Seeing the Light

Taking a Risk to Fulfill a Dream

By Farah Joseph Munayyer and Hanan Karaman Munayyer

Washington Report on Middle East Affairs
May 1990

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 acquisition.

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.

                                            Egyptian  Foreign Minister, 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 beloved homeland. 

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 Palestinian 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 sixty minutes.                              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 East.

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 style.  
                                        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 rewarding, road.

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.