en zh es ja ko pt

Volume 42, Number 1January/February 1991

In This Issue

Back to Table of Contents

Woven Legacy, Woven Language

Written by Jane Waldron Grutz
Photographed by Jonathan S. Weaver
Additional photographs courtesy of The British Museum

For most people it's just so rich, and so beautiful, and so complex, it's quite hard to take it in on a first visit," says Museum of Mankind anthropologist Shelagh Weir. She is speaking about the Palestinian costume exhibition on view in London through the end of this year. "It's like a complicated language. You've just got to give yourself time to absorb it."

Time to view the costumes, time to think about them, and time to mull over the nuances of the language they reveal are indeed what the visitor wants and needs. And nearly every visitor to the museum does seem to walk slowly and deliberately through the two large viewing galleries in an effort to absorb and remember as much as possible.

Of course, even in a collection as fine as this one, with dozens and dozens of costumes on display, some are more memorable than others. A deep-hued thawb malaki, or "royal dress," from Bethlehem is a case in point. Set out along one wall of the first gallery, its rich gold and multicolored silk couching echoes the ecclesiastical garments and Turkish uniforms that actually inspired its beautiful design.

Across the hall, a colorful jillayah, or coat, from Galilee creates quite another impression. Appliqued with bright patches of red, green and yellow taffeta and embroidered in a myriad of vivid patterns, it hints at origins that might date back to Joseph's coat of many colors.

The men's costumes on view seem more straightforward. The gumbaz (another style of coat) made of white Syrian satin and worn by a young bridegroom clearly speaks its Ottoman influence, while the heavy wool bisht and white thawb of a sedate Druze family man betray an earlier rural tradition.

In turn-of-the-century Palestine, however, it was the design of the turban that told of a man's place in society, and one of the few glass cases in the exhibit shows a whole set of miniature turbans. Originally made for early-20th-century tourists, these models make it easy to see how different the green turban of the imam, or prayer leader, was from the plain white turban worn by Muslim scholars. The orange and yellow weave worn by lower-class urban workers looks quite pedestrian in comparison.

The differences between women's headdresses, on view in another glass case, are even more apparent. The small, soft cap of a woman from a village near Nablus looks modest indeed compared to the ornate headdress of a woman from Ramallah, where heavy rows of silver coins surround the face. The beautiful Palestinian veils, draped around and sometimes over these headdresses, proclaim their place of origin by their fabrics and colors and by the embroidery patterns used.

Though there are brief explanatory labels near all the displays, most of the background information about the exhibition is posted in the anteroom. More detailed information is available in the resting area near one end of the second gallery, where the visitor can sit down on comfortable benches and page through books about Palestine, or simply gaze out over the colorful shawal dresses that Palestinian girls wear today.

"It's more or less as I wanted it. I feel satisfied now," says Weir, who visits the collection most days to "see everything is going all right." Sometimes she shows people around, or gives a talk, but for the most part, she says, "my work's done now." It began four years ago, when Weir wrote the outline for the exhibit, which was to follow her enormously popular "Nomad and City" exhibition of 10 years ago, as well as a 1970 exhibition on Palestinian costume "that could be said to be the predecessor of this one."

From the outset, Weir envisioned a far more comprehensive exhibit than the one of 20 years ago. She wanted more costumes, fewer glass cases, and an exhibition hall specially structured to emulate the terraced fields of Palestine. The resting area was her idea, too. "It's really nice to have a place to sit and take stock and rest with your friends and look at the books," she explains.

Three books were called for in her original plan for the exhibition - her own comprehensive volume, Palestinian Costume; the book on Palestinian Embroidery, which she co-authored with Serene Sha-hid; and The Palestinian Village Home by Suad Amiry and Vera Tamari. So were the support personnel and materials needed for the educational program that runs in concert with the exhibit.

"We have education programs attached to most of our major projects," Weir explains, noting that an objective of the Museum of Mankind - the ethnographic department of the British Museum - is to show that the cultures presented are not just fossilized remnants from the past, but living, breathing entities today.

