Tatreez Exhibition

Tatreez: Palestinian Women’s Embroidery in Philadelphia

Making and sharing traditional needlework, stitching patterns belonging to villages that no longer exist, local Palestinian women artfully sustain heritage and community through the beauty that is tatreez. Nehad Khader curated this exhibition of the work of 7 local artists. To read exhibition texts and see a sample of images, keep reading (below). Photographs by Sarah Green are included below, and featured in the slideshow sampling Nehad's documenting of local artists' work.   View Slideshow


“After we were dispersed, all tatreez became Palestinian tatreez. You want to preserve Palestinian tatreez, not individual villages. They’re all under occupation, and it’s now gone.” –Alia Shiekh-Yousef

I grew up watching my mother, Alia Shiekh-Yousef, stitch patterns into fabric after work and on the weekends. She always found ways of displaying tatreez—on headbands, shawls, and pillows adorning her home. When I was fourteen, I asked her to teach me, and I stitched a wall hanging of the map of Palestine and a peace dove. Later, she asked me to finish some of her work. I was honored. Her stitching was a direct response to the destruction of our villages and homes by Israeli military forces, and to continued attempts to destroy Palestinian identity. It gave me (and I hope that it gives you) a different way to understand who we are.

Since September 11, 2001, my education in tatreez had me thinking about how women in my community– family, neighbors and friends– are commonly represented and seen, and how we might be seen. This exhibit displays the stories and works of seven Palestinian women. It is a reminder of ways that women create beauty, connect to heritage and to one another, and connect to home—including native villages now destroyed and inaccessible. Given the modern American socio-political climate, I hope this exhibit serves to give Palestinian women positive visibility that counters the negative and destructive mainstream images of us. 

While my research has been in Palestinian homes in Philadelphia, it has connections in several ways to the broader Palestinian Diaspora. My own dispersed family contributed works tracing their movements. Women’s needlework is kept in family homes here and even more often in Palestine, where women feel free and proud to wear this work and where the work is better appreciated. Women who can no longer can return to a hometown frequently evoke the name of Palestine and its villages in their work, displaying tatreez prominently, showing who they are and where they come from. And in their shared feeling of loss and exile, older women who have skill in needlework fear that they are the last generation who will know and make tatreez; they lament that their daughters have no patience or inclination to sustain the art form. And because tatreez is so meaningful to them, so too was contributing to this project.

The idea of an exhibition with photographs of women and their work was foreign in many ways. Sharing of tatreez is normally not done through a public display like this. It is a matter of personal and community exchange. I am grateful for the women’s generosity in sharing their stories and in making something so important in their lives publicly visible, to the extent that they were willing to do so: Alia Shiekh-Yousef, Ghalia Salahi, Arij Yousef, Umm el Adeeb, Wafa Ajaj, Maisaloon Dias, and Wafai Dias. Photographs are by Sarah Green.

— Nehad Khader, May 2009

  1. Alia Shiekh-Yousef with works of her own making (thob, shawl, cushions) in her home. Photo: Sarah Green, 2009.
  2. Jacket. Umm Hasan. Courtesy of Arij Yousef. Arij’s 102-year-old grandmother lives in Amman, Jordan, where she settled in 1948 after she was exiled from Jerusalem. She still stitches. While she now lives in a city, she was from a farming family, and says that in search of inspiration for her color schemes she still looks out her window to find the colors in nature. She gave this jacket to her granddaughter who uses it for patterns for her own work. This treasured object has traveled, and continues to connect people to home.

“This is my life, this is who I am, this is my culture. It gives me a sense of belonging.” – Maisaloon Dias

“My mother wore her thob always. She never left the house without it. And those who came long ago, they never went out
without their thyab.” – Umm el Adeeb

“You see tatreez at someone’s house, you like it, so you get it from her, you copy it, then you get different ideas.” – Wafa Ajaj

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Stitching heritage

“The person who does not have heritage doesn’t have resistance. We struggle to maintain our heritage.” – Wafa Ajaj

“Every stitch tells you that you are Palestinian.” – Alia Sheikh-Yousef

Due to our forced exile by Israeli military forces in 1948, Palestinian people always seek ways to preserve our identity. Here in Philadelphia, Palestinian women describe how tatreez does just that. For my mother it is about being a Palestinian. The presence of Palestinian art in her home is a permanent reminder of her history and her plight—a way to stitch connection to homeland and identity. The other women represented here also consider their work a personal contribution to a collective memory of Palestine, if only within their households. We are the bearers of old Palestinian arts, bringing them forward through the generations, sharing work and patterns, finding new settings for display and use of traditional motifs. Today, Palestinian embroidery can be found on the most useful objects in a contemporary woman’s life. We are finding that we can create anything out of a stitched panel.

