Stitched Stories of Resistance
By: Lina Noor Barkawi. Lina Noor Barkawi is a Palestinian Panamanian American. She is working on the development of new products and services aimed at solving social and economic problems on a global scale via Mastercard’s Innovation Labs and is also pursuing an MA in Near Eastern Studies at NYU’s Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies. She currently lives in New York City and can be found on LinkedIn, Twitter or on Instagram.
"through [Palestinian] embroidery and its promotion [we] keep a candle in the window" -Leila El Khalidi, librarian and researcher of folk arts and crafts
In Palestine, the cross-stitch is one of the main techniques used in tatreez, embroidery in Arabic, to create designs and motifs as ornamentation on traditional costume. The motifs designed by Palestinian women have changed over time, but in them is “contained an intricate communication system” that not only conveys traits about the wearer but also reveals the character and personality of the maker. Embroiderers use different styles, colors, and motifs to symbolize various aspects of a Palestinian woman’s identity and across time, they tell stories about what was occurring and impacting the lives of these embroiderers.
Over the course of the decades spanning between the 1930s through the 1990s, the Palestinian identity was severely disrupted. In this paper, I argue that the stories that Palestinian women were telling by way of their embroidery evolved from a way of differentiating among themselves as individuals into a collective of stories surrounding resistance, nationalist pride and identity preservation. I also look to demonstrate that the power of expression and storytelling through Palestinian material culture was strategically leveraged following pivotal moments of recent Palestinian history: the 1948 Nakba, the 1967 war, and the 1987 first Intifada. I will argue that this was evident in the rise of community associations focused on embroidery projects across these decades, and in the development of two specific designs: the “6 branch” design developed in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and the Intifada “flag” motifs of the 1980s. My hope is to exhibit tatreez as being fundamental in cementing Palestinian national identity, particularly against the threat of disappearance along with Israeli cultural appropriation.
Prior to 1948, the identity of a Palestinian woman was more localized, tied to things like her individual wealth, region and village. A woman’s embroidery on her garments showcased these components of her identity: the colors of threads chosen designated a woman’s marital status, the amount of embroidery present indicated economic status (abundant during prosperous times and scarce during times of hardship), and motifs revealed her origin. For example, the villages in the southern plain, near Gaza, were notable for embroidering the “cypress tree” motif using cross-stitch, whereas in central Palestine, a popular motif used to embroider one’s dress was the “tall date palm.” The geometric designs were so localized, it was possible to know the exact village a woman was from simply by looking the embroidery on her garments.
While tatreez, especially the stylistic configurations brought to life by the cross-stitch, are recognizable today as being broadly Palestinian, prior to 1948, embroidery was very much associated with the fellaheen, those living in villages. This artistic tradition was exclusively developed by peasant women in the hundreds of small villages that made up the majority of the population of Palestine at the time, and aside from displaying creativity, good taste and skill, their tatreez primarily served as a mechanism of exhibiting village identity and pride. External factors influenced the development of designs and motifs, such as the introduction of curvilinear embroidery and other representational motifs by European missionaries and educators during their visits to the country in the 1930s, but the changing political and social environment in twentieth-century Palestine led to consequential transformations in the design, creation and practice of Palestinian tatreez.
Following the 1948 war, which Palestinians call the Nakba, meaning catastrophe in Arabic, over half of the rural population, or nearly 900,000 individuals, were expelled and registered as refugees according to the United Nations. Like the motifs exclusively stitched into women's garments to represent individual villages, the harsh realities of displacement due to the Nakba and the resilience and resourcefulness of Palestinian women across towns are also tangibly evident in the embroidery of those who became refugees. Figure 3 is a photo of a dress that tells one such story through embroidery.
With the markers of tatreez from the city of Ramallah unmistakable in the intricacy and complexity of its pattern, colors, and motifs, this dress was donated from one woman to another woman displaced by the Nakba of 1948 upon her arrival in the West Bank. The enlarged photo shows several patches of a different cloth, identified to be from a sack of United Nations Refugee Works Agency (UNRWA) flour, indicating that the woman who inherited the dress must have been taller and bigger than the donor who had originally embroidered it. The letter nuun and word tahin, flour, originally printed on the flour sacks issued by UNRWA to refugees, is still noticeable in places where the cloth from these flour sacks was used to enlarge the dress enough for its new owner and wearer. The dress speaks of the material urgencies caused by the Nakba, while simultaneously serving as a reflection of generosity among women during the turbulent circumstances of displacement and sacrifice. It is just one account told through the threads of Palestinian embroidery, but one that was shared among the 900,000 individuals who were made refugees due to the Nakba.
