Written by Jane M. Friedman

Photographed by Bassel H. Sakkab

A trip to the New Jersey home of Hanan and Farah Munayyer takes the traveler through the pleasantly suburban towns of Bloomfield, Clifton, Montclair, Verona and, finally, West Caldwell. But New Jersey seems to stop at the front door of the Munayyer’s red-brick house.

Inside, fragments of antique Palestinian embroideries embellish the walls, a Turkish coffee set sits on a brass tray, and pillows, also embroidered with Palestinian patterns, are placed on the floor around a water-pipe.

But these are not the real treasures of the Munayyer home. The real treasures are hundreds of traditional, antique, embroidered Palestinian dresses, shawls and scarves. Over the past decade, the Munayyers, both Palestinian-Americans and both pharmaceutical research scientists, have assembled the largest collection of antique Palestinian embroidery in the United States, and one of the largest such collections in the world. It spans almost a century—from the 1860’s to the 1940’s—and represents, they say, every stylistic tradition of what once was Palestine.

The Munayyers are not typical art collectors, however. They have a mission. They are committed to salvaging a dying tradition and, to do so, they are eager to educate both Palestinians and Americans about one aspect of Palestinian culture.

“We want to display Palestinian art to Western audiences that have never seen it before,” says Hanan, “and to show Palestinians of today a part of their own culture.”

Although today Palestinian embroidery documents the history and culture of a people, in the past, and for centuries, embroidered clothes were simply the stuff of everyday life.

No one is sure how far back traditional Palestinian dress goes. Hanan, who has been researching the subject since she bought her first dresses in 1987, traces the craft back even to Canaanite times. By the mid-19th century, certainly, it is documented that intricately embroidered dresses for ceremonial occasions were usual from Gaza in the south to the Dead Sea in the east and Syria in the north.

As a girl approached marriageable age, she set about embroidering both her wedding dress and her bridal trousseau, which usually included another three to eight dresses. Embroidering one dress could take up to a year, Hanan says, if the girl did it all by herself. Although many girls did indeed labor for years, others with less time, less talent or more money commissioned embroidered panels from workshops in Bethlehem and other towns. Those could then be easily inset into the proper positions to produce a dress in a few weeks or even days.

Typically, Palestinian embroidered dresses were made either of white or dark linen. They reached the floor and had long, triangular sleeves. The embroidered panels included a square chest piece, front and back lower panels running down from the waist, and symmetrical side panels, also from the waist down. But within the embroidered panels, variations flourished, determined by the region or town where the dress had been made.

Because travel from town to town was difficult in the 19th century—mostly by donkey over the high rolling hills—towns and villages were relatively isolated, and thus the style of each region could remain distinct.

“The way it used to be,” says Hanan, “was that dress designs would say, ‘We are this clan and you are that clan, and we each know because your patterns are this way, and ours are that way.’”

In the hills north of Jerusalem, and especially in Ramallah, the local style was immediately recognizable by the palm trunk-shaped embroidery in cross stitch on the back panels of the dresses. Although Ramallah girls wore both black and white dresses, the town eventually became known for its white linen ones, usually embroidered in red or rust colors, because that fabric was woven in the town.

According to Hanan, the Americans and Europeans who came to Ramallah in the late 19th century mistakenly “thought the white embroidered dress was Christian art”. So they highlighted it in their accounts of the region, attributing it and other aspects of local needlecraft to the influence of the Crusaders in the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries.

Bethlehem, south of Jerusalem, had the most elegant embroidery, Hanan says, done in what is known as the Bethlehem couching stitch. That stitch, combined with a distinctive purple linen and the use of metallic thread in the back panel, characterized some of the most elaborate—and expensive—of all Palestinian dresses. In the Jerusalem area, the body of the dress tended to be made of Syrian silk, but patterns were influenced by the Bethlehem style. The chest piece was like Bethlehem’s in shape and embroidery, but on the back were three embroidered medallions.

In the low-lying coastal areas around Jaffa, dress was quite different. Here, where it was hot all year round, women spent their lives in the fields and orchards, and they embroidered the natural motifs that filled their lives—cypress trees for example—onto their dresses.

In Mejdel, a town which no longer exists, the purplish-blue dress fabric was woven locally. Embroidery colors were bright, and typical motifs included the triangular amulet and a stair-step pattern. Both, says Hanan, were used by the Nabataeans around the first century after Christ. (See Aramco World, March/April 1981.)

North of Jerusalem, in Nablus, the Galilee and the foothills of the Golan, Palestinian apparel more closely resembled Syrian and Lebanese styles, which featured long jackets and pantaloons, but the embroidery patterns remained distinct.

By the 1920’s, during the years of the British Mandate in Palestine, local styles began to influence each other and, in some cases, fuse. The automobile had come, and with it came easier travel and the easier exchange of patterns and techniques of embroidery from one town to another. British influence also made European pattern-books available, and some European motifs, such as horses and peacocks, began to appear on Palestinian dresses. European fabrics, such as velvet, also made their way to Palestine.

The war of 1948 and the onset of the Palestinian diaspora dealt a devastating blow to the embroiderers’ tradition. As hundreds of thousands of people sought safety in Lebanon, Jordan and what became the West Bank and Gaza Strip, hundreds of Palestine’s coastal villages ceased to exist, and many others were transformed.