  1. Palestinian Wedding Wall Hanging. Arij Yousef and Khawla Rashid. 2008. This is a very popular piece in Palestinian homes. In this traditional wedding scene , the bride rides on the horse. The groom is in a black 'abai. Some (at right) do the traditional dabkeh; others are preparing the mansaf dinner (on left). The top is a popular Palestinian song: “Children of Palestine, those who are exiled and those who remain, we have come to water the land with the tears of the sad one.” The bottom is the traditional wedding song: "Our groom is the most beautiful of the young men.”
  2. Shawl. Alia Shiekh-Yousef, c. 1990. This adaptation of the thob, simple to wear, includes traditional patterns: Cypress Tree, Damask Rose, and Feathers.
  3. Alia Shiekh-Yousef, stitching. Photo: Sarah Green, 2009.
  4. Unfinished front panel for thob. Umm el Adeeb. Canvas is used to make visual boxes to set placing of cross-stitch, then pulled out string by string.
  5. Traditional belt for the thob. Umm el Adeeb. Palestinian women often stitch accessories to go with their thob.
  6. Head Band. Alia Sheikh-Yousef. Made to use on an everyday basis so as to have some tatreez in her ensemble.
  7. Embroidered map of Palestine with characteristic motifs of particular regions. Unknown artist from Damascus, Syria. Courtesy of Ghalia Salahi.
  8. Sampler. Ghalia Salahi. 1992 – 2008. This effort to practice and figure out stitches was begun when her children were small, then continued years later.
  9. Tabletop Cover. Alia Sheikh-Yousef. c. 1993. Pattern motifs represent the date trees Alia saw in Baghdad.
  10. Background for a wall clock. Umm el Adeeb. Contemporary and innovative tatreez in both design and in usage.
  11. Embroidered square. Arij Yousef. 2008. One of her more complex pieces: she started in the middle and layered her way out.

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Community belonging made visible

“When I see tatreez, I remember my mother and grandmother. We must teach it to new generations so they remember that this is Palestinian heritage.” –Umm el Adeeb

“I once made a dress and my friends helped me, then I gave it to my sister.  I didn’t find anything better than this as a gift: it is Palestinian tatreez.”  – Alia Shiekh-Yousef

The most important traditional article of clothing on which tatreez is stitched is the Palestinian thob or dress. The thob looks different in every region of Palestine. In many ways it could (and still can) make visible who a woman is, with the shape, material and stitch of her thob showing her social status and where she is from. The thob can also show a woman’s artistry, skill and inventiveness. Those hand-made here in Philadelphia are counted important family treasures. Alia gifted her first hand-made thob to her sister; Umm el-Adeeb and Wafa Ajaj are proud of the nontraditional and daring thyab they made for their daughters to wear. The Palestinian thob is a prime example of how tatreez is a community-oriented art. Women find inspiration for their own tatreez from patterns on other women’s pieces. If a woman doesn’t know how to crochet or sew the manaji — the colorful seam that holds the dress together—she asks another woman to do that part. Sometimes, a woman even asks her friends to take a piece of the thob and stitch it for her. In this way, our relationships with one another are stitched into being and traced in our thyab.

  1. Traditional thob. Umm el Adeeb. c. 1970. Umm el Adeeb has an extensive collection of thyab that she has made for herself and her daughters. The thob is made in panels on fabric using canvas to stitch crosses in boxed areas. Then, panels are sewn together. Thyab continue to be worn by older women. Today, young women are finding more contemporary styles of the thob and other types of clothing.
  2. Wafa’s grandchildren Aouni, Nahid, and Talal first discovered that their grandmother created the wall hangings that surrounded them when Sarah took this photo. They became excited, asking questions about the work, stimulated by new pride in their grandmother’s artistic talents. Wafa learned tatreez from her mother. She remembers competing against her sisters and neighborhood girls to finish tatreez faster. She made this traditional thob for her daughter when she was a little girl, and hopes that Nahid (pictured) will wear it one day as well. Photo: Sarah Green, 2009.
  3. Wall Hanging. Wafa Ajaj. Cotton on cotton. 38.5” x 16”. Wall hangings like this adorn Wafaa’s house. Among the patterns are the traditional Moon of Bethlehem and Baker’s Wife, as well as more untraditional crowns and owls on either side of the flower vase.
  4. Alia Shiekh-Yousef with her work, and a gift from her daughter Nehad: embroidery of a traditional Palestinian wedding. Photo: Sarah Green, 2009.
  5. Nehad Khader. Photo: Sarah Green, 2009.
  6. Alia Shiekh-Yousef with her daughter Nehad Khader and with Maisaloon and Wafai Dias. In Palestinian villages and cities, women gathered after their daily work was complete, sitting and embroidering together, copying patterns from one another, requesting ideas, drinking tea, and competing to finish balls of thread. Photo: Sarah Green, 2009.

