If I could recommend you a list of movies and documentaries about the Middle East that you must watch, the award-winning documentary Grandma, A Thousand Times (Teta, Alf Marra in Arabic) would easily be in the top half of that list.
Grandma, A Thousand Times is centered around Teta Fatima, the widow of a Beirut musician, as seen through the eyes of her soon-to-wed nephew. A larger-than-life character who isn’t afraid of speaking her mind, the old woman is the custodian of family spirit, values, and traditions passed down from generation to generation.
Palestinian-born Leila Hussein Fakhri Khalidi reminds me of Teta Fatima. Perhaps driven by a similar sense of belonging to her homeland, Khalidi wrote The Art of Palestinian Embroidery, a book that chronicles the fascinating history of the Palestinian folk arts across years of war and occupation.
That feeling and want have spread down the family roots as well.
Worried that the legacy of her ancestors might end up being relegated to history books and that indigenous practices would one day disappear into oblivion, her self-proclaimed ‘proud grandchild’ Noora Husseini took quite a bold step in a direction her grandmother would be proud of. She quit a promising engineering career to embark on the unpredictable journey of entrepreneurship for a cause—a soul-searching enterprise inspired by the Palestine’s cultural heritage and named after her loving grandma.
Taita Leila, from the colloquial Arabic term for ‘grandmother’ used in the Levantine countries, with its three clothing collections, is a tribute to the diverse beauty of the Holy Land. It encompasses a rainbow of colors—red pomegranate, yellow saffron, cream latte and blue indigo—along with geometric shapes and intricate traditional motifs.
Taita Leila’s clothes breath the coastal breeze of Gaza, the old ruins of Jericho, the olive trees of Ramallah, the orange blossoms of Yaffa, and the sweet scents of Nablus, says Husseini. Each piece of Taita Leila differs from the other, she stresses. Local artisans, who work with Taita Leila, put their own spin on the old Palestinian embroidery and its traditional patterns, and re-imagine them for a more contemporary aesthetic sensibility.
“I don’t like the idea that things should be kept as they are. To stay relevant, everything needs some innovation,” says Husseini.
“When a culture is under threat, such as in Palestine, where cultural appropriation is the norm, not the exception, it’s natural that a society would want to preserve its traditions just the way they were, in what it believes is an attempt to stay ‘alive,’” she says. “Which unfortunately kills it faster. You have to keep moving!”
But who exactly are the female artisans behind Taita Leila’s tireless endeavors to re-invigorate this collective memory? I see it firsthand—gathered around a fireplace in their sun-filled rooms in the West Bank, a group of Teitas alternate a sip of golden-colored tea with a meticulous cross-stitch with their cold fingers.
“It’s natural that a society would want to preserve its traditions just the way they were, in what it believes is an attempt to stay ‘alive'”
The whole concept, Husseini explains, is to support the local economy by employing Palestinian women who hand-embroider these designs.
Since it all started, over 30 women of every stripe and color have been involved in the project, each commissioned for a set number of orders.
The women come from all over the landlocked territory of the West Bank, from villages and refugee camps alike, and have one thing in common: They all place immense value on the enduring practice of embroidery.
Very few of them, however, can be considered professional embroiderers, being mostly full-time moms and grannies who find time for this.
“Female members of the family have certain obligations they must fulfill first. In our ‘supporting the family’ concept, we work around their schedule so that they can earn a living without interrupting their daily routine, each at their own pace,” she says.
Then, they would set the prices for the labor according to a market rate, and a sizable percentage would come back to them, no matter when their work is sold.
“We provide the women with a valuable source of income and empower them to plan for their financial future in the paralysis of displacement,” she points out.
“The female unemployment rate is very high here, because of occupation on the one hand, and a strong patriarchal element on the other,” she says.
“As a first step towards true change, we want women at work to take on a new significance in the eyes of the male-dominated society.”
The past builds the future
Talking business, Husseini says that fabrics and textiles are sourced from local factories or vendors. And that they will do for now, even though she is not completely okay with what she has to work with.
“Because we have such limited resources in the Occupied Territories, embracing eco-friendly materials has been something beyond our reach,” she says, expressing high hopes to make the brand socially conscious as it moves forward.
The process of embroidering takes up to several days to complete, sometimes weeks, in what Husseini describes as an interplay of inputs. This justifies the prices, which vary from $50 for a pochette to a few hundreds dollars for an exquisitely crafted blouse.
But this also brings us to an immediate question: Who would pay what is, all things considered, a quite considerable amount of money? Husseini explains that Taita Leila’s appeal goes beyond one’s sartorial taste. The UK and the US, the two places where the startup has gained considerable traction so far, and ships to (they ship worldwide), are familiar with the contemporary concepts of economic empowerment and heritage preservation.
Customers there are more intrigued by the story behind the embroidery rather than the piece itself, and therefore readily accommodate the high costs.
“Having items made by impoverished women and knowing the struggles they go through in their daily lives are all elements that prompt customers to welcome the ‘Made in Palestine’ [products] to their wardrobe,” she urges.
When asked about whether she considers herself a philanthropist or social crusader, Husseini reveals little on her face, waiting on the right words, keenly aware of the long-term impact her startup can have on her community.
“Embroidery is a longtime emblem of the Palestinian self-determination and endangered identity. Seeing it die out is a risk we don’t want to take, we need to keep it alive. We are playing the long game here.”
Taita Leila, she takes pride in saying, has always been meant to be an enterprise rather than a charity per se.
But, yes, part of its mission is to improve the skills of female artisans, something that NGOs don’t necessarily succeed in.
“Despite the best intentions, a lot of non-governmental organizations in the region have destroyed the women’s skill levels [they tend to deliver funds regardless of the quality of the end products]. The quality of the stitching is severely insufficient,” she argues.
“It took me a long time to find women who could embroider to a standard that our clients would be pleased with. When you don’t have to push a product, when you are employing women to serve your quotas, this will happen. Hence why we had to set up a business whose products are up to a very high quality.”
Against popular opinion, the business and the mission-driven route don’t need to be necessarily mutually exclusive, she stresses. Quite the contrary, she firmly believes, a profit incentive is a perfect way to help the community capitalize on its traditional crafts and find a beacon of stability.
And this is exactly what Taita Leila is trying to do. “In Palestine, reconnecting with the cultural past is key to creating a future.”