How Palestinian refugees are reviving the ancient art of tatreez
The M.E Exchange
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How Palestinian refugees are reviving the ancient art of tatreez

Alicia Buller talks to Nadine Maalouf, founder of 81 Designs about reviving the ancient art of ‘tatreez’ to generate income for local refugees

When you think of the ancient embroidery technique of ‘tatreez’, what usually comes to mind is decorative clothing and elegant patterns on items such as pillows. But in the eyes of 81 Designs – a family-run social enterprise – it is a chance at a more comfortable and prosperous future for the female Palestinian refugee community based in the south of Lebanon.

Nadine Maalouf, alongside her mother Nesrine El Tibi, aims to supply a group of refugee artists with a monthly salary by employing them and selling their artwork in art fairs in the MENA region – a process that requires dedication and artistry.

“The work is quite detailed and it's unconventional so it takes a lot of time,” Maalouf says. “Some pieces take four months for one item.”

“We work towards the fair every year because it takes about six months to launch the project from its beginning to its end.”

Starting the company in 2015 and launching two years later at the annual UAE-based art fair ‘Art Dubai’, Maalouf and El Tibi set out to re-establish tatreez as an art form and, simultaneously, create a positive impact on a humanitarian level.

Three years later and they currently employ 20 Palestinian refugee artists and have created unique pieces that have preserved and modernised the ancient art of tatreez.

The inspiration for launching 81 Designs came to Maalouf following the birth of her first son. Having studied art direction and art history in her younger years, she worked at various jobs after graduation, but they didn’t incorporate the artistic elements that she loved when she was younger.

She says: “I developed this idea because I was doing a lot of research about traditional textiles and artistry. I kept on asking myself 'Why are we only seeing a one-dimensional form of tatreez?’”

“It is an art form so I wanted to figure out a way to recreate or give a stronger platform to these ladies to be able to sustain what they do as individuals.”

The current coronavirus pandemic has affected swathes of businesses throughout the Middle East and has caused social and economic problems for many. For 81 Designs however, it provided them with an opportunity to work on a non-profit collaboration with the Abu Dhabi Health Services on the project ‘I Am Committed’ to help tackle the effects of the virus.

“We created wristbands for people to receive at every testing site at the UAE and they were sponsored by different companies throughout the community,” says Maalouf. “The wristbands were encouraging people to get tested.”

Maalouf passionately believes that more social enterprises like hers could be created with the aim of helping others.

“When you create a social enterprise where you use someone's skillset to provide a job for them, I think that alone in itself inspires others to do the same,” she says.

“You see a lot of different social enterprises sprouting up from the region and that impact in itself is important to create a hub of opportunities for those who are less fortunate, but not treating them as a charity case because these people are amazing.”

81 Designs wasn’t always destined to be a success. Having contacted several NGOs from around Lebanon for initial funding, some of them found the idea to be too abstract and something that wouldn’t work, while others weren’t able to visualise the end product. But none of these hurdles held back Maalouf’s eventual success.

“When you set up as a business you do face challenges and you just need to keep on going. Believe in yourself. Believe that what you're actually creating can impact others in a positive way.”