Keeping you informed about Palestinian cultural heritage research, and our work here at the Archive

Keeping you informed about Palestinian cultural heritage research, and our work here at the Archive

Saturday, October 20, 2007

The power of Rachel Corrie's words..

My Name is RachelCorrie
(Megan Dodds, London)

"I have been in Palestine for two weeks and one hour now,
and I still have very few words to describe what I see ...
You just can't imagine it unless you see it. And even then
your experience is not at all the reality . . . [due to] of course,
the fact that I have the option of leaving"
Rachel Corrie, Gaza Strip 2003

"I have been back in Gaza two weeks now ... it's impossible to
describe what I'm seeing ... I dream of escaping [home] but you
just somehow have to survive so you can provide witness to others"
Jeni Allenby
Palestine Red Crescent Society, Gaza City 2000

PalCast recently reminded us that Rachel Corrie's words are again causing controversy:
"Voice of America reports on the controversy over the play “My Name Is Rachel Corrie” at the Contemporary American Theater Festival in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. This program was produced by the Voice of America for July 23, 2007"
Click here to play.

Which again reminds us here at the Palestine Costume Archive, of the power of Rachel Corrie's words.

The best place to read about the evolution - and ongoing controversy - of Rachel's words is at the website of the same name and at the Rachel Corrie Foundation, both of which document each attempt to stage My Name is Rachel Corrie. We are sure none of our readers need to be reminded of Rachel's fate, but in case you are not familiar with the play, My Name is Rachel Corrie was created by British actor/director Alan Rickman and journalist Katherine Viner (The Guardian) who composed a 90-minute monologue from Rachel's letters home, e-mails and journal entries while living in the Gaza Strip with a Palestinian family.

That a journalist and an actor / director ("the terrorist in Die Hard” we read with amusement in one review) came together to produce such a play is a wonderful story in itself. Alan Rickman has said, re devising the play:
"I first read Rachel's emails in The Guardian in March 2003. They were so vibrant that they kind of demanded to be read out loud. I took them to Ian Rickson [the Artistic Director of The Royal Theatre] which then lead to a meeting with Rachel's parents, Elyse Dodgson and Katherine Viner. Ian then took a big brave jump and said "alright, I'll do it". Almost a year later, we got the 187 page document which contained many of Rachel's journals, letters and poems which had been typed up very bravely by Rachel's sister Sarah Corrie ...

"My biggest challenge was that Rachel's words were not written to be staged. We had to create a kind of narrative and progression so that you could feel her mind alive and changing and growing..."
You can purchase the script of My Name is Rachel Corrie via if you'd like to read it, or even stage it.
The play had a very successful run in Britain, premiering at London's Royal Court Theatre, with an award-winning, sold-out run, before transferring to the West End. It was nominated for an Olivier Award, and won the best new play prize at the Theatregoers' Choice Awards in London. The Guardian observed: "theatre can't change the world. But what it can do, when it's as good as this, is to send us out enriched by other people's passionate concern".

Perhaps theatre CAN change the world - at least for Palestinians who rarely have a public voice. Rachel's parents, who wrote a wonderful post after seeing the play, immediately recognized that:
"Theater can reach people in a different and deeper place than reading a news article or listening to a speech: there is an emotional aspect that for some people can be more long-lasting and motivating.

"The play ... is not just about how Rachel died, even if that is why she is known and remembered. It also illuminates her humanity, tracing her evolution from typical teenage self-exploration through to her search for a political voice.

"Clearly, our daughter has become a positive symbol for people. Her story and her words seem to motivate others to do something..."
Rachel 04

My Name is Rachel Corrie

(Megan Dodds, London)

Getting it staged in the US was of course more of a problem. Controversy dogged the production (see PalCast above) as Eleanor Clift noted in Newsweek:
"the play opened in Shepherdstown, W.Va., in July amidst much consternation over how it would be received. The Contemporary Theater Arts Festival housed at Shepherd University is the brainchild of producer-director Ed Herendeen, and he stood his ground in the face of the uproar. One board member resigned, but fears that the controversy would hurt ticket sales proved unfounded"
This is typical of pretty much every North American production. Interestingly, the experiences of organizers echo those of the Archive: if you can just wade through the controversy and get the damn play / exhibition / film / Palestinian whatever up on front of the public, then public response is usually excellent. But you have to really respect Alan Rickman and others involved with the production, for giving it a try.

Brian Clover, in his terrific review of the play wrote:

"Alan Rickman and Katherine Viner have subtly devised the play from Rachel's own writings and what we have here, as far as one can tell, is her truth. And what a writer she was! What a career she could have had ...

"This is what the theatre is for. Now we need a play about the man who drove the bulldozer: I suspect that's what Rachel would have wanted..."
Well, actually there is one. Because Rachel Corrie's words have inspired more than one play.

In Australia Henry di Suvero utilized Rachel's words as the backbone for his play The Ballad of Rachel Corrie, the second in his Palestinian trilogy, which opened at the Belvoir Theatre in Sydney in 2005. Several Archive staff attended.

We also attended the opening of de Suvero's first play, Crescent Moon, Yellow Star, which begins with the delightful concept of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon arriving in hell. 'An impressive writing debut by de Suvero ... who largely steers clear of the polemic that such subject matters can stir", observed Gary Smith in the Daily Telegraph, "it is undoubtedly a controversial and brave work that has already ruffled the attentions of some interested parties". It certainly did. Di Suvero writes of his trilogy:
"My first play really asks the question: why do the Palestinians have to keep on paying for the Holocaust? This play moves on and asks: what is the utility of non-violence? The third play, which is about refuseniks [not yet staged but shortlisted for the 2005 National Playwrights Competition] asks the question: where are the good Jews today?"
Di Suvero is well aware these are tricky issues, but he doesn't believe theatre should be an entirely comfortable experience:
"Some of what passes as political theatre these days is really museum theatre," he says. "[Sydney Theatre Company artistic director] Robyn Nevin used this term 'difficult plays', saying: 'We can't program for difficult plays.' So they'll do Brecht or Shaw and then struggle to find a contemporary reference."
Di Suvero acknowledges the realities of putting on "difficult plays":
"a sponsor would never touch a play like this ... I want to change people's minds. I want to see people change their perception of Palestinians," he says. "A lot of plays will depict victims and say: 'Look how horrible this is.' It isn't enough just to say it's awful, to think: 'It's in the past and in a far away place.' I want people to think, 'Well, what are we gonna do now?"'
Along with organizers of My Name Is Rachel Corrie, here at the Archive we certainly agree with him about the difficulty of getting sponsorship for Palestinian issue / cultural productions (we can't remember the last time the Archive had an exhibition sponsor!). After Rachel's death di Suvero found himself "horrified. Just absolutely horrified", then started writing:
"The focus of the play for me is: what is the utility for using non-violent protest against a ferocious Israeli machine? Her life and death symbolised that"
Di Suvero presents Rachel's words - to great effect - within a partially fictionalized story of two families, one Israeli (the fictional "Cohens") and one American (Rachel Corrie and her parents), who's fates become tragically intertwined when the Israeli girl is called up to reserve duty and given the task of driving a bulldozer. If Brian Clover is right - in saying "what Rachel would have wanted [is] a play about the man who drove the bulldozer" - it would be interesting to see her response to this play. The identity (and sex) of the bulldozer driver who killed Rachel remains a mystery to the public, but in The Ballad of Rachel Corrie Di Suvero presents a provocative hypothosis, juxtaposing the similarities and differences of the two families, and of the two young women at the centre of his story.

