A few tomes on Palestinian embroidery are placed strategically across the long table. I open one of them, a page where a pink slip was used as a bookmark, the headline here reads – ‘Embroidery under military occupation’.
It’s mid-afternoon and as I sit leafing through the book, the other chairs in the conference room of Jameel Arts Centre, Dubai, slowly fill in with a diverse group of enthusiastic women, who like me had signed up a few days ago for this Palestinian tatreez embroidery workshop with artist Joanna Barakat.
Born in Jerusalem, Joanna’s family moved to the United States when she was only a year old. So, according to her tatreez (Arabic for embroidery) was part of her growing up years only in the form of nostalgia sewn on cushion covers at home. Yet for people in Palestine, tatreez was one of the finest art forms intrinsic to village life, passed on through generations. During war and displacement it took on a new meaning as women kept it alive in refugee camps. The creativity of the art form provided a calming effect to them. It was also used as a weapon against the occupation when embroiders stitched motifs of the Palestinian flag on clothes.
Joanna, who is also the co-founder of The Tatreez Circle in the UAE, begins her workshop with a presentation on tatreez styles across Palestine before 1948. Each region, it seems had a distinctive embroidery pattern. In Bethlehem embroiders used to follow a unique couching format. As the area had several traders and merchants, their embroidery styles reflected the influence they carried from their travels. The region was synonymous with heavy embroidery on long sleeves and geometric patterns woven on silk wedding dresses called Malak.
On the other hand Ramallah was well-known for the cross stitch embroidery pattern. Dresses from this region were sewn with a wine-red cross stitch. Jerusalem interestingly had both couching and cross-stitch tatreez patterns.
The designs depicted the socio-economic status of the people and the motifs they sewed were influenced by their daily life. Famous for their native oranges, embroiders in Jaffa, for instance, stitched orange blossom patterns. Natural dyes using indigo were woven on dresses to ward off the evil eye. The hems of long dresses worn by Bedouin women were stitched with dark blue embroidery. If they remarried they added bursts of red along with the blue to showcase joy back in their lives.
Post the historic Nakba in 1948, however, these distinct embroidery styles became a mishmash of patterns drawn from each region to become universally known as Palestinian tatreez.
This informative presentation was followed by the actual workshop that involved some real stitching and sewing. Each participant was given a kit with a needle, a meshed cloth and a tatreez pattern. The goal was to learn to sew a cypress tree motif from either — the Hebron style, Beersheba, Gaza, Ramallah or Jaffa areas.
Joanna showed us that to maintain an easy grip on the thread the length of the yarn should be only as long as one’s hand. She quickly measured a red thread and effortlessly put it through the needle and showed us a simple cross stitch pattern. We could choose a style we wanted to follow and stitch on.
Only it wasn’t as easy as it looked. As women around me were sewing cypress trees with their nimble fingers I was still struggling to put the thread through the eye of the needle. Exasperated after a few failed attempts I took the assistance of the skilled lady next to me. Then funnily enough went on to sew a motif that nowhere resembled the ones synonymous to Palestine. Amused at her errant student Joanna readily offered to resew it so that I could start afresh. In reality the most fitting outcome of the workshop for me was not stitching the embroidery but going back richer with insights on the tradition and history of tatreez.