Written by Catherine Burke
While national identity and social cohesion are often developed through and closely linked to shared cultural practices, these gain an even greater significance when the nation’s existence is threatened. Therefore, the maintenance of Palestinian traditions and culture plays an important role in keeping Palestinian nationalism alive within the occupied Palestinian territories and throughout the diaspora. Moreover, in the face of the apartheid regime and cultural erasure perpetrated by Israel, preservation of Palestinian historical memory is essential to the survival of Palestinian nationalism. Engagement with traditional Palestinian artistic and cultural practices has therefore served as a vital mechanism for sustaining Palestinian identity, as well as resistance.
Tatreez is a unique form of Palestinian embroidery and an ancient practice, believed to date back over 3,000 years to the Canaanite period. While few historical examples of tatreez physically remain, due to the textiles’ delicate nature and their destruction over time, mentions of Palestinian embroidery can be found in the records of 17th century travelers. Tatreez is most commonly found on thobes, the long robes forming Palestinian women’s traditional costume. The embroidery adorning women’s thobes, typically concentrated on the sleeves and chest, is not only decorative, but can signify a woman’s village, age, or marital status. Colors and symbols incorporated in tatreez denote different parts of Palestine. For example, bright red was often used in tatreez from Ramallah. By conveying details such as marriage and class status through color, pattern, and material, tatreez served an important social function in Palestinian society. Moreover, tatreez was also shaped by historical and political events, as well as new cultural influences, such as the arrival of European missionaries, which saw the introduction of new motifs during the 1930s.
Importantly, tatreez has remained a central aspect of Palestinian women’s lives and experiences of the world over time. Historically, girls began to learn stitching at a young age and were taught stitches and their village motif by older girls and women. Typically, mothers taught their daughters tatreez, which was also a communal activity that involved not only embroidery, but bonding through sharing stories. This exchange of knowledge and skills between generations ensured the continuation of a valuable Palestinian tradition and female artform. Tatreez also offered women a means of expressing themselves and their identity, which was conveyed through use of color and pattern. Tatreez’ provision of a creative outlet for women was especially important historically, when often only men were granted access to education, as it offered an alternative means of communicating with the world and developing a craft.
Tatreez took on a new meaning and even greater significance to the Palestinian people after the Nakba in 1948. The Nakba saw the forced expulsion of Palestinians from their homes after the 1948 war and the establishment of the state of Israel, rendering 80 percent of Palestinians refugees and the few remaining in Palestine second-class citizens subject to violence and discrimination within Israel. In the immediate aftermath of the Israeli occupation, the destruction of Palestinian villages and way of life, as well as the mass displacement of the Palestinian people, most of whom were then concentrated in refugee camps throughout the Middle East, inhibited the practice of tatreez. However, during the 1960s, tatreez re-emerged both as a form of resistance and economic gain, in addition to helping keep the historical memory of Palestine alive. Tatreez was adapted to the conditions of life after the Nakba by utilizing cheaper materials, as well as becoming a prominent symbol of Palestinian nationalism. After the First Intifada, an uprising against Israeli occupation of the West Bank beginning in 1987, tatreez incorporated new motifs symbolizing themes of land and resistance. This new form of political tatreez was especially significant as publicly displaying Palestinian symbols, such as the flag, was banned by Israel. In response to Israel’s brutal oppression, Palestinian women used tatreez in the creation of an “intifada dress,” which was a traditional thobe decorated with Palestinian flags, maps of Palestine, and other important symbols like olive branches sewn in the national colors. These intifada dresses even featured woven slogans such as “we will return”. By weaponizing tatreez against Israeli occupation and boldly defying its ban on Palestinian symbols, Palestinian women asserted their power and furthered the Palestinian nationalist cause by keeping Palestinian culture and traditions alive.
Significantly, tatreez also enables Palestinian women to help support themselves and their families in exile after having lost access to their traditional economic and social structures. The UNRWA has funded embroidery workshops and centers to support Palestinian women in gaining greater economic independence through the commodification of their embroidery. For example, the Rashidieh camp, the oldest refugee camp in Lebanon, has become a central location of tatreez production due to its tatreez collective within the Beit Atfal Assumoud center. Within the collective, women are trained by their peers and are then able to sell their creations through global networks. However, tatreez collectives based in refugee camps accomplish more than just providing an economic outlet for women. The preservation of Palestinian traditions and cultural practices, as well as their being spread around the world, is integral to the persistence of Palestinian nationalism.
Through tatreez, Palestinian women assert the continued existence of the Palestinian people and their undying pursuit to return to their homeland. Moreover, the practice of tatreez brings together Palestinians from different parts of the country within refugee camps and allows them to bond over their shared experiences and background, which has resulted in a new form of tatreez combining different regional motifs and patterns known as “camp style”. Tatreezinitiatives have also expanded beyond refugee camps and efforts to promote knowledge and practice of tatreez and other Palestinian cultural traditions are growing around the world. For example, the Tatreez Institute, which is based in the U.S., works to preserve, document, and research Middle Eastern textiles, with a specific focus on tatreez and educating people about the Palestinian cause. Such projects unite the Palestinian diaspora through their cultural heritage, as well as raise awareness of the Palestinian struggle internationally. Therefore, tatreez serves as a vital mechanism through which Palestinian nationalism is kept alive.
Featured Imagery on Tatreez and Tea.