From an embroidery and design perspective, a shift occurred in the purpose of tatreez at this time; the labor behind embroidery no longer served a personal aim for Palestinian villagers. Women who became refugees could no longer afford the time nor the funds to embroider beautiful and colorful luxury garments for themselves. Non-governmental organizations specifically deploying and promoting embroidery projects were thus created, both inside and outside the Palestinian region, as a reaction to the catastrophic destruction that occurred economically and socially following the Nakba. Within the Palestinian region, these included the Arab Women’s Union in Bethlehem, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) Sulafa Embroidery Project in Gaza, and the Surif Women’s Cooperative for Embroidery (formally named Palestinian Needlework) near Hebron. These organizations offered employment for women to both supplement their families’ income and enable their own financial independence, along with providing them access to materials that were no longer available by the old, traditional market infrastructure that had been in place prior to the Nakba. The once self-sufficient livelihoods in agriculture that these women had maintained were converted into waged work supplied by these embroidery projects. The women working on these projects drew inspiration from what they knew, the patterns and designs preserved from pre-1948 embroidered pieces that they owned and wore.
In the next couple of decades, Palestine would recover economically, in large part due to the remittances sent home by the many Palestinian men who found better-paying jobs in the Gulf region, Saudi Arabia, and Libya. Cash was then used to access new colors of cotton threads and foreign handicraft magazines that had been unaffordable by Palestinian embroiderers, reinvigorating the practice of embroidery. More importantly, however, was the exposure to patterns and arrangements from villages across Palestine due to the close proximity of life in refugee camps, creating a form of cultural exchange in the domain of Palestinian tatreez.
It was during this time that motifs and styles were shared and copied among women representing villages across the Palestinian region, and the first time there would be a development of a style that is now recognized as an “equally well established and [a] ‘traditional’ example” of Palestinian tatreez: the “6 branch” design, sometimes referred to as the “New Dress.” Inspired by a pre-1948 style predominantly found in the Ramallah region, the “6 branch” design centered around a structure of six vertical embroidered bands, “branches,” that ran from waist to hem. The design structure provided women the ability to embroider within their own economic constraints, by adjusting both the number of panels making up the bottom half of the dress, ranging from one and two panels up to six panels total, and in the width of each panel embroidered. In serving as the first Palestinian style to develop along non-regional lines, the “6 branch” design initiated an identity that spanned and connected villages across Palestine rather than serve as a form of differentiation between them.
In 1967, another war broke out, and with it came a new wave of suffering as all of Palestine came under occupation and 300,000 more Palestinians fled the West Bank during the Israeli invasion, many becoming refugees for a second time. While an overwhelming majority of refugees wanted and demanded a right of return back to their homes and land, camp life became a new reality, and Palestinian women, like those who became refugees due to the Nakba, looked to their embroidery to preserve the sense of identity that they had before becoming refugees. Figurative divisions within refugee camps were created by their inhabitants centered around the villages that Palestinian women hailed from and the embroidery on their dress served as markers of identification of their home village.
In newly occupied Palestine, Israelis now gained access to Palestinian-embroidered dresses that had not been available before the war, as refugees recently displaced by the 1967 war had sold many of their embroidered dresses to support themselves and their families. Israelis began to wear these dresses “as a reflection of the Orientalist exoticism and ‘victory fashion,’ with all its complexities and contradictions,” not only within the Occupied territories, but elsewhere: for example, Leila Khaled, member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, reported witnessing Israeli tourists dressed this way in Europe, when she traveled to Berlin for a conference in 1970. Those who identified themselves as Palestinian formed a newfound political consciousness, an awareness that sparked a deliberate employment of Palestinian tatreez beyond just the creation of non-region-specific styles like the “6 branch” design: tatreez began to be utilized specifically to demonstrate Palestinian nationalist pride.
The Palestine Red Crescent Society, Inaash El Usra Society in El Bireh, Benevolent Art Society of the Holy Land in Jerusalem, and the Association of Women’s Committees for Social Work in Palestine were few of the NGO’s founded at this time, not only as humanitarian reactions to masses of people driven from their homes into refugee camps, but also as a way to debunk the statement that “Palestine was a land without a people” because “behind each handmade item stands an individual, a family and a community.” Huguette Caland, founder of Inaash, intentionally established the organization with a structure of providing an income for refugee women embroiderers confined to camps with the firm conviction that “one day, [Palestinians] will have Palestine back and everything Palestinian must return with it…[Palestinians] will prepare it here [outside Palestine], and when [Palestinians] get Palestine back, all [that is Palestinian] will return with it.”
