Arab embroidery is an art that is strictly linked to the female domain. It's not just a traditional form of dress decoration, but an icon that reflects the woman's identity passed down from mother to daughter for generations.
In the past, traditional embroidery was distinguished by its rich colours, enchanting silk fabrics, golden threads, its geometric patterns and unique motifs that symbolized stories of women and their surroundings, their identity and their position in society.
With the advent of modernity, the Middle East witnessed significant changes, which brought dramatic transformations to Arab culture and its identity. Globalization, modernization, war and displacement of people are the major factors of the loss of traditional culture, collective memory and the obliteration of traditional practices and cultural intricacies. All these are factors that with the passing of time, made me reflect and therefore decide to study and document many aspects of my culture with the intent to preserve and share it with other people.
One of these projects is the embroidered traditional female dress. The reasons behind this choice is the fact that, since my childhood, embroidery played an import role in my daily life. I used to embroider along with my mother, sisters and neighbours. We used to embroider cushions, table runners and many other small pieces. It was a moment of female gathering and storytelling. Now that I am an adult, whenever I embroider or talk about embroidery I instantly go back in time to those beautiful moments and my home land, and I cannot but think about the extent of loss embroidery faces on a daily basis.
At my last exhibition at Caploc in Capelle a/d IJssel (near Rotterdam) in August 2019, I had the pleasure to talk to many Arab women living in Rotterdam. They instinctively got emotional and cried when they saw my embroidered dresses. It was so touching to see how embroidery made them go back in time to Syria, to those beautiful memories before the war and displacement. They talked about those lost memories with nostalgia and the embroidered dress became a sort of photograph that reminded them of their past, their homeland, and all those traditions that were lost due to war.
The exhibition at Caploc made me reflect about how I could help these women to approach or bring back what was lost and how to help ease their solitude as refugees in the diaspora.
As a result, I decided to act on that emotional experience and try to create an embroidery project that aims to bring in as many different women from Capelle a/d IJssel as possible.
Hence, I proposed the project to the Municipality hoping to find support and approval and to my great surprise, the project was accepted with great enthusiasm and fully funded.
Geared up with enthusiasm and determination, on the 17th January 2020 I started treaching my first lesson of Arab embroidery. Many women from different Arab countries took part. Most of them were Syrian, Palestinian, Jordanian, Iraqi, Lebanese, Yemeni and Somali; a melting pot of cultural heritage to talk about and from which to learn.
The primary purpose of this project is to talk about the classic cross-stitch patterns that are common to Syria and Palestine, and at the same time highlight the other embroidery forms of stitches that are used in neighbouring Arab countries. I want to explain the meaning of every motif that women used to cross-stitch and to stress the importance of understanding it because it’s part of the our Arab national identity and cultural heritage.
The main challenge in this process was to try and find any Syrian embroidery patterns and in some way, create a sort of parallelism with the richly documented patterns found in Palestinian dresses.
Unfortunately little is known about the Syrian embroidery. However two people, Dr. Gillian Vogelsang-Eastwood of the Textile Research Centre in Leiden, The Netherlands, and Salua Qitan from the Tiraz Centre: the Widad Kawar Home for Arab Dress & Textile Museum in Amman, Jordan, were of enormous assistance. Thanks to their support and knowledge I was able to make it possible for the Syrian women to embroider their personal motifs, such as the Cypress tree and Palm trees from the Al-Sukhna area in Syria.
More than ten women come to the workshop and most of them had zero experience in embroidery. In less than six lessons most of them now are capable to embroider basic cross stitch motifs and it’s very amusing to see how they challenge each other on how many motifs they can stitch in a week at home.
During the lessons and while we embroider, we often listen to Fairuz, Om Kaltum or various other classical Arab singers. We talk about food or share beautiful memories about Syria, Iraq, Palestine, Yemen and the way these countries used to be before all the major upheavals. The women feel safe, protected and happy to be together.
What these women teach me is that, regardless of what they have gone through, the traumas, and the struggle to get to the Netherlands as refugees, their hopes and spirits are high and whoever goes by our class room can hear their laughter and song.
But we also talk about embroidery in present terms. Embroidery can be regarded as a tool of empowerment and economic independence. During the lessons I often give examples of successful women, organizations and fashion designers that use this beautiful skill as a tool for empowerment and self independence. Inaash, a Lebanese organization with more than fifty years of history in embroidery training and empowering of more than two thousand women in refugee camps across Lebanon, produces some of the finest quality handmade embroidered products in all of the Middle East. Another example is Taqa, an atelier that embraces the rich Palestinian and Middle Eastern heritage with a modern touch, to create unique pieces for contemporary women's dresses, etc, etc. Learning this beautiful skill in a professional way could be a means to gain financial independence, by creating personal embroidered products and sale them to the market.
I would like to end by saying that I find it very important to keep alive this extraordinary handcraft in order to pass it down to the future generations that live in the Netherlands. Preserving it means keeping alive traditional culture and heritage, reinforcing their connection with the lost homeland and at the same time it represents an act of community building and women aggregation and empowerment.
The author of this blog, published on 21st February 2020, is Fatima Abbadi. She is an Italian – Jordanian/ Palestinian photographer, embroiderer and collector of Jordanian and Palestinian traditional dresses. She grew up between Abu Dhabi (U.A.E) and Jordan, and in 1997 moved to Italy in for her university studies and where she lived until 2019 before moving to the Netherlands in March 2019 along with her husband and two children. "My love for my roots encouraged me to carry out research in the field of photography as well as in that of traditional dress.