Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Enquiries from local schools

We get quite a lot of enquiries from educational institutions. Here is an example of the kind of thing we sometimes send out to local requests for educational resources. We'll post an example of an overseas response later.

We received the following a while back:
"I am currently teaching a small group of Y11 and Y12 students who are studying the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It would be good if they can make contact with anyone interested in discussing Palestinian culture, and even better if they could visit your collection at the same time.There are 12 students in the group.

Is a visit possible ? If yes, what times are best ?

Richard Gorrell
Hawker College"
These sorts of requests are tricky. We are absolutely delighted to talk to school groups about Middle Eastern and Palestinian cultural heritage and historic issues, but we prefer to leave discussions of contemporary politics to others. So in this case, our Public Programs Manager replied:
"Dear Mr Gorrell,

Thank you for your email to the Palestine Costume Archive regarding educational programs. Our apology for the delay in reply, due to Archive staff being overseas with our travelling exhibitions.

Unfortunately because those exhibitions are away at present there is little in our pre 1948 collection that we can show your students. However we can provide slide lectures at your school accompanied by a small collection of post 1948 (primarily refugee) textile items, if this might be of interest.

While our museum's educational / public programs do not deal with political issues, to provide these might we suggest you contact Avigail Abarbanel (BA(Hons.), Grad. Dip. Psych./Couns., Cert. Gestalt Couns) who often speaks to school groups and provides an extremely interesting viewpoint. We could combine a visit between Avigail and an Archive staff member, covering both past and present, if you liked.

Today, many young Australians are travelling to the Palestinian / Israeli region to work for humanitarian organizations such as ISM (International Solidarity Movement ) helping with Palestinian olive harvests, protecting homes, etc. If you would like your class to hear of these experiences - which give an idea of daily life in Palestinian regions today - we suggest you contact Michael Shaik who has worked with ISM and, like Avigail, regularly speaks at schools. Again, like Avigail, he is an excellent public speaker.

The Archive also holds a large library of films and videos on the history of, and contemporary life in, the Palestinian region (plus many other areas of the Middle East) which we often screen for, or lend, to school groups. If you might like to include some of these check out the catalogue for Arab Film Distribution in Seattle at - we hold most of these titles and it will give you an idea of the quality and quantity of material we offer.

If any of these ideas appeal please drop us a line. Thank you again for contacting our museum"

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Greeting the God in each other...

Libyan woman from Cyrenaica, c1925

We often receive reference enquiries regarding the valuation of textiles. We advise people that we don't usually undertaken valuations but we can provide a valuation assessment, which provides an insurance company with cultural identification, date, conditional report and a comparison of the textile with similar items held in other museums.

Sometimes we can't help very much, but we invariably enjoy the exchange that results, and often acquire new friends (as well as new Archive Friends!). Here's an example of one dialogue resulting from a valuation request. A while back, we received the following message from a North American woman, Romie:
"Hello, I am considering purchasing a piece of Libyan bridal cloth & need to know how one goes about "valuing it." Here is a link to its description & photos on my web site. Thank you"
Our research officer was away, and so was our director, whose reply gives an indication of the kind of info we need with these enquiries:
"Thank you for your research enquiry to the Palestine Costume Archive regarding your proposed Libyan textile acquisition.

"Unfortunately you’ve actually caught us in transit at the moment, away from our research library, so could we just double check how quickly you need a response on this? And do you need cultural info / dating as well as a valuation assessment?

"If you need everything quickly we will refer you to another couple of museums who acquire Middle Eastern textiles and might be able to help, but if you can wait until we can access our research library and archives in a couple of weeks we can certainly try to help you then. This piece is unfamiliar to us, so we’d certainly enjoy learning more about it! Has the seller provided any details at all?
Romie responded:
"Thank you for such a prompt & considerate response. The young lady who owns the piece is wanting to sell it immediately, as she has just had a baby & family visiting from Libya in two weeks. She wishes to, according to cultural tradition, give gifts to her visiting family upon their arrival, and needs to sell the cloth in order to have the funds to do so. She wants $***.00 for it. Here is all the info she's given me:

"I have an exquisite piece of material that is fully hand embroidered with beads and sequin.. very heavy and very unique.. I bought it in Libya (North Africa)......It's a traditional cultural piece that is used as clothing for Libyan brides.