This story line also deflects the "one side only" criticism leveled at My Name is Rachel Corrie. Although of course the play came under heavy fire, mostly from people who'd not seen it. Zionists especially enjoyed producing "ballads" and rhymes mocking the title of Di Suvero's play as well as Rachel herself. Here's an example we preserved for posterity in the Archive's library, by "Dave S" ("There once was a moonbat named Corrie, whose bromides were tired and hoary. She got squished by a dozer for media exposure Now her flattened ass looks pretty sorry ... The bint, she started burning flags, She cursed and spit and screamed But thanks to the folks at Caterpillar Corp, she was folded, pressed and steamed"). We practice all religions here at the Archive, but when we read things like these "ballads" we especially like to believe in the concept of karma. Oh, and the Buddhist concept of many thousands of hells....

Rachel Corrie's parents gave their permission for The Ballad of Rachel Corrie to be staged. The Sydney production was not perfect, but it had a profound effect on audiences. Archive staff often took part in discussions after the play. While it has not been staged since 2005, the script is available on OzScript where it can be accessed by secondary and tertiary students as well as amateur theatre companies.

Di Suvero and the actors who played the Cohens recorded an interview with Rebecca Henschke on SBS Radio about the production. Click below if you'd like to hear more.

Di Suvero anticipated some flack from the play, but he probably got off lightly compared to some of the pastings My Name is Rachel Corrie has garnered in North America, especially when New York and Toronto performances were postponed and / or canceled in 2006, triggering alarms about artistic censorship and intolerance. When the New York Theater Workshop indefinitely delayed its U.S. debut - the theatre citing sensitivities in the Jewish community in an “edgy” period of escalating Israel-Palestine tensions - Nobel playwright Harold Pinter and others angrily accused the theater of bending to pressure from hard-line supporters of Israel. Alan Rickman called it "censorship born out of fear". In Toronto, CanStage faced pressure from some of it's board members:
"not to alienate Toronto's Jewish community. While admitting he has neither read nor seen the script, CanStage board member Jack Rose said, "My view was it would provoke a negative reaction in the Jewish community." Philanthropist Bluma Appel, after whom CanStage's flagship theater is named, concurred. "I told them I would react very badly to a play that was offensive to Jews," she said".
This kind of censorship led supporters of Rachel Corrie, including her mother Cindy, to ask "why are people afraid of Rachel's words ... and how can we work together to ensure they are heard". The resulting Rachel's Words initiative:
"is intended to be a broad spectrum of groups and individuals who believe that Rachel?s words and her message of human rights and justice should be heard. We hope that Rachel?s Words will open the door for other equally important and silenced voices

"We resist the pervasive climate of fear and challenge to free speech that is increasingly prevalent in our society. Rachel wrote about issues that concern us all. People must have the opportunity to hear her message and decide for themselves what they think."
When the play finally opened in New York it was to mixed, sometimes savage, reviews. One of our "favorites" is by Wall Street Journal's reviewer Terry Teachout, who wins the Archive's Most Tasteless Headline of 2006 Award with his title "Bulldozed by Naivete: terror advocate dies in accident. Atrocious drama ensues".

And it just keeps getting worse from there:
"Politics makes artists stupid. Take "My Name Is Rachel Corrie," the one-woman play cobbled together from the diaries, emails and miscellaneous scribblings of the 23-year-old left-wing activist who was run over by an Israeli Army bulldozer ... It's an ill-crafted piece of goopy give-peace-a-chance agitprop--yet it's being performed to cheers and tears before admiring crowds of theater-savvy New Yorkers who, like Mr. Rickman himself, ought to know better.

"So why don't they? Because Palestine is the new Cuba, a political cause whose invocation has the effect of instantaneously anesthetizing the upper brain functions of those who believe in it..."
We spent an interesting ten minutes listing the words Teachout uses to describe the production ("incoherence", "crude" "blatant") as well as Rachel ("unattractive in the extreme, albeit pathetically so. Whimsical, humorless and--above all--immature" ... "prattling away like a baby robot").

Hard to believe this is the same "Rachel" about whom The Guardian reviewer wrote "you feel you have not just had a night at the theatre: you have encountered an extraordinary woman", or the Daily Telegraph, a "powerful, thought-provoking and deeply moving piece of theatre"!
Since then the play has staged in Scotland, in Seattle, in Shepherdstown, West Virginia (see PalCast above) and even a one off performance in Silver Spring, Maryland. After Seattle, a new website Rachel Corrie Facts was created to provide information and context to balance to what many perceive as a "one-sided, anti-Israel diatribe." But while critics continue to argue the play shows only one side, as Bruce Bramsey pointed out in the Seattle Times:
"[so] did the 1960 movie “Exodus,” which I saw as a kid. It told the Israeli side only, and in Paul Newman, put an American face on that side. For years, it was the only side Americans could see. The Palestinian side never had an American face. Now it does. It is a female face, an unthreatening face. Rachel’s face"
And this is such a powerful truth.

Enough Archive staff are mothers to know what Rachel Corrie's mother means, when she speaks of sometimes wanting to reclaim her daughter. But for as long as she wishes to share her daughter's memory with Palestinians, we thank and honor her. For Rachel's words continue to resonate worldwide in a way that our own words cannot. Her name (now the name of countless Palestinian new born girls) is evoked by those who speak out honestly, from Susan Sontag (when she presented the Rothko Chapel Oscar Romero Award to Ishai Menuchin of Yesh Gvul) to Israeli conscientious objectors. Rachel's name and words - and the words, the songs, the plays, the articles she inspires others to produce - create controversy, focus attention, encourage the possibility of dialogue ... and hope.

May Rachel Corrie continue to inspire artists, writers, musicians, children, mothers ... may hope endure.

