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 gatherings.
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 satisfaction.
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.