Jane M. Friedman
by Bassel H. Sakkab
A trip to the New Jersey home of
Hanan and Farah Munayyer takes the traveler through the pleasantly suburban
towns of Bloomfield, Clifton, Montclair, Verona and, finally, West Caldwell. But
New Jersey seems to stop at the front door of the Munayyer’s red-brick house.
Inside, fragments of antique Palestinian embroideries embellish the walls, a
Turkish coffee set sits on a brass tray, and pillows, also embroidered with
Palestinian patterns, are placed on the floor around a water-pipe.
But these are not the real
treasures of the Munayyer home. The real treasures are hundreds of traditional,
antique, embroidered Palestinian dresses, shawls and scarves. Over the past
decade, the Munayyers, both Palestinian-Americans and both pharmaceutical
research scientists, have assembled the largest collection of antique
Palestinian embroidery in the United States, and one of the largest such
collections in the world. It spans almost a century—from the 1860’s to the
1940’s—and represents, they say, every stylistic tradition of what once was
The Munayyers are not typical art
collectors, however. They have a mission. They are committed to salvaging a
dying tradition and, to do so, they are eager to educate both Palestinians and
Americans about one aspect of Palestinian culture.
“We want to display Palestinian
art to Western audiences that have never seen it before,” says Hanan, “and
to show Palestinians of today a part of their own culture.”
Although today Palestinian
embroidery documents the history and culture of a people, in the past, and for
centuries, embroidered clothes were simply the stuff of everyday life.
No one is sure how far back
traditional Palestinian dress goes. Hanan, who has been researching the subject
since she bought her first dresses in 1987, traces the craft back even to
Canaanite times. By the mid-19th century, certainly, it is
documented that intricately embroidered dresses for ceremonial occasions were
usual from Gaza in the south to the Dead Sea in the east and Syria in the north.
As a girl approached marriageable
age, she set about embroidering both her wedding dress and her bridal trousseau,
which usually included another three to eight dresses. Embroidering one dress
could take up to a year, Hanan says, if the girl did it all by herself. Although
many girls did indeed labor for years, others with less time, less talent or
more money commissioned embroidered panels from workshops in Bethlehem and other
towns. Those could then be easily inset into the proper positions to produce a
dress in a few weeks or even days.
Typically, Palestinian embroidered
dresses were made either of white or dark linen. They reached the floor and had
long, triangular sleeves. The embroidered panels included a square chest piece,
front and back lower panels running down from the waist, and symmetrical side
panels, also from the waist down. But within the embroidered panels, variations
flourished, determined by the region or town where the dress had been made.
Because travel from town to town
was difficult in the 19th century—mostly by donkey over the high rolling
hills—towns and villages were relatively isolated, and thus the style of each
region could remain distinct.
“The way it used to be,” says
Hanan, “was that dress designs would say, ‘We are this clan and you are that
clan, and we each know because your patterns are this way, and ours are that
In the hills north of Jerusalem,
and especially in Ramallah, the local style was immediately recognizable by the
palm trunk-shaped embroidery in cross stitch on the back panels of the dresses.
Although Ramallah girls wore both black and white dresses, the town eventually
became known for its white linen ones, usually embroidered in red or rust
colors, because that fabric was woven in the town.
According to Hanan, the Americans
and Europeans who came to Ramallah in the late 19th century mistakenly "thought the white embroidered dress was Christian
art". So they highlighted
it in their accounts of the region, attributing it and other aspects of local
needlecraft to the influence of the Crusaders in the 11th, 12th and 13th
Bethlehem, south of Jerusalem, had
the most elegant embroidery, Hanan says, done in what is known as the Bethlehem
couching stitch. That stitch, combined with a distinctive purple linen and the
use of metallic thread in the back panel, characterized some of the most
elaborate—and expensive—of all Palestinian dresses. In the Jerusalem area,
the body of the dress tended to be made of Syrian silk, but patterns were
influenced by the Bethlehem style. The chest piece was like Bethlehem’s in
shape and embroidery, but on the back were three embroidered medallions.
In the low-lying coastal areas
around Jaffa, dress was quite different. Here, where it was hot all year round,
women spent their lives in the fields and orchards, and they embroidered the
natural motifs that filled their lives—cypress trees for example—onto their
In Mejdel, a town which no longer
exists, the purplish-blue dress fabric was woven locally. Embroidery colors were
bright, and typical motifs included the triangular amulet and a stair-step
pattern. Both, says Hanan, were
used by the Nabataeans around the first century after Christ. (See Aramco
World, March/April 1981.)
North of Jerusalem, in Nablus, the
Galilee and the foothills of the Golan, Palestinian apparel more closely
resembled Syrian and Lebanese styles, which featured long jackets and
pantaloons, but the embroidery patterns remained distinct.
By the 1920’s, during the years
of the British Mandate in Palestine, local styles began to influence each other
and, in some cases, fuse. The automobile had come, and with it came easier
travel and the easier exchange of patterns and techniques of embroidery from one
town to another. British influence also made European pattern-books available,
and some European motifs, such as horses and peacocks, began to appear on
Palestinian dresses. European fabrics, such as velvet, also made their way to
The war of 1948 and the onset of
the Palestinian diaspora dealt a devastating blow to the embroiderers’
tradition. As hundreds of thousands of people sought safety in Lebanon, Jordan
and what became the West Bank and Gaza Strip, hundreds of Palestine’s coastal
villages ceased to exist, and many others were transformed.