References and resources:

Misha Bernson "Controversy follows "Corrie" to Seattle stage" Seattle Times
Julian Borger "Rickman slams "censorship" of play about US Gaza activist" The Guardian 28 Feb 2006
Eleanor Clift "Grief crosses all boundaries" Newsweek
Sunanda Creagh "Rachel's fate stoked the embers" Sydney Morning Herald 26 Oct 2005
Henry di Suvero The Ballad of Rachel Corrie and Crescent Moon, Yellow StarHenry di Suvero - interview with Rebecca Henschke on SBS Radio
Rachel Corrie Foundation
Rachel's Words
Phan Nguyen "Mother Jones Smears Rachel Corrie" Counterpunch
Alan Rickman - My Name is Rachel Corrie
Alan Rickman and Katherine Viner
My Name is Rachel Corrie
Gary Smith, The Daily Telegraph, Jan 24, 2005
Terry Teachout "Bulldozed by Naivete: terror advocate dies in accident. Atrocious drama ensues" WSJ

My Name is Rachel Corrie from
Rachel Corrie Foundation
Rachel, from

Thursday, October 11, 2007

From the Director's desk...


Christine McMillan

We've all been very quiet at the Archive, apologies to our regular readers...

Several staff have been on leave with health problems (including me), I can't even blame it on the Australian winter because we are scattered worldwide, lol. Let's hope we all get better soon!

In between bouts of sick leave I did at least manage to visit Christine McMillan's exhibition "Gathering" at Bathurst Regional Art Gallery and catch up with Christine, who has been a supporter of the Archive for many years. The exhibition was stunning. As always Chris' choice of media - in this case, everything from echidna spines to gauze bandages to grass seeds (see photo above) - is extraordinary. Here's a small section from the essay written by Amanda Lawson in the exhibition brochure:
"one of the most impressive aspects of Christine's practice is the way she moves seamlessly across media. It seems her pursuit of visual languages to capture concepts or shape a fascination with the physical properties of the material world cannot be fixed or limited by any one medium. Her practice is truly hybrid, resisting neat categorization, and all the more interesting to observe and appreciate because of that fluidity...

"The works are driven by a sense of energy and enquiry as well as an acute attention to detail. Based in, but never limited by, the local and regional environment this intricate body of work resonates at global level"
The Archive is lucky enough to share one of those works as Christine very generously donated an exquisite work on paper, utilizing watercolour and echidna spines. Photos coming soon...

On the last day of the Bathurst exhibition Christine presented a performance with Lisa Roberts and Karen Riley. Chris writes on her blog:
"The movement was connected by white cotton gauze, if one person made a movement the other had to compensate. The ‘as the dry’ projection played over the gauze. Tracy Sorensen, whose background is in journalism, community arts and video script writing, videoed the Gathering performance. Sue Clarke-Lindfield operated the still camera for the animations. It was another gathering"
You can view the You Tube video below.

I'll bring you up to date with other Archive happenings in a later post. For now: a final word to our readers: if you would like us to promote any Palestinian projects or events, please just drop us a line, we'd love to help!

(Photo: from Christine's blog
Video: You Tube)

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Olive Picking Program, Palestine 2007

We've had some enquiries at the Archive about possible programs for internationals wanting to help with the next olive harvest. Here's the project we like to promote:

Olive Picking Program 2007

A program for Civil International Solidarity with Palestinians

The Joint Advocacy Initiative of the East Jerusalem YMCA and YWCA of Palestine and the Alternative Tourism Group

Once again, the Joint Advocacy Initiative of the East Jerusalem YMCA and YWCA of Palestine (JAI) and the Alternative Tourism Group (ATG) are organizing an Olive Picking Program in Palestine between the 21st of October and 30th of October, 2007. This agricultural event is of special significance to the Palestinian economy where all energies and efforts are mobilized during this period.

Since the beginning of the Intifada in 2000, the olive harvest has been overshadowed by the Israeli policies of repression, closure, blockage of streets, confiscation of agricultural lands, as well as repeated attacks against Palestinian farmers by Israeli settlers. Now with the construction the Apartheid Wall at the expense of the agricultural lands, many farmers are separated from their lands.

Building on the experience from the previous years, the Joint Advocacy Initiative of The East Jerusalem YMCA and the YWCA of Palestine and the Alternative Tourism have planned a program for civil international solidarity with Palestinian people and farmers. The objective of this program is to mobilize as many people as possible for olive picking, especially in areas that are situated in proximity of Israeli settlements, and by-pass roads in order to help Palestinian farmers harvest their olive trees that they might be unable to harvest without international support. You are invited to participate.

Besides picking olives, the program will feature introductory presentations about the organizing institutions, current situation in Palestine, effect of the Apartheid Wall, tours in the old city of Jerusalem and the nativity church in Bethlehem, a tour in Hebron, cultural evenings and social gatherings.

Below is a suggested tentative schedule for the program:

Olive Picking 2007 tentative schedule:
  • 21/10/2007: Arrival to the airport and transfer to Bethlehem to meet representatives from the organizing institutions for an overview and discussion of the program. Dinner and overnight in Bethlehem.
  • 22/10/2007: Picking olives at a selected field followed by lunch. Cultural evening at Jadal / Alternative Information Center (AIC). Dinner and overnight in Bethlehem.
  • 23/10/2007: Half day picking olives at a selected field followed by lunch. Meeting at ARIJ (Applied Research Institute Jerusalem) for a presentation on the Apartheid Wall and land confiscation. Dinner and overnight in Bethlehem.
  • 24/10/2007: Half day picking olives at a selected field. A tour in the Bethlehem area to show realities of the Israeli occupation such as refugee camps, the Wall, Bypass roads and fences, settlements, destroyed houses, etc. Dinner and overnight in Bethlehem.
  • 25/10/2007: A tour in the old city of Jerusalem. Welcome and lunch at the YWCA headquarters in Jerusalem followed by a settlement tour around Jerusalem. Dinner and overnight in Bethlehem.
  • 26/10/2007: Free Day
  • 27/10/2007: Half day picking olives at a selected field. Meeting with representatives from the Joint Advocacy Initiative of the East Jerusalem YMCA and YWCA of Palestine for an introduction and overview of the Olive Tree Campaign. Dinner and overnight in Bethlehem.
  • 28/10/2007: Half day picking olives at a selected field. Lunch followed by a tour in the old city of Hebron through the market and how it is affected by Israeli settlers. A meeting with a co-organizing institute followed by dinner and overnight in Bethlehem.
  • 29/10/2007: Half day picking olives at the fields. Evaluation meeting with institutions representatives followed by a farewell dinner at a local restaurant with staff members and volunteers. Overnight in Bethlehem.
  • 30/10/2007: Transfer to the airport for departure.
More Information:
  • The cost of the program including accommodation, meals, and local transportation is $500.
  • Accommodation can be arranged at a hotel or with a local family.
  • A tour guide will be present with the group at all times for facilitation purposes.
  • Travel from and to the airport is not included in the cost but can be arranged for groups.
For any other information, questions, concerns, or to request a registration form, please contact:
  • Baha Hilo, the Joint Advocacy Initiative of the East Jerusalem YMCA and the YWCA of Palestine campaigns officer via email at: or by phone at (+972) 2 2774540.
  • Jawad Musleh, Alternative Tourism Group, program coordinator, via email at: or by phone at (+972) 2 2772151.
  • Visit their websites: and
(the photo at the top is from the Archive's collection of Palestinian political textiles, by ANAT in Syria - okay it's an orange tree, not an olive tree, but we thought you'd like it!)

