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Palestinian Embroidery: UNESCO Safeguarding the Palestinian Identity, Heritage, and History

posted on: Dec 29, 2021

Palestinian Embroidery: UNESCO Safeguarding the Palestinian Identity, Heritage, and History
Source: “Tatreez & Tea: Embroidery and Storytelling in the Palestinian Diaspora”, Wafa Ghnaim (2018)

By: Leyelle Mosallam / Arab America Contributing Writer

Palestinian embroidery, known as “tatreez” in Arabic, is a unique style of stitching for the purpose of designing traditional Palestinian abayas, thobes, and keffiyehs. In an effort to protect the Palestinian identity, heritage, and history, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) added traditional Palestinian embroidery to its Intangible Cultural Heritage List. The list was made on December 15th, 2021 during the 16th session of the Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage. 

UNESCO defines cultural heritage as “traditions or living expressions inherited from our ancestors and passed on to our descendants.” In the face of globalization, cultural heritage is an important factor for maintaining diversity, intercultural dialogue, and encouraging mutual respect for different ways of life. UNESCO created an Intangible Cultural Heritage List to ensure that the knowledge and skills of various cultural practices are transmitted accordingly from one generation to the next. As Israeli occupation of Palestine continues, adding Palestinian Embroidery to UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage List is important to protect the Palestinian identity as Israel attempts to erase the historical and cultural practices of Palestine. 

The decision to add Palestinian Embroidery to UNESCO’S Intangible Cultural Heritage List came days after Israel’s Miss Universe controversy. During the contestants’ visit to the city of Rahat, they posted photos and videos of themselves on social media wearing traditional Palestinian embroider clothing and making stuffed grape leaves. Miss Philippines, Beatrice Luigi Gomez, captioned her Instagram photo “Day in Life of a Bedouin”, which sparked anger among the Palestinian community. Miss Universe Contestants demonstrated themselves engaging with the Palestinian culture, but never gave credit to the people and land from which the cultural practices originated from. The Palestinian embroider clothing is a historical and cultural practice that belongs to Palestinians, not Israelis. Many anti-Zionist activists spoke out against Miss Universe contestants’ posts and described them as “cultural theft.” 

After such controversy, adding Palestinian embroidery to UNESCO’s list is a win for Palestinians. It recognizes the existence of Palestinians and their history after it was taken from them in 1948.

Check out UNESCO’s video on Palestinian Embroidery:

What is Palestinian Embroidery?

Palestinian Embroidery: UNESCO Safeguarding the Palestinian Identity, Heritage, and History

Palestinian embroidery has always been crafted by Palestinian women. Tatreez was a Palestinian women’s way to contribute to the Palestinian culture. Traditionally, Palestinian women chose designs that conveyed their regional identity and everyday lives. Every pattern symbolized health, economic status, marital status, social practices, culture, and much more. Palestinian embroidery was originally hand-stitched fabrics made from linen, cotton, wool, or silk. Although the clothing was woven in areas all over Palestine, all materials were imported from Syria. 

Palestinian embroidery is multifaceted. Despite being such a small territory, Palestinian embroidery designs differ across all regions of the country. Each design represents certain characteristics and motifs that are practiced within every village and city of Palestine. For example, embroidery from the city of Jaffa has designs representing water and oranges because the city is located near the sea and is home to the unique Jaffa orange. The dress also symbolizes the trees that women planted all around their farms. Palestinian embroidery from Bethlehem resembles styles from Turkey, Greece, and Persia and uses a different technique called couching embroidery. 

Political Significance of Palestinian Embroidery 

Over the years as Palestinian refugees have increased, Palestinian women found themselves in need of employment to support their families. Tatreez helped Palestinian women make money as they opened up Palestinian embroidery studios and shops. In the midst of Israel’s military occupation, tatreez gives Palestinian women an opportunity to pass down the Palestinian tradition and it is a form of female empowerment. 

Palestinian Embroidery has become a symbol of political resistance. Palestinian embroidery designs, especially Keffiyehs, is a reference to the Palestinian identity. It is very common to see Palestinians wear Keffiyehs and Palestinian embroidered clothing during protests. Such clothing is an important political statement because it is the most popular form to express Palestinian existence. 

Due to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, many see Palestinians solely as refugees and Palestine as a military-occupied territory; however, Palestine was once a country full of its own history and heritage. The importance of adding traditional embroidery to UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage List is to preserve the existence of the Palestinian heritage and identity in the face of Israel’s attempt to erase Palestine’s existence and ethnicity. 

“What is important about Palestinian embroidery is that we do not just simply see it as beautiful or decorative, but rather something that can tell us about Palestinian history, endurance, and longevity not just in the past, but also very much in the present and in the future.”

– UNESCO: The art of embroidery in Palestine, practices, skills, knowledge and rituals

Maha Saca an expert on Palestinan embroidery and passoinate about preserving the heritage of Palestine was interviewed by CNN regarding UNESCO’s inclusion of Palestinian embroidery to its Intangile Cultural Hertiage List.

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