The refugees fled with their basic possessions. “In many cases, all that was left of a village—the only way you knew there had been a village—was the dresses on women’s backs,” says Farah Munayyer. Some sold dresses for desperately needed cash.

The war of 1967 aggravated the process, explain the Munayyers. “With each war, with each new wave of refugees from new places, you would see new kinds of dresses being sold,” says Hanan. “The refugees would sell them secretly, because such a sale was considered a shame.”

Still more dresses have been sold to tourists since 1967, especially in the market of Jerusalem’s Old City. The older Palestinian women, many of whom still don traditional dress for important occasions, must thus often settle for contemporary imitations, poor by comparison to the old styles: The modern commercial “traditional” dress is frequently made of polyester, and the embroidery is often machine-stitched with chemically dyed thread. Younger generations are leaving such traditions behind altogether: At their weddings, many young women in today’s West Bank and Gaza Strip wear frothy white dresses, just like their Western counterparts.

“The refugees haven’t had the materials or the money or the time to make expensive dresses,” says Hanan. “Wherever the finest embroidery was done, it was at least partly a leisure activity; it was done in an atmosphere of prosperity.”

The fading of the artistic tradition of Palestinian embroidery has caught the attention of collectors in several countries. One of the first was Widad Kawar of Amman, who began her work as early as the 1950’s and whose collection is regarded as one of the world’s finest.

Several museums in the United States now have modest but high-quality collections. In England, from 1989 to 1991, London’s Museum of Mankind showed its collection of Palestinian embroidered objects in a show, curated by Shelagh Weir, that won worldwide coverage and acclaim. (See Aramco World, January/February 1991.)

The Munayyers, at the outset, were apparently typical of diaspora Palestinians in their motivation: They simply wanted to remain close to their native culture.

Born in the 1940’s in what is now Israel, they decided in 1970 to study in the United States. They hoped eventually to return to Jerusalem, but time passed, their children were born and their careers proved challenging. Fifteen years passed quickly, but the Munayyers’ attachment to Palestine remained.

“On one of our trips back, Hanan bought a dress in Jerusalem,” says Farah. On the next trip, Farah returned to New Jersey with 10 dresses he had purchased in the Jerusalem suq, along with a book on embroidery. Unfortunately, all 10 dresses were stylistically similar and from the same region.

Hanan wanted to exchange some of them to achieve some diversity, and thus began seeing the dresses they owned as a collection with a story of its own to tell. But the Munayyers’ interest in antique costume didn’t become an obsession until one day in April 1987, when the Jerusalem dealer who had been their contact arrived in New York with more than 65 antique dresses. “We bought the whole group,” says Hanan. “We knew that otherwise the collection would be scattered.”

By 1990, the Munayyers had bought three more groups of embroideries, even taking out loans to finance what had become far more than a mere hobby. Their most important acquisition was a collection owned by Rolla Foley, an American who had gone to Palestine in 1938 to teach at the Friends’ School in Ramallah.

“Mr. Foley’s collection made ours a real collection,” says Farah. “He filled all the gaps.”

Foley’s collection included dresses from the 1860’s, shortly before European influence became strong in Palestine. In addition, he had labeled each dress according to its village of origin, which gave the Munayyers vital information not only about regional stylistic differences but also about variations from one village to another within regions.

In 1992, the Munayyers established the Palestinian Heritage Foundation, which has since acquired more than 100 additional embroideries. The full collection, says Hanan, now exceeds 1000 pieces.

Owning a collection of educational value for both Palestinian-Americans and unhyphenated Americans has transformed the Munayyers’ lives. Hanan realized she had to educate herself about the history of Palestinian costume. “I looked up hundreds of books, on archeology, history, and embroidery,” she recalls. “In the beginning, I’d put the kids to bed and I’d read. I exhausted all the local libraries.”

Being able to correctly identify the period of a dress and its town of origin—often by the stitching techniques used—became essential, but not easy. Embroidered 19th-century chest pieces and panels were frequently removed when a dress became worn or frayed and reapplied to newer dresses. Identifying one piece of embroidery did not mean that the dress it was a part of had also been identified.

“At age six, the girls would learn how to embroider,” says Hanan. “Their mothers would buy the thread as they went along. So, for example, the orange thread that was used to begin the embroidery didn’t match the orange thread used at the end.” But, she adds, “when you look at the underside of the embroidery, it is clean. You were taught from a very young age strict rules and a professional attitude. It’s an ingrained part of the culture.”

These days, the Munayyers are constantly seeking new venues in which to display the collection. Last year, they exhibited at the United Nations headquarters in New York and at the us Military Academy at West Point, and lectured at the Textile Museum in Washington, D.C.

The Munayyers do not stop there. Where their collection still falls short, Farah has begun to photograph pieces in other collections that might make their own more complete. From a workshop in Beirut, he has commissioned replicas to be made using the photographs.   In addition, the Munayyers are purchasing contemporary Palestinian embroidery—including pillows, jackets and dresses—to bring their history up to date.

In March, they celebrated the 10th anniversary of the beginning of their cultural mission. “We hope to keep expanding our activities to reach the American public,” says Hanan, “and one day to house the collection in an American museum.”

Washington free-lancer Jane M. Friedman was a correspondent in the Middle East for cnn and the Christian Science Monitor.

Free-lance photographer Bassel H. Sakkab lives in Washington, D.C.