Special Report

Stitches in Time: The Munayyer Palestinian Collection

By Ian Williams

Washington Report on Middle East Affairs,

March 1995

At one time Palestinian embroidery figured on the uniforms of El Al air hostesses. Farah and Hanan Munayyer were not impressed. Now, in the Israel Museum, “they sell bags and cards with the designs on but they call it all ‘Bethlehem embroidery,’ no matter where it comes from. Of course there’s no mention of Palestine,” Hanan told the Washington Report.
                                                                               Palestinian wedding in Montreal

The two left Israel in 1970, taking with them the memory of the climactic events of 1948. “I saw the destruction of all the villages around Jaffa and Lydda,” Farah remembers. “The Israeli soldiers came and told us we should ‘go and join Abdullah.'” Instead, his parents sought sanctuary in a church and, after a year, were allowed to return to their gutted house. “I saw people lying dead in the streets,” he recalls. “My father told me they were sleeping,.”                                                                         

 Now this married couple try to preserve one of the more vibrant aspects of those nearly vanished Palestinian rural communities with their collection of Palestinian regional dresses and embroidery. The collection has been exhibited in museums, libraries and even synagogues across the United States.

On the face of it, it is an odd mission for two highly educated scientists working in pharmaceuticals, but maybe the convoluted molecules of microbiology prepared them to appreciate the intricate designs of traditional Palestinian needlework. The collection began in 1987 when Hanan asked Farah to bring a book on traditional embroidery back from a visit to Jerusalem. He returned with 10 traditional dresses—all from the same area.

                                 Ramallah, Bethlehem and Jerusalem costumes at Hermitage Museum, NJ.

She decided to diversify, and so they called the antiques dealer for more and found that he wanted to sell his extensive collection. Rather than see it dispersed, they took a home equity loan to buy the lot. Concluding that it wasn’t geographically complete, they have been searching ever since to fill the gaps and to cover the map of Palestine with embroidery. A significant leap forward was the acquisition of a collection assembled by the late Dr. Rolla Foley, a Quaker who had taught at the Friends School in Ramallah for a decade after 1938, and who had exhaustively researched which patterns belonged to which towns and villages. In his home were costumes dating back to 1860. 

The designs are so conservative, Hanan points out, that such patterns as the cypress tree, the leech, the tree of life, the bird of paradise, and so on date back to pre-biblical times. Even the overall design of the costumes and their methods of manufacture show an amazing continuity over the millennia. Ironically, these relics of women’s labor demonstrate the continuity of the Palestinians and their ancestors on the land in a way that even traditional stone structures do not. Most of the dresses were part of the trousseaus of brides and were therefore carefully preserved. Even when the basic fabrics of the dress fell apart, the colorful embroidered panels, some representing months or years of intensive work, would be salvaged and reused. 

                                                          Lecture and display at West Point Military Academy, NY

The patterns often had a ritual significance, such as the S-shaped leech for good health, which is why the most elaborately worked pieces were for such auspicious occasions as weddings. The older items are especially significant. In the 1920s, under the British Mandate, villages were exposed to the outside world. The patterns and fabrics of other localities and even other countries were incorporated into the hitherto slowly changing traditions. In a way, Hanan points out, the manner in which outside clothing was adapted in Palestine is not surprising. There is evidence that the designs of Palestine returned with the Crusaders to make a big impression on the fashions of medieval Europe.

The Munayyers’ efforts to keep their collection on display and to distribute a video they have prepared from the collection serve a dual purpose. They have found that the sheer beauty of the collections awakens the interest of younger Palestinian Americans in their heritage. “You know, in many of their homes there are lots of books on the politics and history of Palestine, but very little on the culture,” Hanan points out.


A Positive Image of Palestinian Life

The collection also has been very useful in presenting a positive image of Palestinian life to the American public. “Most of them don’t know anything about the story of Palestine—their knowledge jumps from the Bible to modern times, skipping the Palestinian presence,” Hanan explains. “But most Americans don’t go to museums, which is why we often have public libraries for displays.”

Oddly enough, the only problems they have had were at the United Nations, where their display was the centerpiece of Palestine Day commemorations last year. An Israeli official scrutinized the captions and insisted that dresses from Palestinian towns inside Israel’s Green Line border be identified as coming from Israel.  
Randa and Maha Munayyer with West Point cadets. 

Last year exhibitions of the collection straddled the continent, from San Diego, CA in March, to New York’s Brooklyn Museum in September. From March 5 to July 2 of this year, the collection will be on display at the Fuller Museum of Art, 455 Oak St., Brockton, MA 02401, (508) 588-6000. North of the border, a Canadian hopes to host the collection in 1996.

 Ian Williams is a British free-lance journalist based at the United Nations.