Ajdadi Collective: Streetwear brand revives Gaza's heritage one tatreez stitch at a time

Founder and designer Zak Jarallah wanted to find a way to showcase his Palestinian heritage

Zak Jarallah is the founder of Ajdadi Collective, a clothing brand and social enterprise that combines Palestinian tatreez with a streetwear concept. Antonie Robertson / The National
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When Zak Jarallah started Ajdadi Collective, he wanted to connect with Palestine. Combining streetwear with the time-honoured Palestinian embroidery style tatreez, the Dubai resident collaborated with more than 70 women in Gaza. Women who dedicated their time and skills meticulously hand-embroidering the first collection for his brand.

However, since the devastating Israel-Gaza war – in which more than 30,000 Palestinians have been killed – began on October 7, Jarallah has only been able to communicate with 10 of them. The fate of the other 60 women remains unknown.

Ajdadi Collective was born in 2021 out of a desire to contribute to a meaningful cause: proudly showcasing Jarallah's Palestinian heritage while also supporting the local community. Now, those early items serve as relics. “They have emerged as survivor pieces,” he tells The National.

Reflecting on the early days of the line's inception, Jarallah explains: “I was sat on a plane flying to Saudi Arabia for a client meeting and I thought, 'I need to be doing more for Palestine through my creative outlet, my hobby'. And that's where it all came together – streetwear, embroidery, clothing brand.”

Tatreez as streetwear

Once the idea had germinated, Jarallah began exploring his creativity to see where it might take him. “I’ve always loved clothing, sneakers and fashion as well as creating stuff with my hands,” he says.

“I was experimenting, playing around with embroidery. After I embroidered my own T-shirt, I thought it would be cool to run a clothing brand with this concept of tatreez streetwear.”

It just so happens that was the same year the intricate craft was added to the Unesco Intangible Cultural Heritage list. Tatreez is a long-cherished tradition in Palestinian culture. The unique form of cross-stitch embroidery has its origins in rural settings, and has since evolved into a widespread art form among Palestinians and their diaspora.

Each village in the region has its own distinct patterns that come from carefully selected colours and incorporate symbols that reflect its geographical heritage.

Jarallah has fond memories of how both his grandmothers, who were from Jerusalem, would sit and embroider. Tatreez, he says, was a sort of celebration of their identity. For Jarallah it made perfect sense to give this long-adored tradition a modern update. Thus, Ajdadi Collective was born.

The name reflects a collective of us coming together and celebrating our unity and identity
Zak Jarallah, founder, Ajdadi Collective

Badge of honour

“In Arabic, ajdadi means ancestors. The premise of the brand is to celebrate our forefathers,” he says. “While Ajdadi is my story, it's also common to so many other Palestinians. So the full name reflects a collective of us coming together and celebrating our unity and identity.”

Spending hours hand-embroidering tatreez on sleeves with a variety of patterns on each side, Jarallah says his first shirt represented Jerusalem and Gaza. It was made with the traditional colours of red, maroon and purple, and was a tribute to his grandmothers, who taught him about the tradition.

After completing his first piece, he had one goal in mind: “I wanted to use my identity and my voice to support unamplified Palestinian lives” As Jarallah progressed with the idea, he was keen to involve Palestinian artisans. Luckily, he had a contact who introduced him to a Gazan named Maha, who ran her own embroidery line from Gaza.

After their first meeting, it took Maha and Jarallah six months to get back in touch, during which time he continued designing and embroidering his own shirts – something he says helped Maha realise he was serious about the project.

“Maha is incredibly business-savvy and sharp-minded,” he says. “She was on the ground and would go into factories for me. She'd send photos of the different fabrics, as well as help me understand if a particular fabric made sense to embroider upon.

“I design the T-shirts, but appreciating and understanding tatreez is the real story here,” Jarallah adds. “It’s the placement of the stitches, the messages you want to convey, the colours you want to combine … it's limitless. And that's a reflection of Palestine's rich history, identity and culture.”

Challenges and rewards

In theory, Jarallah sent his first three designs to be hand-embroidered by women in Gaza and received the T-shirts back in time for the Reel Palestine event at Dubai’s Cinema Akil in January 2023. However, practically speaking, he faced numerous challenges along the way.

Due to the limited supply of manufacturers and producers in Palestine, tasks are often undertaken through mass production, such as creating 50,000 uniforms at a time for civil servants, nurses or doctors, which means Jarallah’s project wasn’t a priority.