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

PalCast: Women's Movements in Palestine

PalCast writes:
"The long tradition of Palestinian women’s movements are little known in the West, where Arab women are often portrayed as bad mothers, veiled, and shut up in their homes. On this edition, correspondent Sarah Olson talks with Palestinian women about their experiences fighting for peace, democracy and gender equality"

Intessar Salman, organizer, Palestinian Center for Peace and Democracy;
Diana Butta, attorney, Palestinian Negotiating Team;
Hannan Salman, manager, Palestinian Women’s Institute;
Fatima Haldi, farmer;
Khalida Jarrar, director, Addameer;
Randa Seniora, director, Al-Haq;
Eltazan Morar, student and activist

This program was produced by the National Radio Project for March 2, 2005.

For more information, visit:

Women's Movements in Palestine: Hide Player | Play in Popup | Download

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Christine McMillan's exhibition "Gathering"

We'd like to wish Archive friend and supporter, Australian artist Christine McMillan, all the very best with the launch of her exhibition Gathering, tonight at Bathurst Regional Art Gallery.

That's Christine in the photo on the right, with Iman. This was taken at the opening of our traveling exhibition "Portraits without names: Palestinian costume" at Museum of Victoria's Immigration Museum in 2002.

We displayed our traveling exhibition "Portraits without names: Palestinian costume" at Bathurst Regional Art Gallery the year after (photo at left).

Christine came to visit our director and use parts of the Archive's collection for inspiration, quite a while before that. She was very interested in Palestinian costume and Sinai bedouin dress, and even created a hand dyed and embroidered thob herself, along with a stunning burqa series. Jeni incorporated some of these works of art into "Portraits without names: Palestinian costume" as a way of showing how wonderfully Palestinian traditions were continuing to inspire artists from all over the world.

You can find a photo of Christine wearing the thob on our website.

You can visit Christine's website here (there is a link to Christine's burqa series but it's not working at the moment, so here is one example on the right of her Oman Wahibi style burqa with shells voile, cotton thread and shells) and blog here.

The photo on the left is a detail from her Sinai Desert style burqa, one of the works that was in "Portraits without names: Palestinian costume". This is a postcard we sell here at the Archive.

Gathering opens tonight and runs from 17 August - 30 September, 2007. Christine is giving a talk at 11am tomorrow, Saturday 18 August.

(Photos: Christine McMillan, Jeni Allenby)

Friday, August 3, 2007

PalCast: Podcasting the Occupation of Palestine

We promised on this blog to recommend good ways to keep up to date with Palestinian issues, both political and cultural.

Their website says:

" was born when the founders discovered a distinct lack of quality internet audio programming focused on Palestine-related issues in the iTunes podcast directory. After searching the internet, it became obvious that Palestine-focused audio was hard to find.

" aims to become the center of quality internet audio programming on the internet focused on Palestinian culture, art, politics and the Israeli occupation"

We love that one of their focus categories is Palestinian music, and we really do suggest you have a listen to their podcast of CKUT radio's interview with members of Sabreen (The Sabreen Association for Artistic Development in Palestine) (the word sabreen means "patience") on culture and resistance. The program was produced by Community News Net for CKUT radio on November 18, 2006, during Sabreen's 2006 tour of Canada.

"if you are a Palestinian, you have to do miracles"

Thursday, August 2, 2007

World Concert for Palestine

Here's a Palestinian support project we really like. Want to help us spread the word?! Here is their news release:

A world concert for Palestine

Bono! We appeal to you, and to
all the music
world, to organize
a world concert for Palestine!"

So begins an online appeal - addressed to Bono, leader of the rock group U2 - launched by Gazzella, an Italian NGO that helps rehabilitate Palestinian children wounded in Israeli ground and air attacks on Palestinian cities and villages.

"We wondered why the music world has never held a global concert for the Palestinians," said Gazzella president Marina Rossanda, listing the many "humanitarian" events held in the past - from the historic Concert for Bangladesh (1971) and Live Aid for Ethiopia (1985) to the Freedom Tibet Concert (1997) and the recent 46664 concert to fight AIDS.

"We're sure a concert for Palestine would find widespread support among young people around the world - and also among many musicians, starting with Bono himself." (Over the years, Bono has campaigned for numerous causes, including Amnesty International and the Jubilee 2000 project to end Third World debt.)

The appeal is available at in English, Arabic, Hebrew, German, French, Italian, Portuguese and Spanish.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Pageants, doves and "national" dress

Miss Israel 2007
Sharon Kenett in the national dress parade
 of the Miss Universe pageant in Mexico City
Picture: AFP  source

 A friend brought this photo to our attention, in a post on Azadeh's blog, who commented:
"I was watching the photographs taken at the Miss Universe national costume parade published in Herald Sun. I was surprised by the very peaceful costume of Israel. Although I have so many problems with what Israel does in Palestine, this picture is carved in my mind as another aspect of Israel"
Oh, indeed. Although we are probably coming from this, from a very different angle to Azadeh.

We must admit, we don't often get the chance to gain much enjoyment out of all things Israeli - our entire mandate here at the Archive is simply trying to prove to a world that has been told otherwise by Israelis, that Palestinian heritage exists - but one thing we do enjoy each year is watching Israeli pageant entrant organizers struggle to come up with another design for Miss World or Miss Universe' "national costume" section.

Poor Israel. They have so much else. But not a national costume.

Don't believe us?! Until Ayala Raz published on this subject in 1998 there wasn't much around, but Raz is well worth a read. Her article - on fashion in Eretz Israel - will send Palestinians cross eyed, as she promotes the accepted Israeli line ("at the end of the 19th century ... the land was largely deserted and neglected") but her discussion of what the Jewish population of Palestine and later Israel, wore, is fascinating and well researched. As part of this wider subject she then raises the question of "national costume: fact or fantasy?":
"Is there a need for a national costume in Eretz-Israel?" This question arose frequently in pre-state newspapers, both in the fashion pages and in letters to the editor. Citizens sent in their suggestions for an original costume, and these were published widely in the press. ...

"The first practical step towards consolidating a national costume was taken at the Levant Fair of 1936. During the fair there was a competition, with prizes, for an original design for a Hebrew costume, "that amalgamates eastern culture with western culture and symbolizes the renewal of the Jewish heritage in Eretz-Israel".
Which in a round about way, is how we at the Palestine Costume Archive, came to be involved. Because one of the "national costumes" Israel tried out during the 20th century was Palestinian. It seems the ultimate irony but Israeli cultural appropriation is like that - you deny the reality of a people but help yourself to various aspects of their heritage (language / cuisine / dance / music / costume) in your search for a cultural heritage of your own.