And what better way to show that than with living, breathing people? "To actually meet a human being from there, and see they're likable and attractive, well-informed, well-educated, is all part of the process of understanding other cultures. Children, especially, respond very well to teachers from the place concerned."

In an effort to find such people, Weir and Museum of Mankind education officer Penny Bateman traveled to the West Bank and Jordan in the spring of 1989 to interview artists, musicians, teachers and others who could convey one or another aspect of Palestinian culture.

Inam Raja, a native of Jerusalem who works as a kindergarten coordinator on the West Bank, was one of the first to arrive in London, spending a month working with the groups of schoolchildren who visit the exhibit on weekday mornings and afternoons. Other Palestinians have since come and gone, and in the coming months there will be a hakawati theater group from Jerusalem, an artist from Lebanon who, Bateman explains, does "a story in a box which he unrolls as he goes along, which is a traditional Arab thing," and artists from the West Bank who should provide the impetus for a series of art workshops.

Not all the exhibition's Palestinian volunteers live in Palestine. Many live in England because, notes Weir, "that's an important aspect of being Palestinian too." Sonia al-Nimr of Nablus, now working on her doctorate in art history, devotes as much of her free time as she can to showing groups of school children aspects of Palestinian costume. "Without exception, they are amazed at the beauty of the costumes," she says. "They love to touch them. They love to feel them. And they love to see the little shiny, silvery bits on them, and the embroidery," she adds.

"The Palestinians are willing to help if they can, because they feel it's an opportunity to share their country with other people," explains education officer Ben Burt, who developed the program with Bateman. Walking through the exhibit one day, he chanced to run into a Palestinian woman who asked where she might find a tape of the Arabic background music being played. She soon volunteered to help in any way she could. "It turned out she was a folk singer," Burt said, who, as a result, will soon be presenting a Saturday afternoon of music accompanied by Palestinian musicians.

These "Saturday afternoons," held the last weekend of every month, have proved immensely popular both with visitors and with the many Palestinian graduate students in the area, who regularly volunteer to help out. Typical of these volunteers are Aliya Khalidi and Reem Abdelhadi.

Now working on her doctorate in Arab theater, Khalidi likes to don the baggy trousers and loose thawb of the hakawati, or storyteller, and embroider her Arab folk tales with information about Palestinian culture that she inserts as she goes along. In one story, for example, she has "a little girl go from one village to another with her grandmother, taking presents to people and receiving other presents in return, and the presents are very traditional things, like necklaces of jasmine flowers - a very common thing in Lebanon and Palestine."

Abdelhadi, who is now working on her doctorate on the political socialization of Palestinian women, teaches embroidery to youngsters, projecting her own enthusiasm to the children, who are delighted to make something beautiful. "It's fun, because you see little children, and they come in so excited. 'Is this right? Is this Palestinian?' I love children. And also I feel I am doing something for my country which, to me, is very important."

Serene Shahid, who has spent a good part of her life working on embroidery projects for Palestinian women, normally conducts her very popular embroidery workshops on weekdays. As she demonstrates the incredible fineness of the stitches, "just two threads to every stitch," Serene talks about how the patterns have evolved and changed in recent years.

As Bateman explains, each facet of the educational program shows the visitor one or another aspect of Palestinian culture in "an informal way, so that people have a nice time, and learn in a rather indirect way. It's not forced on them with lectures and things like that." The museum's objective, asserts Bateman, is to help people understand "that there's an historical depth to Palestinian culture, and that it's a real living culture today."

Through the costumes, the exhibit also talks about the history of Palestine, particularly the period of the British Mandate between 1918 and 1948.

To introduce the visitor to the period, Weir has placed a large map in the anteroom, showing the physical extent of Palestine at that time. Reaching from Galilee in the north to Gaza in the south, and from the Jordan River on the east to the Mediterranean on the west, Palestine was then a land of more than 800 towns and villages. Jerusalem was the largest city, and Nablus, Hebron, Nazareth and Jaffa were all important market towns. The Christian towns of Ramallah and Bethlehem were particularly affluent, and the dresses worn by the women of these towns are some of the loveliest in the exhibit.

