Yasmine Ziadat | March 23 2016
Noora is the founder of Taita Leila, a social enterprise based in Palestine that produces beautifully designed clothes that are made in Palestine, hand-embroidered by women in the West Bank, and sold online. Noora dardashat with Yasmine about Palestinian embroidery, Palestinian identity, and how she founded a social enterprise that makes her Taita proud.
What inspired you to launch Taita Leila?
Taita Leila is how we refer to my Taita (grandmother). I remember the name just kept coming to me whilst I was bored at work one day. I’m actually a trained Chemical Engineer, so at the time I was working in oil and gas, but I’d always wanted to do something that I felt would give back to Palestine and would also be different to what was already out there. I didn’t want something that would be just another charity or a branch off of one of the donor entities that are already over there, and Taita Leila started to develop more and more as I began thinking about it.
My Taita has always been into Tatreez (embroidery) so it was a matter of creating a social enterprise that linked to that, but was different from the rest. She knows a lot about the costumes and the heritage behind the costumes, so the idea naturally started to evolve. It was a year after I quit my job that I had managed to crowd fund $35,000, and then from there, we launched our business. Our launch was a bit delayed because the circumstances in Palestine were very intense, but it was eventually launched on my Taita’s birthday, December 16th 2015.
You refer to Taita Leila as a ‘social enterprise’, tell us about how it gives back to the Palestinian community.
Everything from A to Z is about giving back to Palestine. Our website was made in Gaza with web developers who are based there, a lot of students who work with us are from Birzeit University or An-Najah University, the fabrics are sourced and tailored in Palestine, and we literally ship all of it off from our space in Ramallah. So the idea was to have an entity that was Palestinian from beginning to end.
That’s awesome! Why do you think Palestinian embroidery is so culturally significant?
It’s about elements of identity, and this project is a cultural re-appropriation. We look into traditional dress and its significance for women of different places and tribes, and we also tell their stories in a different and powerful way. Whilst Palestinian embroidery is well known to the people who are interested in textiles, ethnography, anthropology and all that kind of stuff, to the average person it’s not something that’s fully understood. It’s a depth to our culture that a lot of people don’t necessarily get to see. So we wanted to give insight into this. We have so much history, from the Bedouins to the city folk, and all sorts of people in between. Even to this day if you’re in Ramallah in the summer time, you’ll see all the 3arayis (brides) still wearing the Thoab (traditional embroidered dress), and it’s just a normal part of life. We wanted to tell endearing stories about our culture and heritage by having these pieces of our identity physically out there circulating in the world, as opposed to just sitting in a book or in a museum.
The way you incorporate these rich historical and cultural traditions into modern day clothing is really innovative. Was this a conscious effort?
Absolutely. I think that there was also a gap in the market. It wasn’t that there weren’t brands which did modern Palestinian embroidery already, but I felt that they weren’t paying tribute to the heritage in the way that they should. A lot of people ask us whether we do our designs in more colours or different styles, especially the Ramallah piece, and I tell them no! We’re trying to preserve the context of these traditions through the way that the designs tell stories – so just no! If we do ever play around with stuff we’re very particular, and we explain why we’ve altered the designs, because it’s important.
Sometimes we have people involved in museums and textiles who see our pieces and ask ‘oh so is this pattern from Al Jaleel (Galilee)?’ and I’m like ‘Yes!’; they get our source of inspiration, and that’s the point. We’re trying to evoke images of these old styles in a way that makes them modern and wearable today, whether it’s something that you could just wear to the office, to have drinks, or whatever it is that you do!
I also love the concept of calling members of the team Grandchildren. I feel like it encompasses the importance of family in Arab culture and society.
Yes! I think this is why our branding has been so well received, not just by Arabs, but generally. I mean everybody has a Taita, right? There is an element of safety with family, so people appreciate it. The idea was just to introduce the people who we worked with and to give credit to them, because it might all look very simple, but it really does take a village. It’s the case with any entrepreneurial venture, I’m sure you understand this now with dardishi because you are just starting up. It really takes a lot of people and it’s important to thank them!
Definitely! Each piece has a very distinct style according to its place of origin. Where in Palestine are you from and what type of embroidery design is distinct to your area?
Jerusalem, I’m a city girl habibti! City folk don’t actually have a Thoab because it is traditionally worn by the fallahin (farmers), villagers and Bedouins. That’s why our Jerusalem design is very simple and kind of demure, because folk in places like Jerusalem and Nablus adopted less intricate, more modern styles. On our website we also explain this in the descriptions of the pieces.
Taita Leila not only produces clothing, but it also facilitates charitable workshops. There was one that I loved in particular, which was the ‘Bring Your Shawl’ project, in which participants embroidered shawls to gift to the women of Gaza just after the Israeli attacks in the summer of 2014. What was the response to that project?
Yes, Shahrazad, one of our ‘Grandchildren’ based in Haifa, came up with the idea. This was before we launched the clothing collection, when we were trying to find the right people to work with. She came up with the idea of giving shawls to women in Gaza after the attack. The idea was really lovely because in these situations people tend to think more about vulnerable children and injured people, and nobody really thinks about the women who have to take care of everybody. So we wanted this small gesture to be a token of appreciation for these mothers and everything they do for their communities in the most hopeless of times.
We started off with a workshop in Ramallah and there was a really good response. Even men and young boys were coming to learn how to embroider and, considering the still very prevalent traditional feminine notions around embroidery in Palestine, it was generally well received. We didn’t actually plan for the project to spread to everywhere, from Ramallah to Jerusalem, and Haifa to Gaza – it just did! It was really interesting to see that all kinds of people came and were like: “you know what, I want to give this a go!”
Considering the Israeli military occupation of Palestine, have you faced many difficulties with these projects?
Well, starting up the business in Palestine was an obstacle in itself. I think any business venture is difficult, because you’re still figuring things out. At the same time when it’s in Palestine, it’s immensely difficult because of the occupation. The hardest part about the workshop was getting our stuff to Gaza. We were trying everything – we even tried sending things with people that we knew. In the end, the Mou’assas Al-Ta3awon (the Welfare Association) took a few of our pieces from Al Daffah (the West Bank) to Gaza when they were sending batches of stuff across – but even that took six months! In attempting to reach women who live in these circumstances, we do challenge the occupation in an indirect way. The biggest obstacle to our success is, hands down, the Israeli occupation.
So before you go, would you let us know about any upcoming Taita Leila projects?
We’re aiming to release one or two collections soon. We didn’t want to reveal too much about what we were up to in our very first collection, the one that is online now, but we gave you a little hint. I think there will be more of an appreciation for the work and the research that we’ve put into this project in the new collections. That’s all I’m going to say!
Where can we find out more about Taita Leila?
Yasmine Ziadat is an undergraduate history and politics student with an interest in current affairs and sassing the patriarchy. If she’s not taking selfies or watching cat videos, you can find her exploring London in search of coffee, music and museums. You can follow her on instagram, twitter, or read her dardishi articles here.