In 2015, Wafa Ghnaim fulfilled her mother’s lifelong dream of writing a book titled Tatreez & Tea: Embroidery and Storytelling in the Palestinian Diaspora. Entailing information and visuals of Palestinian embroidery designs and traditions, since her mother had moved to the US in the early 1980’s, this creative project had been an aspiration since she was a little girl.
As an American born Palestinian businesswoman, writer and artist, born and raised in the US, Wafa Ghanaim’s family has known suffering. Her father came from Yaffa, and her mother from Safad in Palestine. They were twice displaced – first, to Damascus, Syria and then to Amman, Jordan.
A Work of Art is a Scream of Freedom
In 1979, Wafa’s parents married and moved to America.
When my parents moved to the US, my mother really struggled to adapt and became depressed. Her embroidery was a kind of therapy for her and kept her connected to her roots.
Wafa’s mother, Feryal Abbasi-Ghnaim, had 12 brothers and sisters and her grandmother kept everyone busy with embroidery crafts. When she was only 8 years old, she created her first piece. She later went on to study Art at the Damascus University and mastered the art, mentoring others in embroidery.
The tradition was passed on and Wafa and her two sisters began learning Palestinian embroidery from their mother when they were each about 2 years old, using tweezers whilst pulling waste canvas.
Weaving the magnificent Tapestry of Love and Loss…
Throughout her life Wafa has traveled alongside her mother for various exhibitions, lectures and demonstrations around the US. From folklore festivals in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to elementary schools in southeast Portland, Oregon, Wafa has assisted her mother by preparing materials for the lectures, demonstrating the craft of embroidery to audiences, and curating the exhibits.
Preserving our cultural roots was very important to my parents and my mother was adamant in wanting to continue her ancestral traditions even faraway from Palestine. In high school I wanted to fit in with American culture, but always returned to my roots.
Onwards & Upwards
Wafa was awarded a two-year apprenticeship through the Oregon Folklife Network and the University of Oregon in 1993 through to 1995 with her older sister, Fida. Throughout the apprenticeship, they assisted their mother in the completion of a Palestinian dress titled The Gardens, which was displayed in the Oregon State Capitol as “the dress of a million stitches“. Wafa also completed her own embroidered mural of the design “The Story of Cleopatra.“
Her mother earned a lifetime award from the National Endowment for the Arts as a Heritage Fellow, the highest honor you can receive in the US for your artistry and she received the medal in 2018.
Wafa has never visited her ancestral homeland but hope to one day. She has been to Syria and Jordan many times for personal, professional and academic pursuits, witnessing major events that have rippled throughout the region. From the 2003 invasion of Iraq to various Israeli invasions and wars against Palestinians in the occupied territories, to the Arab Uprisings. The last time she visited Damascus was February 11, 2011, the day that former President of Egypt, Hosni Mubarak, resigned amidst popular unrest. That day was arguably the first day of the Syrian revolution and subsequent war. These experiences were influential in her life, sparking her aspirations to preserve the oral history, storytelling and folk art of Palestine.
The book brings traditional Palestinian embroidery to life. Wafa revives its roots through this provocative and profound storytelling tool used by Palestinian women for generations to document their stories, observations and experiences – including those from her mother.
With funding from the Clackamas County Cultural Coalition, Regional Arts & Culture Council and the Brooklyn Arts Council, the first edition of the book was digitally published on Amazon, Nook and Books in November 2016. The expanded, second edition was funded by the Brooklyn Arts Council as well as numerous donors who believed in the project from its inception.
Wafa has 11,000 photographs of embroidery from her mother’s collection and would like to continue to photograph and write about embroidery. She also would like to research Palestinian families in the diaspora and collect their stories about embroidery.
I am planning on applying for a doctorate in art history in the coming years, to assert Palestinian textiles in the art history books. My purpose is to keep tatreez alive, in the history books, in our minds, in our closets and most especially with our hands.
Married to an African American, Wafa explains that her and her husband have similar stories of pain and hopes that their son will grow to find himself and preserve his roots.
Ihope he continues to grow into a loving and compassionate man that knows his cultural and ethnic roots. I hope he travels the world, and especially Jordan, Syria and Palestine. I want him to know that I love and accept him always, and that while life is full of surprises, he should always know that his mother is by his side.
Born and raised in Toronto, Canada, Tanya knew that Palestine was her symbolic homeland. Always curious about her identity and connecting with her roots, she was eager to strengthen her ties to the Levant and traveled the region, desperate to learn more. It wasn’t until her first trip to Palestine that she became spiritually and emotionally connected.
She studied Political Science and Sociology at the University of Toronto. She then moved to the UAE, supporting numerous NGOs related to children’s welfare in the region. When she had her own family, she created the My Olive Roots platform in the hopes that her children and the Arabs diaspora would have a place to connect, learn and preserve their roots. Tanya enjoys discovering humanist stories and exploring the connection of food and art with culture.