Julia Auster first put the idea into words in her 1926 article in the Israeli women's magazine Laisha:
"The time has come for the Hebrew woman in Eretz-Israel to devote some attention to the style of dress. We, women of the east and also women who have decided to make their home in the east, continue to this day to copy the west. We blindly follow the fashions that come from Europe, without reflecting that these styles are not right for us, not for the climate of this country nor for its unique atmosphere."
Raz noted that Auster "suggested that the national dress be a high-collared, long-sleeved tunic, decorated with embroidery around the collar. She adds that the same dress can be worn, without sleeves, for a house dress or a party dress". Well by the 1970s that's exactly what many Israelis were doing - either wearing original Palestinian long sleeved and embroidered dresses or examples of contemporary garments with cross stitch embroidery in familiar designs and placements. You can see an example below - probably a Maskit dress featuring pre1948 traditional Palestinian cross stitch, worn with a pre1948 embroidered and coined headdress -  from Ruth Dayan's book "Crafts of Israel", bless her!

We have some very interesting Maskit examples preserved in our collection here. We also have photographs of similar garments designed for El Al air hostesses. And even a photo of Miss Israel "wearing national dress" greeting an American mayor - and yep. Miss Israel is definitely wearing a pre 1948 Bethlehem outfit. As our director writes in her forthcoming book on post 1948 Palestinian heritage:
"for Israelis, wearing early 20th century costumes - which were clearly old textiles - as well as later outfits featuring embroidered panels cut from these rare garments - evoked a sense of place and past, and of continuity of culture. The question was, of course, who's culture".
"This practice slowed after Palestinians reclaimed embroidery as a symbol of national identity in the 1980s. Perhaps it became a little difficult to claim the embroidery as your own when it featured the flag of another country, which you yourself had banned".
By the 1990s even Raz had to conclude:
"it is a fact that to this day there is no national dress and it is doubtful if there ever will be. A national costume is not the fruits of one persons or many peoples deliberate invention. It is not enough for some fashion designer to come up with an idea. The national dress of a people evolves through many generations".
Exactly. And after all, Israel is a very new state. But alas, none of this is going to help Miss Israel in Miss Universe's "national dress" section....

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Birzeit Heritage Week

Dancing tragedies, dancing dreams

courtesy: El-Funoun website
"Can you dance your tragedies?
Can you dance your dreams?
If you are Palestinian, you almost
have no choice but to try doing both,"

We want to recommend two wonderful albums to you. They are not new, but this blog is, lol, and we've not had a chance to share our music tastes with you before!

They are 'Zaghareed: music from the Palestinian Holy Land' and "Zareef: folkloric tunes from Palestine" by El-Funoun, or more properly El-Funoun Palestinian Popular Dance Troupe, based on the West Bank.

El-Funoun in the beginning
courtesy: El-Funoun website

Here at the Archive we have enormous regard for El-Funoun ("the arts" in Arabic). They too travel the world, promoting the beauty of Palestinian cultural heritage. They face similar problems to the Archive. Worse, because they are still in Occupied Palestine and we are in exile. But our mandates are very similar. Janice Steinberg noted in her 2006 article about El-Funoun, in regard to the founding of the company:

“(Former Israeli Prime Minister) Golda Meir boasted that there was no such thing as the Palestinian people,” said Omar Barghouti (the company's trainer and choreographer). “We did not exist in the eyes of the colonizers.” Meir's 1969 statement, published in The Sunday Times of London and The Washington Post, was, “There were no such thing as Palestinians. When was there an independent Palestinian people with a Palestinian state?”

"Although Meir later said she'd been misquoted, the comment was seen as reflecting an attitude held by much of the world. And the handful of artists who founded El-Funoun set out to prove that they indeed had a national identity, giving even their most lighthearted dances a political purpose".
Sounds just like the Archive, doesn't it?! Where for the last twenty years Archive staff have researched lost Palestinian costume and related heritage traditions not only in the Palestinian region but in refugee camps and the scattered communities of the diaspora, El-Funoun (quoted from production notes):
"began with a mission to revive Palestinian music and dance folklore as a manifestation of national identity. Its early works were the result of extensive research in Palestinian villages, preserving centuries-old songs and dances, including the "dabke", a traditional dance form popular among Arabs of the Eastern Mediterranean, using traditional Arab instruments (oud, nai, and tabla)".
courtesy: El-Funoun website

One of the things we really admire, that El-Funoun achieved - to counter Israeli attempts to suppress Palestinian national identity - was the establishment of Palestinian Folklore Day, in 1986. But at times it wasn't easy, as Gia Kourlas reported in her dance review "Palestinian dreaming: resistance and joy" in the New York Times Magazine in 2005:
"In its beginnings, occupation authorities viewed El-Funoun negatively. "We were persecuted in many ways," Mr. Barghouti recalled. "There were travel bans, and some of our members were arrested and accused of belonging to a subversive dance company."

"In the 1980's and early 90's, he said, that view began to shift as the company's reputation grew. "The challenge became, What type of identity do we want?" he said. "We see our dance as a form of civil, cultural resistance to oppression, and that starts with the occupation, but not just that - we are also against social oppression, so in our dances you'll see a lot of issues dealing with women's liberation, equality and democracy."
With the loss of funding post 9/11 and the loss of one of our exhibitions in 2003, here at the Archive we have sometimes felt like giving up. But we 100% agree with Khaled Katamish (Director of El-Funoun) that "Palestinian cultural organizations ... must persevere against hugely unfavourable odds" and support and acknowledge El-Funoun's approach to artistic creativity and activism in via:
  • "unwavering commitment to the struggle against the illegal Israeli occupation"
  • presenting a "distinctive blend of authenticity with modernity, fostering cultural bridges between cherished tradition and contemporary ambition"
  • a "progressive social agenda, especially regarding democracy, women's emancipation and youth rights" and
  • "earnest opposition to agit-prop art as well as to artistic works that tend to portray the Palestinians as nothing more than pitiful victims waiting for a savior"
courtesy: El-Funoun website

There are about seventy members of the company, which includes dancers, musicians and administrators, all volunteers (like us!). There's also a youth group ("to counter the marginalization and alienation of Palestinian children and youth through music and dance expression") and members of the company teach in a variety of settings, including refugee camps. What we love is that they teach both tradition and innovation, which for any culture contains the seeds of a future. Omar Barghouti calls it "contemporary Palestinian dance ... inspired by our folk tradition, but not imprisoned in its limited realm".

