Threads of Palestinian Diaspora: Connecting People Through Tatreez

7 December 2022

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Elian Aboudi’s tie to her people hangs by a thread: the green, black, and red thread she uses to connect them in a global cross-stitch project.

Aboudi is a Palestinian-Jordanian, now living in Alberta, who grew up watching her mother and aunts embroidering tatreez together over coffee and cookies. Today she’s recreating that communal crafting to develop an image of the Palestinian diaspora in an ever-growing series of cross-stitched squares, handmade by people around the world and brought together in an enormous quilt-like tapestry.

Tatreez stitching is indelibly linked to Palestinian culture, tracing back as far as 3,000 years, its rich collection of symbolic patterns and motifs migrating from rural clothing to ceremonial garments and textiles. In late 2021, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), added tatreez to its lists of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, recognizing its importance as a symbol of Palestinian history and tradition.

However, war and displacement have scattered the practitioners of tatreez. Their struggle to survive often meant there was little time or means to pass on the hand-stitching techniques, and the art form became simplified, industrialized, and dispersed. Aboudi, one of many Palestinian women around the world reviving traditional tatreez, gives lessons at the Canada Palestine Cultural Association branch in Edmonton. For the various generations of people who come out to her classes, it has been a way to commune and socialize through a pandemic while learning, or relearning, a part of their heritage. For Aboudi, tatreez is a form of meditation, therapy, and chronicling.

“So often when I was stitching, there was a storyline. Whatever happened at the time I was stitching found its way into what I was working on,” she says. “Like the [2020] explosion at the port in Lebanon. I was halfway through something, so I added the Lebanese flag with a message of peace from turmoil for the people of Beirut.”

Aboudi increasingly found herself being asked to design custom tatreez patterns “People started sending messages saying, ‘Can you do this and this?’ and I would say, ‘Of course I can—just tell me the size, what messages are important to you.’ And I started creating pieces for others to tell their story.”

But Aboudi’s current passion project began in summer of 2022, when a request for patterns to show in a cross-stitch exhibit sparked a creative firestorm. “Instead of creating one or two, I created 441 designs. I added them together in one large piece, and a light went off, boom!” Aboudi recalls. “Everyone’s going to stitch. This is going to be a community project.”

The result is the now ongoing Threads of Palestinian Diaspora endeavour. Aboudi has designed a massive fabric mosaic of tatreez, twenty-one squares across twenty-one rows, each square unique, and with an outer border incorporating the names of Palestinian cities and villages. Through social media, community ties, and word of mouth, she invites people to adopt a white square to stitch in the green, red, and black colours of the Palestinian flag, and realize it into the overall work. And the response has been enthusiastic.

image description: a woman sits at a laptop computer; in front of her are several squares of embroidered fabric, and a few books; on the laptop screen you can see a plan for laying out the embroidered squares

“Oh my God, it was like rain, people started coming from left and right,” Aboudi laughs. “People were taking two or three pieces at a time, finishing in two to three days and asking for more.”

Manal Kaloush teaches tatreez along with Aboudi at the Canada Palestine Cultural Association (CPCA) in Edmonton and has been helping support the interest. “Some ladies have done twenty or thirty, and they’re just competing for the highest number.” Kaloush says, admitting that the addictive nature of tatreez has led her to make seven or eight squares herself. But more often she finds herself putting things together to enable others. “Many ladies don’t know how to do tatreez but wanted to learn, to participate, so we showed them the principles, and they were so excited to be a part of it,” she says.

Although she is trying to build the embroidery series one row at a time, Aboudi is happy to let people choose a design they like, wherever it falls in the overall project. Some pick a design for the image it contains (“I want the bird; I want the flower”) while others want squares with names of places incorporated. Many options are traditional pattern combinations that Aboudi arranged purely for aesthetic value. But she says she finds people’s selection of even those squares infuses them with new meaning.

image descriptions: a person is sitting at a table, working on an embroidered square; the table is covered with other squares and embroidery tools

“When I design the pattern, it does not tell a story, but it comes to symbolize a story because a person took it, and while they were stitching, it reminded them of their own story. It now has a value that came from the person who chooses it, because they choose it, and represents a story after it is stitched.”

