Continuing a pilot effort initiated for a few weeks in Spring 2012 by Patricia Ryan, Chair of the ESOL program at Northeast High School, and Hazami Sayed, executive director at Al-Bustan, we resumed a weekly club for Arab girls in November 2013 at Northeast High School (NEHS). The Arab Girls Club brings together Arab girls of different backgrounds to participate in hands-on art-making while sharing stories and building community.
The students are learning the Palestinian art of tatreez, a traditional cross-stitch embroidery technique that is still popular today. Embroidered clothing and accessories in Palestine date back to the 8th century when artisans began producing fine needles. Initially practiced in rural communities, tatreez patterns can be traced back to their town of origin by key recognizable symbols related to the place of ancestry or residence. Traditionally atreez was practiced by girls as young as seven, who were taught by their grandmothers, who were taught by their grandmothers and so on. While modern designs are influenced by Western patterns, the craft continues on as a reminder of Palestinian history and culture.
Local Palestinian tatreez artist, Nuha Farroukh, is leading the workshop at NEHS. Originally from the city of Hebron, Farroukh is skilled in a wide range of embroidery and finishing techniques. The primary language spoken in the class is Arabic but instruction is given in English as well for girls who don’t speak Arabic in their homes. Farroukh talks about the first sessions, “I want to teach the girls to make many beautiful pieces that reflect the history of Palestinian culture, but they have to start with a simple beginning.” From holding the material properly to making a single line out of x stitches (referred to as, “turza”), making a simple pattern is easier said than done. Fortunately, Farroukh is patient and encouraging and the girls respond well to her instruction… so well, in fact, that after the first class more girls are joining the group and returning girls are bringing in photos of embroidery work done by their mothers, asking for material and thread to take home so they can practice.
When Farroukh isn’t giving verbal instruction, she’s listening to conversations and observing social interaction. The girls get to know each other by talking while stitching, and conversation ranges from who has what teacher in what class to whether or not the women in their families do needlework craft. Girls who aren’t from the Levant may not be familiar with tatreez and comment on what they’ve heard and relate it to their own cultural experience. “One girl was talking about weddings,” Farroukh said, “She had heard that Palestinian weddings are large and very expensive. Then the girls began discussing the different dresses and traditions of weddings where they were from.”
By the last class before the winter break, most of the girls want to take material and thread home to practice tatreez while they’re at home. Farroukh is pleased with the interest, “I want this to be a fun time for them here in the school and it’s great to see that they are even thinking about tatreez when they go home.” TatreezThe class continues through the spring semester, and Farroukh plans to go into depth each week about the history surrounding the patterns and the Palestinian towns they are from. “It is important to communicate this history,” she says, “and I’m looking forward to seeing the girls improve in their skills and make things they are proud of.”
Lisa Volta, who is the Education Coordinator with Al-Bustan, is overseeing the Arab Girls Club and working with Farroukh, planning lessons and participating in the tatreez class while documenting the process. She talks about her experience in the class, “Working with Nuha has been great. This is my first time to do tatreez. I’m helping guide the class while learning alongside the girls. It’s wonderful to see so much positive response in such a short period of time and I’m looking forward to the months and (hopefully) years to come.”