As such, the mission of these societies to provide an instrument to preserve and sustain the future of Palestinian identity resulted in specifically focusing embroidery projects on the revitalization of embroidery specific to the region, including embroidery on traditional dress and the extension of Palestinian motifs and designs into modernizing the home, introducing tatreez to decorate household items like tablecloths, cushions, purses, and other accessories. Palestinian tatreez was no longer solely displayed on the dresses of Palestinian peasant women or those who became refugees, but seen in every Palestinian household across the socioeconomic spectrum inside and outside of Palestine.
By the mid-1980s, Israeli occupation was all an entire generation of Palestinian youth knew and everything surrounding Palestinian life, from civil rights to the economy, was being held hostage to Israel. On December 9, 1987, Palestinian frustration exploded into what is known as the Intifada, a collective sense of “shaking off,” after an Israeli Defense Forces’ (IDF) truck plowed into a line of oncoming cars in Gaza, killing four Palestinians and wounding seven others. As the popular uprising was coordinated across a set of resistance strategies that aimed to refrain from the use of weapons, Israel employed severe administrative measures in an effort to contain the Intifada, including school and university closures, heavy curfews on entire communities (sometimes for a week or more), house demolitions, and the confiscation of Palestinian flags at protests, along with a ban on the display of Palestinian colors.
Simultaneously, Palestinian women were beginning to participate more politically, expanding past their traditionally supportive roles in the home. Similarly, Palestinian tatreez underwent its next transformation: the production of the evocative embroidered “flag dresses.” For a limited period, nationalist motifs like the Dome of the Rock mosque, patterns of the checked keffiya, the letters P-L-O for Palestine Liberation Organization, maps of Palestine, and Arabic calligraphy were being embroidered on dresses using the colors of the banned Palestinian flag. These dresses were then worn by Palestinian women, “literally on the surface of their bodies to challenge the reproductive imperative and to represent themselves as standard bearers of the future nation.” Taking on new power as a tool of Palestinian resistance, these thobes, dresses, were worn directly on the bodies of Palestinian women, preventing their occupier from continuing mass confiscation of symbols pertaining to national identity and protest. As Rachel Dedman, curator of the “Labour of Love: New Approaches to Palestinian Embroidery” exhibit, recognizes, however,
“embroidery is an unlikely tool of protest. The typical visual materials of resistance—street graffiti, painted banners, scrawled signs—are characterized by speed and spontaneity. The hand-stitched is the antithesis of this. By its nature labored, private and slow, the embroidery of the Intifada dresses would have required months, if not years of work, under dangerous and difficult conditions. Stitched by candlelight, at night, in secret, these dresses reflect the weighty temporality of all embroidery, and the extended, resilient nature of Palestinian resistance.”
The fortitude and resourcefulness of adopting what was quite literally at the fingertips of these Palestinian embroiderers and doing so under the crushing environment of living under occupation is thus seen, felt and remembered on every motif, pattern, and stitch on these embroidered dresses.
While hundreds of thousands of individuals, families, and communities have been displaced multiple times over the course of 50 years in what is now Occupied Palestine, the essence of what it means to be Palestinian continues to be preserved in the symbols made up in threads crisscrossed. The evolution of this identity has been molded by the women of Palestine, women who came face to face with the inconceivable realities of displacement, war, cultural appropriation and whose voices are rarely heard in the narratives surrounding Palestinian resistance. What is exceptionally noteworthy to me is that these women were able to pull from within the wreckage endured by Palestinian society remarkable resilience, a resilience so tenacious that it has literally been forged into material now culturally recognized on a global scale as the embodiment of Palestinian national identity and resistance.
