The Palestinian Heritage Foundation
Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 09.12.2006:
The Palestinian Heritage Foundation A Legacy of Pride
By Hanan Karaman Munayyer and Farah Joseph Munayyer
The seed for what would become the Palestinian Heritage Foundation was planted in the mid-1980s when Hanan Munayyer went back to Palestine and bought a traditional embroidered Palestinian dress in the Arab East Jerusalem Souk. The dress was the driving force behind the beginning of what became an eternal commitment to Arab, and most specifically Palestinian art and culture in the United States and worldwide, leading eventually to the establishment a few years later of the U.S.-based Palestinian Heritage Foundation.
Since Arab-Americans have long had to contend with a distorted media image of Arabs, the challenge was to find ways to define who Palestinians are, as opposed to who others say they are.
The answer came unexpectedly in 1987 while Farah Munayyer was looking for a book on Palestinian traditional costumes in a shop in Jerusalem. Later that same year, he and Hanan decided to buy a collection of antique Palestinian embroidered dresses brought from Palestine to be sold in the United States. It bothered them that such a collection might be scattered. That would destroy a valuable asset that belongs to a people who have already lost too much. That sale triggered a series of events that transformed their lives.
The awe they felt when they first viewed the astounding beauty of that first collection inspired them to attempt to generate the same feeling in others. They decided that a video, as an easily portable sample of Palestinian culture, would be the best way to reach homes, libraries and community gatherings. Palestinian Costumes and Embroidery: A Precious Legacy was first displayed by the United Nations in December 1987 during the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People. Since then, it has been acquired by such institutions as the Cambridge Public Library, the New York Public Library, the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, and many homes and media centres at universities and around the world.
They also decided that merely viewing these costumes was not enough. The question of how this art had developed to such a degree of intricacy and sophistication required an answer. Thus Hanan began a long search into art history, archaeology, interpretation of ancient symbols and patterns, and into the history of costumes and crafts in the Middle East that spanned a period of four thousand years, eventually influencing arts and crafts in other emerging civilizations, such as Ottoman Turkey and medieval Europe.
Studying these enduring patterns revealed a ‘language,’ a script of individual motifs chosen by embroiderers whose lack of writing skills was overcome by their ability to express their creativity through the choice of lively patterns copied from generation to generation. This rich repertoire of ancient patterns that survived in these traditional costumes is as relevant a source of historical data as any archaeological find.
In addition to the first collection acquired in 1987, they bought two additional small collections from Palestinians living in the United States. Three years later, through a series of coincidences, their collection took a leap forward when they met Joseph Qutub, President of ASAI (Arab Student Aid International) who told the Munayyers about a music teacher he had as a student in the 1940s at the Friend’s School in Ramallah. Rolla Foley, an American Quaker, collected in the 1940s nearly one hundred complete Palestinian and Syrian costumes, some dating back to 1850, and documented each dress by village. Foley’s interest in Palestine continued after he returned to the United States. He established a small museum in Oakland, Illinois. The museum did not survive Foley’s death in 1970, and his widow, Ulla, inherited the collection. When Qutub introduced them to Ulla, she decided that her husband’s collection should be added to theirs.
In addition, the Palestinian Heritage Foundation has recently received the late Hala Salam Maksoud collection of Arab traditional costumes, generously donated by her brother Usama Salam and her sister Hania Salam Osman.
In 1992, the Munayyers founded the Palestinian Heritage Foundation, a cultural and educational organization aimed at promoting awareness and understanding of Arab and, specifically, Palestinian culture and traditions. These aims have been pursued through programmes that deepen the pride of Arab-Americans in their heritage and introduce the general American public to this Arab heritage through lectures and live costume shows and exhibits in the United States and Canada. To that end, they published a quarterly eight-page newsletter, Heritage, and a few years later established the most-visited Palestinian cultural website, www.palestineheritage.org. To acquaint the American public with Arab culture and art, the Palestinian Heritage Foundation presented major exhibitions at several museums in the United States. Live shows were presented at the United Nations in New York; the International Friendship Festival in Los Angeles; the West Point Military Academy; the Brooklyn Children’s Museum in New York; and the Place des Arts in Montreal, Canada. For three consecutive years, the Foundation participated in Mahrajan-Al-Fan at the Brooklyn Museum and in a unique and exclusive six-month exhibition, Community of Many Worlds: American-Arabs in New York at the Museum of the City of New York.
For the past twenty years, Hanan, President and co-founder of the Foundation, has researched Middle Eastern textiles and embroidery and has given lectures at museums, universities (including Harvard and Georgetown), cultural societies, schools, and the West Point Military Academy in New York. These lectures have been very well received and focus on the ancient history of Palestinian embroidery patterns, the influence of the Arab textile industry of the 11th -15th centuries on medieval Europe’s textile industries, and the transfer of these patterns and techniques to Europe.
In 1998, the Palestinian Heritage Foundation was awarded the Cultural and Heritage Award by the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee at the awards banquet of the 15th Annual National Convention in Crystal City, Virginia.
By far, the greatest inspiration and satisfaction has come from those who have viewed or participated in the Foundation’s presentations. Young Arab-American men and women who took part in the shows developed a genuine pride in their heritage. They came to view these costumes not as pieces of clothing but as pieces of history. More importantly, people who had never before seen artistic or cultural material from the Arab world walked away from the exhibits with a great appreciation for the intricacy and beauty of the traditional costumes and respect for the people who created them. These changed outlooks ensure that eventually Arabs will no longer be depicted as cartoon villains but as a proud people with a fascinating history and a rich culture. The women who created these dresses probably did not consider their embroidered “script” to be anything more than village tradition. How proud they would be to know that theirs is the language by which Palestinian culture is being defined to the public.
Hanan Karaman Munayyer and Farah Joseph Munayyer are Palestinian-Americans. Farah is a research pharmacist and Hanan is a molecular biologist.
Article photos are courtesy of Farah and Hanan Munayyer collection, New Jersey, USA
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