MINDANAO: Philippines Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin (2nd right) and military chief General Hernando Iriberri (right) visit one of the 53 wounded soldiers at a military hospital on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao on April 10, 2016, a day after soldiers clashed with the extremist Abu Sayyaf group. — AFP
MINDANAO: Philippines Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin (2nd right) and military chief General Hernando Iriberri (right) visit one of the 53 wounded soldiers at a military hospital on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao on April 10, 2016, a day after soldiers clashed with the extremist Abu Sayyaf group. — AFP

Islamic militants kill 18 Philippine soldiers in years' worst clashes - At least four soldiers beheaded in the fighting

Traditional Palestinian embroidery a symbol of nationalism, empowerment and resistance

Amna Salameh was about 12 years old when she first began learning tatreez. Once a week, Salameh would sit at her desk during home economics class and immerse herself into the world of Palestinian embroidery. She had just moved with her parents and sisters from Kuwait, where she was born, to Ramallah in Palestine.

As she got used to a new environment, tatreez, which is Arabic for embroidery, became one of her favorite activities. “Ever since then, tatreez has always been on my mind. I knew that when I grew up, I had to do something related to it,” she said.

Nearly 30 years later, Salameh, who returned to Kuwait in the early 2000s, is not only practicing the traditional Palestinian art form, but also teaching others how to do it through her small business, Kashtban. Through her tatreez workshops, which she’s been offering since 2020 in Arabic and sometimes in English, Salameh has shared snippets of Palestinian history and culture with hundreds of people in Kuwait.

“Tatreez enchants me. I’ve been practicing it, reading books and looking at photos for years. You’d expect that I’d be sick of it by now but it’s the complete opposite for me. I’m still fascinated by it,” said Salameh, wearing a black jacket embroidered with vibrant red threads. “It gives me energy. I can feel the spirit of my ancestors wearing this piece.”

In Palestine, tatreez is an indigenous cultural art form that dates back centuries and has been preserved and passed down through generations, traditionally from mother to daughter. The embroidery adorns clothing, most commonly the traditional dress called thobe, as well as decorations.

Nowadays, you can find various everyday items embellished with the colorful designs, including laptop cases and makeup pouches. UNESCO recognized the art of Palestinian embroidery as an important expression of cultural heritage in 2021. “Every thobe tells a story. Every stitch unfolds a tale,” said Salameh.

Tatreez is a way of documenting history — its patterns are inspired by Palestinians’ daily lives and surroundings. Each area of Palestine has its own distinct style and patterns. For example, embroidery from Jaffa, where Salameh’s paternal grandparents are from, often features the orange blossom motif – paying homage to the orange for which the city is famous.

An embroidered thobe’s colors and designs can also symbolize a woman’s regional identity and marital and economic status. Salameh is especially fascinated by the thobes in Ramallah. “They’re absolutely gorgeous. Until this day, elderly women in Ramallah wear their thobes when going out and about,” she said with excitement. “The tatreez heritage in Ramallah is one of the richest in Palestine.”

National unity tree

In the decades following the 1948 catastrophe, or “nakba” in Arabic, in which over 750,000 Palestinians were forcibly displaced to facilitate the creation of the Zionist entity, the distinct tatreez motifs and designs became a visible and recognizable form of Palestinian nationalism, encapsulating identity, history and heritage.

Salameh said tatreez has been a way for people in Kuwait to connect with Palestinian culture during the ongoing escalation of the decades-long Zionist occupation of Palestine, in which the Zionist entity has killed more than 24,000 Palestinians in Gaza. “It’s very upsetting to watch the war unfold on TV. I’ve seen Palestine go through a lot of wars all my life, but it’s never been this ugly,” she said.

In collaboration with several organizations, Salameh has held several workshops over the past three months, where she taught basic tatreez principles and shared some of its historical significance, with part or all of the proceeds going to aid Gaza. “I was broken and angry about the situation in Gaza, but I was so happy that while teaching my country’s heritage and history, I was able to donate the proceeds of the workshops. It meant so much to me,” she told Kuwait Times.

Salameh teaches participants in her level 1 workshop how to embroider one of her favorite motifs — the “saru”, which is Arabic for cypress tree. The motif, used in tatreez across Palestine but with regional differences, represents Palestinian national unity, she said. The labor-intensive craft can also be therapeutic. “It’s great for stress relief,” said Salameh. “While you’re embroidering, you’re solely focusing on counting stitches and bringing the design to life. So it helps you disconnect for a little while.”

Female-led art

More than anything, tatreez is a testament to the power of Palestinian women. “I’m in awe at how our grandmothers could translate their lived realities into embroidery and how they were able to preserve this art for so long,” said Salameh.

Tatreez can also be a form of resistance. During the first intifada, or uprising, that took place from 1987 until 1993, Palestinian women created what is known as the ‘intifada dress’ as a form of defiance against the Zionist ban on Palestinian symbols, such as the national flag. According to Palestinian researcher Wafa Ghnaim, the intifada dress was embroidered with Palestinian flags and other symbols such as the Dome of the Rock.

In addition to providing an outlet for self-expression, tatreez brings Palestinian women closer to each other. Every summer, Salameh spent quality time with her mother learning tatreez using motifs drawn on a piece of paper and a piece of fabric, called “etamine” in Arabic. Over the years, Salameh and her mother have bonded over practicing embroidery together.

She also learns embroidery from her grandmother, who has embroidered thobes for 40 years and remains a treasure trove of tatreez knowledge. Salameh’s next goal is to pass down the craft to her 8-year-old daughter. “She comes to my workshops sometimes and watches me practice tatreez, just like I watched my mother,” she said. “I hope she’ll grow up to love it. But even if she doesn’t, I’d be satisfied with teaching her the history and heritage of her ancestors.”

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