Stealing the Towb, Palestine’s Cultural Identity

For the record, “I don’t do Facebook.” Never had the desire to do so, and will likely not do so for a long while.

I’d rather spend my time in the garden, reading books and online blogs, wood pecking on my keyboard, shooting deer with my camera, and occasionally firing up my welder to make a sculpture.

CounterPunch, Al Jazeera, Le Monde Diplomatique, and TomDispatch are favorite staples. The Gangland emails, a rich daily fount of former Colleague Johnny Wink’s poems, comments on language, linguistics, grammar, Latin and a miscellany of copious quotations and suggested reading lists is a daily feast. Mondoweiss, Informed Comment, Electronic Intifada, and Ha’aretz are noted for having the backbone to take on Israel, AIPAC and their hangers-on with hard-hitting reporting. HuffPost is OK for quick news updates, and, except for an occasional decent BBC report on art/culture, I find the BBC brexiting into a sub-standard news outlet.

On January 4, 2019, La Belle Femme shared a Facebook photograph of M., a childhood friend from my days in Jerusalem, Palestine. M., her sisters, my twin brother, and I attended the Mawardieh convent school (Arabic for Sisters of Rosary) in Jerusalem, a Catholic convent adjacent to the U.S. West Jerusalem Consulate. All the sisters were of Palestinian descent; most were kind, loving, patient, and friendly. Two 8 foot mason hewn rock walls transected by a narrow cobbled alley served as the demarcation line that segregated the convent’s nuns and school children from the consulate staff and U.S. Marines guarding the consulate.

At age 12 an older classmate pointed out a plastic balloon shaped object no doubt thrown from one of the embassy windows. This was my first encounter with condoms, and one smart aleck tried to convince us that the Marines’ protective duties extended to protecting the nuns.

From the day I left Jerusalem in April of 1959 until April of 2013, M. and I lost contact. Destiny/ fortune/ providence (in all their pregnant connotations) led us down different paths. Thanks to (and albeit through) digital technology, Clotho, the Greek Goddess whose duty it was to spin fate, spun her threads to reconnect me – 54 years later – with M. And since that pleasant 2013 spring day, I’ve been addressing M. as the Dear Friend of My Childhood Days.

In so many ways M.’s and my life have had synchronized twists and turns. Lachesis and Atropos, Clotho’s Greek Fate sisters whose responsibilities it was to draw out and cut Clotho’s spun threads to shape one’s life, fashioned our two lives in a most unique manner.

And thanks to these Moirae sisters of Fate and Destiny, M.’s life and mine have been uncannily drawn out in concurrently parallel life-changing events. Both of us emigrated to the U.S., both of us married American citizens, both of us parented two children, and both of us dedicated our lives to that noble calling, better known as the teaching profession. While she lives with her family on the West Coast, I live with my family in the American heartland.

I’ve never met a person more dedicated and more passionate about Palestine and her children living under the daily whips’ spurs of a brutal Israeli occupation. And on an almost daily basis M. forwards articles, analyses, and commentary on all aspects affecting Palestinian lives under occupation and in diaspora.


Even though Newly elected Michigan Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib was already in the crosshairs of Israeli lobbyists and the Zionist Canary Mission organization (an outfit that spies on pro-Palestinian professors and students), she wanted the world to know that the Thowb (a variation in spelling hereinafter is deliberate) she wore on the day she was sworn in was her mother’s thowb, that it was a treasured gift worn to celebrate not only her win, but also her right to celebrate everything that is American.