Kaloush echoes that reflecting humanity, not perfection, is the goal. “We usually encourage the ladies even if there are small mistakes because it’s a handmade thing. People are not machines. It’s not a competition. It’s just something you should want to do and enjoy doing it. When I teach classes, I teach how to be precise and perfect, but for this, we just say, do whatever you can…and people have done a really good job, actually.”

Aboudi’s local grassroots project quickly went global via social media and word of mouth, and Palestinians around the world have contacted Aboudi asking to join in. She emails a pattern with instructions for the fabric and colours, and they mail the handiwork back, or send it with someone travelling to Edmonton. Aboudi treats every incoming square as someone’s story and carefully catalogues and stores each submission.

“Every design has a name and phone number and date of who made it, and every row has a picture of the artist and the date it came. My idea is to put the picture of the person who did it on the back of each square, but some don’t want that, so I am going to put the names at least, because all these squares are people.”

image description: three small squares of cross-stitched fabric, a handwritten note identifies them as having been sent from Sweden

One of those people behind a square is Rula Kafity in Dubai, who met Aboudi in middle school but intermittently lost touch over years and distance. A tatreez practitioner who is busy using the art form in her own global effort to empower women, she nevertheless made time to join her friend’s initiative.

“When I heard about this, I called her up and said I want to be part of it,” Kafity explains. “It’s very important to me. I only did one [square] because I’m not the fastest stitcher, but the idea is to get many people involved. We’re preserving our narrative and culture…tatreez for me is like our roots. I always say about my life, ‘I live everywhere, I belong nowhere.’ This gave me a sense of belonging—in tradition, in community, in empowerment. It’s a statement, a conversation starter, a dialogue. Today’s creation is tomorrow’s hope.”

The Threads of Palestinian Diaspora project is not just connecting community; Aboudi describes how it is building one. “So many people said, I don’t know how to stitch, can you help me and guide me? And so, we would be going back and forth talking and telling stories…how many kids we have, our roots, our favourite food…eighty-year-old grandmothers who wanted to tell what they remembered and tell why they did it like this, how they used to dye this fabric.” She is also acquiring a growing contact list of online friends. “I get a lot of personal messages on my phone from the hundreds of people involved and have not deleted any of them. I get pictures of people stitching tatreez in different places. One lady in Sweden did three pieces and made a stop [motion] animation video. I’m just happy to hear people want to take part. Everyone in the end is a friend.”

image description: the interior of an airplane; all the seats are full; in the centre of the image there are two women, both working on small embroidery projects; they have pinned the squares to neck pillows

Manal Kaloush observes, “[This] brings us all together. We are spread all over the world, with different places and backgrounds. Working on one thing, it connects us to our roots and our homeland, and we are proud of showing the work, our beautiful heritage and authentic embroidery.” Far away in Dubai, Kafity agrees. “Elian’s project is my story and another person’s and another person’s, weaving the stories together and uniting it through thread. It’s all our different stories now, and a collective memory later.”

Although Aboudi’s Threads of Palestinian Diaspora project may have begun almost by accident, she now has clear intentions for it. Her dream is to have her stitched collection of squares travel to visit the Palestinian diaspora all over the world

“I’m hoping one of the museums that preserves culture will preserve this as an effort of human beings in the world that want to build bridges and celebrate differences between us and show that differences are beautiful.

“Other people want war, let them have their wars. I want to have the peace.”

For more information and to participate in the project please contact:

Elian Aboudi at Decoelian@gmail.com, or

Manal Kalousa of the CPCA, at manalkalousa@gmail.com.

Image
image description: three women sit at a table, working on small embroidery projects; in front of them, there are many squares of embroidered fabric

All images courtesy of Elian Aboudi.

Copyright © Marichka Melnyk except as indicated.
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About Marichka Melnyk

Marichka Melnyk is a Toronto-based radio producer and broadcaster, photographer and compulsive traveller, who became an avid distance walker after completing the Camino de Santiago de Compostela across Spain in 2013. She hikes nature trails both inside and outside the Toronto city limits, including the entire Pan Am Path, and regularly writes and presents publicly about her travels. Follow on Facebook or Instagram @Marichpix and @seventy7sunsets, or to get in touch writemarichka@gmail.com.

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