Dubai-based Tatreez artist on what makes the unique Palestinian craft resilient and relevant to the new times

Embroiderer Eman Alkhawaja tells how 'Tatreez' is not merely a craft form; it is a way to express human emotions

By Sa’adia Reza

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Eman Alkhawaja, Tatreez artist. Photo by Shihab
Eman Alkhawaja, Tatreez artist. Photo by Shihab

Published: Sun 3 Dec 2023, 5:57 PM

Last updated: Mon 4 Dec 2023, 6:01 PM

There’s an old saying that ‘clothes maketh a man’, meaning that the way we dress defines us. But the intricate criss-cross pattern of Tatreez, the art of Palestinian hand embroidery, does more than that. It tells stories - ancient stories that have travelled across time and space, threading their way into beautiful, delicate motifs worn by women for thousands of years.

The archaic art is preserved and nurtured by Palestinians even in this modern day, and Tatreez artist Eman Alkhawaja is one of those who strives to keep the tradition alive through her beautiful handwork.

Born and raised in the UAE, Eman’s deep-rooted connection with Ramallah, her hometown in the West Bank, reflects in her thread work. The love for her heritage and her knowledge of the art resonates as she explains the intricacies of the embroidery that has remained intact since the days of pharaohs.

“Each pattern has something different to communicate; especially in the olden days when women were not accustomed to interact with strange men, it was the embroidery of the thobe (traditional Palestinian dress) that did the talking for them,” explains Eman.

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Photos by Shihab
Photos by Shihab

“Depending on the colours and design of Tatreez, people around the woman could discern if she was married or widowed; if a family member was sick; or even if she was facing financial crisis. It was amazing how an embroidered piece of cloth could be such an effective tool of communication”.

Eman’s grandmother, for instance, wore various colours while her husband was alive, but when she was widowed, she strictly wore thobes with dark blue stitches, the colour representing widows. “And do you want to know something interesting? Only brides could wear red embroidery over white, while red stitches over black cloth was for the mother-of-the-bride. No other person could wear it,” grins Eman.

“My inspiration to learn the embroidery was my grandmother whom I always saw wearing thobes with Tatreez work on it. So, when I visited West Bank in 2012, my aunt taught me the basics of the craft, but I didn’t really take it forward when I returned to the UAE,” Eman recalls.

It was during Covid days when, driven by boredom, Eman took up Tatreez again, and self-learnt the embroidery. A chance participation in an event in Dubai generated a huge interest in the traditional cross-stitch, with several residents wanting to learn the craft. What began as a labour of love for Eman converted into workshops to teach others the craft and now, it is a small business.

Much like the people of Palestine, Tatreez too has remained resilient over the years. Palestinian women have since long safeguarded this heritage, passing it down from one generation to another. Girls as young as seven-years-old were taught to master this traditional form of embroidery, imbibing the wealth of knowledge, skills, and patterns.

While the basic criss-cross pattern remains the same, as the thread travels across Palestine, one can see a shift in design: the motif morphs and becomes indigenous in each place. In Ramallah, for instance, olive trees and flowers feature generously in the design, while in the more arid areas, the orange and yellow of desert colours come to life. In the north of West Bank, the blue in the stitch represents the sea.

“This is why you will see a difference in patterns adopted in the West Bank from those in Gaza, where the thobes are far more colourful,” Eman explains.

Over the years, Tatreez designs have evolved, even though the basic stitches remain the same. Besides thobes, the embroidery has weaved its magic on cushion covers, handkerchiefs, pouches, and even men’s shirt, which was strictly off-limits even a couple of decades ago.

This exquisite art of embroidery is now more than mere decoration. For more than 50 years now, Tatreez has played a significant political role in the Palestinian resistance movement. It all started, particularly after the First Intifada, when Israeli forces restricted Palestinians from raising their flags, even at home. Enter Tatreez, as women began embroidering the flag on their clothes as a sign of defiance and a challenge against the ban.

“In fact, there’s a very special thobe called Thobe al Intifada. It was a very special one, like a limited edition. It featured rows of intricately stitched Palestinian flag, symbols indigenous to Palestine as well as the Dome of Rock. These symbols represent that we are here to stay and we will last forever, and that this is our land,” says Eman, a note of visible pride echoing in her voice.

The unique, intricately handmade art form has opened doors for income for Palestinian women when Tatreez gained worldwide recognition. Leaving behind the days when women were simply regarded as homemakers, the embroidery gave them a chance to prove themselves in trade and use the skill as an economic tool. With time, the patterns seeped into home décor as well, such as patterns unique to cushions.

Although a puritan at heart, Eman uses different colours while teaching people during the workshop, instead of the traditional hues of the West Bank.

“My own signature style is the use of watermelon, but I encourage people to think out of the box and to experiment in different ways, so that they can incorporate this art into their cultures as well. However, I do tell them to try to preserve the unique pattern.”

The response to her initiatives has been overwhelming, says Eman, with people across all ages - from young children to women to even men - coming forward to learn the art. Expecting just Palestinian women who’d want to learn the traditional skill, Eman was pleasantly surprised to find people from across several nationalities turning up for the workshops.

Today, we see the ancient art embracing the contemporary, leaving an indelible mark. Yet it has kept intact the individuality that lends it a classic look no machine can copy to perfection.

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