Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Stitches in Time: The Munayyer Palestinian Collection

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Stitches in Time: The Munayyer Palestinian Collection

Article excerpt

Stitches in Time: The Munayyer Palestinian Collection

By Ian Williams

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.

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.

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. …

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