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'It's very me': NASA engineer celebrates Palestinian heritage in viral photo

Nujoud Merancy's decision to wear Palestinian tatreez in NASA headshot was inspired by Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, she tells MEE
Nujoud Merancy wore a blazer embroidered with a Palestinian design in her new NASA work photo (NASA headshot)
By Sheren Khalel in Washington

When Nujoud Merancy posed for her new NASA headshot, she had no idea the Palestinian-inspired blazer she was wearing would garner global attention.

Based out of the agency's space centre in Houston, Texas, Merancy is one of the leaders on the Orion spacecraft programme, which as part of the 2024 Artemis mission plans to send the first woman to the moon.

The project's goals are monumental, as it also seeks to build a sustainable presence on the moon's surface - and send the first astronaut to Mars.

But last week it was Merancy's Palestinian heritage that stole the spotlight.

'I'm so incredibly proud of Nujoud Merancy and her work in expanding what's possible when it comes to our space programme' 

- Rashida Tlaib, US congresswoman

Merancy posted her new NASA headshot on Twitter, side-by-side with one from four years ago.

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She made no mention of the Palestinian embroidery known as tatreez that lined the lapel of her blazer - but people quickly took note.

"You guys, I thought like 30 people would like my pic and maybe a few would 'get' what was on my jacket. I am overwhelmed by all the love coming in. Thank you," Merancy tweeted the following day, after her photo had been shared thousands of times.

Merancy said she had the blazer specially tailored after Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, the first Palestinian-American woman in Congress, wore her own Palestinian thobe - a gown embroidered with traditional Palestinian stitching - to her swearing-in ceremony in January.

"I had the idea, and when I was looking around online I was actually surprised I couldn't find anything that was a style of clothing I would wear with the tatreez," Merancy told Middle East Eye on the sidelines of the 70th International Astronautical Congress in Washington on Thursday.

"Blazers are my day-to-day wear, and tatreez is day-to-day wear in the Middle East, so I just thought, 'why can't I have something on my day-to-day clothing?'"

Congresswoman Tlaib's choice to wear a thobe during her swearing-in was also popular among members of the Arab-American community, inspiring the hashtag #TweetYourThobe for months afterwards.

"I'm so incredibly proud of Nujoud Merancy and her work in expanding what's possible when it comes to our space programme," Tlaib told MEE in an email, after learning she was the inspiration for Merancy's design. 

"The Palestinian embroidery is strongly connected with our mothers, grandmothers and so many before us. It is part of our rich culture that is rooted in strength and pride," she said.

Merancy bought the tatreez design, originally embroidered on a thobe similar to Tlaib's, during a trip to see her family in Nazareth, a large Palestinian city in the north of Israel.  

When she got home to Houston, she said she had the blazer custom-made as a way to honour her heritage in a way that represented both her cultures.

"I have a mixed background and heritage, so for me it was mixing my cultures - so it's very 'me' more than anything else," Merancy told MEE.

"I'm expecting that I won't be the only one with the tatreez blazer for long," she added, laughing. 

Following her dreams

Merancy was born in the pacific northwest of the US to an American mother and a Palestinian father. 

"As a kid, you're blending the cultures - you see both cultures and it's hard to then figure out your place," she said.

As an adult, she said that mixing of cultures has become much easier, as she makes friends and connects with people across the country with similar experiences and works with the international space programme.

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"This is where social media is awesome ... There's a lot of people like me, it's just that we're so spread out."

Merancy said she decided in elementary school that she would one day work for NASA.

Today, she is in a top role as the mission planning and analysis lead for the Orion spacecraft.

"Me going into aerospace engineering, specifically on human space flight, was always my dream goal and the fact that I hit it right out of college was pretty amazing," she said.

But it wasn't all science growing up.

When she was a child, she made frequent summer trips to Nazareth to see her dad's side of the family. Her relatives are the ancestrial caretakers of Nazareth's oldest Muslim house of worship, the White Mosque, built in 1804.

"My family has been there for centuries. My uncle is the current caretaker [of the mosque], but it's been passed down through the generations, through the family of the caretakers," Merancy explained. 

She said her family in Palestine and the US have been incredibly supportive of her career.

And now, she said she hopes to inspire other young girls and boys across the world to reach for the stars.

"Everyone loves it. NASA is pretty easy to love: it's dreams - it's space exploration."

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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