Palestinian tatreez embroidery is a centuries-old folk art, traditionally passed from mother to daughter over a cup of tea. In the same tradition, Palestinian embroiderer Feryal Abbasi-Ghnaim passed on the endangered traditional art to her daughter Wafa Ghnaim, who began assisting her mother in her work at age two.

Feryal is a trained art teacher, who has been teaching embroidery since the 1970’s when she led the art curricula development for UNRWA at the Yarmook Refugee Camp in Irbid, Jordan and Damascus, Syria for twelve years. After Feryal immigrated with her husband to the United States, she continued teaching Palestinian embroidery through nonprofit organizations, universities and public schools. Feryal has taught Palestinian embroidery for 38 years through lectures, apprenticeships and demonstrations she has held from coast-to-coast. Feryal’s lifetime dedication to preserving Palestinian embroidery earned her a 2018 National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellow, as the first Palestinian woman to receive this honor by the United States government.

Tatreez & Tea began in 2015, when Wafa set out to write a book that preserved the meanings and patterns of fifteen designs she and her sisters spent their lives learning about. Wafa was awarded funding in 2016 by the Brooklyn Arts Council, Regional Arts & Culture Council and Clackamas County Cultural Coalition to complete the digital book project titled, Tatreez & Tea: Embroidery and Storytelling in the Palestinian Diaspora. Wafa wrote the book in seven months, and published it in November 2016. In 2017, Wafa was awarded additional funding by the Brooklyn Arts Council and Clackamas County Cultural Coalition to complete an expanded, revised, second edition in print, which was self-published in June 2018.

While Tatreez & Tea began as a book project — in 2017 it quickly grew into a national initiative that has sent Wafa on an embroidery journey teaching Palestinian embroidery to diaspora communities in the United States and beyond. Wafa founded Tatreez & Tea to ensure that traditional Palestinian embroidery motifs and meanings are preserved; skills are passed down to the next generation of diaspora Palestinians; and to publicly lay claim to an endangered textile tradition at risk of being culturally appropriated.

Tatreez & Tea, the book and initiative, asserts that learning and practicing the techniques Palestinian ancestors utilized in their embroidery brings diaspora Palestinians spiritually closer to their family, homeland and culture.

The motion of embroidering the cross-stitch — pulling the threaded needle through the fabric in a meditative repetition — summons a powerful legacy of all Palestinian women who once did the same. Embroiderers therefore resurrect and honor the legacy of Palestinian grandmothers, Palestinian great grandmothers, and Palestinian great, great grandmothers who once embroidered in their garden, at home, in Palestine. When Palestinians embroider, they are instantly transported through time, place and space to a simple, peaceful moment of creation and craft.

Tatreez & Tea intends to honor the legacy of Palestinian women who, for hundreds of years, created stunningly rich textiles that has become a symbol of identity for Palestinians all over the world.

Panel 1

About Wafa Ghnaim

Wafa Ghnaim is an American-born Palestinian businesswoman, writer, and artist. Wafa began learning Palestinian embroidery from her mother when she was two years old. Throughout her life, Wafa traveled alongside her mother for various exhibitions, lectures and demonstrations around the U.S. from folklore festivals in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to elementary schools in southeast Portland, Oregon. She assisted her mother by preparing materials for lectures, modeling embroidery outfits created by her mother, demonstrating needlework techniques at large-scale festivals, and curating exhibits.

Wafa was awarded a two-year apprenticeship opportunity through the Oregon Folklife Network and the University of Oregon in 1993 through 1995 with her older sister, Fida. Throughout the apprenticeship, they assisted their mother in the completion of a Palestinian dress titled “The Gardens”, which was displayed in the Oregon State Capitol as “the dress of a million stitches”.

She has traveled to Syria and Jordan many times throughout her life for personal, professional and academic pursuits, witnessing major events that have rippled throughout the region; from the 2003 invasion of Iraq to various Israeli invasions and wars against Palestinians in the occupied territories to the Arab Uprisings. The last time she visited Damascus was February 11, 2011, the day that former President of Egypt, Hosni Mubarak, resigned amidst popular unrest. That day was arguably the first day of the Syrian revolution and subsequent war. These experiences were very influential in her life, sparking her aspirations to preserve the oral history, storytelling, and folk art of Palestine.

Wafa decided to pursue her and her mother’s lifelong dream of writing a book about Palestinian embroidery designs, meanings, and traditions in 2015. Tatreez & Tea has been a dream of her mother’s since the early 1980’s when she first came to the United States and a dream of Wafa’s since she was a little girl. With funding from the Clackamas County Cultural Coalition, Regional Arts & Culture Council and the Brooklyn Arts Council, the first edition of the book was digitally published in November 2016, and the print edition in June 2018.

Tatreez & Tea has grown into an initiative that provides ongoing arts education programming on Palestinian embroidery across the United States and Canada. Wafa teaches various curricula that is centered on traditional Palestinian cross-stitch embroidery in order to keep the traditional art alive in the Palestinian diaspora.

In 2018, Wafa was awarded a New York State Council on the Arts and New York Foundation for the Arts Artist Fellowship in the folk arts discipline. The NYSCA/NYFA fellowship is a highly competitive program, and awarded to an artist once in their lifetime. Wafa joins the ranks of award-winning alumni fellows who earned this award early in their career, including Spike Lee, Shirin Neshat, Mira Nair and Tony Kushner.

