What can a book about traditional folkloric costumes tell us about contemporary politics? Quite a lot as it happens.
Hanan Karaman Munayyer’s beautiful new volume, “Traditional Palestinian Costume: Origins and Evolution” (Interlink, 2011) combines superb photography of the renowned Munayyer collection of traditional Palestinian dress with an analysis of their origins, evolution and variations. Since the 1980s, Munayyer and her husband Farah have been assembling these costumes and other artifacts of Palestinian traditional life in their Palestinian Heritage Foundation.
Between the two of them and their foundation, they are among the most important documentarians and preservationists of this history and heritage, not just in the United States, but in the world. Their collection, which dates from the 1850s to the present, has been exhibited at the Kennedy Center in Washington and in museums and galleries across the globe.
Munayyer’s important new book demonstrates a number of very salient points with serious implications about the present and future for the Palestinian people. First, it shows that traditional and folkloric Palestinian costumes are distinctive from other Levantine ones. Within Palestinian society, in various areas and villages, the costumes have their own particular features, handed down largely from mother to daughter, over decades and indeed centuries. But there is still a distinctive Palestinian style, strongly connected to other Levantine traditional dress, with forms and patterns all their own.
Second, this rich history yet again demonstrates—and unfortunately this point continuously needs to be reaffirmed against pro-Israel propaganda that attacks the idea relentlessly—that an ancient and unbroken Palestinian history and culture really does exist. Like Walid Khalidi’s invaluable volumes “Before Their Diaspora: A Photographic History Of The Palestinians 1876-1948” (Institute for Palestine Studies, 1984) and “All That Remains: The Palestinian Villages Occupied and Depopulated by Israel in 1948” (Institute for Palestine Studies, 1992), Hanan Karaman Munayyer’s book stands as a stark refutation of the negation of Palestinian identity, history and culture.
The days are long gone when Golda Meir’s infamous remark about the Palestinians is still taken seriously in the West. The onetime Israeli prime minister stated that “[t]here is no such thing as a Palestinian people… It is not as if we came and threw them out and took their country. They didn’t exist.” Yet there remains a hard-core contingent among Israelis and pro-Israel Westerners who persist in denying Palestinians their identity, history and heritage.
Therefore, documenting that history and those traditions is not only a vital project of collective memory and an important academic task in itself, it is also a quintessentially political act. It is, above all, an act of passionate, dedicated and deeply meaningful resistance to the continued efforts at the negation of Palestinian identity and history.
This is Palestinian sumud, or steadfastness, at its finest. Beyond bluster, slogans and canned rhetoric, Munayyer’s volume has something deeply serious and meaningful to say about both the origins and the future of Palestinian national identity. That it is an important reference work in its own right and a stunning contribution to art history is an added bonus.
Beyond Palestinian particularism, the book also sheds important light on the relationship between different Arab cultures over the centuries and their relationship with ancient, pre-Arab traditions and civilizations. Perhaps even more importantly, it also examines the cross-pollination between Western and Middle Eastern cultures in the field of textile arts. Like so much of the rest of this fertile exchange, its most important moments were the confrontational interactions of civilizations during the Crusades and the colonial era.
Understanding the continuous interaction between the art and culture of the West and the Middle East undermines any notions of binary oppositional relationships between these societies and the dangerous concept of a “clash of civilizations.”
The West and the Arabs have been learning from each other for more than 1,000 years, and they continue to do so. Even a history as specific as that of traditional Palestinian costume demonstrates that contemporary cultures are rooted in an ancient past, an evolutionary process of cross-cultural exchange and influences, and, at its best, a healthy respect for each other’s contributions and traditions.
The book also helps to show that while Palestinian identity is distinctive and draws on particular cultural styles, it is also deeply rooted in the broader Arab Levantine tradition. This identity has been shaped more by its 20th century political encounter with Zionism and Israel than any pre-existing distinctive nationalist identity.
By focusing in great detail on a very narrow aspect of Palestinian life, Munayyer’s book has much to teach us not only about the past and future of the Palestinian people, but also about how culture in general functions in daily life and in shaping present-day political identities. Such flashes of insight help us understand the origins of our contemporary national identities, but also their broader ancient and regional roots, and their deep connection to a never-ending process of human cultural interaction across vast swaths of time and space.