NOTES  Allenby, Jeni, "Re-inventing cultural heritage: Palestinian traditional costume and embroidery since 1948" (2002), Textile Society of America Symposium Proceedings, 370, https://digitalcommons.unl.edu/tsaconf/370.  Hagopian, Edward, and A. B. Zahlan, "Palestine's Arab Population: The Demography of the Palestinians," Journal of Palestine Studies 3, no. 4 (1974): 32-73, https://doi.org/10.2307/2535449.  Ibid.  “Palestinian costume before 1948 - by region,” Palestine Costume Archive, http://palestinecostumearchive.com/regional.htm.  Shelagh Weir, “embroidery, Palestine,” Encyclopedia of the Palestinians, https://search-credoreference-com.proxy.library.nyu.edu/content/entry/fofp/embroidery_palestine/0?institutionId=577.  Ibid.  U.N. Resolution 194, para. 11.  “Labour of Love: New Approaches to Palestinian Embroidery,” exhibited 18 Mar.-31 Dec 2018, The Palestinian Museum, http://www.palmuseum.org/ehxibitions/labour-of-love.  Rachel Dedman, “Intimate Traces: Three Palestinian Embroidered Dresses,” last modified May 23, 2019, https://blogs.soas.ac.uk/lidc-mlt/2019/05/23/intimate-traces-three-palestinian-embroidered-dresses/.  “Refugee camp embroidery projects,” Palestine Costume Archive, http://palestinecostumearchive.com/refugee_camps.htm.  Allenby, Jeni, "Re-inventing cultural heritage: Palestinian traditional costume and embroidery since 1948" (2002), Textile Society of America Symposium Proceedings, 370, https://digitalcommons.unl.edu/tsaconf/370.  Labour of Love (The Palestine Museum, 2018), 7.  Smith, Pamela Ann, "The Palestinian Diaspora, 1948-1985" (1986), Journal of Palestine Studies 15, no. 3: 90-108.  Allenby, Jeni, "Re-inventing cultural heritage: Palestinian traditional costume and embroidery since 1948" (2002), Textile Society of America Symposium Proceedings, 370, https://digitalcommons.unl.edu/tsaconf/370.  “Palestinian Embroidery: A Rich and Diverse National History,” Palestinian Journeys, https://www.paljourneys.org/en/timeline/highlight/14497/palestinian-embroidery.  Allenby, Jeni, "Re-inventing cultural heritage: Palestinian traditional costume and embroidery since 1948" (2002), Textile Society of America Symposium Proceedings, 370, https://digitalcommons.unl.edu/tsaconf/370.  Ibid.  “Palestinian costume and embroidery since 1948,” Palestine Costume Archive, http://palestinecostumearchive.com/contemporary.htm.  Mazin B. Qumsiyeh, Sharing the Land of Canaan: Human Rights and the Israeli-Palestinian Struggle (London: Pluto Press, 2004), 43-44.  Ibid.  Nasir, Tania Tamari, “The Traditional Palestinian Costume” (interview with Widad Kamel Kawar), Journal of Palestine Studies 10, no.1 (Autumn 1980): 118-129.  Stimson, Andrew, “Traditional Palestinian Costume: Origins and Evolution/ Threads of Identity: Preserving Palestinian Costume and Heritage” (2011), Washington Report on Middle East Affairs 30 (8): 70.  Salamon, Hagar, “Embroidered Palestine: A Stitched Narrative” (2016), Narrative Culture, vol. 3, no. 1, pp. 1–31.  Carol Mansour, dir., Stitching Palestine (2017; Lebanon: Forward Film Production, 2017), https://vimeo.com/280403754.  “Refugee camp embroidery projects,” Palestine Costume Archive, http://palestinecostumearchive.com/refugee_camps.htm.  Carol Mansour, dir., Stitching Palestine (2017; Lebanon: Forward Film Production, 2017), https://vimeo.com/280403754.  “Palestinian Embroidery: A Rich and Diverse National History,” Palestinian Journeys, https://www.paljourneys.org/en/timeline/highlight/14497/palestinian-embroidery.  Ian J. Bickerton and Carla L. Klausner, A History of The Arab-Israeli Conflict (New Jersey: Pearson Higher Education, 2009), 218-220.  Ibid.  Tessler, Mark, "The Intifada and Beyond," A History of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, 679-754. Bloomington; Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2009.  Allenby, Jeni, "Re-inventing cultural heritage: Palestinian traditional costume and embroidery since 1948" (2002), Textile Society of America Symposium Proceedings, 370, https://digitalcommons.unl.edu/tsaconf/370.  Sherwell, Tina. 1996. “Palestinian Costume, the Intifada and the Gendering of Nationalist Discourse.” Journal of Gender Studies 5 (3): 293. doi:10.1080/09589236.1996.9960651.  Rachel Dedman, “Intimate Traces: Three Palestinian Embroidered Dresses,” last modified May 23, 2019, https://blogs.soas.ac.uk/lidc-mlt/2019/05/23/intimate-traces-three-palestinian-embroidered-dresses/. BIBLIOGRAPHY Allenby, Jeni. 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