Wafa, her husband and their son Malik currently reside in Brooklyn, New York.

Panel 2

About Feryal Abbasi-Ghnaim

Feryal Abbasi-Ghnaim was born in Safad, a northern city in Palestine. During the 1947-48 war, her and her family fled Palestine for refuge with the intention of returning after the war was over. 1948 not only commemorates the creation of the State of Israel, but also the destruction of Palestinian society known as as al-Nakba, or “Catastrophe”.  Forced into exodus by Israeli troops, at least 750,000 Palestinian men, women, and children fled or were forced into exile. Of these Palestinian (also known as al-Nakba refugees) was Feryal, her mother, father, two sisters and one brother.

The Abbasi family first fled to Damascus, Syria. Then to Manbej, a town in Northern Syria near Aleppo where they resided until 1952 when they moved to Irbid, Jordan. In 1965, as a teenager, Feryal began her career in teaching through the United Nations Relief Works Agency (UNRWA) at the Irbid Palestinian refugee camp. She taught elementary and middle school students general arts and crafts, as well as Palestinian embroidery and drawing.

Feryal taught at UNRWA for 12 years before she left to Amman, Jordan in 1977.She ambitiously completed her university degree Damascus University in art and history in 1975 while working full-time at the UNRWA refugee camp school.

One of Feryal’s most prized accomplishments is designing the logo for UNESCO’s Palestinian heritage encyclopedia series in 1973. Of course this series is not available online, and can only be found in the UNESCO 1960’s archives, which her daughter, Wafa, is ambitiously attempting to locate.

After returning to Jordan, Feryal decided to leave the United Nations and pursue her career in the private sector. That is when she met her husband, Mohammad. After marriage, her and Mohammad immigrated to the United States in 1980. She had three daughters, Fida, Wafa and Safa — who served as her happy, little craft assistants accompanying her in her exhibitions, speeches, lectures and festivals that she led for the next thirty years all across the United States, from Massachusetts to Oregon.

She became quickly recognized as an expert in her field, and recruited to work with the Executive Director, Cindy Cohen, at The Oral History Center of Cambridge. In 1985, she co-managed a series of workshops titled “Stories in Fabric” with Ms. Cohen. Feryal’s traditional fabric and fiber artwork was featured in the exhibit containing her tapestries, excerpting interviews and photographs of her work.

In 1985, the project was brought to the International Women’s Conference in Nairobi, Kenya. Feryal’s work on the project was honored, and her art was showcased. Most notably, she shared her tapestry “Dove of Peace” or “حمامة السلام”  at opening ceremony, which contained her most renown speech sharing the struggles in preserving her cultural identity as an immigrant in the United States. This speech is read in all of Feryal’s lectures, and is written in English & Arabic — folded and tucked away in the envelope carried by the dove. Her moving speech can be seen here.

Her work at the Oral History Center of Cambridge continued into an oral history interview project titled “A Passion For Life: Stories and Folk Arts of Palestinian and Jewish Women” during July 1988 through May 1990. This project consisted of oral history interviews with eight Jewish and Palestinian women, including Feryal, living in Boston, whose lives involved some type of folk art tradition. Feryal served as the project’s co-lead with Ms. Cohen. They worked together to help the women, from cultures of long-standing conflict, find a common bond without hiding the fact that they had important differences. “A Passion For Life” was successful and controversial, exhibited extensively  over the next decade as well as presented in 18 public events.

Feryal was a peace activist as much as she was an artist. Over her nearly 50 years of folkloric and artistic expertise, she has lectured at notable institutions about Palestinian traditions including the University of Massachusetts, the Oral History Center of Cambridge, Portland State University, University of Oregon, to name a few.

Feryal has dedicated her life’s work to teaching young women of color the traditional art of Palestinian embroidery and fabric art. She still leads workshops and classes at all educational levels in public schools in Beaverton, Milwaukie, Gresham, and Portland. and is a five-time grant recipient of the Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program through the Oregon Folklife Network.

Feryal has been recognized several times as a Master of Traditional Arts and Culture Keeper for the Oregon Folklife Network’s (OFN) Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program (TAAP). TAAP is supported in part with funding from the Oregon Arts Commission, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), the Oregon Historical Society, and the University of Oregon. OFN has also recognized her artistry with inclusion in the Oregon Culture Keeper’s Roster.

In 2018, Feryal was awarded the NEA National Heritage Fellowship for her artistic excellence and contributions to Palestinian embroidery education in the United States. This lifetime achievement award is a prestigious honor that recognizes the nation’s master folk and traditional artists, and is only given to an artist once in their lifetime. Feryal is the first Palestinian woman and embroiderer to earn this pinnacle career achievement as an NEA National Heritage Fellow in the 35-year history of the award.

To see the chronology of her research and awards, please click here.

Highlights

  • National Endowment for the Arts, Artist Profile: Feryal Abbasi-Ghnaim. [Web]
  • Hawksley, Rupert. “Palestinian Arts and Crafts That Tell A Story of the Ages”. The National, 19 August 2018. [Web]
  • Swindler, Samantha. Palestinian Embroidery is Oregon Artist’s Link to the Past, The Sunday Oregonian, 28 July 2018. [Web] [PDF]
  • Vermette, Danielle. A Life, Stitched in Time, Oregon Arts Watch, 11 July 2018. [Web] [PDF]