Author Q&A: Palestine in America

Reviving Palestinian Culture in the diaspora through Tatreez

Growing up in the diaspora, every refugee and immigrant quickly learns that the history taught in the west is one that suits the narrative of colonization and forced displacement. Palestine and the Nakba is no different. The illegitimate state of Israel was built through the forced expulsion of close to a million Palestinians in 1948 and the subsequent erasure of their history and traditions. Cultural appropriation is a tactic that Zionists have been using to steal Palestinian identity. In short, cultural appropriation is when one group uses elements of another and makes them their own. Israel has appropriated hummus, falafel, the hatta and many other elements from Middle Eastern and/or Palestinian culture and claim them as its own. But if there is something that history can teach us  is that where there is cultural appropriation, there is also cultural resistance.

Palestine in America had the opportunity to chat with Wafa Ghnaim, author of “Tatreez and tea – Embroidery and Storytelling in the Palestinian Diaspora” a book that examines the art and history of tatreez in the most poetic of ways with great historical insights and tea recipes for all tea lovers.

Wafa, thank you so much for chatting with us. Let’s start with the basics and tell us a little bit about yourself.

I am an American-born Palestinian businesswoman, writer and artist. My father’s side of the family is originally from Yaffa, Palestine, though my relatives now reside in Amman, Jordan. My mother was born in Safad, Palestine, twice displaced — first, to Damascus, Syria in 1948 and then later to Amman, Jordan. In 1979, my parents met in Amman, where they got married and decided to immigrate to the US to start a family. The al-Nakba story in my family, like most Palestinians in diaspora, is a significant one that I’ve heard again and again growing up. Part of the reason I decided to include the story in detail in my book, is because this story has weighed heavily on my shoulders – and my identity – for my whole life. Most people who are not Palestinian have not heard a family’s al-Nakba story, and it is important that they do so they can be exposed to the fundamental challenge of Palestinians who grew up in the diaspora – ancestral trauma due to war and occupation, that has been passed on for three generations. This is part of the Palestinian-American psyche and identity.

I was born in Massachusetts, where my two sisters and I began learning Palestinian embroidery from my mother. I started learned embroidery at 2 years old. My older sister began when she was 4 years old. After my mother became more recognized in Massachusetts for her work in Palestinian activism and teaching art, we started to receive threatening phone calls and experience quite a bit of harassment and bullying from our neighborhood and schools. I recall very clearly when my mother would walk us to school, and we would be approached with someone who threatened us with a baseball bat or to throw eggs at us. My mother always wore her embroidered dresses (and dressed us up in embroidered dresses) when she would take us to school, or run errands – and this was a dead giveaway to those that didn’t like Arabs, Palestinians or immigrants in their neighborhood. We became targets. My parents decided to move out of the Massachusetts area, closer to family in Oregon. So, in 1989 we moved out to Milwaukie, Oregon (now considered Portland). This is where I went to school and grew up.

I completed my graduate studies at Portland State University, receiving an international MBA in 2007. I spent most of my late teenage years and twenties travelling to Jordan and Syria (and around the world) spending time with my family. The last time I 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 my life, sparking my aspiration and inspiration to preserve the oral history, storytelling, and folk art of Palestinians, most especially those Palestinians living in diaspora.

I moved to the east coast in 2012, where I met my husband. We currently live in Brooklyn, New York and just had our first child.

What was the motivation behind writing this book?

The motivation behind writing the book was my mother, Feryal Abbasi-Ghnaim. The idea and motivation began when I was a little girl. Let me explain.

Many people ask me why, if the motivation and idea to write the book began when I was a little girl, it took me so long to actually write the book. When I first embarked on the book project at the end of 2015, I did not realize how much of the book was going to be about my personal story, or my journey as a Palestinian in diaspora. For a long time, I outlined the book to be solely focused on the stories that my mother shared with us about her embroidery and the meaning of each motif as passed on by my maternal ancestors. With so much focus being on my mother’s story and narrative, I needed time to mature into myself and as a woman to perceive the complexity of my mother’s identity and life story. The process of oral history interviewing, when sitting down with an elder and asking them to speak about their experiences and thoughts, requires you to be inquisitive, reflective and nuanced. As an artist myself, self-reflection was a muscle I had flexed for many years. But to be reflective of another person’s experience, seeing nuance and inquiring beyond the spoken word – I needed to mature. I needed to evolve. I needed to find security within myself, because I knew that my mother would share some of her most painful stories. Stories that would be difficult to hear. This is why it took me into adulthood to be ready to write this book. The book writing started when I was intuitively ready to begin  to not only understand my mother’s nuances and pain, but my own as well.

What was the writing process like and what makes this book different from others about tatreez?

First, it is important to emphasize that this is a self-published and self-funded book project. I didn’t seek out a publisher to get this book out in the public domain. I decided that, instead of trying to convince a publisher this book needed to be written – how about I write it myself without asking anyone? So I did. I applied to grants in Oregon and New York to cover the research and writing costs and I subsequently set a deadline for myself to complete the first 15 designs and publish them before the end of 2016. Grants are run on a year-by-year basis, so I had to complete whatever I proposed by the end of 2016. I didn’t wait to hear back from the grant applications I applied to in order to start writing the book. I started in the summer of 2015, and heard back from the grants in January 2016. Fortunately I was fully funded, and I already had a head start. In the first year of funding, I digitally published 27 handmade patterns and their stories, and the book in total was 65,000 words and 180 images – a massive file for a digital book. Hopefully, someday soon, I can obtain funding for a  print version of the book.