We shall keep a detailed discussion of their performances for another post, because after all in this post we are supposed to be talking about their music (if you really can't wait, here's a secret - click here or here). But we'd like to share this review, because we know Palestinians out there will understand these words, by Ahmad Qatamish:
"It is an art that raids your soul in its depths, a patently Palestinian spirit, evoking the conscious as well as the spontaneous memories. It is smooth and intense; it impresses, without draining; it attracts, never repels; and, above all, El-Funoun’s art boosts the morale and expels despair, thereby emancipating the soul from the siege of time, and leaving an imprint of hope on it instead.

"How charming this persistence! How can a group made up of volunteers accomplish such a professional art? Perhaps the answer lies in the unique mix of charm and heroism: charm of contemporary innovation and heroism of rooted authenticity"
We hope someday someone will write about the Archive staff like that! Okay, so back to those CDs:

'Zaghareed: music from the Palestinian Holy Land' was recorded at the Popular Art Centre in Ramallah. The musicians include Najah Atiyeh, Safa Tamish, Nidaa Hajali, Ali Awad, Mohammed Yacoub (vocals), Muhsen Subhi (buzuq, oud, percussion), Thafer Al-Tawil (qanun), Abu Steif (mijwiz), Abu Ashraf (shabbabah), Raid Al Kobary (nay) and Mohammad Amin (bass, percussion).

The word zaghareed describes the ululations of joy heard in many parts of the Arab world. Here, these cries are intermingled with instruments (including oud, daf and ney) and voices (male and female soloists and choruses) that draw us irresistibly into the mystery of Palestine, and evoke a centuries-old spiritual landscape of longing, hope, and celebration. The titles of the tracks recall the traditions of the wedding: Tulbah (Proposition), Chiming Bracelets, Farewell To Bachelor Days, Groom's Bath, Henna, Zaffah (Wedding Scene), Adornment Of The Bride all leading to Initiation Of Ecstasy...

'Zaghareed' was a huge success, and is available around the world in major music stores as well as online. This really was a first for a Palestinian CD. Everyone was really hanging out for what El-Funoun might follow it up with ... and when it appeared, it didn't disappoint: "Zareef: folkloric tunes from Palestine", whose production was supported by the Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA), the Swiss Cooperation Office and the Palestinian Cultural Fund.

A "collection of some of the most poignant, revived, Arab/Palestinian folk tunes that have gained popularity in the 27 years since the dance troop began its interpretations of the tunes", the CD features evocative vocals by Sana Mousa, Safa Tamish, Najah Makhlouf, Muhammad Musa, Mansour Barghouti and Muhummad Yaqoub.

The re-arrangement of the folk tunes is by well known musician Tareq an-Nasser (except for one track composed by Suhail Khoury, who in 1989 also did the original music arrangements for several other tracks). He has done a superb job, and the result is a warm and vibrant CD which brilliantly brings alive some of our favorite Palestinian songs. This of course is part of the reason for the project - to revive Palestinian music, which El Funoun then put to great effect as the musical foundation of their youth group's new dance production Raqsit Shamis (Dance of the Sun).

We absolutely agree with the reviewer in This Week in Palestine:

"El-Funoun has always believed that its mission to communicate with other cultures and to affect social and cultural change at home through dance and music relies on a delicate balance between modernity and heritage, contemporariness and roots.

"In Zareef, El-Funoun succeeds in maintaining such a balance, presenting an often ignored aspect of Palestinian identity and adding another important achievement, a new benchmark, to its already luminous record of accomplishments in the realm of developing art as a form of civil resistance against political and social oppression ... Zareef serves a full course of authentic enjoyment to the senses, reasserting Palestine’s culture and inexorable humanity"
Let's hope it gets picked up by, who have been selling 'Zaghareed'. Reviews of the latter were extremely high. Amazon reviewer a music fan fan observes: "this album helps to preserve the culture and history of Palestine and the Palestinians, Christian and Muslim alike. .... May the world become more aware and educated regarding this kind of music and the music and folk dance of the region, and more importantly, the symbolism,emotion, and history that created it", while Yaser Abdelhamid noted:
"I have owned Zaghareed' ... for well over one year, and have allow[ed] its enchanted calls to enter my heart daily. As a Palestinian - American, I have found very little literature, video, and audio on the specific category of things Palestinian. It was like a breath of fresh air blew into my soul as I stumbled upon this excellent production and recording of traditional Palestinian folk music.

"This is the music of the people of Palestine. I have always hoped that someone somewhere would devote much time and energy towards preserving and capturing - on the record - the unique dress, dance, and music of the still traditional people who call themselves Palestinians. This wonderful CD has done just that, and has further satisfied the thirst of this spirit in reclaiming a bit of its Palestinian heritage. Good listening to all who care about preserving the sounds of tradition wherever they may still exist".
Sounds like Yaser might approve of what we do as well! There are not many of us, "preserving and capturing" Palestinian heritage, but we are increasing ... and one day inshallah El-Funoun may perform or play at an Archive exhibition opening...

You can buy 'Zaghareed: music from the Palestinian Holy Land' from, and "Zareef: folkloric tunes from Palestine" from El-Funoun and the Palestine Online Store.
"Cultural expression to us, then, serves dual purposes: self-therapy and expansion of the "free zone" in our collective mind,where progressive transformation can thrive. In response to all the attempts to circumscribe our aspirations, we must push on, dreaming and being creative,boundlessly. Thus we dance..."
(all photos: courtesy: El-Funoon website)

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Encyclopedias, artworks and copyright...

"Gown of Patience"
Limited edition poster
28"H x18"

Today we joined Wikipedia. We wanted to edit the great new Palestinian costume article someone has posted - to add some more in the Reference section and especially the Collections of Palestinian costume section the original author had thoughtfully included.

We were a bit surprised at how much text had been taken from our website. That's not a problem, but the uncredited use of images from the website unfortunately WAS a problem that will need redressing. Because unfortunately one of the images was "Gown of Patience" by Suzanne Klotz and Yacoub Al-Kurd, which was most generously donated to the Archive by Ms Klotz a couple of years back. Copyright in such cases remains with the artist.

We can understand why the author / editor of the Palestinian page wished to use it. "Gown of Patience" is a large painted, beaded, and embroidered canvas inspired by the embroidered qabbeh (chest panel) of a traditional Palestinian dress. We all remember the day it arrived, in it's unexpectedly enormous roll, and how stunned we felt when it was finally unrolled....

Ms Klotz often features Palestinian themes in her art, and has arranged several exhibitions and art collaborations between Israeli and Palestinian artists. She's won lots of awards. We are seriously impressed - and jealous!

Suzanne Klotz writes:
"Art reflects the values of society and bridges the devide between the familiar and the unfamiliar. The creative process and product are invested with the power to elevate consciousness, encourage investigation of truth and assist in the advancement of a unified world society.