"Regarding the fabric ... it really is glorious ... I actually got it from Libya two years ago ... I took it in to a frame store in Chicago to be framed (turned out to be too expensive for us) and they all went nuts over it. The owner said .. it is very original, and ... he has never seen or heard of anything like it. You are more than welcome to do as much research as you like, but I know for sure you won't find much... "

"She was right about not being able to find much info! While it would be nice to eventually have cultural info / dating as well as a valuation assessment, I think I'll go ahead and acquire it now, as it is truly an absolutely spectacular piece of art. Surely it is worth at least she wants..."
To be quite honest we could hardly help at all in this case - we couldn't "find much" either, lol - other than to provide some basic background on North African / Libyan dress. But we agreed with Romie about the price. We also were intrigued by our conversations with Romie. The idea of acquiring the Libyan wedding textile was taking her on an unexpected journey:
"it seems to me that other cultures have such wonderful traditions & create absolutely beautiful artwork based on their belief systems, as opposed to American "culture" where I feel we really have no "traditions of our own" ...

"Thanks again for your help. I will take more photos once I get it home & displayed. I think I've figured out a way to display it without altering or damaging it, and plan to build a glass wall display case ASAP..."
Often we don't hear from the person again but in this case, not long afterwards an excited Romie wrote to us:
"I acquired the piece over the weekend.. LOVE IT!!! All I have done thus far is to turn one edge under and pin, in anticipation of hanging ... I do want to preserve it's beauty for the future, so will be careful & follow instructions!"
We were so pleased she was happy. Outside of insurance purposes, valuations become pointless - it's what you personally feel for the textile, and how it inspires you when you see it, that is it's true value.

What we love, during dialogues like these, is observing the growing interest of Western women with the Arab / Muslim culture they are encountering via their new textile acquisition. For Romie, her new experiences were especially meaningful. Not only did they reveal new business opportunities, she also found herself interacting with her local Muslim community:
"Sort of funny, this has become such an interest ... I am stopping Mid Eastern women & asking them about their clothing. It is so just "flowing," feminine and elegant... They are always so sweet, informative & accommodating . I love the fabrics! And, I meet such wonderful people in this way.

"I want to try to find an outlet/resource for the clothing ... I don't think there would be anything wrong with my wearing them... What do you think?
We thought at the time that Romie would probably look pretty wonderful herself, wearing lots of "flowing, feminine ,elegant fabrics"!

Romie signed her very last email to us "Namaste, Romie", which reminded us of it's meaning - both literally (as in the Sanskrit "Namah" - to pray, to honor, to worship, and "Te" - you) and in the more general "the God in me greets / respects the God in you". The greeting evokes a sense of connection with those you meet. We can think of no better greeting for Romie as she continues the journey her Libyan wedding textile began....

Monday, July 16, 2007

"Help! I need a Palestinian wedding dress!"

19th century northern Palestinian
dress with appliqued chest panel
(on loan from Tareq Rajab Museum)

The most regular requests for information we receive are from brides. We love dealing with these! Usually the conversation goes something like this. We receive an email, sometimes from a Palestinian bride, or like this one, from someone marrying into a Palestinian family:
"Dear Sir / Madame, I am getting married to a Palestinian man and I am looking for a traditional Palestinian dress to wear for my wedding. I was wondering if some of your projects make such dresses. Thank you very much"
This one was from a lovely lady named Esther. We send back this reply:
"Dear Esther,

"Thank you for your email to the Palestine Costume Archive regarding your wish to wear a Palestinian dress at your wedding.