Other towns achieved prominence as fine embroidery centers too, however. Lifta, near Jerusalem, and Bayt Dajan near Jaffa were among the wealthiest communities in their areas, and their em-broideresses among the most artistic. Mejdel in the south, though not an embroidery center at all, was the largest weaving center in Palestine, with Gaza not far behind. These towns were known for their fine cottons and linens. The silks and satins used in the finer Palestinian gowns were imported from the great weaving centers of Syria - Aleppo, Horns and Damascus.

The exhibition's anteroom is filled with examples of these fabrics. There are the brightly-striped fabrics of Mejdel, bearing such colorful names as "heaven and hell" and "father of 200"; rich atlas satins and heremzi taffetas from Syria and even the rough-textured wool cloth that was woven in Nablus. There are also representative examples of patchwork, of cross-stitch, and of the elaborate couching associated with Bethlehem. Examples of the early European pattern books that added birds and flowers and other naturalistic motifs to the vocabulary of geometric patterns previously favored in Palestine are arranged in glass cases against the wall. Other cases display samples of embroidery floss - the silk-like cotton DMC and Anchor floss produced in France and England and still used by Palestinians today, as well as the bright-hued pure silks spun from cocoons in Horns and Mt. Lebanon.

"I can still remember the silks flashing in colors," says Serene Shahid, remembering the summers of her childhood in the village of Sharafat, outside Jerusalem. There, before the sun grew hot, she often watched the young village women as they sat out under the pine trees and embroidered their trousseau dresses with the vivid pinks, fuchsias and greens of Syrian silk. The same care and love these young women lavished on their dresses is evident throughout the whole exhibit.

For the visitor, the only problem is deciding which of these beautifully decorated garments to look at first. There is no set way to view the exhibit - no narrow path to follow from beginning to end. "I didn't want people to feel herded. I wanted large floor areas with nothing in at all, for spaciousness," says Weir, who also wanted to provide a comfortable resting spot for students and other "Middle Eastern on-the-floor-sitters like myself."

In so doing she has also provided plenty of room for the visitor to move around the costumes, which are "just as beautiful at the back as at the front," as well as to investigate the large murals, blown up from photographs of the country taken in the early years of this century. Arranged along the walls, these murals enable the visitor to see how well the costumes blended into the almost Biblical scenes of early 20th-century Palestine.

"Palestine is a land of hills and valleys, with mountaintop villages of beautiful limestone," says Weir. "Most Palestinians lived in the villages. People tend to think of the Palestinians as Bedouins, but they were mostly town-dwellers who might work in the fields that surrounded their village by day - woman shared in the work at harvest time - but who had a strong village social life. Their costumes reflected their standing in this society - their economic status, whether married or single, the town or area they were from." The way in which different fabrics, colors and decorative motifs are used to convey this information is the language of costume, and up through the 1940's most village women could decipher it. This was the language Weir was introduced to in 1965, shortly after she joined the Museum of Mankind. Asked by the museum to help fill out its collections by selecting costumes from the Church Missionary Society, which was then dispersing its own enormous costume collection, Weir became so involved with the subject that she decided to extend her research to Palestine. Once there, she explains, "1 was captivated by the people and the area, and I decided to specialize." Weir spent three months in Palestine in 1967 and two more months in 1968. Basing herself in Jerusalem, she traveled from there to Galilee, the West Bank and Gaza in an attempt to learn the large vocabulary of costumes and identify the main regional styles. Subsequently, she extended her research and collecting to Palestinian refugees living in Jordan, all the while collecting more costumes and learning what she could.

Though Weir had originally hoped to document the types of costumes found in all the larger villages of Palestine, the sheer wealth of information ultimately forced her to confine her research to a single village in each area. Because of its beautiful costumes, she began - and eventually concentrated on - the village of Bayt Dajan. In the 1970's, armed with names from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, she "sat for hours with a tape recorder" interviewing the women of Bayt Dajan, who were then living widely dispersed, as refugees.

