Threads of Resistance: Palestinian Embroidery
Thread the needle. Insert the needle into the fabric, pulling it just enough to preserve a bit of the loop. Cross the thread and needle diagonally through the loop. Repeat. For centuries, Palestinians replicated this intricate process, adorning pillows, tapestries, and elegant dresses with this traditional needlework. To the Palestinian eye, these embroidered creations, or tatreez, are not mere embellishments to dull pieces. It weaves through a history of dispossession and exile. Embroiderers dig their roots further into the land, honoring its provisions from Hebron’s grapevines to Beit Dajan’s orange orchards through graceful motifs.
Following decades of violence within the Palestinian-Israeli borders, Palestinians have preserved this artful procedure through intergenerational transmissions. Mothers teach its deliberate designs to their offspring, leading an intimate process that defies colonial tactics of cultural erasure. Through displacement and distress, Palestinian women have devoted themselves to the collective procedures and deliberate patterns of tatreez to resist against cultural erasure within Israel.
Tatreez garments have consistently displayed a woman’s wealth and status within their elaborate shapes and vivid colors. Particular motifs and stitches additionally reveal regional origins. Thobs, Arabic word for embroidered dresses, and native to Ramallah, famously embrace vertical bands of stars, S-shapes, cypress trees, and feathers on the back and front of the dress. Affluent women flaunt their prosperity, placing an additional horseshoe-shaped band of Mother Theresa coins on top of the saffeh, an embroidered headdress distinct to Ramallah.
Although not as overt as in recent decades, tatreez in the years preceding the Nakba, or “catastrophe,” did exhibit the period’s political reality. The “Pasha’s Tent” embroidery pattern served as an homage to Ottoman rule; the British Mandate period witnessed the proliferation of the needlepoint design: “Officer Pip’s.” The mass exodus of 1948 further modified tatreez patterns into deliberate tokens of political advocacy. Interlacing vibrant threads, Palestinians amplified uprisings and preserved its intricate designs against the threat of violent land grabs and subsequent exile.
Photo credit: Textile Research Center. Palestinian Intifada dress
In recent decades, tatreez patterns and motifs have embraced a more communal essence. Its regional and social specificities eroded into a general tool to display Palestinian pride. In the 1980s, the shawal style of thobe epitomized political mobilization. Also referred to as the “Intifada dress,” this garment demonstrated the embroiderers’ support for the Palestinian uprising. The shawal style discreetly honored the country’s flag despite deliberate efforts to prohibit it, highlighting black, red, green, and white hues across the fabric. Palestinian women introduced a “new form of visual discourse” as they adorned embroidered pieces with maps, flags, and political slogans.
The signing of the Oslo Accords commenced what Stein and Swedenburg recognized as the “intifada of culture.” Its passage revived practices previously sidelined, preserving tatreez patterns. Palestinians increasingly embroidered maps confined within embellished frames. The maps displayed contemporary national emblems, including the flag and keffiyeh pattern, within a visible document that captured the ghost of Palestine’s past. They narrate Palestine’s history before the restraints of colonialism, creating a space for “romantic nostalgia.”
Photo credit: @RashidaTlaib on Instagram. Rashida Tlaib, a Palestinian-American, gets sworn into Congress while styling a dress adorned with tatreez
Tatreez communicates a universal language of exile, dispossession, and anguish. Across regional borders, the Palestinian diaspora regurgitates the language of their ancestors, protecting its embroidered iterations against the threat of cultural amnesia. They plead loyalty to their native land and cling to the memories captured in tatreez’s intricate designs. In her text “Women’s Political Activism in Palestine,” Sophie Richter-Devroe identifies Palestinian resistance as the mundane acts in their habitual lives. Although seemingly trivial, diasporic communities’ display of tatreez patterns on garments and other fixtures signals their unwithering endurance. They engage in what Laura Lamberti characterizes as “internal resistance.” Palestinians are fluent in this artful expression, responding to their shared experience of involuntary exile. The diaspora preserves their livelihoods, repeating embroidery patterns that illustrate and commemorate a memory distinctive to the Palestinian identity. They recount stories their ancestors conveyed through vivid threads and eloquent motifs.
In 2021, the United Nations cultural agency (UNESCO) added tatreez to its Intangible Cultural Heritage List. Mohammad Shtayyeh, the Palestinian Authority Prime Minister, applauded this act, accrediting heritage as the “living reservoir of the memory of our people on this earth.” His comment carries immense accuracy.
Through a history of dispossession and exile, tatreez patterns communicate a collective memory familiar to Palestinians. It conveys a narrative within its elegant designs, exhibiting significance beyond its superficial beauty. While its motifs adopted alternative meanings, these intricate designs remain a channel to galvanize Palestinians into political action. From embroidered flags to needlepoint maps, tatreez preserved sacred Palestinian emblems through generations. Palestinian elderly continue to pass down thobes adorned with elaborate tatreez patterns for their offspring to cherish and treasure for future generations. They teach them this procedure, sustaining that intricate process that all begins with threading the needle.
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Richter-Devroe, S. (2018). Women’s Political Activism in Palestine: Peacebuilding, Resistance, and Survival. University of Illinois Press. https://doi.org/10.5406/j.ctv65sz1r
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