In 1948, during the Arab-Israeli War, Feryal Abbasi-Ghnaim fled the then Palestinian city of Safad with her family. She was two years old. They briefly settled in Damascus, in Syria, before moving to a town in the north of the country, near Aleppo. Four years later, her family moved again, this time to Amman, Jordan, where Abbasi-Ghnaim remained until 1968. She then returned to Syria, later moved back to Jordan, and finally, in 1980, emigrated to the United States with her husband.
It was, then, a nomadic early life that she led, pockmarked by violence and upheaval, which left her with a yearning to return to her homeland, a feeling that persists to this day. “We always have hope,” Abbasi-Ghnaim, who is now 73 years old, says.
“We know that this is where we come from, this is where our grandparents and great-grandparents are buried.”
To celebrate this heritage, Abbasi-Ghnaim has committed her life to the preservation of traditional Palestinian crafts such as embroidery – or “tatreez” – and tapestry. Using the skills she learnt from her mother and grandmother, Abbasi-Ghnaim stitches everything from dresses and bags to pillows and wall-hangings. With their rich colours and ancient motifs, such as snakes, flowers and trees, these pieces share something of the grandeur and solemnity of stained glass windows.
A slow and intricate process
Last month, Abbasi-Ghnaim was recognised for her devotion to this craft when she became the first Palestinian woman to be awarded a National Heritage Fellowship – and $25,000 (Dh91,800) – from the National Endowment of the Arts, an American organisation that supports traditional arts. And there is no higher accolade from the US government for such artists. “It was a shock for me,” she says. “There are so many people more deserving than me. I wasn’t expecting it all.”
She hopes the award will help to change perceptions about Palestinian people in the US. “The word ‘Palestinian’ has certain connotations among some people in America,” she says. “But once people see my work, they judge me differently. They look at me as a person, a human who has feelings like everyone else in the world.”
Making these beautiful pieces is a slow and intricate, but vital process. Abbasi-Ghnaim says that a single dress can take up to two years to complete and involves many millions of individual stitches. “The symbols have meaning,” says Abbasi-Ghnaim. “They tell stories from hundreds and hundreds of years of Palestinian history.” Without people like Abbasi-Ghnaim, these stories, along with the craft through which they are traditionally told, would be lost.
'They used the needle and the thread instead of the pen'
These embroideries are not just decorative, however. Historically, they also served a practical purpose and empowered those Palestinian women who were unable to read or write. A needle and thread provided them with a voice.
Abbasi-Ghnaim explains that a woman might embroider a pillow case with intimate details about her life. Her husband, who would not understand the symbols, would then deliver this pillow case to a woman in a different village. “It was their only form of communication,” she says. “They used the needle and the thread instead of the pen, and the fabric instead of the paper.”
To illustrate this, Abbasi-Ghnaim tells me about one of her designs, which she calls The Mother and the Daughter-in-Law. At the bottom of this tapestry, two birds, representing a mother and her daughter-in-law, face each other in harmony. Further up, however, a second image shows the birds with their backs turned to illustrate subsequent conflict in the family.
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This piece was inspired by a story Abbasi-Ghnaim heard about her grandmother, who, as a young woman, learnt about the unrest in her friend’s home only when she received a tapestry with those same two birds standing back-to-back.
Occasionally, these designs can be political, too. One of Abbasi-Ghnaim’s dresses is called The Missiles and recalls a series of works made by Palestinian women in the aftermath of the First World War. It is a pungent comment on the introduction by European ruling countries of devastating weapons into Palestine. “Life in Palestine was once very simple but when people started seeing these weapons, they understood how destructive they could be,” she says. “Men demonstrated against these weapons and some were arrested and killed. So the women started to create these designs, featuring missiles and trees upside down, as a silent demonstration.”
'A symbol of our desire to return home'
Abbasi-Ghnaim, who now lives in Milwaukie, Oregon, and has three daughters, has also used her skill with a needle to inspire others to take up traditional Palestinian crafts and to promote peace around the world. In 1965, while still a teenager in Jordan, she began teaching arts and crafts at a Palestinian refugee camp with the United Nations Relief Works Agency. She continued teaching, while studying for a degree in art and history at Damascus University, and has since led workshops and lectured across the US about her practice. In 1973, she designed the logo for Unesco’s Palestinian heritage encyclopaedia series.
One of Abbasi-Ghnaim’s most powerful pieces, though, is a tapestry called Dove of Peace, which she created in 1985 for the International Women’s Conference in Nairobi, Kenya, where her art was being displayed. It depicts a woman holding a Palestinian flag, cordoned off by barbed wire, and releasing a white dove with an envelope in its beak. Hidden in a pocket on the back of the tapestry, there is a speech, written in Arabic and English, in which Abbasi-Ghnaim calls on the women of the world to make peace their number one priority. “Why don’t we women raise our voices high and strong in the service of true peace to preserve our children and our future?” the speech reads.
These words seem particularly poignant set against the trauma of Abbasi-Ghnaim’s childhood. All these decades later, the spectre of her family’s displacement never goes away. To this day, in her kitchen hangs the key to the family home in Palestine, which they were forced to leave in 1948, believing they would return within a week when the war was over.
“It has become a symbol of our desire to return home,” she says. “It is a reminder for the next generation.” So, too, is Abbasi-Ghnaim’s extraordinary art.