Palestinian Tatreez Offers Grief and Solace

How passing the traditional embroidery art from one generation to another continues to anchor a people with their past

Palestinian Tatreez Offers Grief and Solace
Illustration by Joanna Andreasson for New Lines Magazine

My “sito” (grandmother) has a small patch of calloused skin on her right index finger. She earned this mark from decades of sewing traditional Palestinian cross-stitching, or tatreez, a geometric embroidery pattern used to document a village’s history. When I was younger, I wanted to master that same skill, so I began to learn the rhythm of this art form: pulling the thread, poking it through the eye of a needle, pushing it in and out of a canvas in a steady wave. It took me months to catch up to the speed of the women in my family, but I got there eventually.

The word tatreez comes from tarza, which means “stitch” in Arabic, making tatreez the act of artful stitching. It is a unique style of Palestinian cross-stitch embroidery composed of rich colors and textures that often correlate with the Palestinian flag’s red, green, black and white colors. Originating some 3,000 years ago in ancient Canaan, once known as the “Land of Purple” for its famous colored dyes, tatreez has survived war and displacement, just like the Palestinians who created it. Now it is being used by activists to commemorate the thousands of people killed in Gaza since Oct. 7 and as a protest against the ongoing war.

My grandmother was raised in the village of Deir al-Ghusun in Tulkarem in northwest Palestine. She was orphaned young, and when she moved in with her grandparents, they needed her help around the house. As a result, she never attended school or learned how to read or write. But she could preserve her family’s history by stitching tatreez on dresses, pillows and belts, for every village has its own pattern.

These days, Sito no longer recognizes me. Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s have taken their toll. Yet she lights up when I sit in front of her with a needle and red thread. “Samsoumi!” she says. My tiny little sesame seed, as she calls me. She knows I am the one granddaughter who used to sit with her, stitching until the moon lit up our fabric.

The skill of tatreez is passed from mother to daughter over cups of tea, and it is an honor for the student when she can surpass her master. As my grandmother said the last time I saw her, “It appears that compared with you now, I am but a stitch.”

Ancient tatreez patterns were symbols of hope, prosperity, good health and protection, with traditional names that reflected important natural features. In the book “Traditional Palestinian Costume,” Hanan Munayyer, also known as the “godmother of Tatreez,” writes about the importance of motifs like the moon, the cypress tree and the bird of paradise.

“Today, Palestinian embroidered costume has transcended its role as a symbol of tradition to become a symbol of Palestinian identity,” Munayyer writes. Now, as the Israeli military rains bombs down on Gaza, asserting that identity has become more urgent than ever.

At the time of publication, more than 26,000 Palestinians have been killed, and 65,000 more have been injured in the war with Israel, with more than 8,000 people missing, according to Al Jazeera. Some NGOs believe the death toll may be higher, but since the health system in Gaza has collapsed, accurate figures are impossible to obtain. What is certain is that the war and its casualty rate show no sign of slowing down.

Such vast numbers are difficult to comprehend. How to visualize a single Palestinian person’s life, let alone tens of thousands at a time? How to capture their relationships with family, friends, teachers, pets? How to measure the loss of so many young people (for roughly half of the more than 2 million people living in Gaza are under the age of 18, according to the United Nations)? How to keep remembering as thousands more die?

Maya Amer, a 29-year-old graphic designer born in Jordan to Palestinian parents, is trying to do just that with tatreez.

“I was looking at the death toll just increasing exponentially, and I wanted to do something about it,” she says over the phone from London, where she now lives and works.

Amer grew up with tatreez decorating every corner of her home in Jordan, so for her, embroidery is a powerful form of remembrance, and a way to honor the pain and strength of her people. Last month, fearing that the world would become desensitized to Palestinian death, as, she says, it did during the conflicts of 2014 and 2021, she decided to memorialize every person lost by stitching tatreez.

“In college, I studied data visualization and learned that you can’t just give people numbers, you have to make them relatable,” Amer says. “You have to do something that helps people understand a huge concept just by looking at it.”

So, Amer chose an embroidery collar from a Gazan thobe (a traditional Palestinian dress) that dates to 1920, and redrew it to reflect the body count of the ongoing massacre in Gaza. The result was a digital rendering of tatreez, a new form of political artwork, with every X representing a Palestinian killed since Oct. 7. She color-coded the image so that people could understand the gravity of the situation — green for women, yellow for men, red for girls, pink for boys and gray for bodies so maimed that first responders could not identify them.