"Firstly, congratulations from all of us here on your wedding! Secondly, we sincerely thank you for wishing to honour your fiancee's culture in this way and would be most grateful if you could respond to the questions below. These may seem a little strange but they will provide us with enough information to make our next reply more specific.

1. which country are you residing in
2. where will the wedding take place
3. when will the wedding take place
4. which region of Palestine was your fiance from
5. does he have any family still in the Palestinian region (including Syria, Lebanon and Jordan)
6. what kind of budget are you proposing for your wedding dress
7. do you speak Arabic (or do you have access to someone such as a female relative of your fiance who speaks Arabic?)
8. do you have any image in mind of the kind of dress you would like (have a look at our website for photos)
9. would you like advice on any other traditional Palestinian wedding elements that you might like to consider incorporating into your wedding (such as music, food, women's bridal rituals, etc).

We look forward to hearing from you'
Why these questions? Well, we've learned over the years these are the important questions to ask, and we like to ask them quickly because the bride usually has no idea how long a traditional dress takes to embroider, and so it's important to get things rolling asap.

From the answers that might be provided we'll know how much time we have, what kind of budget (again usually brides have no idea these garments are seriously expensive - after all, someone may have just spent nearly a year of their life embroidering it), whether she will feel confident contacting refugee embroidery projects (having Arabic helps), what kind of style dress is appropriate (because every region of Palestine was different) and what kind of style the bride actually likes.

Esther provided the following:
1. We are both currently studying in the UK.
2. The wedding will take place in Baqa al Gharbia (a Palestinian town which is now part of Israel).
3. The wedding will be sometime beginning to mid of next year. We are not sure of the exact date yet.
4. My fiancee is from Baqa al Gharbia.
5. All his familly is in Baqa al Gharbia.
6. The budget would be up to $200.
7. I am learning Arabic. Unfortunately I don't think it is good enought to communicate properlly though. All my fiancees female relatives speak Arabic. However, they all live in Baqa.
8. I have seen a few dresses I like (see attached file). I would be interested in seeing what the traditional dress looks like of the region my fiancee comes from. Do you know what the dresses in that region looked like?
The details Esther provided were unexpectedly useful. Normally we'd have advised her that a budget of $200 was not really going to go further than a nice embroidered shawl at most. However, now knowing her fiancee's family was from Baqa al Gharbia in the north, if needed we could advise Esther that this region practiced very little embroidery prior to 1948. They preferred applique, which is faster - and cheaper - to create. The same would be true for a contemporary wedding dress in the northern Tulkarm region style.

As luck would have it one of the photos of dresses Esther sent us (from our website, of styles she liked) was a modern design based on a northern Galilee dress, so we were pretty sure we could come up with a design she really liked for her own dress.

In some cases we help all the way through to the ordering and design of a dress (especially if the person writing doesn't speak Arabic and/or is a bit nervous about contacting refugee handicraft projects). However in Esther's case she was already on the right track:
"Thanks for the advice and inspiration! It has been very helpful. We will probably be going to visit my fiancee's family in August. We will see what we can find there. I will keep you updated. Thank you very much for all your help!"
We hope she had a truly magical wedding!

So keep in mind those questions, if you want to ask us about wedding dresses. As you can see, even the smallest piece of information can be very useful in helping us to help YOU achieve a perfect wedding!

Friday, July 13, 2007

Got a question about Palestinian heritage?

(Jeni at the opening of an
Archive traveling exhibition)

A word from our director:

The Archive receives lots of reference enquiries...

Palestinians write to us about all sorts of things, from where to find a Palestinian embroidered dress for their wedding to what kind of traditional costume was worn in their parents' or grandparents' village, to how to give their children (growing up in the diaspora) a sense cultural identity. Non Palestinians ask where to purchase embroidery, or has anything been published on so and so, or can they come see our research library's collection of maps, or postcards, or 19th century travel books...

We thought we'd like to share some of these enquiries and the responses we send back, with you here. Let's make this blog another space to share what we know of Palestinian heritage, past and present...

Jeni Allenby
Palestine Costume Archive