Even now, Weir feels "very close to the village women. There's no doubt that the women of Palestine are very articulate, very strong characters, on the whole. They had a very secure and high place in their villages. They were - and are - greatly respected and had a high social status in the family. And there's a confidence, too. They're very proud of their traditions. I certainly did love the research," she adds. "I grew very fond of my main informants." From these interviews, from interviews with other Palestinians, from discussions with students and collectors of costumes and from extensive archival research, Weir pieced together the changes that came to Palestinian costume from the late 19th century, through the 1940's and on to the present time. As an anthropologist, her main focus was the way the language of costume evolved over this period.

One thing remained constant, she discovered, through all variations and throughout Palestine: The most beautiful costumes were created for the great occasions of life, particularly the celebrations surrounding a wedding.

In Palestine, there were at least 10 different celebrations, with the bride playing the most prominent role in several of them. Among these were the henna night (laylat al-henna); the procession of the bride from her father's house to that of the groom (tal'at min dar abuha); the bride's money ceremony (nqut); and finally, and most important, the "going out to the well" (tal'at al-bir) ceremony.

The latter impressive event, for which the bride was expected to reserve her most elaborate and beautiful trousseau dress, took place following a week of seclusion with her husband, when she went out in procession with the other women to the village well to begin her proper duties as a wife.

With so much importance attached to the tal'at al-bir gown, and to the trousseau itself, which included festive dresses and everyday dresses, as well as cushion covers and other articles, it was no surprise that girls began to learn embroidery as soon as they could wield a needle, usually at about the age of six.

"Girls sat with their mothers and their sisters to learn the patterns of their village," explains Weir. "There were standard patterns you had to have in your village, but there was always room for innovation. Fashions would catch on, and people would copy someone; that person would gain prestige as she came to be recognized as an innovator."

Indeed, in addition to the basic patterns, which were embroidered on separate cloth panels over months or years as time allowed, every woman wanted to have the latest and most fashionable patterns, whether they originated in her own village or elsewhere.

A good example was the famous Bethlehem couching, a type of work in which gold and silver cord, along with silk cording of other colors, was fashioned into open floral patterns and stitched onto an underlying fabric. The women of Bethlehem, the acknowledged fashion leaders of central Palestine, had for some time applied this type of work to the chest panels and cuffs of their dresses. When, after a time, it became possible for women from other villages to purchase the finished panels from embroideresses in Bethlehem, or commission them from local embroideresses who copied the work, every woman wanted them for her "going out" dress. Often, the groom presented these decorative pieces to his bride-to-be as part of the kiswah, a present of materials or money that was usually negotiated between the families as part of the marriage agreement.

Once the date of the wedding was arranged and all the materials gathered together, the bride - or more likely the dressmaker - would build the embroidered pieces into a garment in the accepted style of the village.

Throughout the Galilee area and as far south as Nablus, that might be ajillayah, an ornamented coat with short sleeves and an open front. In southern Palestine, it would probably be a thawb with a round neck, a chest slit and very long pointed sleeves which could be tied behind the neck, freeing the forearms, when any work had to he done. In southwest Palestine, a thawb with a v-neck and long tight sleeves was preferred, while in the Hebron hills, where the people were very conservative, the thawbs had high necks.

The color of the dress would also help to identify its origin. In the Nablus and Tul-karm areas, dresses were always white, and usually of cotton with colored stripes of silk or cotton woven in. In the coastal plain south of Ramleh and in the Hebron hills, dresses were only "black," sometimes with variously colored silk stripes. In the Ramallah and Jaffa areas and around Jerusalem, but not as far south as Bethlehem, both white and "black" dresses were worn. None of the black dresses was truly black, however, as the color produced by repeated dyings with indigo was a mid- to dark blue, while the white was the natural color of linen. Only with the introduction of aniline dyes from Europe in the 1880's did dresses become truly black.

