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Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, March 2004, pages 50-51

Special Report

Palestinian Costumes Vanish at Los Angeles Airport

The now-missing exhibition “Symbolic Defiance: Palestinian Costume and Embroidery Since 1948” installed at the First World Congress of Middle Eastern Studies, Mainz, Germany 2002 (photo credit Jeni Allenby).

By Delinda C. Hanley

THE OFFICIAL SEARCH for irreplaceable Palestinian costumes which vanished Nov. 1 at Los Angeles Airport’s Terminal 4 has ended. The Palestine Costume Archive’s traveling exhibit “Symbolic Defiance: Palestinian Costume and Embroidery Since 1948” disappeared on its way to the Middle East Studies Association’s (MESA) 2003 conference, held in Anchorage, Alaska.

Archive director Jeni Allenby, who was accompanying the exhibit, had been invited to present a paper on, ironically, the problems regarding the acquisition and display of Palestinian cultural heritage in Western museums. Little did she know that the greatest difficulty the traveling exhibit had ever faced would occur within the U.S. airport security system, recently beefed up after the Sept. 11 tragedies.

After arriving at the Los Angeles Airport from Sydney, Allenby handed over to security personnel the collection, packed in a large, padded suede garment bag made for couriering museum textiles. International flights arriving in Los Angeles funnel luggage and passengers traveling onward to other U.S. cities through this customs security transit area. Transit bags are x-rayed before being collected by internal airport couriers and transferred to domestic terminals, where they are loaded onto their next flight.

A child visiting an exhibition in London in traditional Palestinian costume, 1991 (photo credit Sonia El Nimr).

After turning over the bag, Allenby proceeded as directed to the Alaska Airlines terminal to fly to Anchorage via Seattle. When she arrived in Alaska she discovered the exhibition was missing, and immediately reported the loss.

An Alaska Airlines search uncovered the fact that the exhibition had disappeared either during or immediately after the transit area security examination. The bag never made it to the Alaskan Airlines terminal, and internal airport couriers had never been called to pick it up. All security personnel and baggage handlers in that transit area denied seeing or examining the exhibition’s bag, despite the fact that Allenby had handed it over to one of them herself. There is no computer tracking record of the bag after Nov. 1.

Allenby has nothing but praise for Alaska Airlines staff in Anchorage, who, she said, tried very hard to locate the exhibition. Following airline policy, after five days the search was transferred to Alaska Airlines’ central baggage office in Seattle. For a month Allenby’s requests for updates from Seattle were ignored. Finally, in a letter dated Dec. 17, Alaska Airlines stated their file on this matter is now closed and a check was in the mail to compensate the Palestine Costume Archive for the loss of its traveling exhibit. The check’s total, $634.90, was calculated at the rate of $9.07 per pound to a maximum of 70 pounds. Irreplaceable Palestinian heritage, in the form of historical handmade costumes and embroidery, was accorded the same value as a lost suitcase packed with clothes and toiletries.

Alaska Airlines did not respond to queries, or comment on this article.

The Palestine Costume Archive was established for safety reasons in Canberra, Australia in the early 1980s, after Israel destroyed the Palestine Liberation Organization’s (PLO) cultural heritage collections in Tunis and Beirut. The nonprofit Archive’s mission is to preserve and promote Palestinian and Middle Eastern cultural heritage until it can return to and remain safely in a museum in Palestine. In 2002 this museum-quality traveling exhibition program, along with other educational programs, reached more than 33,000 people in Australia, Europe and the United States.

The Archive’s enormous success has come despite negligible financial support. It receives no regular funding, and has had only two grants partially approved in the last 22 years—the largest a mere $2,000. Its largest private donation was $250.

The museum simply does not have the funds to replace either the lost cultural material or exhibition display material (such as graphics and museum banners) without some long overdue external support.

Predictably, the mainstream media in the U.S. has ignored this story.

New Jersey residents Hanan and Farah Munayyer, whose own separate collection of antique traditional Palestinian and Syrian costumes also tours the U.S., but is unrelated to Australia’s Palestine Costume Archive, are surprised that such a thing could have happened to an exhibit. While they usually drive their exhibit themselves, Farah Munayyer said, the task of transporting their irreplaceable dresses usually goes off without a hitch.

These exhibitions raise Palestinian self-esteem and confidence and help diaspora Palestinians develop a sense of identity. The Munayyers take special delight when Palestinian American youth wear their ancient dresses in special shows.

Did an anti-Arab individual or group conspire to damage the heritage held so dear by the Palestinian community by absconding with the exhibit? Did someone steal the valuable costumes for financial gain? Farah placed little credence in either scenario. “Israel keeps the finest collection of Palestinian costumes in the world under lock and key in a museum basement,” he said. “They have no need to steal this archive.”

The loss of the exhibit has made waves in museums around the world. Allenby says museum staff members have been supportive and sympathetic. “Perhaps some good might come out of this loss,” she told the Washington Report, “in that these museums and galleries might now consider displaying Palestinian cultural materials from their own collections or even requesting one of our museum’s traveling exhibitions.”

By now, the return of the exhibition appears unlikely. In order to recommence tours, the Archive is seeking emergency funds to replace the lost cultural material and re-curate the exhibition. Funds also are needed for programs such as an oral history project with Palestinian diaspora communities worldwide; the research and establishment of a Web site page illustrating Palestine’s costumes; and other research and documentation of costumes and heritage in museums and private collections worldwide.

The Archive is seeking donations to help purchase replacement costumes and embroideries from Palestinian refugee embroidery and handicraft projects in Gaza and the West Bank, desperately in need of orders and income. Donations of Palestinian and Middle Eastern costumes and textiles also are most welcome.

Readers who would like to help can send checks payable to the Palestine Costume Archive in any currency (add $9 U.S. for local bank foreign currency charges) to the Palestine Costume Archive, P.O. Box 98, Lyneham, Canberra, ACT 2602 Australia. Online donations can be made at <>.

Delinda C. Hanley is news editor of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, on Middle East Affairs.