Seeing the Light
Taking a Risk to Fulfill
Farah Joseph Munayyer and Hanan Karaman Munayyer
on Middle East Affairs
In mid 1987, we ventured into the unknown. Against the advice of some
of our closest friends, we decided to buy a collection of antique
Palestinian national and bridal dresses brought to the United States from
the Middle East to be sold. It bothered us that such a collection might be
scattered. That would destroy a valuable asset belonging to a people who
have already lost too much.
Mr. Farouk Kaddoumi at opening of Palestinian exhibit.
We took the tremendous financial risk of acquiring the whole collection
to promote cultural awareness of Palestinian traditions. Since there was
no time even to attempt to secure grants from Palestinian, Arab or
American sources. we resorted to a home equity loan to finance this
Each time we looked at the incredible beauty of the items in this
collection, visions of the past swept into our minds. Born in the early
1940s, we had both lived through many episodes of the Palestinian tragedy.
One of the worst began at midday in July 1948, in Farah's hometown of Lydda. The whine of bullets fired into the streets sent people rushing to
their homes for shelter. The next day, we woke up to the noise of
screaming and shooting. Peeking through the wooden shutters, we saw
hundreds of people being herded along the street in front of our house by
Israeli soldiers shouting, "Imshi ala Abdallah!" ("Go to
Abdallah," then the king of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan). For
many of the terrified families, it would be the last time they would ever
see their homes.
Ramallah, Bethlehem and Galilee costumes at United Nations.
Our Turn for Eviction
The next day, it was our family's turn for eviction. A group of
soldiers armed with Sten submachine guns broke into the house and told us
to be on our way "to Abdallah" in 10 minutes or risk being shot.
As we started out, I asked my father: "Why are these people lying
on the ground?" "They are sleeping," he answered. Only years later, did I
connect the people
"sleeping" in the streets to the shooting and
screaming of the day before.
On the way to an uncertain future, we passed by a church located next
to the mosque in town. There, we found some of our relatives and friends
evicted a few hours earlier. The priest insisted that, since it was late
in the afternoon, we should spend the night in the church and leave the
next morning. Luckily we did.
The next morning, Israeli troops came by and found about 250 Muslims
and Christians taking shelter in the church. Through the priest's
mediation, all were allowed to stay . That moment changed our lives. We
were among the few Palestinians who remained behind to witness the
systematic destruction of many villages. Only later did we hear the horror
stories about what happened to the thousands of our compatriots who were
forcibly evicted or who fled on their own to avoid the massacres befalling
Palestinians in the neighboring villages.
Ahmad Maher, at
National Cathedral exhibit.
Links to a Now-Vanished Past
The pitiless expulsion of the population, followed by systematic
looting and eventual destruction of whole villages, left traces of the
accompanying misery in our souls. That probably influenced our decision,
nearly 40 years later, to risk our comfortable home in the United States
to acquire this collection. In our minds and hearts, this treasure
constituted an irreplaceable part of the history and heritage of our
It is to the memory of those thousands of neighbors who walked under
the relentless sun "to Abdallah," carrying their belongings on
their backs and their infants in their arms, and wearing our traditional
costumes, that we have dedicated this project. These costumes, draped on
our couch, were our tangible remaining links to those Palestinian exiles
from now-vanished villages.
We decided to produce a high quality videotape that would be accessible
to both individuals and libraries and that would complement our own
presentations of these costumes. Using technologically -advanced video
cameras, professional filming crews and attractive young
models trained by Ms. Rima Nashashibi in California, we edited hours of
footage into a 35-minute costume demonstration. Back in New Jersey, many
more hours of close-ups of stitches, patterns and accessories were filmed
at a professional studio. This resulted in an additional 30 minutes of
edited videotape. These two parts were combined in a 70-minute videotape
entitled "Palestinian National Costumes: Preserving the Legacy.''
Maha, our teenage daughter, narrated the tape in English.
Wedding scene (Jawad Kassem, Nuha Matari, John Joubran and Randa Munayyer)
We also produced a photographic portrait of 10 girls, each wearing a
different dress, representing a different area of Palestine, and printed
the first of a series of greeting cards, showing the famous Bethlehem
"malak" or "royal" dress.
The tape was first displayed by the United Nations in December 1987,
during the International Solidarity Week with the Palestinian People.
Since then, it has been described in Aramco World magazine and acquired by
such institutions as the New York Public Library, the Cambridge Public
Library and the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York.
To further promote the project, Farah made a series of presentations to
Palestinian audiences in Israel and the West Bank in May of 1988, and we
were encouraged to translate the script into Arabic. After we did so,
Kuwait National Television put considerable effort into adding background
footage, and provided an eloquent young Palestinian professional TV
announcer, Ms. Rula Farra, to narrate the Arabic version of this
documentary. This new version was later edited in the United States to
Children of Westfield public library
with Mona, Randa, Hanan and Mrs. Thomas.
Hanan spent two years documenting the evolution of our traditional
costumes in Palestine, dating back to 2000 BC. In addition to the first
collection acquired in 1987, we've bought two additional collections. At
present our collection totals almost two hundred dresses and numerous
accessories and has become one of the largest and best in the world.
Hanan generally accompanied presentations with a short talk. At such
gatherings, we had found that the 70-minute tape produced for home viewing
was too long to accompany a talk to a live audience.
Therefore, in 1989, we produced a condensed version of the existing
English tape, "Palestinian Costumes and Embroidery; A Precious
Legacy." This condensed format contains a new five-minute segment
showing the origin of the art of embroidery in Palestine and the Near
It covers embroidery, world costumes and ancient art and textiles, and
contains photographs of surviving pieces of ancient textiles from the
Middle East in European and American museums. It examines the costumes in
Palestine through the different epochs, from antiquity through the Greek,
Roman, Byzantine, Arab and Ottoman Turkish periods up to the early 20th
century. A distinct series of resemblances emerge linking present day
Palestinian costume to Canaanite spinning, weaving and dyeing traditions
that evolved in the Greco-Roman period into a generalized Mediterranean
Father and child, Jasmine plant and brass ware at UN display.
This style was influenced in Byzantine times by the
Mesopotamian-Persian love of opulent decoration. It was further refined
during the period of Arab Ommayad rule in Syria and Palestine. These
embroidery motifs and weaving skills were subsequently passed on by the
Ommayads from Moorish Spain and Sicily to the rest of Europe. Paintings by
European masters from the 12th century frequently displayed embroidered
Arabic calligraphy in costumes of wealthy Europeans.
When European and American missionaries first arrived in Palestine in
the 19th century they were amazed at the rich embroidery, which they
attributed to the influence of the Crusades.
However, the influence was in
the opposite direction. European costumes at the time of the Crusades were
unadorned. Contact by the Crusaders with the weavings and embroidery of
the Near East popularized these arts in Europe.
Each time we see the glimmer of pride in a Palestinian child's eyes as
we display this heritage, or feel the excitement of an American audience
upon viewing and discussing a little-known aspect of the history of art,
we know that we are one step further on a long and arduous, but immensely
Farah Joseph Munayyer and his wife, Hanan Karaman Munayyer, are both
Palestinian-American graduates of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Farah is a research pharmacist and Hanan is a molecular biologist.