Wafa Ghnaim uses traditional Tatreez crafts to preserve and share Palestinian history

Eventually, Abbasi-Ghnaim married, and in 1979 she and her husband immigrated to the United States. In Cambridge, Massachusetts, those early years, Abbasi-Ghnaim felt lonely and afraid to tell anyone that she was Arab and Muslim. But then she joined a group of women called Cambridge Women’s History Oral History Center and began teaching the tatreez to other women around the world who had come to live in Massachusetts, with her three young daughters as assistants. There, she led the women to embroider detailed tapestries with experiences from their lives. The Abbasi-Ghnaim embroidered tapestry will finally be exhibited at the 1985 United Nations World Conference on Women in Nairobi, Kenya.

Later, after the Ghnaim family moved to Oregon and their daughters became teenagers, Abbasi-Ghnaim received support from the Oregon Folklife Network to formally teach his daughters tatreez. When her daughters were little, she had started to embroider another thobe but found that she had never had time to work on it. Now that they were older she pulled the dress out of storage and walked her daughters through design, teaching them each model’s stories.

Tatreez “is unwritten language, stories transferred between woman and woman in silence,” explains Abbasi-Ghnaim. When formal literacy instruction was restricted to men, Palestinian women learned to tell their stories through embroidery. “We want to keep the stories alive.”

In 2016, when Ghnaim sat down to start writing Tatreez & Tea, the experience of embroidering with her mother over a cup of tea while learning the stories of her people was at the forefront of her mind. “I had this very strong calling to write a book that documented all the lessons she had spent her life teaching us and my sisters,” Ghnaim said. With funding from the Brooklyn Arts Council, she began photographing and researching patterns to create an oral story emphasizing the stories behind the patterns. At the time Ghnaim published Tatreez & Tea in 2018, she had been teaching tatreez classes for about a year. The same year, Abbasi-Ghnaim was appointed a national heritage scholarship holder by the National Endowment for the Arts, making her the first Palestinian woman to receive the award.

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