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Artist Biographies

“The young woman today embroiders because she saw her mother and grandmother embroidering. It is impossible to break away from your traditions, so you keep trying to do new things.” –Wafa Ajaj

"My grandmother used to do this and her mom: this is passed down. To me this is so much more than thread on a piece of canvas. It is beyond that." —Maisaloon Dias

Alia Sheikh-Yousef—b. Damascus, Syria. Alia’s family is originally from the Palestinian village of Umm el-Zeinat, just outside of Haifa. But in 1948 her family was exiled to Damascus, Syria, where she was born. Later the family moved to Kuwait. Umm el-Zeinat was destroyed in the early 1950s and the original inhabitants banned from returning. Alia attended the University of Damascus where she studied Geography and History. There she met her husband and they lived in the Yarmouk Refugee Camp for Palestinians. She worked as a coordinator of Palestinian women’s tatreez exhibits, where they sold their work for financial support. These women also taught her tatreez and it became her favorite past-time.

Wafa Ajaj—b. Ramallah, Palestine. Wafa came from Ramallah to Philadelphia eighteen years ago to live with her husband. She and her sisters learned tatreez from their mother who made dresses and other useful objects. Wafa recalls sitting in communal settings outdoors with other women stitching tatreez. This was both fun and competitive: women competed to finish the most rolls of thread or tubab. Since coming to America, Wafa has had less time for needlework, but in her home she displays her own work, and that of her mother and mother-in-law. The tatreez reminds her of the women from her neighborhood in Ramallah.

Zahida Ibrahim (Umm el-Adeeb)—b. Jaba’, Palestine. Umm el Adeeb learned tatreez from her mother in the village of Jaba’ before moving to Mukhmas, her husband’s village. Initially her children took priority over her art-making, but after they went to school, she returned to tatreez. She began making her own dresses and has a very large collection. Umm el Adeeb is particularly fond of a group of light and heat-friendly dresses she made to wear in the summers in Mukhmas. But the front of her tatreez is not the only part of which she is proud. She turns over all of her dresses to reveal how neat her stitch is on the back, too. She also taught herself how to crochet liners for the bottoms of the sleeves and the neck edge.

Maisaloon and Wafai Dias were born and raised in Philadelphia. Their mother is a seamstress, originally from Beit Hanina near Jerusalem. Local Palestinian women brought her panels of hand-made tatreez, from which she would sew their thyab.  She also stitched herself. When Maisaloon and Wafai were young, their mother— in order to get them to participate— would ask them to pull the canvas out from beneath the stitch. As they grew more interested in her work, they asked her to teach them tatreez. They laugh about the piece they learned to stitch on because their mother abandoned plans to make it a thob: their stitches too uneven.

Ghalia Salahi—b. Damascus, Syria. Ghalia’s family was expelled from the village of Umm el Zeinat, and she grew up in Kuwait and studied in Baghdad and the U.S. As an adult, her sisters Alia and Samia piqued her interest in tatreez when they shared their newest projects with each other. She is currently working on a wall hanging for her son’s home, on which she points out the colors of her son’s favorite sport teams. She studies other women’s works carefully and loves to trade books and pieces with them. She cherishes two thyab, or dresses, in particular: one that her sister Alia made for her, and one that her sister Samia made for their mother.

Arij Yousef—b. Amman, Jordan. Arij was born to an Iraqi mother and a Palestinian father who was expelled from Jerusalem in 1948, never to return. Arij lived between Amman, Cairo, and the U.S. She was disconnected from her brothers and sisters on her father’s side from a previous marriage until a brother’s death in 2008. Visiting her family in Amman, she grew very close to her siblings. At the center of their newfound relationship was tatreez. Her Jerusalemite grandmother Umm Hasan is 102 years old and continues to embroider. Her grandmother and older sisters taught her this art, and it has become her way of connecting to heritage and family.

