Focus on Culture
By: Hanan, Farah and Maha Munayyer
Americans for Middle East Understanding
Volume 27, Issue 5, December 1994
Arab-Americans have long had to contend with a
distorted media image of Arabs. Our challenge was to find ways to define who we
are, as opposed to who others say we are.
The answer came, unexpectedly, while we were looking
for a book on Palestinian traditional costumes in a shop in Jerusalem. The shop
owner offered us a large collection of antique Palestinian costumes for sale.
That sale triggered a series of events that transformed our lives.
The awe we felt when we first viewed the astounding
beauty of that first collection inspired us to attempt to generate the same
feeling in others. We decided that a video, as an easily portable sample of our
culture, would be the best way to reach homes, libraries and community
We also decided that merely viewing these costumes
was not enough. The question of how this art had developed to such a degree of
intricacy and sophistication required an answer. Thus began a long search into
art history, archeology, interpretation of ancient symbols and patterns, and
into the history of costumes and crafts in the Middle East that spanned a period
of four thousand years, eventually influencing arts and crafts in other emerging
civilizations, such as Ottoman Turkey and medieval Europe.
Studying these enduring patterns revealed a “language,”
a script of individual motifs chosen by embroiderers whose lack of writing
skills was overcome by their ability to express their creativity through the
choice of lively patterns copied from generation to generation. This rich
repertoire of ancient patterns that survived in these traditional costumes are
as relevant a source of historical data as any archeological find.
To present this wealth of information in a
comprehensive yet appealing way, we produced a videotape in 1990 featuring our
newly-acquired collection. With the help of a professional camera crew in Los
Angeles, we filmed a show of the most valuable and beautiful costumes. Young
Arab-American women, trained by Ms. Rima Nashashibi, gracefully modeled the
costumes to the beat of contemporary Arabic music. Later that year, we
complemented the show with close-ups of the embroidery, demonstrating the
intricate detail of each piece, and explaining the significance of their
patterns and traditions. The last part of the 35-minute video offers a short
summary of the fascinating historical development of textile arts in the Arab
world. Appropriately, the title of our video was inspired by one of the project’s
main objectives: “Palestinian Costumes and Embroidery: A Precious Legacy.”
Since its production, the video has been widely
distributed to public and academic libraries, as well as to the Middle Eastern
departments of several universities. Students often display it as an example of
Arabic culture at international campus festivals and find that the brilliant
colors and music attract many viewers. Arab Student Aid International has
distributed 100 copies to libraries and Middle East Studies Departments of
colleges and universities across the country, and the Arab World Notebook: The
Secondary School Level has included it in its list of recommended resources. An
Arabic version has been shown to Palestinian audiences in Palestine, where the
response has been wonderful.
We have also performed live costume shows for
audiences ranging from several hundred at banquets such as the Ramallah
Federation’s Annual Convention in Florida to several thousand at the Arab
World Festival in Michigan and the A & S Plaza in New York City. Lectures
and displays have been presented throughout the country, including the Textile
Museum and the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee’s National
Convention in Washington, D.C., and at Harvard University in Boston. Thousands
of people viewed the elaborate recreations of a turn-of-the-century Palestinian
home that was constructed in the lobby of the United Nations building and, most
recently, at the Brooklyn Museum. Thousands more viewed the large three-month
exhibition at the Mingei International Museum of Folk Art in San Diego. At the
local level, our frequent presentations to schools, community groups, churches,
synagogues, embroidery and weaving guilds, senior citizen groups and others were
very favorably received. To reach the American public easily, we designed an
exhibit specifically for public libraries. Thus far, it has toured the libraries
of several towns. Friends in distant places, inspired to organize cultural
displays at festivals, schools or colleges, were sent the required materials.
Clearly, the snowball effect we hoped for had gained serious momentum.
One tangible result of this momentum has been our
formation of the Palestinian Heritage Foundation. Link readers who would like
further information about the Foundation and its various programs may write to
us at P.O. Box 531, W. Caldwell, New Jersey 07007-0531.
Looking back to that day in 1987 when we decided to
take on this unpredictable mission, it seems amazing that our complete lack of
experience did not deter us from going forward. Determination kept us going, and
we have never regretted it. It has been an endless source of inspiration and
By far, the greatest inspiration and satisfaction
has come from those who have viewed or participated in our presentations. The
young Arab-American men and women who take part in our shows have developed new
pride in their heritage. These costumes for them are not mere pieces of
clothing, but pieces of history. And non-Arab Americans seldom if ever exposed
to the art and culture of the Arab world, tell us that they come away from the
exhibits with a great appreciation for the intricacy and beauty of the dresses
and jewelry and a new-found respect for the people who created them.
These changed outlooks assure us that eventually
Arabs will no longer be depicted as cartoon villains but as a proud people with
a fascinating history and a rich culture. The young women who created these
dresses probably did not consider their embroidered “script” to be anything
more than village tradition. How proud they would be to know that theirs is
the language by which a positive image of Arabs is being defined to the American
public and to our own children.