Costumes, Endangered Culture
by Jane Adas
The Washington Report on Middle
East Affairs, August 2002
The seed for what would become the Palestine
Heritage Foundation was planted in 1985 when Hanan and Farah Munayyer bought a
traditional embroidered Palestinian dress in Jerusalem. Because the dress was
torn, Hanan intended to make the embroidered part into a pillow cover. Farah
stopped her, saying "you're cutting up our culture."
Ironically, neither Hanan as a child in Haifa, nor
Farah, who was born in Jaffa and grew up in Lydda, had seen many women wearing
Palestinian embroidery. Village women still dressed traditionally, but the
Munayyer's parents were of the generation for whom being modern and advanced
meant dressing in European style. "In the 1930s and '40s," Hanan said,
was a disconnect between city dwellers and their grandparents."
Farah remembers the first time he saw a woman in an
embroidered dress. After the Israelis expelled the population of Lydda,
Palestinians remaining in the area were confined in a ghetto area outside the
There Farah, then a child of 10, met Um Zwayed, a Bedouin woman who wore a
black embroidered dress. Although such a style of dress was considered backward
by the displaced townspeople, Farah says he now realizes that the women who
embroidered the dresses wrote the history of Palestinian culture with their
needles. Randa Munayyer in Beit Dajan dress, Jaffa region.
Since acquiring that first dress, the Munayyers have
learned much about their cultural history. The continuity from
ancient times is very clear, Hanan observed. Some of the embroidery patterns date back to the
Canaanite period and are also preserved in
architecture and on sculptures. Each
Palestinian dress is cut in the same A-line style, similar to what was called
in antiquity the "Syrian tunic." The cut reflects no Ottoman
influence, where the style is multi- layered befitting Turkey's colder climate. And unlike European dress, where styles changed constantly even within a
single era, the Palestinian cut has remained constant for at least a thousand years.
Variety is expressed in the choice of fabric, colors,
belts, embroidery design, and the style of head scarf and headdress. Each
Palestinian village developed a unique combination of these elements that became a badge of
its identity. The costumes prove, moreover, that geographical area rather than religion was the
distinguishing factor. In Bethlehem, for instance, the traditional style of
dress for Christian and Muslim women is identical.
Christmas card from Joseph Munayyer (Farah's father) to Rolla Foley
The Munayyer's collection took a leap forward in
1987, when the couple took a home equity loan, and bought the entire collection of
more than 65 traditional dresses from a Jerusalem antique dealer. Three
years later, through a series of coincidences their collection came to be virtually completed
Their friend, Joseph Qutub, President of ASAI (Arab
Student Aid International), told them about a music teacher he had as a student
in the 1940s at the Friend's School in Ramallah. Rolla Foley, an American
Quaker, taught in Palestine from 1938 to 1946. While there, with the help of Ellen
Scott another American, , he collected nearly a
hundred complete Palestinian and Syrian costumes, some dating back to 1850. Foley fully
documented each dress by village. In addition, he owned several hundred slides
and collected water colors of Jerusalem in the 1940s.
As an example of how remarkable Foley's collection
is, it contains fifteen Bethlehem wedding headdresses, five of them still with
their original coins.
When a Palestinian woman married both her family and
gave her coins, which were stitched into an intricate headdress. This money was
hers alone, for her own protection. When she died, the coins were generally
removed and distributed to her daughters. Therefore, very few headdresses remain
with the coins still on them.
PHF Co-Founders Farah and Hanan Munayyer.
Foley's interest in Palestine continued after he
returned to the United States. He arranged scholarships for more than 30 Palestinian students to study in the
U.S. -among them Joseph Qutub- and
he opened a small museum in Oakland, Illinois. The museum did not survive
Foley's death in 1970 and his widow, Ulla, inherited both his and Ellen Scott's
collection. When Qutub introduced the Munayyers to Ulla Foley, she decided that
her husband's collection should be joined with theirs.
The transfer occurred gradually, over eight years,
as Mrs. Foley sorted through the costumes and other items. Then in 1998 she
telephoned Farah to say she had found a miracle. Among her husband's papers was
a 1953 Christmas card addressed to Rolla Foley in Illinois from a Joseph
Munayyer and did Farah recognize the name? It was Farah's father. The Christmas
card is a map of Palestine, but posted with Israeli stamps.
A few months later Ulla Foley rang to ask if Farah knew a
Henriette Abboud. She was Farah's mother. Farah learned that in the early 1940s
Rolla came to Jaffa to give music lessons at a school where Farah's Aunt Alice
was headmistress. Rolla stayed with the family on those occasions. In 1952 Rolla
returned to the region for an extended visit. By then, as was usual with
Palestinian families after 1948, the Abbouds were dispersed. Rolla visited Alice
in Egypt. Because he was traveling from there to what had been Palestine, Alice
asked him to look up her sister Henriette in Lydda, since she herself could not
do so. In Lydda Rolla stayed with Henriette and her husband, Joseph, who sent the
Christmas card the following year.
From this Farah learned that he had most certainly
met Rolla Foley twice, once when a baby and again at the age of 11. In looking over the programs for choir concerts at the Friends School,
Hanan discovered that Rolla had taught her cousin Nadia.
With the most complete collection of Palestinian
traditional costumes in existence, the Munayyers founded the Palestine Heritage
Foundation in 1992 to preserve Palestinian arts and crafts and to educate people
about Palestinian culture. To that end they have produced a video,
"Palestinian Costumes and Embroidery: A Precious Legacy" and publish a
biannual newsletter, "Heritage." In 1998 the American-Arab
Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) gave its Cultural and Heritage Award to the
Foundation. In turn, every three years the Palestine Heritage Foundation holds a
banquet, complete with costume show and music, at which it recognizes important
contributions toward preserving Palestinian identity. Honorees thus far have
been Sister Jane Frances, president and CEO of St. Joseph Hospital
Center in Paterson, NJ, and Professors Edward Said and Walid Kkhalidi (see
June/July Washington Report, p. 64).
Antique Bethlehem "Shatweh"
The Munayyers exhibit their collection and lecture
about the costumes in museums, schools, and libraries across the country with
what Hanan describes as a "traveling museum." At such venues such as the
United Nations in New York, Harvard University and the Fuller Museum in Boston,
the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., the Mingei Museum of Folk Art in La
Jolla, California, and even the Military Academy at West Point, the Munayyers
have provided the public with an opportunity to see Palestinian culture in a
very different light than what is typically presented in mainstream media and
The name "Palestinian" often
scares people, commented Hanan . They prefer "Holy Land" or "Middle East".
She even arrived at one New Jersey school to find the exhibit entitled
"Costumes of Israel." Every time, Hanan says, she must persuade her
host to retain
the name "Palestinian Costumes.".
The Munayyer collection represents much more than
just antique dresses themselves. It is an attempt to preserve and honor an
entire culture currently under threat of destruction, and to document its history
before the Israelis obliterate Palestinian heritage. Every time the political situation gets to them,
Hanan said, they recover a feeling of
normality and belonging when they work with the embroidery.
Hanan and Farah have long dreamed of establishing a
permanent museum dedicated to Palestinian culture. Two things stand in the way
of its immediate fulfillment. The first isobtaining funding. The second is that
neither Hanan, a microbiologist, nor Farah, a research pharmacist, is yet
retired. Given the couple's determination and what they have accomplished so far while being fully employed and raising a family, however, it can only be a
matter of time.
The Palestinian Heritage Foundation Web site can be
visited at < www.palestineheritage.org>; its e-mail address is <PALHERF@aol.com>.