The treads of identity in a Palestinian craft

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The treads of identity in a Palestinian craft
A Palestinian woman embroiders at the Surif Women’s Cooperative, in the West Bank city of Surif, Aug. 27, 2023. Several Palestinian organizations are working to revive the culture’s traditional embroidery, which is on UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, and to preserve old thobes that tell Palestinian history. (Samar Hazboun/The New York Times)

by Raja Abdulrahim

BIRZEIT, WEST BANK.- In every stitch, there is a story.

Like layers of history, the hand-stitched Palestinian embroidery known as tatreez, traditionally used to ornament Palestinian dress, tells of towns and villages lost, old customs abandoned, past lives and survival. The stitched designs and symbols once functioned almost as an identification card.

The rooster, an old Christian symbol, indicated the wearer’s faith. A red bird on a blue-threaded robe worn by widows meant the woman was ready to remarry. An image of a particular plant or fruit suggested the garment’s origin, such as orange blossoms adorning robes from Jaffa or cypress trees on those from Hebron.

“Every town’s embroidery has a special characteristic,” said Baha Jubeh, collections and conservation manager at the Palestinian Museum in Birzeit, as he stood among a long row of these dresses, known as thobes, some dating back decades and others more than a century. “But all of them together combine to create a historical Palestinian identity.”

The craft “is a central part of the Palestinian heritage,” he added.

In 2021, UNESCO added Palestinian embroidery to its list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, recognizing it as “a widespread social and intergenerational practice in Palestine,” a symbol of national pride and a way in which women supplement family income. But like other Indigenous handicrafts across the world, it faces threats, including mechanization and abandonment of old styles of dress.

Now there is a push to revive the handicraft in younger generations and to preserve old thobes that tell Palestinian history.

Those efforts include plans to reintroduce embroidery in curriculums in Palestinian schools, to include it as part of school uniforms and to open an academy in the Israeli-occupied West Bank dedicated to the handicraft, overseen by the Palestinian Authority’s cultural ministry.

In July, the museum inaugurated a Textile Conservation Studio to preserve Palestinian thobes and other heritage fabrics and to provide training for conservation and restoration.

“We need to practice our heritage so we don’t lose it,” said Maha Saca, founder and director of the Palestinian Heritage Center in Bethlehem, who helped submit the UNESCO application and is now working on opening the academy.

In the meantime, practitioners of Palestinian embroidery, mostly in women’s collectives, are keeping the tradition alive, preserving old stitch techniques along with Palestinian history. The thobe is one of the most important and recognizable symbols of Palestinian identity as well as a link to a deeply contested land. Women’s tradition of embroidering their own thobes became widespread across the Middle East starting in the ninth century, said Hanan Munayyer, a Palestinian American who wrote the book “Traditional Palestinian Costume: Origins and Evolution.”

Historically, Palestinian embroidery was taught mostly at home, passed down through generations, along with the decorated thobes.

In 2019, when Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., was sworn in as the first Palestinian American woman to serve in Congress, she wore a red-and-black thobe that once belonged to her mother. That led to a hashtag, #TweetYourThobe, that encouraged other Palestinian women to share photographs of themselves in their own thobes.

At the time, Tlaib wrote that she wanted to bring to Congress “an unapologetic display of the fabric of the people in this country.”

That fabric also tells of Palestinian survival.

Decades ago, the thobe was an everyday item worn and embroidered mostly by rural Palestinian women. Its colors and designs were drawn from the flowers, plants and animals around them. Some were worn throughout a lifetime, with fabric added to mark a marriage and seams expanded to allow for pregnancy and breast feeding.

In 1948, about 700,000 Palestinians were forced to flee their homes in the war surrounding the creation of Israel, a period that Palestinians call the nakba, or catastrophe. Most ended up in refugee camps in neighboring countries and across the West Bank and Gaza. Suddenly uprooted from their homes, lands and sources of income, women began to sell one of their few possessions of value: their thobes.

The nakba — and, nearly two decades later, the naksa, which is what Palestinians call the mass displacement around the Arab-Israeli war of 1967 — forced many women to become the breadwinners in their families. Embroidery was a major skill, transformed from a personal craft to one driven by trade.

The designs and colors of the embroidery began to change because women were away from the lands and local inspirations they once drew from. The embroidery became more homogenized and less of an identity card.

Since the 1970s, most Palestinian women have abandoned the thobe in favor of Western clothes or the generic Islamic styles worn across the Middle East. Nowadays, embroidered thobes are typically worn only at weddings and other special occasions.

Saca said images on traditional thobes that came from different towns and cities in present-day Israel told a political story.

“We prove our presence here for thousands of years through our heritage,” she said. “How do we have a Jaffa thobe and an Akka thobe and a Beersheba thobe if we were not there? The biggest evidence of our presence in these areas is our thobe.”

She was referring to the phrase “a land without a people for a people without a land,” used by some Zionists before the establishment of Israel to contend that the land of historical Palestine was uninhabited.

At the Surif Women’s Cooperative, in a small town on the outskirts of the West Bank city of Hebron, Halima Fareed, 58, put the final touches on a green-and-black embroidered pillowcase. Sitting near a wall covered in colorful rolls of thread and fabric, she sewed on a label: Palestinian needlework. West Bank. Made in Hebron.

Around the edges were little cypress trees that resembled the tall cypress that stands outside the cooperative. It is one of the few local symbols that the cooperative, which makes embroidered household items but not thobes, still preserves in its designs, which now tend toward the Christmas candles, camels and Canaanite stars favored by customers.

The embroidery of Hebron and its surrounding towns used to be marked primarily by reds and purples. Now, many of the cooperative’s pillowcases, place mats and stoles are dominated by the more popular blues and greens.

As the handicraft evolves, its practitioners see it in the context of history.

“This is not the old heritage,” Fareed said as she sewed the edges of a multicolored pillowcase. “It is our heritage, but it has been modernized.”

The director of the cooperative, Taghrid Hudoosh, 55, nodded. “We are a continuation of our heritage,” she said.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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