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Curator and Photographer Biographies

Nehad Khader. My brother and I were born in the United States because my mother did not want us to be card-holding Palestinian Refugees—like my father, who has never been able to travel freely, and has lived most of his life as an internationally unrecognized person. Knowing this family history, being Palestinian, has always been the defining part of my life. That is why I dedicated all of my educational pursuits to Palestine. I graduated with a degree in Sociology and English literature from Temple University in 2007, and in September I will be pursuing a Masters of Arab Studies at Georgetown University. Tatreez, my mother's favorite pasttime, was something we could bond over, something from my heritage that I could create. I am proud to have worked on this project and to share this artwork with you.

Sarah Green has been taking pictures since 1993 when she shot over 24 frames of her stuffed animals.  Through high school and the beginning of college she indulged in the darkroom with black and white photography, while also discovering greats like Mary Ellen Mark, Gordon Parks and Henri Cartier-Bresson.  Moving into digital photography, she became assistant to Clarence Williams, former photographer for the LA Times and Pulitzer prize winner. She graduated from Temple University with a degree in photojournalism but disinterested in the worlds of advertising and marketing. Since graduation she has focused on photographs that she enjoys taking, and enjoys sharing. She is proud to be involved in this project. She says, “The artwork of these women is phenomenal and I can only hope my camera has done it justice.”

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My greatest appreciation goes to my mother, Alia Shiekh-Yousef, who supported this project from its inception to its execution. Her information was invaluable, and her ability to contact women and help me translate made this exhibit possible. I thank my aunts Ghalia Salahi, Samia Al-Tayeh and Arij Shiekh-Yousef for their enthusiasm for this exhibit. Thank you to the other women who participated—Umm el Adeeb, Wafa Ajaj and Maisaloon and Wafai Dias—for inviting me into your homes and telling your stories proudly. Hazami Sayed helped me write the initial grant to get this project rolling, and helped me direct my ideas. Initial funding from the Leeway Foundation made this project a reality. My talented friend, Sarah Green, accompanied me to all the interviews and photographed the women’s work. My husband, Robert Dewey, brought me many books from the library to do my research. My father Kamel and my brother Tarek, two beautiful Palestinian men in my life, offered feedback and ideas on this and all of my work. I thank other community members for their encouragement: Suzan Muaddi, Thea Abul el-Hajj, and Adab Ibrahim. And the Philadelphia Folklore Project for their solid support from the first moment. I dedicate this project to my late grandmother, Nehad Shiekh-Yousef, and to every Palestinian woman who passed down her identity.—Nehad Khader

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About this exhibition

The Folklore Project is privileged to welcome into our small space the work of local Palestinian women whose embroidery stands as inspiring hope and action. In the face of tragedy and despair, in the midst of headlines too often filled with one-dimensional anti-Arab stereotypes, tatreez literally creates alternative ways of naming. Here is reminder of a long history and  beautiful stitched insistence that family and community will endure. We are grateful to all of the artists, and to Nehad Khader, for sharing these glimpses of some of the possibilities offered by these folk arts. Witnessing the spirit-sustaining work of neighbors in this city comes as a precious gift.

About a year ago, Nehad began to research the embroidery traditions of local Palestinian women who came to Philadelphia after the Nakba (Catastrophe), in 1948, and again after 1967. Working with photographer Sarah Green, and supported initially by a grant from the Leeway Foundation, Nehad documented needlework traditions currently practiced by seven women of different generations. Her work is stimulating local interest: this small exhibition is not the end, but a beginning in many ways.

It also is a beginning for PFP: the first in a new series of Community Folklife Documentation exhibitions curated by community members who conduct original research on folk arts of significance in Philadelphia. We thank Nehad and all of the women included in Tatreez for so beautifully inaugurating this new effort. —Debora Kodish

PFP's Community Folklife Documentation Project is supported by The Pew Center for Arts and Heritage, through the Heritage Philadelphia Program, the National Endowment for the Arts, Pennsylvania Council on the Arts.

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Exhibit Links:
Stitching heritage
Community belonging
Artist Biographies
Curator & Photographer Bios
About this exhibition

Exhibit in Arabic (PDF)