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Ancient Threads Energize the Palestinian Resistance
When earlier this month, Hanan al Hroub jubilantly took to the stage in Dubai to receive the Global Teacher Prize 2016 and US$1 million prize money, she wore a black dress with fine embroidery.
This type of needlework, quintessentially Palestinian, is “tatreez”. The fact that “al mouallema” (teacher) Hanan wore a “thob” (traditional dress) with tatreez was more than a fashion statement.
According to Faten Youssef Miaari who lives in Ain el Helwe, near Sidon, tatreez is a form of resistance not merely a cultural practice. “Just like everybody does their thing, women preserve their heritage – everyone does their little bit,” she said.
The Nakba’s effects did not spare Palestinian threads and needles: tatreez, according to Miaari, got mixed up. In order to preserve this Palestinian cultural tradition, women now stitch different styles.
Tatreez is like a stamp in the passport: Anybody familiar with tatreez can distinguish where a certain work of tatreez may come from. Unlike her mother and grandmother who only ever cross-stitched designs in the al-Zib style – the village in northern Palestine where her family originates from – she can create embroidery in the style of Haifa, Gaza, Hebron, Bethlehem, etc.
For Miaari, “tatreez is part of our culture, I have to take care of it. I have to save it from extinction.” The mother of four has taught her youngest daughter the art of cross-stitching – and resisting – tatreez-style. She believes that anyone with patience can learn tatreez.
Miaari is a coordinator for a local non-profit called tatreez that emerged out of a project, funded by the European Union (EU). In three camps across Lebanon – Nahr el Bared, Ain el Helwe and Rachidiye – Palestinian women produce various items, ranging from pincushions to pillows, purses, vests, dresses, shawls and bags all embellished with tatreez.
“Tatreez was initially a project funded by the EU that ran for 2.5 years ending in mid-2015,” project manager Sergio Cozar explained. “The goal of the project was to empower Palestinian women living inside the camps and facilitate their access to economic resources especially for divorced, separated and widowed women.”
In order to ensure the sustainability of their activities after the project finished, “we established a cooperative with a non-profit status, which is not receiving any funding from anyone and that is financially sustainable. Tatreez, the non-profit, was established in 2016. The objectives are not only to empower women economically but also to establish safe spaces for them to work and meet and pursue their own activities, be it running workshops or any kinds of activities. It’s their cooperative now, they shape the way forward.”
During the EU project phase, tatreez faced various challenges: “No internet and electricity inside the camps, the security situation was at times bad, especially in Ain el Helwe, which meant that trainers could not get in and the women were not able to reach the centre, and all of this disrupted activities significantly,” Cozar said.
While it still is difficult to get media in or trainers – all require a permit – and it takes much time for the women living in the camps to commute when attending meetings outside the camps, Hence the establishment of the centres has improved their situation markedly.
Whereas previously, the women worked at home, with no electricity and light, damaging their eye sight, sitting on the ground, and without the possibility to work in a team, they now can meet at the three centres and work in better conditions and in a more coordinated way.
In order to establish a harmonious fusion between traditional and Western standards, and to teach the women about product design and to market a product, a Spanish designer, Victoria de Pereda, was brought in during the project phase.
“They’d be doing a lot of amazing tatreez, a veritable art work but on a shitty piece of fabric. So she taught them to select good fabric and also got them to use different colours. The colours they were using were quite dark, flat and a bit sad,” Cozar recalled. “She gave them invaluable input in terms of creativity and also energy and made them aware that they needed to establish a standard that they wanted to uphold. As it stands, our bestseller is a scarf that costs $240.”
Colours traditionally used in Palestine were red, green, orange and blue. The use of purple or pink is recent and reflects a change in taste and fashion. Miaari approves of this evolution. There are also European style garments and “abayas” (women’s gown) that now get “tatreezed”. Other newer creations include custom-made pieces with colourful tatreez to draw a younger clientele. Items the women work on are larger, for example bags. What Miaari, who takes car of quality control, is not willing to compromise on is quality.
There are at present between 50 and 60 women part of the cooperative. In Ain el Helwe, there are 14 women who like in the other two centres, get together three to four times a week in the mornings between 9am and 1pm and otherwise work from home. The women range in age from 14 to 45 years. Miaari herself is most interested in recruiting and teaching the younger ones.
Since the onset of the Syrian crisis, Palestinian projects have seen a downfall in their funding, parallel to an influx of Syrian Palestinians, which has driven density in the camps to new highs.
Unemployment is notoriously high in the camps but women tend to find employment easier than men. The income they generate makes a significant contribution to vulnerable households.
The fact that the focus of the cooperative is tatreez, a shared Palestinian language and common heritage, male relatives approve of the women pursuing this work.
Being in charge of the cooperative, the women are no longer just labour: “This time they make decisions, they deal with shops, they shape the way that things go,” Cozar underlined. “They were worried that they would not sell, initially. The idea is for the women to become entrepreneurs and what they do should make them proud.”
Widad Kawar’s love for traditional Arab garments and embroidery has lead to a number of authoritative books and a magnificent collection, the largest of Palestinian, Jordanian and Arab traditional dresses in the world, that she showcases at the Tiraz Centre in Amman, Jordan.
Once open in May 2016, the Dar el-Nimr for Arts and Culture in Beirut will be hosting an exhibition on Palestinian embroidery.
Where to find tatreez: online shop
Tatreez Shop in Makdissi Street, Hamra tel. 01 746 430
Mandala Yoga Studio Ground floor, facing Garderie le Cocon, St Cœurs Street, Tabaris, Ashrafieh tel. 03 082 524
Artisanat Massaya, (next to Akra) in Abdel Hamid Karami Street, Tripoli tel. 06 443 531
And at La Routa de Seda in Valencia, Spain and in Treviglio, Italy
As part of the Sursock Museum’s Salon Discussions, on 7 April 2016, Rachel Dedman will be talking about curating the exhibition At the Seams: A Political History of Palestinian Embroidery, which will open at Dar el-Nimr for Arts and Culture in Beirut in May 2016. Click here for more information.