“Embroidery is integral to our being”: the role of Arabic tatreez in knowing who you are and where you are from

Embroidery is about making visible. It is the adornment of cloth to add meaning and value. As such, it is about identity – making a claim about who you are, and displaying that for others to see. This is both personal and political, and nowhere is this more true than in the modern Middle East.

Sabbara is a small social enterprise selling embroidered works of beauty created by displaced Syrian and Palestinian women. Sabbara is Arabic for cactus, but also Syrian slang for a strong resilient woman. We chose this name for our organisation as Syrian women have had to learn to survive in the harshest of environments. The women we work with have all been forced to flee their homes. Many have lost their husbands and are now caring for their children without support, often with low levels of literacy and no skills to earn a living. Half are displaced within Syria, facing constant insecurity and trying to survive in a country devastated by ten years of war. The other half are in neighbouring Lebanon, where 99% of refugees live below the poverty line. In these brutal circumstances, through embroidery, our artisans find a crucial income, a supportive community, and a creative outlet for trauma; the name Sabbara also seemed fitting as cacti are armed with needles.

Long interested in Levantine cross-stitch embroidery, or tatreez, for this piece in Decorating Dissidence I delved into its history and how it is being kept alive and reinvented today. Drawing from scholarly research and conversations with refugee embroidery artisans, what I found both surprised and intrigued me.

Traditional embroidery in the Middle East has always been closely linked with place. Collector and academic John Gillow writes that ‘older women can tell the village and sometimes even the embroiderer of a particular dress’ [1], due to the association of particular colours and motifs with particular locations. Historically, the Palestinian town of Ramallah was known for its vibrant scarlet thread. I discover that classic work from Hebron, just to the south, can be identified by a browner shade of red. 

Bright red thread and the ‘long palm’ motif mark this embroidery as coming from Ramallah.
From the collection of Tiraz: Widad Kawar Home for Arab Dress. 

Textile ethnographer Sheila Paine records that traditional embroidery from the Syrian village as-Sukhna is famous for its palms [2] – reflecting the scenery of this desert oasis – and that these trees are also found in the fabrics of as-Safira, which had marriage links with as-Sukhna. I love to imagine the women who made these dresses taking their traditions with them, and recreating the vibrant leaves of the oasis in their work in their new homes. Perhaps it would have been possible to tell which women had married into as-Safira from as-Sukhna by admiring their dresses – that visual identity cue.

There are more clues to identity hiding in those stitches. At its most obvious, heavy and ornate embroidery denotes a person of wealth and status, or a garment for a particularly special occasion, as it was (and still is) so time-consuming to do. Motifs such as birds and cypress trees (the ‘tree of life’) are popular across the region, symbolising life and relating to folkloric beliefs, while religious emblems or embroidered texts from the Quran speak of faith. 

‘Tree of Life’ motifs on a dress from Al-Sukha, Syria.
From the collection of Tiraz: Widad Kawar Home for Arab Dress. 

I asked our refugee artisans if they remembered their mothers or grandmothers practicing this craft. Was it a central part of the culture, as the academic texts implied, or an arcane and obscure practice? Their answers were unequivocal.

“Embroidery is integral to our being. Especially for people from the south, from Daraa and Sweida, they all know how to embroider,” said Mona, who comes from the countryside near Damascus in south/central Syria. Um Qassim from the Houran told me that “in the Houran region it is really important for women to know embroidery. We all embroider cushions, clothes and pictures,” while Um Nour from Idlib said ‘In Idlib we really care about the jihaz al-arous [the clothes, linen and belongings that a bride takes to her new house – an Arabic trousseau]. All these things would be hand-embroidered”.

For each of these women, who are now all living as refugees in the neighbouring country of Lebanon, embroidery remains very distinctly identified with the particular regions of Syria they come from. Whether expressed in colours and motifs, or in the heart, ideas of place and origin form an essential part of how women think about tatreez.

For Palestinian women, the association between embroidery and place is even more loaded. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were displaced from their homes in 1948 with the creation of the state of Israel. They and their descendants have lived their lives as refugees, mostly in the surrounding countries of Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. Yet women have continued to laboriously pick out the patterns of the villages their families came from, places most of them have never seen. This is a political act, a claim of ownership and identity in the face of the denial of their statehood and rights. 

Polaroid photo of a 1970’s-era Palestinian dress.
Photo from the Inaash archive.

As Palestinians from different villages found themselves living together in refugee camps, a distinctive ‘camp style’ also developed. This style incorporated elements from diverse areas as well as the regional traditions of the countries in which they now found themselves, and was also influenced by Western fashion. During the first Intifada in the occupied territories, when Israel confiscated Palestinian flags, women embroidered the colours and symbols of Palestinian nationalism – the flag, the Dome of the Rock, the outline of the country – onto their very dresses. Embroidery is a living craft, and as such continues to change and develop, reflecting human lives, identities and localities.

Intifada Dress, from the collection of Tiraz: Widad Kawar Home for Arab Dress. 

A decade of war has also impacted upon Syrian embroidery. In Mona’s words: “People who are living under bombardment are thinking about how to flee and how to get food for their children, they’re not going to sit down and embroider”. 

Not only did many women stop practicing embroidery due to the conflict, but many were also forced to leave behind embroidered heirlooms, those statements of their family history and mementoes of significant events such as births and marriages. This loss is often a hugely underestimated source of sorrow and trauma. Mona mourns her parents’ embroidered wedding blanket, and the baby clothes her mother embroidered for her when she had her first child: “I remember my mother, that’s the thing that makes me sad sometimes, she made diara [things for new babies], and embroidered them herself. I wish I was able to pass them on to Massa for when she has children. Probably she wouldn’t have used them but they would have been a good memory to pass on.”

Un Nour picks up the thread: “We left with such a panic that we didn’t take anything with us, and we didn’t think about the embroidery that we had made. When we found Sabbara and we started to work and be creative, we found ourselves again.”

Embroidery is the thread between past and present. In it is stitched the knowledge of who you are and where you’re from, made visible, tangible, undeniable. For Sabbara’s Syrian and Palestinian refugee artisans, it is what connects them to what they have lost, and through that they find themselves. I can’t express this more beautifully than Um Qassim, and I will leave you with her words: “Doing embroidery reminds me of my house and my home and my country. It reminds me of my grandmother and my mother, of my best memories and moments in my life.”

Mona (left) and other Sabbara artisans doing embroidery together.

Words: Tabitha Ross

Bio: Tabitha Ross studied Arabic in Damascus in 2007 and has spent the last fifteen years working on and in the Middle East, notably Syria, Lebanon, and Israel and occupied Palestine. She has worked as an NGO communications manager, reported on the Syrian refugee crisis as a freelance photographer and writer, run psychosocial photography projects with refugees, and now proudly works with Sabbara, a social enterprise working with Syrian refugee women.

Tabitha Ross and Itab Azzam co-run Sabbara, a social enterprise that empowers Syrian women through economic employment and psychological support, through drama therapy, women’s rights workshops, training & skills development, as well as employment through knitting clubs and the sales of embroidered handcrafts. You can donate yarn and financial contributions here.