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Tatreez: how this Palestinian craft is empowering a generation of women

Tatreez: from empowering refugee women to learn new skills and earn an income, to connecting the Palestinian diaspora worldwide.

Palestine’s rich history may be shrouded in conflict and strife, but one 3,000-year-old tradition, tatreez, is making a comeback.

A Jordanian refugee camp housing displaced Palestinians is helping young girls reconnect with their roots while learning a trade they can use in the future.

More than 2 million registered Palestine refugees live in Jordan, and while most of them now have Jordanian citizenship, not all of them have the opportunities to learn useful skills to set them up in life.

A new initiative in Jordan’s Baqa’a camp is teaching girls how to learn to sew in the age-old tradition of their ancestors.

Jordan’s Baqa’a camp was set up in 1968 in response to the 1967 conflict in Gaza and the West Bank. Now, the camp houses more than 104,000 registered refugees, 16 schools, and one women’s program center, that teaches women skills including English, computer literacy, hairdressing, and handicrafts.

Palestine’s distinctive embroidery, known as tatreez, is a craft passed down from mothers to daughters, and for many of these young women, it’s now a chance to revive their cultural identity while providing them with skills that can earn them a modest income.

Basma Nazer: Khoyoot-Threads

In 2015, Basma Nazer founded Khoyoot-Threads as a way to partner with women in refugee camps, empower them to create products that the global market can enjoy. “The essence of this project is to empower women to create art while preserving the culture and participating fully in the economic and social makeup of the community,” Nazer told the media earlier this month.

“Our products target different groups and in return, we give back a percentage of our earnings to the community for development and support.  We also focus a lot on working with the women who are not allowed to work from outside their homes.”

What is tatreez

Traditionally, tatreez was practiced by rural women who passed down this understated artform to their daughters and granddaughters. The embroidery was a staple in women’s attire back then, called thobes.

Tatreez, when done right, represents the culture, financial status and even the village the wearer comes from.  Each pattern has a meaning, from warding off evil, illness, and bad luck, to celebrating a woman’s social standing in the community.

After 1948, when the conflict began, tatreez began to represent more than just a rural craft, but a symbol of the Palestinian identity.

The Palestinian diaspora is increasingly promoting the strength of their identity through tatreez. In New York, a mother-daughter duo is crowdfunding a project, Tatreez & Tea to document this largely oral tradition alive.

Tatreez and tea

“Palestinian embroidery is a centuries-old folk art, traditionally passed from mother to daughter over a cup of tea,” says Wafa Ghnaim. “My mother, Feryal Abbasi-Ghnaim, and I are currently creating an expanded and revised second edition of Tatreez & Tea, to include 50 Palestinian patterns, their meanings, and design histories. The patterns and motifs are not available anywhere online, or in print, anywhere in the world and will be lost if not documented.”

“When I embroider, I feel close to my homeland.”

Wafa’s mother, Feryal Abbasi-Ghnaim, is a leading Palestinian folk artist, now based in the United States, specializing in fabric and fiber arts,  She is of the Nakba generation, who fled Safad, Palestine in 1948. Her 50-year career spans teaching young women the endangered art of Palestinian embroidery and traditional art that she learned from her mother and grandmother.

“When I embroider, I feel close to my homeland,” she says. As new generations of Palestinians are raised overseas, both Feryal and Wafa believe tatreez can be the unifying factor to preserve tradition and cultural identity.

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