"I attempt to create art the engages the viewer on visual, emotional and intellectual levels and upon investigation, the content expands. The work addresses, in anironic way, contemporary attitudes towards gender roles, marriage, materialism, global, social and economic disparity, and the invisible lines that define borders"
You can see more of Ms Klotz's work on her website. Around the time of her donation, Ms Klutz mentioned that she'd like to organize a fund raising project for the Palestine Children's Welfare Fund. The PCWF do wonderful things, so our director was equally delighted. Ms Klotz produced a high quality poster of "Gown of Patience", and kindly sent some over to the Archive, so you can buy the poster here at the Archive as well as the PCWF. It's still $25US, which includes packing and shipping. All monies go to the PCWF.

We think it drives our director nuts sometimes that the poster reads "the original painting is in the permanent collection of the Palestine Costume Archive Museum". Nothing wrong with having "museum" in our title as well, is there?!

Click on the banner below if you'd like to visit the Palestine Children's Welfare Fund. They suggest lots of ways to help Palestinian children, such as buying embroideries from Hebron, or honey from Nablus ... you can even sponsor a Palestinian child.

Friday, July 13, 2007

SBS audio interview with Archive director Jeni Allenby

(Jeni presenting her paper in 2005)

Our director has presented papers at both "Transformations: culture and the environment in human development" conferences at the Australian National University. In 2005 her paper was titled "Traditional Cultural Heritage in the Australian Palestinian community: a case study in (multi) cultural isolation". At the most recent "Transformations" (27-29 Nov 2006), she presented paper based on another area of Archive research: "Religion is Not the Only Label they Wear": Cultural Responses to Wearing Hijab in Post 9/11 Australia".

Her abstract on the "Transformations" website reads:

"Life has become increasingly difficult for Muslim women in Western countries, who must face post 9/11 hostility to Islam as well as discrimination derived from the West's confusion of religion with cultural practices. 
"With Islamic dress codes constantly misunderstood, frustrated Western hijab wearers find themselves stressing that they are NOT in need of rescue, nor wearing "traditional costume" and that their right to wear hijab should be recognised and respected. The dangers inherent in this misunderstanding can be seen in increasing European / Asian government interventions banning hijab in schools, and closer to home, amongst other examples, in the 2002 call to ban hijab in Australian public places "because it could be used by terrorists to conceal weapons and explosives" (The Age 4 Dec 02).

"This paper explores how hijab wearers have responded to post 9/11 issues, with a particular focus on cultural / educational projects in Australia that encourage cross cultural discourse. These include the evocative Australians Against Racism 2004 billboard campaign "Religion is not the only label they wear", the Palestine Costume Archive's exhibition "Everything you wanted to know about hijab but were afraid to ask", Randa Abdel Fattah's young adults books set in the Arab Australian community, and Melbourne's "My dress, my image, my choice" fashion parade (which received a Living in Harmony grant for "bringing together Muslim and non Muslim women" and featured on ABC's Compass).

"These projects not only challenge Western negative stereotypes but provide a unique platform for the voices and experiences of contemporary Muslim women in Australia"
During the conference Jeni caught up with Peggy Giakoumelos from Australia's multicultural broadcaster SBS' program "World View" who asked her for a few words about the Archive and the state of Palestinian heritage, which was broadcast on 8 December 2006. SBS' website now contains that audio interview:
"When the media refers to life in the Palestinian territories, it's usually about conflicts occurring in the region. The culture of the Palestinian people is often ignored by the media. Jeni Allenby is the director of the Palestine Costume Archive, a museum that not only showcases traditional Palestinian dress, but costumes from across the Middle East. She spoke to Peggy Giakoumelos at the 2006 Transformations Conference in Canberra"

High Speed MP3

(if you have problems accessing this try via the SBS website)

"ANOTHER blog??!"

(Bethlehem + Ramallah dress, pre 1948)

Celebration time - our website is back, albeit a 2003 version!!

We will hear news about our email address tonight, but we may just have to live with the fact that mail sent to the old address will remain irretrievable. Which also means all the business cards and letter head items will need changing. Don't think about it! Think instead about....

"ANOTHER blog??!!" exclaimed our director, "but we just started THIS one!". "Well, yes, but it would be nice to keep our reference enquiries separate. It won't be an everyday one, just perhaps our favorite reference enquiry per week...

We think we only convinced her because she was so happy about the website! So with great fanfare we announce the the Archive's Reference Enquiry Blog. We'll place our favourite past reference questions there, and the questions we get asked regularly. We'd also love to hear from you!

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

New email address

(source of photo unknown)

The website and email are still down. However we now have an emergency back up email: drop us a line at We look forward to hearing from you!

Monday, July 9, 2007

Secret splendours of the Archive

The detail above is from a Yemeni wedding dress in the Archive's traveling exhibition "Secret Splendours: women's costume in the Arab world". Let's see if we can find a nice installation photo of the exhibition as well, to finish our post.

The website is still offline and we are receiving no mail so today we are doing internal museum things. Like finishing up cleaning up, LOL, but also working on storing collection items from other areas of the Arab and Islamic world. We have quite a good collection, but unfortunately after we lost our funding after 9/11 and then one of our traveling exhibitions went missing during a tour of America, our museum's acquisition budget was reassigned to help cover these things. So we are lucky we still receive wonderful costumes and textiles as gifts.

Having such a wide collections means we can curate and tour exhibitions like "Secret Splendours: women's costume in the Arab world", which has a checklist of over 150 items. The exhibition includes both historic and contemporary costumes from North Africa, Egypt, Jordan, Palestine, Syria and the Gulf, including Yemen and Oman. There is also a contemporary section on Islamic modesty dress, which was added after 9/11 when it became very important to educate Western audiences about hijab.

To further redress this issue the Archive is currently curating an exhibition just about the latter. It's a wonderful project to be working on, for several reasons. Firstly, it's essential to have a good educational tool available for people wanting information on this topic, and secondly the exhibition provides a platform for Muslim women to share their experiences of wearing hijab. Those of us who wear hijab really look forward to having a voice. So we guess we'd better get back to work!

Below is a photo of "Secret Splendours" installed at the Museum of Victoria in 2002. This is the Egyptian section of the exhibition - you can see traditional costumes from Siwa Oasis and the Sinai Desert.

Sunday, July 8, 2007

Website down again

Just discovered the Archive's website is down again and that our main enquiry email address ( is no longer working.

As always when this happens we are working as fast as we can to fix things, and we apologise for any inconvenience. You can reach us via our director's private email: with any research / traveling exhibition enquiries.

People we'd like to invite to morning tea....

Child's Quilt (prototype design) 1991
Jordan River Designs
Palestine Costume Archive Collection

“Today, at a time when, too often, humanity
is clashing instead of communicating, we need to
promote [a] universal language and indivisible heritage”

Queen Rania

Much delight today when the latest issue of Vanity Fair being admired by staff at morning tea, proved to have Her Majesty Queen Rania Al-Abdullah of Jordan on the cover. Annie Leibovitz had taken the photo as part of a series commemorating activists working for Africa. Each of the twenty activists featured on the cover separately - our director had looked through all the copies in Borders to find one featuring the Queen!