The most subtle differences between dresses were in the decorative designs. Every village had its own embroidery patterns, or ways of applying patchwork, or methods of joining fabrics together, including inserts of such rich fabrics as taffeta or satin, or later, European velvet. Still, there was a basic "grammar" to all the dresses. Every dress had a chest panel, long or short sleeves, two seams down the sides of the front, and two more seams down the sides of the back.

Usually, decoration was applied at the seams: down the sides, around the neck, down the sleeves, around the cuffs, and at the back along the hem, which was called the shinyar. At first, embroidery stitches seemed to be simply elaborations on the basic stitches needed to hold the pieces together. As time went on, however, more and more embroidery was used and by the 1930's, when the dresses were most elaborate, the embroidery was often so dense it hid the rich fabric underneath.

The visitor to the exhibit can easily see these changes, by comparing costumes from the turn of the century with those made in the 1930's. In the earlier costumes, embroidery patterns were usually geometric, and nearly always attributable to their village of origin. For example, a dress from Ramallah would almost certainly bear the distinctive "tall palm" pattern, at least on the shinyar, while a dress from Bayt Dajan would feature the "pockets and cypress trees" pattern, for many years the hallmark of the area. By the 1930's, however, the dresses were fashioned in richer fabrics and featured a far greater variety of patterns, not always including the original village patterns. Headdresses too became more elaborate.

As Weir points out in Palestinian Costume, most of these changes could be traced to the prosperous era following World War I, which included the arrival of motor transport. Where previously journeys had been undertaken on foot or muleback, cars and trucks now made it possible for village people to travel to outlying markets and local shrines, to meet people from other villages, and to see how those costumes differed from their own.

Another change was the arrival of the new European materials - rich velvets, mercerized cotton embroidery flosses, curvilinear embroidery patterns and, of course, the new aniline dyes. These had begun to trickle in well before the turn of the century, but it was only in the 1930's, when more people could afford to buy them, that they had any real effect on the clothing people wore.

All these changes could be seen in the dresses of Bayt Dajan. For example, at the turn of the century, a bride prepared from one to three dresses for her trousseau. They might include a "big" jillayah which was always black; a "small" jillayah, also black; and a "small" thawb, which was always white. ("Big" and "small" referred to the amount of embroidery, not the size of the dress). When the young men returned to Bayt Dajan following the end of World War I, however, they brought new ideas with them. The jillayah was relegated to obscurity and was replaced by a larger trousseau consisting of white and black thawbs, each featuring a different pattern of embroidery. By the late 1930's the preferred trousseau consisted of 12 black and white thawbs. This would include one set of four dresses featuring the beautiful Na'ani embroidery, named after the patterns of the town of Al-Na'ani, which the women of Bayt Dajan considered even finer and more beautiful than their own; one set of four "moon" dresses (thawb abu gmar) and one set of four "lamp" dresses (thawb al-fanayir), "moon" and "lamp" referring to the embroidery pattern on the shinyar.

Two of each set of dresses would be black, and two would be white, with one in each color being a "fully" embroidered version and one a "half-embroidered" version. As time went on, more and more changes were introduced until, by the mid-1930's, a dress of Bayt Dajan was a truly magnificent creation, worn with pride on as many occasions as possible.

Yet, one of the remarkable things visible in the exhibition is how well these dresses have lasted. The rich embroidery seems as beautiful as ever, and the dress fabrics seem only to have mellowed with time.

This comes as no surprise to Serene Shahid, who explains that the pure silk used in the embroidery patterns was "very strong." No one wanted to waste the hours they spent embroidering by using cheap thread or fabrics, and Palestinian women always took care to buy the best that they could afford. Even the cotton Anchor and DMC sewing threads were known to be long-lasting, which in large measure accounted for their popularity.

Today many of the changes that have come to Palestinian embroidery are due to the lack of materials of comparable quality. No one is more aware of this than Shahid, who turned to embroidery as an income source following the 1967 war, when so many village families were left without work or money.

Then living in Beirut, she joined with several Lebanese women to begin what they hoped would become a cottage industry for displaced village women. "At first we thought we would never succeed," she says. It wasn't just that the old embroidery silks and open-weave fabrics were impossible to find - the patterns too were a problem. The women came from many villages, with many different traditions. In the end, Shahid and the others simply "took the old patterns and redesigned them."