“As a small T-shirt and clothing brand, you're very low on that hierarchy list,” he says. This didn’t deter him, though, and instead he turned to working with a smaller group of people, those who might not have had the capabilities to mass-produce, but were still able to create what Jarallah had envisioned.

Maha recently sent me photos of her house being bombed and fully destroyed
Zak Jarallah

A minor setback also arose due to incorrect sizes and quality that fell just a little short of Jarallah's expectations. “The embroidery was very high-end, very high-quality. But the fabric itself and the finishing needed to step up,” he says. “It's good for Gaza’s standard, it's even good for international standards, but when you have 10 out of 10 embroidery, eight out of 10 fabric is not enough.”

The main reason for the lack of quality fabric is because of the Gaza blockade, which restricted access to specific colours and materials. Jarallah recalls a period when black fabric wasn’t available at all, resulting in the production of only white T-shirts for a time.

Successful debut

Jarallah vividly remembers the unveiling of his first collection at Reel Palestine last year, because there was such a positive outpouring for what he had created. “I was shocked by it. In that moment, I was like: ‘Whoa, this is a huge undertaking.’ I didn't expect this, I was just doing T-shirts,” he says.

While he was able to proudly display his first collection of black and white tees, what also caught the eye of many was a pair of Nike Air Force 1 shoes customised with tatreez, which Jarallah nicknamed “Tatreez Force 1s”.

The striking colour palette featured deep shades of red and maroon made up of intricate patterns, complementing the trainer’s original white and black famed Nike checkmark.

The positive feedback led Jarallah to expand the range of sizes of the unisex T-shirts, from XS for women's sizes all the way to double XL. He credits Maha and the other women in Gaza who brought with them innovative approaches that helped make Ajdadi Collective's debut a resounding success.

What could have been

Looking to his next collection, Jarallah wanted to include an all-new range of items such as sweatshirts, cargo pants and bucket hats at this year’s Reel Palestine in January. “The collection was meant to be called Eternal Capsule, to immortalise the embroidery, show how it's coming back as a symbol of Palestinian identity, and living on through Ajdadi.”

However, his hopes were dashed after the events of October 7. Jarallah says the bulk of the work had been done on the new sweatshirts and cargo pants, and a couple of samples even arrived in Dubai ahead of the event.

When you put on clothing, you have a chance to send a message
Zak Jarallah

Maha received permission to leave Gaza to attend a course in Cyprus and so was able to ship some items to Jarallah. She promised to send the rest when she returned to Gaza, having left for her course on October 5, two days before the war started.

“She could not get back into Gaza and is currently in Cairo. As for the clothes, the collection, the factories … they’re all destroyed. There was a sliver of hope that some bits were available in her house, but she recently sent me photos of her house being bombed and fully destroyed.”

What weighs even more heavily on him is hearing from just a handful of the 70 women he worked with. He has heard that at least one of them, “her name is Umm Ramy”, has been killed.

“The tag on the clothes is almost a dedication card that says: This is dedicated to the martyrdom of our brothers and sisters.”

Looking to the future

Even though all his prototypes for Eternal Capsule were destroyed, Jarallah plans to start all over again. Going forward, though, the clothing unfortunately will no longer be produced in Gaza.

“It was a point of pride to say, as a social enterprise, we're supporting the livelihoods and artisans of those in Gaza. Everything was produced there end to end, from the cutting of the fabric to machining it. Now, the machining will be done elsewhere, and the embroidery will be done in other areas of Palestine.”

Although this ties into his ethos of a collective in the sense that it brings embroiderers and wearers together and is still made in Palestine, he wishes the circumstances were better.

Reflecting on the “relics” of his early collections, he says: “The hope now is that we can continue to raise awareness.”

Jarallah adds he never intended to start Ajdadi Collective as something to profit from, and that its success comes from seeing people wearing it and having them become part of a community that shows solidarity.

“I started it for myself, when I wanted a T-shirt with embroidery that represents my identity. When you put on clothing, you have a chance to send a message. My message was my Palestinian-ness, my ancestors, my identity,” he says.

“When I started putting those T-shirts up for sale and people said: ‘Wow, this is amazing’, it was the biggest validation of success.”

Despite all that has happened, Jarallah is aiming to re-establish the brand, mirroring his belief in Gaza's resilience. “So many people have lost their lives and their livelihoods. But in the same way that Gaza will be rebuilt, Ajdadi will be rebuilt as well.”

Updated: April 02, 2024, 7:19 AM