en zh es ja ko pt

Volume 48, Number 2March/April 1997

In This Issue

Back to Table of Contents

These Stitches Speak

Written by Jane M. Friedman
Photographed 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 Palestine.

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. (See next page.) 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 way.'"

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 centuries.

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 dresses.

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 stairstep 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 Palestine.

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 shame."

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 world's finest.

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, January/February 1991.)

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 within regions.

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 been identified.

"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 Washington, D.C.

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 to date.

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."

Washington free-lancer Jane M. Friedman was a correspondent in the Middle East for CNN and the Christian Science Monitor.

Free-lance photographer Bassel H. Sakkab lives in Washington, D.C.

New Images, Old Patterns: A Historical Glimpse
Written by Hanan Karaman Munayyer and Farah Munayyer

Textile arts have been of unique importance in the Middle East since antiquity. In every age, the crafts of spinning, weaving, dyeing and embroidery have been held in high esteem and their traditions have changed relatively little over time. This is demonstrated eloquently in Palestinian costume styles, which have remained virtually unchanged over many centuries.

Around 1500 BC, the land that would later be called Palestine became known as Canaan, "The Land of the Purple." Its Semitic inhabitants decorated linen and woolen cloth with a precious purple dye extracted from murex sea-snails, and these textiles were prized trade items around the Mediterranean.

On ancient Egyptian paintings, Canaanites can be recognized by their distinctive clothing, a long A-shaped dress worn by both men and women and known to modern archeologists as the "Syrian tunic." An ivory engraving dating from 1200 BC, from Megiddo in ancient Palestine, depicts similar women's tunics decorated at the neckline and hem. This long A-shaped tunic is still the basic shape of most Palestinian costumes. Similarly, surviving ivory statues of Canaanites—apparently women—from 1500 BC show a headdress then prevalent in many areas of the Eastern Mediterranean that bears a remarkable similarity to the shatwih headdress worn in Bethlehem into the early 20th century. (See page 6.)

In the Iliad, Homer recounted that Paris, abductor of Helen of Troy, imported Eastern Mediterranean needlewomen from Tyre and Sidon—confirmation of the reputation of these cities as famous early embroidery centers.

In later Roman times, the basic linen tunic was decorated from shoulder to hem with two woven bands of intricate patterns called clavi. This eastern Mediterranean tunic, or "dalmatic," was introduced to Rome in ad 220 by the Syrian-born Emperor Elagabalus. The dalmatic was frequently depicted in early Christian paintings and Byzantine mosaics, and the style endures today in ecclesiastical vestments.

Women's headdresses, too, were often rendered according to the style commonly used in the Levant since antiquity. Seventh-century sarcophagi in Palmyra, Syria, display the same style that survives today in Palestinian costume in the traditional headdresses of Ramallah and Jerusalem.

Byzantine emperors adopted the rich tradition of costume decoration from Mesopotamia and the Levant. Clergy in Jerusalem, a spiritual center of the Byzantine Empire, wore robes heav-ily embroidered with metallic thread, another stylistic feature that survives in some present-day churches. In time, the inhabitants of Jerusalem and Bethlehem copied this style in their dresses, and it eventually spread to the surrounding villages.

The period of Muslim Arab rule that followed the Byzantine era in the seventh century (See Aramco World, September/October 1996) witnessed a flourishing of the textile arts. Weavers combined the Byzantine and Persian legacies and elaborated on them. The Arabs introduced a style of ornamentation called tiraz, a word borrowed from the Persian for "embroidery," which incorporated Arabic calligraphy into the patterns. The Arab world, which then stretched from Baghdad to Granada, led the world in production of textiles, one of the great commodities of that era, in terms of both volume and magnificence. The weaving and embroidery expertise introduced into Spain and Sicily by the Umayyad Arab rulers was subsequently passed on to the rest of Europe, where it was influential in the development of textile centers in Italy and France. In 1133, Arab textile workshops in Palermo produced the famous coronation mantle of Roger II, Norman king of Sicily, which is embroidered around its edge with Arabic written in kufic calligraphy.

