Women in Egypt's Sinai bring Bedouin embroidery to coronavirus fight
In El-Arish, the provincial capital of Egypt's North Sinai, a group of women sew colourful Bedouin designs on masks to combat coronavirus, as an insurgency simmers in their restive region.
"I learnt how to embroider when I was a young girl watching my mother," homemaker Naglaa Mohammed, 36, told journalists on a landline from El-Arish, as mobile phone links are often disrupted.
A versatile embroiderer, she also beads garments and crafts rings and bracelets. Now with the pandemic, she has been designing face masks showcasing her Bedouin heritage.
Embroidering for emancipation in Palestine
A decorative cloth for some, a sign of resistance for others. All the aspects of "tatreez" come to light in Fatima Abbadi's latest photo series. By Jan Tomes
Three thousand years of women's history on a dress: "tatreez" is an Arabic word for a unique style of Palestinian cross-stitch embroidery. Distinguished by rich colours and textures, it originated in the Middle East some 3,000 years ago. As photographer Fatima Abbadi explains, the craft has always been exclusively a women's territory and it's been passed down from mothers to daughters like family recipes influenced by each generation
A coded language: for Palestinian women, tatreez is not just a pastime and decoration. It consists of hundreds of symbols; their variations convey anything from the wearer's social, health and marital status to her current mood. A blue pattern, for instance, reports about woman's widowhood, while red crosses inform the surroundings that the mourning period has ended
Clothes can feed a family: the patterns differ from region to region and their legacy is not treasured only by museums. In the past, many families set aside such attires and sold parts of them in times of crisis. A sleeve might have been enough for emergency treatment and the entire garment could have provided for a child's education. "Those are memories that come to life with each embroidered dress," says Abbadi
From refugee camps to the whole world: with the displacement of Palestinians during the 20th century, tatreez gained a political dimension – it is often the only source of income for women living in refugee camps. Programmes such as "Darzah" or the EU-funded "Tatreez" help them set up studios and develop and export products to the West. They also learn how to build and maintain a business, an important skill to achieve emancipation
How to make a tradition fashionable: in order to succeed on the international market, however, tatreez must be trendy and contemporary, which is why young fashion designers add new colours and even embroider European garments. Thanks to the brands such as All Things Mochi or SEP Jordan, which operates from a refugee camp in Gaza, tatreez is now stocked by high-end retailers and even made an appearance in Vogue
On the brink of extinction: such initiatives help Palestinian women support their families and improve the quality of life in the camps but also ensure that the art does not disappear due to the current harsh economic, social and political situation in Palestine. After all, tatreez is a symbol of national identity first and foremost. "The embroidery always appears during holidays, weddings or festivals," describes Abbadi
Stories of an endangered art: still, it is difficult to keep the tradition alive in the reality of diaspora. "My project aims to document the current state of the craft in an attempt to preserve it for future generations," says Abbadi. And she is not alone: The book "Tatreez & Tea" from 2016 also focused on its heritage and tatreez even made it to galleries in the U.S. thanks to contemporary artists such as Jordan Nassar
Bedouins are nomadic tribes who traditionally inhabit desert areas throughout the Arab world, from North Africa to Iraq. Many have now integrated into a more urban lifestyle.
Egypt's Bedouin textile tradition of tatriz – weaving and beading rich geometric and abstract designs on garments, cushions and purses – has been passed down from generation to generation for centuries.
It has survived in the Sinai Peninsula, whose north has been plagued by years of militant activity and terror attacks spearheaded by a local affiliate of the Islamic State (IS) group.
Security forces have been locked in a battle to quell an insurgency in the Sinai that intensified after the military's 2013 ousting of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi.
In February 2018, authorities launched a nationwide operation against militants, focusing on North Sinai. Around 970 suspected militants have since been killed in the region along with dozens of security personnel, according to official figures. Local and international media are banned from entering heavily militarised North Sinai.
But for Amany Gharib, who founded the El-Fayrouz Association in El-Arish in 2010, the violence has not dissuaded her from keeping Bedouin heritage alive while at the same time empowering local women.
She now employs around 550 women like Mohammed – many of them casually or part-time – as part of a textiles workshop.
"The masks are composed of two layers – one inner layer directly on the face which is disinfected, and the colourful, beaded one outside," Gharib explained to journalists.
All the women take the necessary precautions while working, including wearing gloves and masks while using sewing machines.
The finished products are washed, packed and shipped off to distribution centres in Cairo, where they are sold online in partnership with Jumia – Africa's e-commerce giant – for about 40 pounds ($2.50) each.
The beading process takes about two days for each mask, Gharib said.
Amid the volatile security situation, Mohammed has been able to eke out a meagre living with her embroidery skills. "We work and are given our dues depending on the orders we get... with the masks it has been a new challenge we've tackled," she said.
Dire economic conditions in Egypt have been even tougher for women of the Sinai since the pandemic began. "Times are really tough for the women but we have adjusted," Gharib said.
And while militant attacks on security checkpoints have continued, Gharib expressed confidence in the army. "We feel a sense of security and stability with the military presence. We trust them," she said.
The region witnessed the deadliest terror attack in Egypt's modern history when militants killed more than 300 worshippers in a mosque in November 2017.
Gharib said that in North Sinai's tight-knit community, each family knew someone who had been killed in an attack.
"Anyone of us who is killed, we consider them a martyr," she said. "We are in a war with terror... but the people have learnt to live with it." (AFP)