“This is just an attempt to channel all the anger and frustration inside me into art,” she wrote in the caption before posting the image on X on Oct. 31.

Most of the image is pink and red, representing the children and teenagers killed. Amer believes that’s what horrified people and made her post quickly go viral.

“I want people to see and really zoom in to understand how tiny that X is,” Amer says. “So when you zoom out, you can tell how many there are.”

The post had reached 1 million views by mid-November. People began messaging her, asking whether they could buy the design because they wanted to honor the “shaheed” (martyrs) of Palestine. (Shaheed actually has multiple meanings in Arabic, including witnesses to an event, often used to refer to people who have died in sacrifice to a sacred cause, like the liberation of the Holy Land.)

But Amer refused to sell.

“I decided not to take any money for it because this is not a subject I want to be making a profit on,” she explains. Instead, she lets people use the design free and suggests they donate to the Palestinian Children’s Relief Fund. The graphic has been reshared hundreds of times, sometimes crediting Amer and sometimes not, but she says she doesn’t care. Her only request is that the world remembers Palestinians as “people of culture and history. As people with names and families.”

Amer learned how to sew tatreez during the pandemic, when she was still in art school in Jordan and noticed that the pillowcases in her house were embroidered with recurring motifs. They reminded her of her grandmother’s work.

“My grandmother, God rest her soul, she didn’t read or write, but she knew how to count,” Amer says. Much like my sito, her grandmother knew how to follow a detailed pattern to make thobes out of old fabric scraps, using her squeaky sewing machine.

“I was really interested in how these old women had so much understanding of symbolism and abstraction, so I started studying that,” Amer says. “Tatreez is proof that we were here before the settlers. It’s proof that this story did not begin a month ago; it has been going on forever. I want to document that and fight against the narrative that Palestine was a ‘land with no people.'”

This documentation is how tatreez can become a political art form, she points out.

“Palestinians know a lot about politics,” she adds with a laugh. “This is something literally in our blood. We don’t have the luxury to just turn off the TV and pretend there’s no news.”

Other activists inside and outside Gaza are turning to tatreez, too. Yasmine Ayyad, 24, was raised in San Francisco yet always saw tatreez as the thread connecting her to her homeland. So, when she found out about a workshop of women in Gaza who were passionate about tatreez and wanted to improve their economic situation, she contacted them online and started learning from them over video calls.

After the Nakba in 1948, during which 700,000 Palestinians were expelled from their homes and villages were destroyed, many families were displaced to U.N. refugee camps. As a result, women, particularly in Gaza, saw tatreez as an artifact of their original villages, and thus, the practice was more important to hold on to than ever.

“I learned a lot about why they do tatreez,” Ayyad says. “They always said, ‘This is our language. We speak through our tatreez.'”

The Gazan artists meant that they could speak through tatreez because every stitch has its own name. Some have the same name throughout Palestine, while others vary regionally. In the book “Palestinian Costume,” author Shelagh Weir explains that many patterns have a political-historical connotation, like “khiyam al-basha” (“the tents of Pasha”) and “nishan al-dhabit” (“the officer’s pips”). Naming patterns allows women to discuss and commission the embroidery, Weir writes. This, she says, has always made tatreez “part of a rich, exclusively female discourse and body of knowledge.”

The Gazan women also taught Ayyad that tatreez as a revolutionary act is not just a metaphor for women but a reality. “If we die, if everything dies, the tatreez will live on,” they told her. “Continue to do tatreez, continue showing our resistance because that’s something that they won’t be able to take away from us. It is ours.”

Ayyad tries to contact the women every few days. She doesn’t want to overwhelm them with messages, especially as they have limited internet access and are in constant danger. But she did ask, “What do you want me to tell the world about your stories?”

“Tell them we never stopped,” one woman responded. “Doing tatreez is our resistance. It shows the power of who we are.”

I see this power in my sito, even with her shaky hands, as she continues to pick up her needle and thread. She can barely see, but she can still count the smallest squares of cloth to start a new belt for me. There will come a day when I will have to bury Sito. It’s a day I try my best not to think about. But, as she tells me, long after she and I go, our tatreez will live on, educating and emboldening the next generation of proud Palestinian women.

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