White Plains library displays Arab clothing


(Original publication: November 16, 2003) 


In colors as bold as desert blossoms, the embroidered clothing of Arab women was a declaration of place and prosperity. 

Yet as a child in the now Israeli city of Haifa, Hanan Munayyer never saw the costumes of her Palestinian heritage — war and modernity had put the tradition pretty much to rest. 

It wasn’t until she moved to the United States that she and her husband, Farah, both scientists in the pharmaceutical industry now living in New Jersey, began collecting, displaying and explaining the traditional textiles. In this way, they could tell the story of Arab family life and somehow dispel what she called the “horrible image of Palestinians, that we are all terrorists.” 

Then, she said, “we found the Arab population here hadn’t seen it either.” 

Munayyer brought costumes, and her message, to the White Plains Public Library yesterday as part of a series in conjunction with an exhibition called “Salaam: An Arab American Portrait,” by documentary photographer Andrew Courtney of Croton-on-Hudson. 

The traditional costume of Bethlehem, for example, was represented by a square-cut cinched dress from about 1920, made of silk and linen embroidered in rich reds with gold threads and cords, elaborate chest and side panels, and heavy, wide sleeves. 

Munayyer explained to an audience of about 30 people that each part of every Arab country had a traditional costume composed generally of linen, woven by men in the locality and delicately and lavishly embroidered by potential brides and the women in their families. The long-sleeved dresses were most often worn with a jacket. Married women wore a headpiece on which were sewn beads, coral and coins given to the bride as part of her dowry, with a yards-long, elaborately decorated scarf to go over it all. 

With a life expectancy of perhaps 45 years, girls married as young as 13 and for safekeeping and status wore their dowry money and jewelry throughout the day. Some headdresses were so heavy that removing them caused headaches, so some women slept with them on at night, Munayyer said. 

Each married woman owned several dresses, all alike, and wore them even while working and cooking. 

Lush and expensive, the dresses were part of a family’s fortune for villagers and Bedouins throughout the countryside, but were not generally part of sophisticated city life. 

The dowry was the bride’s and was passed on to her daughters, as were the dresses or important pieces of the dresses that could then be sewn into new ones. If any part of the dowry was spent, it would be a shame upon the man of the house who would then be seen as unable to provide. 

Through war and trade, the ancient embroidered symbols — including the palm tree, the acanthus plant and cup — found their way across Europe, as did the traditional headpiece, which was copied and elongated by courtiers in the Middle Ages. 

Eulex Fletchman said she thought the presentation “was just great, so educational.” She was visiting as part of a class on library science from Queens College. 

Candy Rae Villaroya said she thought the costumes were “really beautiful,” and found the lecture a different way to spend the day. 

Ultimately, the Munayyers hope to establish a permanent museum collection on the East Coast. For more information about the collection, visit