Ayah’s mother is one of eight daughters. They lived in Dheisha, a refugee camp located near Bethlehem, where they were displaced from Jerusalem by the Israeli occupation in 1948. There, her grandmother taught each one of her daughters, one needle and thread at a time, how to cross-stitch a mosaic of colors and shapes into various garments. Every combination told a different story about belonging and resistance.
Ayah is one of a long line of stitchers. After all, this set of embroidery techniques, formally known as tatreez, has been passed down in Palestine from mother to daughter for centuries. “My mother brought me tatreez kits from Palestine when I was a kid,” Ayah told Atmos. “They would have drawings, for example, of houses and you were supposed to stitch over them.”
As a practice, tatreez has always been from and of the land. Whether it is the orange blossoms of Bayt Dajan or the palm trees of Yaffa, the symbols and patterns stitched on a thoub—a traditional, embroidered dress—were inspired by the floral diversity that is distinct to every region. These symbols were used to signal what village or city its wearer belonged to. Even the materials used to dye the threads were natural and ranged from grape leaves to pomegranate skins. Beyond its natural elements, tatreez has served a crucial social purpose, too. For example: Palestinian women have utilized various other colors and shapes to signal the age and marital status of women, acting as a worn, unspoken language communicating the roles and backgrounds of women from all over the country.
It’s a tradition that is rooted in community. As Jehan Rejab highlights in Palestinian Costume, older women would gather around girls to help them with their first stitches. This is also how Ayah first learned it from her mother. Although she was an impatient child, Ayah started practicing at a young age by stitching simple shapes that would later turn into patterns resembling those ornamenting thyab. But the circumstances under which Ayah learned tatreez were completely different to how her mother initially learned the craft. While Ayah was taught this technique to be reminded of her heritage and traditions, Ayah’s mother learned it alongside her sisters as a source of income in Dheisha.
“They would do everything by hand because they didn’t have any resources to buy things in the camp,” said Ayah. “And my grandmother would teach them everything—it wasn’t just tatreez. It was weaving baskets and making other things for their house or for sale by just using resources they found around the camp.”
Tatreez, then, is a living archive that witnesses and documents what Palestine and Palestinians have historically endured and continue to withstand. After the nakba (catastrophe) in 1948, at least 750,000 Palestinians were expelled from their homes. This transformed the practice of tatreez, its use, and its symbols. What was once a communal practice that allowed Palestinian women to embroider garments for themselves and others in their community became an abandoned luxury due to constant displacement and a lack of time and supplies. The visual language of the practice changed, too.
“When I was reading and learning about the different patterns, I wanted to find the patterns my dad’s side is originally from,” said Ayah. “So I started looking into that and wondered: why were these patterns lost? And what was the process behind that?” One reason is the environmental degradation caused by increasing settlements, which means that some local symbols and iterations of tatreez patterns are now extinct in tandem with the over 400 villages that have been ethnically cleansed or wiped out. Other symbols indicating environmental specificity have been partially erased.
“Here, in the diaspora, there’s this romanticization of Palestine because we don’t have Palestine itself—I think people here are trying to preserve the older element of the art itself.”
Even so, the practice of tatreez was maintained and reimagined in refugee camps, including Ayah’s grandmother’s, as both a means of income for families, and also as an act of preservation. One of the garment designs that emerged after this transition was the “six branch dress” in the 1960s and 1970s, which was created to signal a person’s economic status. The design includes six branches embroidered over black fabric from the waist down. As Jeni Allenby writes in Re-Inventing Cultural Heritage, “the design structure allowed one to embroider the ‘branches’ to reflect one’s own economic necessities: very thin if times were hard, broadening if a little more money was available for small luxuries.”
Although Ayah started learning tatreez from her mother early on, she stopped practicing it consistently in middle school. The only time it naturally came to her was during her visits every summer to Palestine. But she came back to tatreez again when she was quarantined at home in San Jose, California, during the pandemic as a college sophomore—and so she started researching the craft beyond the context of a “warm and comforting” familial practice. Her findings reignited Ayah’s connection to the craft in part for its understated but revolutionary potential. Whether inside or outside Palestine, Palestinian women have always played an integral role in resisting the occupation. And tatreez was just one of the many tools they utilized.
For instance—during the first intifada (uprising) between 1987 and 1993, protests sparked across Palestine. Israel proceeded to ban any public symbol that represented Palestine, including the Palestinian flag itself. As a result, Palestinian women protested against the erasure of their histories and their identities by weaving forbidden symbols into their tatreez patterns. This was done by, for instance, writing “Palestine” in Arabic or English or by using threads in the colors of the Palestinian flag (black, white, green, and red), giving way to new tatreez patterns. Palestinian women would even stitch escape routes that protesters facing the occupation army could rely on to survive. For Ayah, it was this potential of symbols and patterns to mobilize protests that drew her back to tatreez.
Even after the first intifada, the prevalence of these national symbols in tatreez persists. What has, however, changed is why tatreez is practiced—and the extent to which these patterns have become commodities to be branded, sold, and distributed to shoppers all over the world. A quick search of tatreez on Etsy will yield hundreds of results, many of them promising “realistic” Palestinian designs.
Sylvia Ulloa, author of Tatreez Online: The Transformation of a Palestinian Tradition, identifies social media platforms as a catalyst for the rise in popularity of buying and selling tatreez-like patterns with little or no emphasis on the history of each design. Last summer, Ayah saw these patterns both in stores and online on mugs, T-shirts, and other items. And while she acknowledges that mass production will keep these patterns alive, she remembers the frustration felt by herself and her mother. The art form that was initially a labor of love is diminishing into quick, easily-commercialized, and machine-produced products, totally isolated from tatreez’s radical origins.
“There are attempts of modernizing tatreez back home,” said Ayah. “But here, in the diaspora, there’s this romanticization of Palestine because we don’t have Palestine itself—I think people here are trying to preserve the older element of the art itself.” For Ayah, the art of tatreez must remain faithful to its origins: a communal practice that is part of Palestinians’ day-to-day lives. She’s not alone in feeling this way. Wafa Ghnaim founded Tatreez and Tea, a Palestinian-led educational initiative, in order to preserve endangered symbols by running workshops on the origins of tatreez, and by teaching the stitching skills practiced within communities that are necessary to keeping tatreez alive. Ghnaim’s efforts not only highlight the rich yet complex history of tatreez as a hand-crafted practice that is worn and passed down, but—in so doing—they also secure its future.
Now a college senior, Ayah teaches and leads workshops about tatreez, inspired by the revolutionary history of women like Wafa Ghnaim. Just like her grandmother taught her mother, Ayah teaches the history, significance, and meaning of every flower and leaf in these subversive patterns, one needle and thread at a time. And, although these patterns will continue to change and transform, she frequently reminds herself and others that this resistance tool is at its core a practice of patience, resilience, and self-determination.