Worn by women, a Thowb (sometimes mistakenly called tunic, Kaftan, or robe) is an ankle-length garment with long sleeves that might flare out slightly above the wrists. While fellaheen women (village dwellers/farmers) wear Thowbs on a daily basis, town and city female dwellers wear their thowbs on special occasions, including weddings, feasts, and baptisms

Inspired by Tlaib’s bold statement, American women of Palestinian descent and their sisters around the world posted photographs of themselves in their Thobes. While most of the photographs depicted singular images, a plethora of all female family or group photos were posted. Photographs of mothers and daughters (dressed in heirloom Thowbs) of all ages evoked a sense of deep ethnic pride, and photographs of mothers and their young daughters seemed to tell the world that at long last Palestinian parents are not ashamed to tell their children, especially their daughters, that even though Palestine is living through one of the most brutal occupations it has experienced in her painful history, Palestinians have finally and begrudgingly been able to position their distinctive tesserae in the expansively rich pluralistic American mosaic.

For those enamored with statistics, as of January 1, 2019, 32 members of Congress identify as Jews, many of whom hold a dual American/Israeli citizenship. Rashida Tlaib is the very first and only member of Congress of Palestinian descent.


While The fellaheen villagers (synonymous to country folk) refer to these costumes as Thowb/s (ѲƆƄz/ ), we Palestinian city slickers call them towbe/s (tƆƄz).

The Arabic term for this cross-stitch art form is called tatreez.

What the Kimono is to Japan, the coat of arms to Medieval Europe, the African tribal markings and masks to Africans, the beads, handcrafted turquoise silver jewelry, ornate moccasins and leather tunics to native Americans, the Thowb is to Palestine and Palestinians a sacred archetypal cultural symbol of Palestinian identity. Author Susan Muaddi Darraj states the following: “Every Thobe is a dress embroidered with the stories, the loves, the tragedies of Palestinian women. The world will never be broken, because we will always stitch it back together and make it beautiful.”

In Palestinian culture the Thowb is both a collective and individual artistic expression par excellence. And each village has its distinctive tatreez motifs. The richly vibrant colors, especially the variant shades and tones of reds, greens, and browns in myriad geometric crisscross and interlacing cross-stitching tatreez defy description. And, while the statement “more is less” holds true for most artistic expressions, the abundant crisscrossing patterns are intended to be seen as an artistic fiber mosaic composition of singular and countless, richly woven independent, yet integrated shapes; while the singular shapes and patterns stand on their own, they are at the same time integrated into a larger pattern that renders the thowbs unified objets d’arte.

Perhaps the salient feature of Palestinian embroidery is its use of space, one of the most powerful elements of design. The black background serves as the negative/ground, and the embroidery is the positive. Think M.C. Escher or black and white photography.

In short, what the intricately designed ceilings of the Alhambra’s elaborate stucco expressions were to Moorish architecture, and what tessellation was to M.C. Escher, thowb embroidery is at the very heart of Palestinian cultural identity. Anyone entering a Palestinian home is likely to see embroidered sofa cushions, table cloths, serviettes, pillow cases, sheets, doilies, and wall decorations screaming Palestinian embroidery. Two such cherished embroidered sofa cushions were gifted to us by my sister.

While the making of thowbs is an individual effort, it is more often a collective, generational endeavor. Grandmothers, daughters and granddaughters (including other relatives and neighbors) spend hours embroidering their thowbes in living room or balcony settings, no doubt narrating stories of their personal lives and recounting memories; I have no doubt that the gossip of the day sneaks in during these intimate bonding events which strengthen familial bonds and anticipate/celebrate births, graduations, marriages, positive life-changing events, as well as memories of departed loved ones and the pathos of loss, diaspora, and hardships of life under Israeli occupation, in refugee camps, and in diaspora.

I distinctly remember Im Ahmad (Mother of Ahmad) riding her donkey from the Palestinian village of Beit Safafa three times a week to deliver goat milk to our Jerusalem suburban doorstep. Clad in her Thowb, she cut a dashing figure. The beautiful geometric designs along her collar and sleeves contrasted beautifully with the more subdued yet equally colorful designs on her upper torso. And the burnished, sparkly stainless steel milk canister, tucked in her makeshift burlap saddlebag, highlighted the blackness of her thowb, thus making the tatreez utter its joyful bold statement in visual delight. In short, our Ashkenazi Jewish neighbors (even though they never spoke to her or bought her non-kosher milk) marveled at the agility and colorful energy emanating from the petite sixty-five-plus-year-old woman they’d only seen in Orientalist paintings prior to setting foot on Palestinian soil.