The refugees fled with their basic
possessions. “In many cases, all that was left of a village—the only way you
knew there had been a village—was the dresses on women’s backs,” says
Farah Munayyer. Some sold dresses for desperately needed cash.
The war of 1967 aggravated the
process, explain the Munayyers. “With each war, with each new wave of refugees
from new places, you would see new kinds of dresses being sold,” says Hanan.
“The refugees would sell them secretly, because such a sale was considered a
Still more dresses have been sold
to tourists since 1967, especially in the market of Jerusalem’s Old City. The
older Palestinian women, many of whom still don traditional dress for important
occasions, must thus often settle for contemporary imitations, poor by
comparison to the old styles: The modern commercial “traditional” dress is
frequently made of polyester, and the embroidery is often machine-stitched with
chemically dyed thread. Younger generations are leaving such traditions behind
altogether: At their weddings, many young women in today’s West Bank and Gaza
Strip wear frothy white dresses, just like their Western counterparts.
“The refugees haven’t had the
materials or the money or the time to make expensive dresses,” says Hanan.
“Wherever the finest embroidery was done, it was at least partly a leisure
activity; it was done in an atmosphere of prosperity.”
The fading of the artistic
tradition of Palestinian embroidery has caught the attention of collectors in
several countries. One of the first was Widad Kawar of Amman, who began her work
as early as the 1950’s and whose collection is regarded as one of the
Several museums in the United
States now have modest but high-quality collections. In England, from 1989 to
1991, London’s Museum of Mankind showed its collection of Palestinian
embroidered objects in a show, curated by Shelagh Weir, that won worldwide
coverage and acclaim. (See Aramco World,
The Munayyers, at the outset, were
apparently typical of diaspora Palestinians in their motivation: They simply
wanted to remain close to their native culture.
Born in the 1940’s in what is
now Israel, they decided in 1970 to study in the United States. They hoped
eventually to return to Jerusalem, but time passed, their children were born and
their careers proved challenging. Fifteen years passed quickly, but the
Munayyers’ attachment to Palestine remained.
“On one of our trips back, Hanan
bought a dress in Jerusalem,” says Farah. On the next trip, Farah returned to
New Jersey with 10 dresses he had purchased in the Jerusalem suq,
along with a book on embroidery. Unfortunately, all 10 dresses were
stylistically similar and from the same region.
Hanan wanted to exchange some of
them to achieve some diversity, and thus began seeing the dresses they owned as
a collection with a story of its own to tell. But the Munayyers’ interest in
antique costume didn’t become an obsession until one day in April 1987, when
the Jerusalem dealer who had been their contact arrived in New York with more
than 65 antique dresses. “We bought the whole group,” says Hanan. “We knew
that otherwise the collection would be scattered.”
By 1990, the Munayyers had bought
three more groups of embroideries, even taking out loans to finance what had
become far more than a mere hobby. Their most important acquisition was a
collection owned by Rolla Foley, an American who had gone to Palestine in 1938
to teach at the Friends’ School in Ramallah.
“Mr. Foley’s collection made ours a real collection,” says Farah. “He filled all the gaps.”
Foley’s collection included
dresses from the 1860’s, shortly before European influence became strong in
Palestine. In addition, he had labeled each dress according to its village of
origin, which gave the Munayyers vital information not only about regional
stylistic differences but also about variations from one village to another
In 1992, the Munayyers established the Palestinian Heritage Foundation, which
has since acquired more than 100 additional embroideries. The full collection,
says Hanan, now exceeds 1000 pieces.
Owning a collection of educational value for both Palestinian-Americans and
unhyphenated Americans has transformed the Munayyers’ lives. Hanan realized
she had to educate herself about the history of Palestinian costume. “I looked
up hundreds of books, on archeology, history, and embroidery,” she recalls.
“In the beginning, I’d put the kids to bed and I’d read. I exhausted all
the local libraries.”
Being able to correctly identify the period of a dress and its town of
origin—often by the stitching techniques used—became essential, but not
easy. Embroidered 19th-century chest pieces and panels were frequently removed
when a dress became worn or frayed and reapplied to newer dresses. Identifying
one piece of embroidery did not mean that the dress it was a part of had also
“At age six, the girls would learn how to embroider,” says Hanan. “Their
mothers would buy the thread as they went along. So, for example, the orange
thread that was used to begin the embroidery didn’t match the orange thread
used at the end.” But, she adds, “when you look at the underside of the
embroidery, it is clean. You were taught from a very young age strict rules and
a professional attitude. It’s an ingrained part of the culture.”
These days, the Munayyers are
constantly seeking new venues in which to display the collection. Last year,
they exhibited at the United Nations headquarters in New York and at the us
Military Academy at West Point, and lectured at the Textile Museum in
The Munayyers do not stop there.
Where their collection still falls short, Farah has begun to photograph pieces
in other collections that might make their own more complete. From a workshop in
Beirut, he has commissioned replicas to be made using the photographs.
In addition, the Munayyers are purchasing contemporary Palestinian
embroidery—including pillows, jackets and dresses—to bring their history up
In March, they celebrated the 10th
anniversary of the beginning of their cultural mission. “We hope to keep
expanding our activities to reach the American public,” says Hanan, “and one
day to house the collection in an American museum.”
free-lancer Jane M. Friedman was a correspondent in the Middle East for cnn and the
photographer Bassel H. Sakkab lives in Washington, D.C.