Donald H. Harrison
Panama City, Panama (Special) -- How did Flory Saltzman, an immigrant
from Jerusalem, become the lady so often quoted in newspapers and magazines
around the world about the colorful molas (blouses) designed and
sewn by the Kuna Indians of San Blas?
Saltzman modestly declines to call herself an expert on the molas
which she has been buying and selling since 1953, although obviously in
those 46 years, she has learned quite a lot about the traditional multilayered
cloths and their storytelling designs.
Another reason she is so often quoted, Saltzman suggested, "is because
I like to talk." In the mornings, she conducts a running seminar on the
"history of the mola " between waiting on customers, answering the
telephone and directing staff members where they can find just a little
bit more storage space for the molas which she sells at prices
ranging from $1 all the way up to several hundred dollars."I have a million
and a half molas, " she says, adding that she is speaking only figuratively.
So well-known is her interest in the textiles--which often are converted
into purses, table mats and even bedspreads--that Indians from the San
Blas Islands line up outside her store before 7:30 a.m. Each morning to
sell their wares.
||Perhaps, she ventured, it's the old real estate story of
"location, location, location." The shop which she has occupied since 1961
is on the grounds of the Hotel Panama in the heart of the city.
When foreign correspondents covered political rioting in Panama in 1964
and 1971, as well as the "war" in 1989 (in which United States troop captured
Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega, whom it accused of drug-smuggling),
many foreign journalists stayed at the venerable old hotel.
Looking for other things to write about on slow news days, the correspondents
found the complex designs of the molas -- especially as explained
by Saltzman -- irresistible feature story copy.
|Flory Saltzman and one of
her many molas
"I buy everything they offer," Saltzman says. But the vendors must be
at her store before 8:30 a.m. Or they will be sternly sent away. Saltzman
explains that she considers the time after 8:30 a.m. To belong to her customers.
Each layer of cloth is a different color. If the artist has stacked
a blue cloth on top of a yellow cloth, an orange cloth on top of the blue
one, and a red cloth on top of the orange one, she must cut through three
layers of the handstitched textile in order to use yellow in her design.
"Let me teach you how to choose a mola," Saltzman told a customer
who made the mistake of looking at a stack of them by turning up the corner
of each to see the colors. "You wouldn't buy a painting for its colors.
You buy it because you like it, and if you like it, the colors don't matter."
She spreads a mola on the floor and with a pointed indicated
two turtles. "Generally turtles always look the same," Saltzman said, "but
here she (the unknown Kuna artist) shows one happy and one not so happy.
She manifests happiness by having this one's head up; sadness with this
one's face down.
"'Happy' has a star; 'sad' doesn't. What is making this one so
happy? The birds are far away and nothing is bothering her. What makes
her sad? Her children are leaving. (Saltzman points to little turtles crawling
away, with their heads up.) When children leave they are always happy.
When they stick around the house, they are never happy."
Not all the stories depicted on the molas are derived from
the indigenous folk tales. Saltzman said many Kuna Indians work as civilians
for the United States military in a variety of jobs, and like to participate
in weekends in such sports as baseball, basketball and soccer. Sports designs
on molas are common.
backwards, or there won't be enough candlesticks on a channukiah. Saltzman
says she purchases every Jewish-themed mola, no matter what."That's
why when I sell one that came out right, it is more expensive," she said.
||Similarly, the Kuna learn stories from the Bible and sometimes
make representations of them. For example, said Saltzman, pointing to another
mola, "here is Eve after she ate the apple. Eve is very ugly.
Here she is before she ate the apple. She is very pretty. Here, before,
is a tree full of birds; here, after she ate the apple, the tree has no
birds ... I like it. It tells the story better than the Bible."
Given the Indians' expanding interests, it was not such a big jump for
Saltzman to ask them to make some items that her fellow Jews might enjoy
-- items like challah covers, tallit bags, and kippot.As
Hebrew lettering and Jewish ceremonial objects are new forms for the Kuna
people, sometimes the letter lamed in 'Shalom' will come out
|Kuna Indian with her mola