensuring that Palestinians stay connected to their identity.

“We need other avenues to highlight our activism and that is where art comes in, because art can be a safe place, a sacred place for expression and connection to our ancestral identity that has nothing to do with borders, countries, war, occupation, and politics. As we all know, trauma is passed ancestrally, so why can’t healing? We believe Tatreez can be a part of that healing and cathartic process and journey. What we are trying to convey through our work is that it is not limited by anyone occupying us. We have a voice that says our culture will survive any attempts to dominate or erase it, just as our people have over the centuries, against all odds, as long as we stay true and authentic to ourselves”.
The author with her finished bird from the Singing Birds of Palestine workshop at the University of Washington Bothell

*Thobe: an embroidered robe traditionally worn by Palestinian women.

About the Author

Savita Krishnamoorthy

Savita, a first year MACS student, is an art historian by training, and deeply interested in the intersections of the arts in pedagogy and in community engagement. MACS has given her the space to explore her intellectual pursuits, conflating theory with praxis, while navigating different approaches to effect social justice and advocacy through community based arts initiatives.

© 2019 by Safaa.

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Middle East and North Africa Literature Festival