FOR MORE THAN half a century, Israel has denied the narrative
of the Palestinian people, their millennial attachment to the land of
Canaan/Palestine, the cultural depth of their society and even their humanity.
Now, an exhibition in Los Angeles, Sovereign Threads: A History of Palestinian
Embroidery, validates the unique Palestinian identity through the needlework
patterns produced by its women over countless generations.
More than 150 pieces from the most extensive collection of
Palestinian embroidery in the US will be on view until 8 October at the city's
Craft and Folk Art Museum (CAFAM). Exquisite examples of regional Palestinian
ceremonial dresses, jackets, scarves and embroidered pieces are on loan from
Hanan and Farah Munayyer, founders of the Palestinian Heritage Foundation.
The Munayyers, both born in Palestine in the 1940s, have a
mission to educate westerners about Palestinian culture, through its
millennium-old tradition of needlework which thrives to this day.
The couple live in New Jersey where they have assembled more
than 1,500 museum-class works of Palestinian embroidery. Professionally, the
Munayyers are pharmaceutical research scientists who, over the years, when they
vacationed in Palestine, purchased traditional dresses of the Jerusalem area.
However, they did not become serious collectors until 1987, when they learned of
a collection of about 100 embroidered works - including 67 dresses - was about
to go on the market. Rather than see the pieces sold separately, the Munayyers
mortgaged their home in order to buy the entire assemblage.
Three years later,
they acquired the collection of Rolla Foley, who traveled to Palestine in 1938
to teach at the Friends' School in Ramallah. During his stay in the area he
collected more than 500 pieces of embroidery, which he systematically catalogued
according to village and date of origin.
Hanan Munayyer began researching archaeological and
historical tombs to document the origins of Palestinian garments and embroidery.
After founding the Palestinian Heritage Foundation in 1992, she and her husband
went on to produce a video on Palestinian regional costumes and embroidery.
Circumstances leading to the inauguration of the Los Angeles
exhibition began in February 2005 when Craft and Folk Art Museum director,
Maryna Hrushestska, visited the Venice Beach home of Lebanese-American artist
Huguette Caland. Hrushestska, whose ancestral roots lie in Ukraine, noticed the
beautifully embroidered pillows in Caland's studio and remarked on how much they
resembled her grandmother's needlework.
She was surprised to learn they were not Ukranian needlework
but embroidery produced by Palestinian women in refugee camps. Caland, whose
father, Bishara Al Khouri, was the first president of Lebanon from 1943 to
1952, explained she co-founded INAASH (Association for the Development of
Palestinian Camps) which creates jobs for refugee women and sells their
Hrushetska‘s imagination was captured by the image of refugee
women sustaining their cultural traditions as well as supporting their families
through embroidery so Caland put her in touch with museum curator Salwa Mikdadi
Nashashibi in Berkeley, CA, which led to an introduction to the Munayyers.
Months of preparation went into the exhibition which has been
largely funded by the Arab American community. Nonetheless, it took courage on
Hrushetska’s part to present a Palestinian show on Wilshire Boulevard’s Museum
Row, an area that also is home to the highest concentration of Jews in Los
Since the exhibition opened July, Hrushetska says attendance
has increased by 25 percent “and many guests sign up as members which is the
highest compliment we can receive.” she added. The title, “Sovereign
Threads,” is a comment on the displacement of Palestinians throughout the
world. Hrushetska states in the exhibition brochure: “The term ‘sovereign’
describes self-rule, autonomy and independence – all still painfully absent for
Palestinians in the political sphere.”
She explains how the threads of Palestinian tradition are
passed through generations, weaving a fabric of cultural cohesiveness that
testify to the fact that neither war, conflict nor displacement can erase
“As they revive a culture in peril, the Palestinian women who
create embroidery in refugee camps are preserving their own imperiled dignity,”
she concludes. “War afflicts the deepest scars upon women, so it is truly
remarkable that it is women who seek to beautify their world even in the most
Hanan Munayyer, explains the origins of proto-Palestinian
attire from the Canaanite period circa 1500 B.C. when Egyptian paintings depicted
Canaanites wearing A-shaped garments. The distinctive silhouette is observed in
a 1200 B.C. ivory engraving from Megiddo, Palestine, identified as a “Syrian
When Damascus artisans perfected steel blades from the 8th
century onward, fine needles also were manufactured which made it possible to
embroider geometric designs rather than to weave them into fabric. Munayyer
noted that the square chest piece and decorated back panel so ubiquitous in
Palestinian dresses are documented in 13th century Andalusia.
Each hamlet and village created motifs that were an identity
badge for its female inhabitants. The eight-pointed star, the moon, birds, a
diamond-shaped icon to ward off the Evil Eye, palm leaves and stair steps were
Her research led Munayyer to many revelations including the
fact that the tall cone-shaped hats, often associated with women of King
Arthur’s court, were not imported into Lebanon, but rather, the Crusaders saw
these hats on Levantine women and exported them back to Europe.
Similarly, Hanan Munayyer was able to tell Hrushetska that
she had been entirely incorrect when she assumed Palestinian pillow covers were
from Ukraine. From the 15th century onwards, Orthodox Christians made
pilgrimages to the Holy Land and returned with embroidery techniques learned
Munayyer says that for centuries, girls learned to embroider
from the age of six or seven years of age. Women relatives would assist each
teenager in sewing three to eight embroidered dresses for her trousseau, which
would last for the rest of her life. An elaborate garment for weddings and
holidays could take as long as one year to embroider. However, this may be the
final generation to produce Palestinian embroidery which is a tedious,
painstaking job that women will gladly trade for work outside of the refugee
Distinctive regional motifs capture the viewer’s attention in
the Los Angeles exhibition. Luscious eye-candy is the only way to describe the
Ghabani dress from the Jerusalem region of the 1940s. It features a couching
stitch in the Bethlehem style on yellow Syrian silk fabric. Contrasting with
this is a multi-colored tafsileh dress from the Jaffa and Lydda area of the
1940s. The dress does not have any embroidery on it which leads Hanan to refer
to it as a “I need to get married fast dress.”
In the Bedouin region to the south in Khan Yunis is a 1940’s
cotton dress with cross stitch embroidery and long tapered sleeves. This
contrasts with a costume from the El- Khalil region of the 1940s replete with a
wikayet el darahem headdress and a miklab vest of Ottoman coins worn over a
dress embroidered in silk thread.
While Ramallah is recognized for its white linen dresses with
red or rust-hued embroidery, one of the most beautiful examples of its
needlework is a taqsireh jacket from 1950s Ein Karem embroidered on black
Also on view are ceramics by Najat El-Taji El-Khairy who has
replicated Palestinian embroidery designs on porcelain and ceramic tiles. The
Quebec-based artist says this is her way to preserve traditional Palestinian
motifs on a non-perishable medium.
Sales of the embroidery by women in Lebanese refugee camps
are robust at the museum gift shop. The latest word received by Hrushetska was
recently informed, mercifully all the women in the camps survived the Israeli
blitz of Lebanon.