In terms of what makes my book different than others:

Embroidery is an art form that, like most creative outlets, serves as a way for the artist to express herself. Palestinian women have historically used their embroidery as a way to tell their stories, share their observations and express their opinions without using words. The premise of my book explores the lost tradition of using Palestinian embroidery motifs as a storytelling tool. Each motif has a particular meaning in Palestinian life and culture, and this is why the art is and was such a central part of Palestinian identity. Years ago, in Palestinian village life, Palestinian women and girls did not go to school and learn how to read and write. In fact, my grandmother did not know how to read or write. My great grandmother did not know how to read or write. Despite being illiterate, these women had strong opinions and were intelligent. They needed to express themselves, and did so through the storytelling power of Palestinian embroidery. They would select a motif, create an embroidered dress, and wear it for a particular occasion, protest or mood.

Each design in my book was passed on from generation to generation amongst women in my family. While each motif maintains its original meaning and is known amongst myself and my sisters, after generations of being passed on, the designs now carry even more layers of stories and significance. Each motif has the power to unveil the stories of one family, and for specific motifs I explore in the book, such as The Missiles, The Gardens and The Birds – you can learn about my great grandmother, grandmother, mother and I’s lives, which is a lineage of over 100 years.

I believe Palestinian embroidery over the years, and through the dispersion of my people after 1948 and again in 1967, has slowly become valued only for its aesthetic appeal. I believe that the books out now about Palestinian embroidery reinforce this valuation, and I feel strongly that our folklore is more than just about history or fashion or pretty fabric arts. It is about our stories, opinions and experiences. The use of embroidery as a storytelling tool has slowly become an endangered aspect of the art. In order for us to keep this art alive, is to ensure that embroidery remains alive. As it did for my great grandmother, grandmother and mother – embroidery has the power to tell my stories too, even in diaspora. In my book, I suggest that we reclaim our embroidery designs and try to evolve our own motifs from our diaspora experience. Why not create embroidery designs that reflect our world in diaspora? We can take two approaches to keeping Palestinian embroidery alive; one by recreating traditional designs over and over again, and one by creating modern designs that reflect our Palestinian identity today. The former, we’ve tried to do, and unfortunately the tradition is being lost through each generation. The latter is what I propose we try to do, to keep this art fresh and modern. We should always maintain the traditional designs, but we can also create modern motifs that reflect our experiences as Palestinians in diaspora to pass on to our children.

Genocide is often talked about in terms of human lives but it also involves erasing culture, traditions, language, etc. how important do you think tatreez has been in preserving Palestinian identity in the diaspora?

Absolutely. Tatreez played a huge role in helping me understand my identity as a Palestinian in the diaspora. Tatreez is my artistic home, and is where I feel closest to my maternal ancestors. I think there has been too much emphasis on tatreez representing specific villages of old Palestine – at this point, most women carrying this tradition on learned embroidery in the diaspora. The diaspora (such as refugee camps, for instance) are inclusive of Palestinians from all over old Palestine. Our embroidery designs and styles are reflective of our displacement and dispersion. While I agree it is interesting to learn the embroidery from our old village, or to wear it for a  certain special occasion, I don’t feel this is very important to our identity. What is crucial for our identity and livelihood as Palestinians in the diaspora is to keep traditional embroidery designs alive, and to understand what they mean. Our motifs are not only valuable because they came from a certain village. They are valuable because they represent the stories, experiences and observations of Palestinian women in Palestine and in the diaspora. Tatreez is a language of its own., that must be understood and utilized – like any language – to stay alive.

You mention in the book that during the Nakba, Zionist soldiers would go house by house buying old thobes that they later used as “proof” to claim that they were Israeli – a practice that Israel continues to do to this day. Could you talk a little bit about this?

I shared this story, because this was a story that my mother has told me again and again when she was teaching tatreez to me growing up. Palestinians sold their tatreez to Zionist soldiers as a way to survive their circumstances, and still do today. What they didn’t foresee was the mass cultural appropriation that would result. In this spirit, we want to teach the young Palestinian generations how to embroider so that they can produce their own work and not rely on sewing machines or mass-produced cheap clothing, to procure embroidered garments.

Your book is rich in narrating the stories and meanings behind each design featured. What’s your favorite design and what meaning does it hold for you?

I may give away the conclusion of the book by answering the question in detail, but the design that signifies my journey most prominently, and is my favorite, is The Story of Cleopatra design. I began the project in 1995 and finished it in 2015, after a long hiatus from embroidery. I wanted to hide this fact from my readers, in the book, but acknowledging and accepting the length of time it took to complete the piece, was reflective of my ability to acknowledge and accept my journey in becoming who I am today.

As I mentioned earlier in my interview, tatreez is my home. It is home to my cultural identity, and it took me decades to find. My journey in finding home is encapsulated in this design that I now hang in my home.

What can readers take away after reading the book? And where can they purchase it?

I hope that after reading my book, folks will get a real sense of what Palestinian craft culture is. This is why I share family tea recipes in the book, so that they can recreate the women’s craft circle of old Palestine in their home. I also hope that I convince readers to value Palestinian embroidery beyond its aesthetics and beyond its correlation to a specific Palestinian village. In the diaspora, I believe we should embrace and revitalize all traditional Palestinian motifs and stories, regardless of their village origination. In each design I share in the book, you see that there is not only a core historical meaning or significance to each motif, but that each carries the stories of the embroiderer. There are layers of meaning to decode in each thobe and I provide the tools to my readers to conduct this decoding process on their own.

I am happy to share that my book project has been funded for a second edition in 2017. I will be expanding the book to add 15 more designs, and 10 additional recipes (beyond tea). The book will be massive, and I am interested in exploring print options for the second edition. Currently, you can purchase the digital, first edition of the book on Amazon, iBooks and Nook. If you are an embroiderer, I highly recommend purchasing from Amazon because the images are high resolution, whereas iBooks and Nook are not. You can learn more about the book, and upcoming events on my website, www.tatreezandtea.com.

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