They made other innovations too. Instead of embroidering traditionally with silk on cotton, the women began to embroider with cotton on silk, "which is the more complicated way." The popular DMC threads were still available and, as Lebanon at that time was renewing its silk industry, fine silk fabric was available as well. Of course, the ease of embroidering directly on the old open-weave fabrics was gone. Instead, the women had to embroider on waste canvas and meticulously strip it away, thread by thread, after the embroidery was completed.

Her cottage industry was a success, but Shahid admits that Palestinian embroidery is not as it was. The old designs have become something new. But as she explains, that is how Palestinian embroidery has always been.

"Where did these designs come from?" she asks. "Those women were illiterate. They found the designs in mosques, in churches, in whatever they saw." The origins of these patterns, she points out, may go back to ancient times, even to the Babylonians. "It is because Palestine's culture was the result of so many ancient and more recent cultures. So many cultures passed through this country that it's not only the city that becomes influenced, but the villages too."

In truth, there is no telling where the patterns began or where they will end. One need only look at the embroidery of Reem Abdelhadi, who teaches embroidery to children at the museum's Saturday afternoons, to see that this is so.

Interested in embroidery since childhood, when she learned from her Nabulsi aunt how to do the European patterns, Abdelhadi one day decided to follow in the footsteps of her Ramallah aunt instead and began to use traditional Palestinian embroidery patterns.

"I didn't copy patterns. I wanted to be creative, you see, and I did my own - and apparently that's how, traditionally, Palestinian women do it." Abdelhadi even found she was using Palestinian colors. "I don't like red, but I was using red," she says, concluding that it must be because "red is the color of the earth of Palestine." As for the patterns, "they must have come from somewhere in the back of my mind," she says, "from what I saw as a child."

Today, Abdelhadi embroiders on the train going to and from classes, turning out designs the size of cushion covers which she gives to her friends.

"This is going to be a cushion for Sonia," she says, speaking of Sonia al-Nimr, who works with groups of school children at the Museum of Mankind. "This is how Sonia is. She has a basic sort of very sound, down-to-earth personality, but there are these little things that shine out of her. These are the little colorful bits." The piece is filled with complex stitches, "little colorful bits" radiating from the center of a wonderful design that seems to flow out of Abdelhadi's head as she goes along. She has no pattern to follow, and seems to have no need of on*

"Do people always do embroidery with things like that in mind?" asks Ben Burt, obviously intrigued with her work.

"Oh yes, I think so," she says, noting that those who understand the language of costume will know from the designs where the work originated. If they know the person who did the embroidery, they will understand even more.

She gives an example. "I was working on something, and over and over again came the star of Bethlehem. 'Why was that?' I thought. And then I realized, it is because I see this star over and over again in the Christmas decorations. And so, whenever I see that piece again, I will remember that I made it during Christmas in such and such a year, and I will think of all the things that happened then."

As Abdelhadi talks, Aliya Khalidi goes over to the children's "handling collection" of costumes, pulls one out and tries it on. The bright-colored embroidery and deep indigo cloth seem to suit her. "You need a jarra [a jar] to carry on your head," says her friend, barely suppressing a giggle.

The young, 20th-century college girl strikes a pose, and suddenly she looks like Rebecca at the well in a dress whose designs may well go back to Biblical times. Everyone else looks on, amazed at her transformation.

Penny Bateman speaks for all when she says, "I know no one planned these things, that they just evolved. But," she adds, "they certainly got it right."

Reem Abdelhadi looks up, pleased with the response to this dress of many colors. "That's how it is," she agrees with a nod. "That's how Palestinian costume is."

Jane Waldron Grutz wrote television commercials in New York and London, wrote for and edited The Arabian Sun during 17 years' residence in Saudi Arabia, and now free-lances in Houston.

This article appeared on pages 34-43 of the January/February 1991 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for January/February 1991 images.