Stitching Threads of Identity: The Embroidered Journey of a Palestinian Artist in Diaspora

Behind the scenes: Feryal Abbasi-Ghnaim creating the handmade patterns available in Tatreez & Tea. (Author’s Collection)

Folk arts and crafts, which delight with color, pattern, and design, can be daunting skills to learn, and Palestinian embroidery is no exception. For Wafa Ghnaim, however, embroidery is more than just a skill. An American-born Palestinian businesswoman, writer, and artist, Ghnaim has stitched together a book about embroidery, entitled Tatreez & Tea: Embroidery and Storytelling in the Palestinian Diaspora, which traces the threads of a traditional art form and contemporary expression of identity splintered by war and displacement across Palestine, Jordan, and the U.S.

Tapestry by Feryal Abbasi-Ghnaim (1991) titled “My Family Tree After Al-Nakba”. The meaning and story of this tapestry can be found on the @tatreezandtea Instagram account. (Author’s Collection)

Ghnaim contends that Palestinian embroidery sacrificed much of its significance and role in preserving Palestinian culture at the altar of commercialization over the years. A key role of embroidery is storytelling. “Years ago, in Palestinian village life, women and girls did not go to school and learn how to read and write. 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,” she said in an e-mail exchange.

Ghnaim recounts her upbringing as a Palestinian in the diaspora through embroidery, and communicates to the reader a central story that has touched all Palestinians in numerous ways: the 1948 Nakba – the catastrophe that befell the Palestinian people following their expulsion from hundreds of towns and villages when Israel was established. While there is no shortage of commentary on this historical event, Ghnaim’s book sheds light on the personal details of her family’s experience of the Nakba. “Most people who are not Palestinian have not heard a family’s al-Nakba story, and it is important that they do so” to understand the fundamental challenges and meaning of being Palestinian in diaspora, she explained.

Born in Massachusetts to Palestinian parents, Ghnaim grew up in a home where stories of Palestinian history and culture, including the Nakba, were woven into her childhood. “My mother would dress us up in embroidered dresses to go to school, and early on we learned the meaning of designs like the ‘Missiles’, the ‘Gardens,’ and the ‘Birds’,” Ghnaim said. Her mother, Feryal, is originally from Safad in the northeast of historic Palestine, and was displaced twice: “first to Damascus in 1948, and later to Amman in 1979,” said Ghnaim.

When her parents moved to the U.S., Ghnaim’s mother looked for ways to share her culture and story with the community, and as early as 1989 she had submitted an application for a grant to write a book about embroidery, which was rejected. Here is an excerpt from proposal:

I wish I could publish a book about my experience in embroidery and about the stories I heard from my mother and grandmother that are behind our designs. Palestinian embroidery designs and patterns are not just beautiful; they have meaning, too. They teach the future generations about the nature of Palestine, and the history and political situation of Palestinian women; they tell our stories. There are many topics that I wish every woman could read about in this book and learn more about our embroidery. I am waiting for the time to come that we can have the resources to publish a book to show the designs clearly and to allow every woman to try to copy them onto fabric so they can share their stories, too. Excerpt, Feryal Abbasi-Ghnaim’s grant application, 1989

Nonetheless, Ghnaim’s mother continued to engage the community through embroidery, travelling with her daughters around the U.S. to exhibitions and lecture series. “Throughout elementary school and high school, my mother would come as a guest teacher to educate my classmates about Palestinian embroidery and culture,” Ghnaim recalled. Challenges arose, however. “We started to receive threatening phone calls, and experienced harassment and bullying.” Dressing up as Arab, Palestinian, or simply appearing as immigrants was a “dead giveaway” of our different identity, Ghnaim lamented. The family relocated to Oregon in 1989.

IPS interview with Feryal Ghnaim:

It was not until much later in Ghnaim’s life that her mother’s devotion to Palestinian traditional embroidery became a personal commitment. In her book, she suggests that just as embroidery was a medium for storytelling in a local setting in Palestine, it can also reflect her world to keep the tradition alive. “As embroidery did for my great grandmother, grandmother, and mother, it [still] has the power to tell my stories too, even in the diaspora,” she explained.

Wafa wearing The Wheat Harvest Dress, created by her mother, and featured in Tatreez & Tea. Photograph by Cyrus Garrett.

Ghnaim’s own relationship with embroidery was inspired not only by her mother, but also by a journey of finding herself. As a Palestinian in the diaspora, acceptance and assimilation were crucial. “I wanted to fit in, and be part of a community,” she said. At times, this quest placed her at a great distance from her Palestinian background and heritage, though she concluded that this distance also helped broaden her understanding of the world, herself, and the complexity of her identity, including her role in and support of Palestine. With the growing Palestinian solidarity movement in the U.S., Ghnaim acknowledged myriad contradictions and tensions. She believes the movement does not offer much space for artists, primarily valuing “activists, academics, and heavy weight donors.” She considers her book as a way to bridge this gap through art and writing.

In addition to highlighting 27 patterns of embroidery, Ghnaim offers the reader a guide to interpreting the motifs of each pattern. Beginning with The Art of Drinking Tea, a staple of Palestinian hospitality traditions, Ghnaim introduces readers to storytelling in a traditional Palestinian setting, followed by a guide on how to embroider and understanding patterns. In a chapter entitled The Stormiest Day of 1948, Ghnaim shares her family’s experience with the Nakba along with embroidery motifs that best captured the essence of her family’s encounter with displacement and diaspora.

One particular embroidery piece stands out: The Story of Cleopatra. Ghnaim began working on it in 1995, but finished it nearly two decades later in 2015. “I wanted to hide this fact from my readers,” but acknowledging the amount of time to finish this piece reflects “my journey in becoming who I am today,” she said. For her, knotting the last stitch was “transformative.” Reflecting on the ways that embroidery has stitched together stories, people, times, and places, Ghnaim asserts that “it is never too late to connect with your identity and heritage.”

About Dorgham Abusalim 38 Articles
Dorgham Abusalim was formerly the Online Content Editor at the Institute for Palestine Studies. He earned his Master's degree in International Affairs from the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, Switzerland.

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