She’s weaving home: Helping refugees keep the tradition of tatreez alive

81 Designs' recreations of Hassan Hajjaj's works tatreez on canvas. (Supplied)
Updated 22 November 2018
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She’s weaving home: Helping refugees keep the tradition of tatreez alive

  • Moroccan pop artist, photographer and designer Hassan Hajjaj headed to the Palestinian refugee camp in southern Lebanon to meet with the working women of 81 Designs
  • The women were recreating 14 pieces from Hajjaj’s “Graffix from the Souk” collection using a traditional cross-stitch technique called tatreez

DUBAI: In January this year the London-based Moroccan pop artist, photographer and designer Hassan Hajjaj headed to the Palestinian refugee camp of Ain al-Hilweh in southern Lebanon. He was there to meet a group of women working with the UAE-based social enterprise 81 Designs.

“It was quite intense,” says Hajjaj, recalling his visit to Lebanon’s largest Palestinian camp. “It reminded me of places in Tangier where I used to live. My parents lived in a shantytown with no electricity and no water, so I kind of understood that. There was a similarity. And the women kind of reminded me of my auntie — the way they dress, the cultural side of things, you know? It really took me back to something familiar.

“But at the same time it was shocking, in the sense that I’ve only seen refugee camps on TV. It was a real eye-opener. Not only the place, the women too. There was a nice human connection between everybody.”

The women were recreating 14 pieces from Hajjaj’s “Graffix from the Souk” collection using a traditional cross-stitch technique called tatreez. The collection, spearheaded by 81 Designs and the mother-and-daughter team behind it — Nesrine El-Tibi Maalouf and Nadine Maalouf — was shown for the first time at Art Dubai in March.

Now 81 Designs has collaborated with the Beirut-based surface fabrication studio Bokja as part of Abu Dhabi Art, with five female totems created for an installation called “Standing Tall.” Each totem, which can be dismantled into six-to-eight poufs, is being sold for $8,000. A further 100 fragments that can be worn as scarfs are being sold for $500 apiece. The money will go towards paying and empowering as many skilled female artisan refugees as possible.

“It’s been so insane in the run-up to this week, but it’s been such a great ride,” says Nadine, the co-founder of 81 Designs, which was created to preserve the art of tatreez and “to bring art and humanity together.”

“Tatreez is a folk art that’s been around for centuries, but the way it’s always been captured has been quite commercial, in the sense that it’s always been traditional garments, pillowcases or small objects. It hasn’t been given a wider platform.

“So (we thought) why not give it that platform and be able to modernize it? Let these ladies showcase their creativity. To be able to modernize it through design is something that I’m passionate about.”

The Bokja collection is 81 Designs’ third artist collaboration after Hajjaj and the French-Tunisian street artist eL Seed, who kick started the 81 Designs initiative at Art Dubai in 2017. During Dubai Design Week earlier this month, the social enterprise also hosted interactive tatreez workshops as part of a collaboration with Facebook. The founders had been working on 81 Designs for two years prior to its official launch.

“It was very challenging in the beginning,” admits Maalouf. “First of all, we needed the right ladies to work with, and when approached different NGOs in Lebanon they thought the idea was just ridiculous. They said our idea was too abstract and they couldn’t really visualize it the way I was seeing things. But we got lucky when someone from one of the NGOs reached out to us and connected us to the women. So, we were fortunate in that aspect.

“They’ve had a lot of hardships in the camp that they live in,” says Maalouf. “Sometimes it’s quite volatile and it’s difficult for them to leave — it’s almost like they’re quarantined there. And obviously they buy their material from outside. So those are the challenges.

“But we’re taking it one step at a time. We just hope to work with people who share the same vision as us. That’s the most important aspect to partnering up with anybody: (finding) somebody who wants to give back and who has the same passion about working with the women that we do.”


Oscars 2019: Arab nominees at the 91st Academy Awards

Updated 23 February 2019
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Oscars 2019: Arab nominees at the 91st Academy Awards

DUBAI: The Oscars countdown is almost over - both fans and critics have already locked in their favorites over who will take home this year’s trophies.

It is a particularly exciting season for Arabs and Muslims, as a few Oscar contenders are set to make history for the region. 

Rami Malek for Best Actor

It would be a big upset if Rami Malek does not win the coveted Best Actor trophy on Feb. 24, as his epic transformation into rock legend Freddie Mercury in “Bohemian Rhapsody” has been recognized in every awards show preceding the 91st Academy Awards: The Golden Globes, the BAFTAs and SAG.

Born to immigrant parents, the Egyptian American is poised to make history as the first actor of Arab descent to clinch the top acting prize at the Oscars, seen as one of the highest recognitions in the field. In 2016, he scored an Emmy for his performance in the hit TV show “Mr. Robot.”

Mahershala Ali for Best Supporting Actor

A frontrunner for Best Supporting Actor, Mahershala Ali is heading strong into the Oscars with multiple wins on his resume for his role in the historical dramedy “Green Book.”

The 44-year-old made headlines in 2017 when he became the first Muslim to win Best Supporting Actor at the Oscars in its 91-year history. Ali could replicate this success this year.

Capernaum for Best Foreign Film

Oprah Winfrey, a voting member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, has said Nadine Labaki’s “Capernaum,” nominated for Best Foreign Language Film, is a must-see.

Ever since the Lebanese drama won the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival, more and more people, including colleagues in the film industry, have been praising Labaki’s work.

But it is going to be an uphill battle as her film competes with Alfonso Cuaron’s “Roma,” which has won all foreign-language film recognitions ahead of the Oscars.

Of Father and Sons for Best Documentary Feature

Berlin-based Syrian director Talal Derki took it to a different level when he lived with a Daesh family to shoot his award-winning documentary “Of Father and Sons,” which depicts radicalization from a very personal viewpoint, and is nominated for Best Documentary Feature.

But the courageous Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner is up against a tough bunch, including fan favorite “RBG,” which documents the life of US Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, a living legend in American law.

Critics have also placed their bets on “Free Solo,” a sports documentary that depicts the athletic feat of professional rock climber Alex Hammond.