Special Report

Palestinian Heritage Foundation 

Preserves Traditional 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, “there 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 town. 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.                                                                         

 A 1953 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 the groom 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  and medical Center in Paterson, NJ, and Professors Edward Said and Walid Kkhalidi (see June/July Washington Report, p. 64).  

Antique Bethlehem “Shatweh” headpieces

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 popular culture.   

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.        

Rolla Foley

The Palestinian Heritage Foundation Web site can be visited at  www.palestineheritage.org

Oure email address is PALHERF@aol.com