Arabesque: More Significant than Apparent

By Dan Lieberman

The Kennedy Center’s festival of Arab culture, which brought to Washington’s principal cultural center the music, voices and heritage of the 22 Arab nations, proved to be a political breakthrough. Within artistic displays, theatrical expressions, and a panorama of contributions from Arab civilization, were statements that ordinarily don’t appear at Washington’s Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. This is the same Kennedy Center, which despite being partially funded by the U.S. taxpayer, hosted several anniversary celebrations for the foreign nation of Israel, the only nation of the tens of nations created since World War II whose birthday the Center has observed. Another puzzling aspect is that the Concert Hall lounge is named the Israeli lounge. Partially self-restrictive; the lounge attracts those who side with Israel in the Middle East conflict and is shunned by those who vehemently disagree with Israel’s polices.

The Kennedy Center departed from previous presentations with unique commentary in an exhibit of traditional Arab wedding dresses, with staging of a controversial play from Ramallah, and with depiction of Arab accomplishments during the Golden Age that influenced the European Renaissance.

In one exhibit, a Kennedy Center entrance hall featured traditional wedding gowns. The descriptions of the bridal gowns and their history reveal what is usually hidden from American audiences; that the traditions, cultural expressions and heritage of the Palestinian people mingled with adjacent Arab lands and dated back to the time of the Roman Empire. Unfortunately, many of these traditions and cultural aspects from early times have been more recently destroyed.

Ma’an Costume places Palestine in a proper reference.

“The Ma’an costume was influenced by these travelers who would bring valuable items – silk from Syria, linens from Turkey, cotton from Palestine – to sell at the Ma’an markets.”

Wedding dress with Tantur shows Palestinian culture in Northern Galilee dates back to 10th century.

“The dress is shown with a very rare 10th-century headdress called a tantur, which was worn by both Maronite and Druze townswomen as well as by women in Northern Galilee in Palestine, near the Lebanese border. According to costume historians the tantur dates back to the 10th or 11th century.”

Ramallah Dress originated in the 5th century.

“One of the most famous Palestinian costumes, the Ramallah bridal outfit is said to have originated in the 5th century.”

Bethlehem Dress is a tradition that goes back many centuries.

“The fabric was crafted in lengths of about 10 yards, silver brocade at one end was used for the lower back of the dress, a tradition that goes back at least 10 centuries. The shafweh, or headdress, resembles those seen on ivory statues dating from 1200 BC.”

Asdud Dress is composed of ancient fabric and originated in what is now the Israeli city of Ashdod.

“Similar fabric has been excavated from sites dating back to the 2nd century, and the embroidery patterns (cypress trees, combs) are just as ancient. Since the 1948 war, the former residents of Asdud have lived in refugee camps in nearby Gaza. Asdud is now the Israeli town of Ashdod, and its traditional embroidery has almost disappeared.”

A sharp departure from the Kennedy Center’s activities occurred with the staging of” Alive from Palestine: Stories Under Occupation” These stories of actual experiences from those suffering the Israeli occupation aroused some mild protests from persons inclined to the Israeli viewpoint and posed a question: “Why did the exhibits have to include a controversial and inflammatory theatrical performance? After all, the Arab world contains much exemplary theatre – why stage “Alive from Palestine?”

A response notes that an American institution, most of whom favor Israel, finally permitted a Palestinian voice to be heard – a step forward in presenting an objective appraisal of a conflict that engulfs the world.

Another captivating exhibit was the Exploratorium, a ceiling projection that described Arab contributions in all fields during the Golden Age of Enlightenment, which spanned the 6th to 14th centuries.

The Exploratorium described Arab discoveries; contributions in astronomy that mapped the solar system and prepared the way for Copernicus, physicians who described the body organs and prepared the way for Harvey, cartographers who mapped the known European, African and Asian world before the voyages of Vasco da Gama, and mathematicians who refined Greek mathematics, introduced spherical geometry, algebra and the Arabic numeral system that included the Indian “zero.” Toss in new approaches and discoveries in botany, zoology and other sciences.

American educational text books don’t highlight the significance of the Arab worlds’ contributions that worked their way to the western world. The exhibit clearly notified us that the European Renaissance adopted the Arab contributions in science and mathematics, which enabled Europe to depart from medieval constraints and create a new western civilization. Not shown in the exhibit is the complementary contribution of Arab Andalus, where scholars translated ancient Greek texts into Latin and stimulated a reawakening of classical art and humanities that became known as the Renaissance.

Arabesque proved to be more significant than apparent.

– Dan Lieberman is the editor of Alternative Insight, a monthly web based newsletter. He contributed this article to He can be reached at

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