Other prized Arab textiles were used throughout Christian medieval Europe by the nobility and clergy in ceremonial and ecclesiastical clothing and even in the linings of ornate boxes. Several European paintings from the 14th century show embroidered Arabic calligraphy in the costumes of wealthy Europeans. In Gentile da Fabriano's "Adoration of the Magi," painted in 1423, bands edging a woman's shawl are decorated with prominent mock-Arabic calligraphy, and a squire wears a sash from shoulder to waist that is embroidered in gold in Arabic letter-forms.

Remnants of finely embroidered 10th-century fabrics have also been found in Egypt. The geometric patterns embroidered on these recreate woven designs known as early as the fourth to second centuries BC. This delicate embroidery had become possible thanks to finer needles, which were probably the result of improved steel-manufacturing techniques in the Arab world, particularly in Damascus. These embroidery patterns are similar to some Palestinian ones still in use today.

Thus by the end of the 14th century, the main features of a slowly evolving basic style had been established. Robes found in Arab-ruled Spain and dating from the 13th century have the same cut, the same square chestpiece and the same decorated back panel as many Palestinian dresses up through the present day.

During Ottoman rule of the Middle East, in the 16th through 19th centuries, urban fashions followed the styles of the ruling class, and during the 19th century those styles became increasingly Westernized. But in Palestinian towns and villages, the traditional style of costume remained unchanged. The fabric was always linen, and the embroidery was silk stitched in the centuries-old patterns.

The 19th-century Western Christian missionaries who assumed that local embroidery styles were borrowed from the Crusaders were 180 degrees wrong: The influence flowed the other way, from East to West. Costume historians generally agree that the rich embroidery and ornate headdresses fashionable in medieval Europe are another example of Near Eastern influence in domestic style and comfort, mediated by returning Crusaders.

In fact, the Crusaders in Palestine often adopted Arab dress. The Frankish chronicler Foucher de Chartres, who took part in the First Crusade, deplored this. "The man who was Roman or Frankish is here a Galilean or Palestinian.... We have forgotten where we were born,""he huffed. These styles and habits of dress were carried back to Europe. According to Ibn Jubayr, writing between 1180 and 1185, "Christian ladies [in Sicily] completely follow the fashions of Muslim women in the way they veil themselves and wear their mantles,...[and] flaunt themselves in church in perfectly Muslim toilettes."

In Palestine, the traditional style was itself influenced by the important nearby textile centers of Syria, famous for their silk weaving since the fifth century. Syrian fabrics were used in many Palestinian costumes, and Syrian traditional dresses share a similar repertoire of motifs with their Palestinian counterparts. The influence of the Arabian Peninsula is seen in the ornate silver jewelry brought in by trade and incorporated into the Palestinian costume.

Although the influences on Palestinian costumes have been numerous, the end result is a legacy that is uniquely and distinctly Palestinian, transcending its role as an art form to become a symbol of Palestinian identity. The ancient embroidered patterns bore symbols of hope, prosperity, good health and protection, and had traditional names that reflected natural features: the moon, the cypress tree, the tree of life, the bird of paradise. Though every woman could express her creativity by her choice of patterns and their arrangement on the dress, each region of Palestine followed its own distinctive stylistic rules.

Embroidery of costume and home accessories was done—and still is done—by women who preserved the traditional patterns by copying older dresses. In so doing they created costumes of lasting beauty that have earned a special place among the ethnic folkdress traditions of the world. More significantly, this tradition of Palestinian needlework has kept alive ancient styles and symbols that have provided us with a unique window to the past.

Hanan Karaman Munayyer and Farah Munayyer are the founders of the Palestinian Heritage Foundation.

This article appeared on pages 2-11 of the March/April 1997 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for March/April 1997 images.