These women refugees are translating feelings into thobes

Dubai - A quarantine project has Lebanon-based refugee women artists narrating nostalgic stories of growing up in Palestine


Purva Grover

Published: Thu 3 Dec 2020, 10:33 AM

Imagine a wardrobe woven with layers of history and tradition. That is what a collaborative work — comprising 10 modernised thobes — between UAE-based social enterprise 81 Designs and Jordan-based design studio Naqsh Collective, is all about. The project is continuing to draw attention well after the recently concluded Abu Dhabi Art 2020 edition, at which it was exhibited.

As one takes a closer look at the ankle-length garment, with long sleeves (similar to a robe, kaftan or tunic), one realises that this is not merely a beautiful piece of fabric, but a fragment of culture and imagination, serving as a window to the stories of the people of Palestine. Infused with local craftsmanship by refugee women artisans of the land, each piece underlines the agility of a traditional art form as it documents stories from three major Palestinian cities — Yafa, Akka and Gaza.

Co-founder of Naqsh Collective Nisreen Abudail shared how, during the lockdown, everyone felt vulnerable and was on the lookout for tangible ways to translate their feelings, which led to the birth of storytelling through thobes. The enterprise, which she runs together with her sister Nermeen, worked with refugee women artisans living in Camp Ain El-Hilweh in South Lebanon and ended up creating a full collection, as they all sat in different parts of the world amidst the pandemic. “Embroidery is a language of the resilience of the people of Palestine. The pieces delve into elements like the cliffs of Akka we played at, the foods we ate in Gaza, and more.”

A quarantine project, it brought together over 30 artists, who worked for a period of five months to weave together these stories. “Every project that we do is centred on art and humanity. Being part of our heritage, the thobe is more than a style statement. The collection reflects the missed growing up experiences that we could have had in Palestine,” said Nadine Y Maalouf, who founded 81 Designs together with her mother Nesrine El Tibi Maalouf.

“Art is a powerful language that can convey meaningful messages, which can lead to creating awareness on things that matter,” she added. “In our case, we convey messages of hope while keeping our traditions alive — modernising tatreez, a traditional Palestinian embroidery. Through the enterprise, where we provide employment opportunities to refugee women, we showcase their artisanal talents on a global platform while giving them hope in building their future.”

It is a visual story of many possibilities. “For us, such collaborations are opportunities which allow one to grow manifold. We believe that one rises by lifting others. The women artists were surprised by the ways and extent to which their skill of embroidery could be channelised,” said Nisreen.

Whilst many Palestinians conjure up images of their homeland in their heads, basing them on the stories which have been shared with them over the years, these handstitched pieces flaunt time-honoured embroidery, offering one a chance to wear the culture on their sleeve.

As part of the fair, the collection was on display at Manarat Al Saadiyat, Abu Dhabi. It can now be viewed virtually at

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