Queen Rania was being praised for her work on the board of the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization Fund and as Eminent Advocate for Children at UNICEF: "The world is failing millions of children, especially in Africa. Lack of access to vaccines means that the world loses over two million children every year. We can save them all. These statistics belong to the children of the developing world, the heartbreak belongs to their parents, but the responsibility belongs to us all."

Definitely. Here at the Archive we know the Queen best in her role of patron of Jordan River Foundation, which she established in 1995. The Foundation is a Jordanian NGO, working at the grassroots level to motivate low-income Jordanian families to participate in income-generating initiatives. Projects like Jordan River Designs, Wadi Al-Rayan and Bani Hamida not only assist women in creating additional sources of income to support their families, but help revive heritage crafts such as embroidery and and weaving. Bani Hamida for example currently involves 1,644 recently settled Bedouin women from 450 families, who produce traditionally made weavings and rugs, while many Palestinian women in refugee camps work for Jordan River Designs.

The photo above shows a quilt in the Archive's collection, embroidered with the Tree of Life motif by refugee Palestinian women employed by Jordan River Designs. Our director visited the project many times after Queen Noor established it in 1987 (before becoming part of Queen Rania's Foundation) and acquired this child's quilt in 1991. Originally she hoped to sell it, to raise funds for the Archive, but then decided it was so special that it should be preserved in the Archive's collection.

Archive staff love that Queen Rania shares a similar background to many Palestinian women in exile. Like many of our generation she knew the pain of a second exile when she lost her home in Kuwait after the Iraq invasion. We admire that she sincerely acknowledges the work of the International Red Cross / Red Crescent movement ("which has helped people recover from devastation and misery, rebuild their futures and carry on with their lives. And has spread compassion around the the midst of tragedy and suffering, over generations of war and peace" British Red Cross fund-raiser), is willing to take on culturally difficult causes (such as her Child Abuse Prevention Project) and shows a willingness to use her celebrity to bring attention to various charities. And somehow she handles all her royal duties AND manages her own small children. We are totally in awe!

So we'd like to invite Queen Rania to come join us for morning tea. Next time she's in the country, lol. We'll promise really nice tea and some great home made munchies. We'd like to talk with her about Palestinian and Jordanian wildflowers, and about the importance of heritage for a people without a country, and share with her some of the Archive's treasures. We'd really love to discuss her views on heritage, which are so central to the Archive's cultural educational mandate ("Queen Rania has said that in order for different cultures to understand each other, they must let one and other into their homes, and see things firsthand" JBTWire) and exchange ideas about traveling exhibitions, publications and other ways to communicate the extraordinary beauty of Palestinian and Jordanian heritage to the world. And then we'd like to talk families and children....

PS: We do stock some lovely embroidered items from Jordan River Designs and it's sister projects, if anyone is looking for some really special gifts!

Friday, July 6, 2007

Director Jeni's "Musakhan" - a diasporic adaptation (that tastes divine!)

The Nassar Family's "Mousakhan with Game Hens"
photo source: Chronicle / Craig Lee

Musakhan ( مسخّن in Arabic) (Palestinian chicken cooked in sumac and onions) recently featured in an American magazine article about a Palestinian Christian family, the Nassars, cooking for Easter. Traditional Musakhan is truly one of the best things you'll ever eat. It's beloved all over the Arab world because it tastes so good. Seriously!

What interested us about the recipe given in the article is that it provided an interesting example of diasporic adaptation. The Nassar family cooked the dish with game hens rather than chicken, and created individual "musakhan" serves (on small rounds of bread) rather than the traditional "wrapping" in bread. You can see the scrumptious looking results in the photo above.

We've seen - or eaten - other diasporic versions that incorporate spices like allspice and saffron. This family added paprika. Sumac by the way is a tart lemony flavored spice made from the ground dried berries of a bush that grows wild throughout the Middle East. Boneless chicken versions also exist. Some recipes grill the chicken rather than bake it. Some roast it with onions and then bake it wrapped in bread. The variations are endless but we reckon they probably all taste pretty good.

We thought we'd share the recipe for Musakhan that our director modified for cooking easily in the West. Our Palestinian great grandmothers would probably observe it with horror but we guarantee it tastes absolutely terrific, and provides an instant comfort food hit for any homesick Palestinian visitors. We are always begging her to make another one. It's incredibly simple to make.

Director Jeni's Musakhan

(for four people)

What you need:

  • 2 chicken breasts off the bone, roughly chopped into large pieces
  • olive oil
  • 4 large onions, sliced
  • 3 tablespoon ground sumac
  • 2 or 3 pitta breads for cooking, preferably the plumper soft ones made with a little yeast. Turkish pitta is good. Also another few pieces of bread to eat with the chicken
  • Medium size casserole with tight lid, which looks good enough to serve direct on the table
What you do:
  1. Fry onions in olive oil (and a little butter if you like the dish oily like Palestinians).
  2. When onions are just brown, add sumac, stirring for 2 minutes.
  3. Grease the bottom and sides of a casserole dish with oil. Place one round pitta bread at the bottom. It should be big enough for the bread to come up the sides of the dish. If they don't cut strips from a second piece of pitta. Basically you want the bottom and sides lined with bread.
  4. Place the uncooked chicken in the bottom of the casserole so that the bottom is evenly covered
  5. Place the cooked onions on top of the chicken. The chicken should be completely covered in a very thick layer of onions. Pour the sumac and oil from the bottom of the frypan over the onions. If you like it very oily the traditional Palestinian way, pour some more olive oil over the top.
  6. Cover the onions with the last pitta piece. You don't need a perfect seal but make sure it fits snuggly.
  7. Sprinkle a little water on top of the pitta, then cover with casserole lid (if no lid, make a cover from aluminium foil)
  8. Bake in a moderate heat oven (180°C) until cooked. You can check by lifting the lid and pitta bread top (be careful of escaping steam) and sticking a knife into the thickest chicken pieces. If the juice runs clear its cooked.
  9. While cooking the main dish, fry pine nuts in the spices left in the frypan, or roast in a little olive oil
  10. When main dish is cooked, lift the bread lid carefully and scatter pine nuts, then replace bread lid
  11. Serve in the casserole with the bread top, direct onto the table, with other favorite Palestinian / Arab dishes, or just a rice pilaf and the extra rounds of pitta
  12. When serving the dish up, make sure the serving spoon cuts down to the bread base, so that each spoonful contains chicken, onions and the yummy bread at the bottom full of cooking juices. If you prefer it traditionally oily then scoop up more of the sumac flavored oil at the bottom. Don't eat the bread lid, it will be far too dry!
  13. Enjoy!