La Belle Femme’s sharing M.’s stunningly beautiful Facebook photograph with me brought an approving smile to my face. Dressed in a beautifully embroidered ankle-length Towb, the perennially traditional Palestinian costume, I beamed with pride. On January 4, 2019, I penned the following email:

Dear [M.],

[R] shared your photo with me; dressed in your Towb, you look like a Palestinian Princess.

I’ve jotted down some ideas for a column on Rashida’s opening a political Pandora’s Box. I so wish she hadn’t made the expletive comment. The media had already set their sights on her even before her oblique Trump statement was made. My fear is that she will be defined by these words, especially since they were uttered in front of her kid.

In solidarity, Dear Friend of My Childhood Days. From way up in the skies the Palestinian sisters of The Rosary Convent School are pointing at you and ear-to-ear smiling and grinning at each other with pride and joy.

Salam, Raouf

M.’s prompt response was: “Thank you, dear Raouf! Always so positive. I very much appreciate your loyalty to our culture and our people. We must continue to educate and elucidate against such powerful detractors… Warm Salamat”


Instead of arguing for or against Congresswoman’s poor choice of using the twelve letter compound noun, I will refer the reader to two outstanding columns on the subject. “Impeach the motherf*****: Can the Subaltern curse?” by Columbia University’s Professor Hamid Dabashi, Al Jazeera, 1/7/2019, and “Rashida Tlaib and Working Class Authenticity v. Trump’s Plutocratic Pretense,” by University of Michigan Professor Juan Cole, Editor, Informed Comment, 1/7/2019.


In concluding, there is a profound point to be made.

Israelis have already appropriated Palestinian Bedouin jewelry and they are hawking these rich Arabesque designs as Israeli inventions; Pita bread, Falafel, and Baba Ghannouj are pawned off as Israeli culinary inventions; Hummus, that basic food staple of Palestinians of all classes, is marketed as a favorite Israeli dish. Some Israelis have added a new twist to Hummus’ age-old Palestinian traditional meal that can be partaken for breakfast, lunch, dinner, or at any time in between. Some washed out bible scholars are claiming to have found proof, supporting it with Old Testament texts, that prove Hummus to be an ancient Israelite invention/food staple.

Yea, sure! And Trump is a genius, a devout Christian, a man of high moral standing, an exemplary role model, and a man of impeccable character.

And the Palestinian Towbs?

An Israeli fashion designer conned four Bedouin women into designing Palestinian embroidery with many an ambiguous bait and switch promise. Soon after these original artistic cultural creations were handed over to the Israeli shyster, he stole the designs (more like theft of intellectual property protected works), and mass produced these Palestinian embroidered traditional dresses. He’s been marketing/selling them as “being authentic Israeli dresses.” El Al, Israel’s national airline, is complicit in stealing and selling these iconic Palestinian cultural expressions on their flights.

While not as egregious, Philip Weiss’ “Israeli Design Eroticizes the Palestinian Keffieh” (Mondoweiss 2/2/2016) draws attention to the use of the Palestinian keffieh in commercials depicting suggestive scantily clad women in an admixture of almost nude skirts and top wear.

While the latter could be defended as artistic fashion appropriation (sex always sells), the former is nothing short of bold Cultural theft.

I consider this to be a form of cultural genocide in an ongoing land theft and a grotesque attempt to deny Palestinians the right to self-determination, statehood, freedom, and dignity.

May all women of the world consider wearing Palestinian Thowbs in solidarity with their Palestinian Sisters.

Raouf J. Halaby is a Professor Emeritus of English and Art. He is a writer, photographer, sculptor, an avid gardener, and a peace activist.