Bent over a shiny silver plate, Fatima, an elderly Emirati woman, meticulously carves an intricate pattern of curved leaves with a chisel and hammer at the Traditional Crafts and Heritage Center in the Al Shindagha Heritage District in Dubai. These plates, once completed, will adorn the handles of daggers (khanjars) and swords. Fátima, who belongs to a family of silversmiths from Ajman, shows this ancient Emirati craft to visitors to the Centre.
Presenting itself as a bridge between the past and the present, the Center celebrates and preserves Emirati heritage through a diverse program of craft workshops.
In a room, flooded with warm sunlight streaming in through a transparent roof, covered with metal fixtures, displaying traditional khoos weaving patterns are a few other elderly Emirati women. Sitting on rugs and carpets, against the backdrop of a majlis, each of these women is a crusader for an intrinsically Emirati craft, says Younes Abdulla Janahi, senior cultural guide at the Department of Cultural Heritage and Programs, Culture of Dubai.
Even as Younes is explaining, Fátima goes back to work, carving small patterns into the silver, her trained eyes intently following the design from behind a pair of gold-rimmed glasses perched on her nose. Her face is largely covered by the burqa, a traditional face mask.
Younes acts as a translator when Fatima, speaking in Arabic, says that she learned the craft of silversmithing from her grandfather and her husband. “It was hard at first, it took me years to perfect it, but now I find it easier,” he says.
Fatima’s tools are scattered around her: several hammers (including a 135-year-old one), a set of pliers, a saw, and a red metal box with an assortment of tiny keys inside. In the middle of these we see a thick silver arm. “That I wear on my upper arm, whenever my shoulder and arm hurt,” reveals Fátima.
It would take three to four days to cut the plate he is currently designing.
In traditional Emirati culture, silversmiths created ornaments for women, silver agals (a headband worn by Arab men to hold the keffiyeh in place) for men, and wall frames. They also sewed panels of silver thread into the garments.
To understand a nation’s culture, it is important to discover its roots. Before the United Arab Emirates transformed into a bustling modern nation, it was once the homeland of the Bedouin. Traveling by camel and horse, these nomadic communities depended on their surroundings for their sustenance.
The palm tree was the center of their existence, its leaves (khoos), were made to make houses, bowls and baskets.
While men wore the long kandura, wrapped around the waist with a belt, fastened with a silver dagger, women made their own tailored clothes, adorning them with delicate talli embroidery.
Its souks were the epicenter of all trade dotted with shops selling handicrafts, perfumes and carpets.
Craftsmen passed their skills down from one generation to the next. Over the years, as the oases became cities, these crafts began to slowly fade away. The craft center is one of the few establishments that supports these traditions and makes them accessible to the public.
After showing the silverware, Fátima presents us with talli embroidery. Several strands of brightly colored threads are interwoven on a cylindrical pillow kept on a metal stand, locally called kajujah. Numerous pins hold spools of thread that hang around the pillow. “You can try your hand at it,” suggests Fatima. “Take these coils and attach them to the other two diagonally,” she demonstrates, then takes my hands to help me weave a lock of the braid. After a round is completed, these bobbins are attached back to the pillow, to be replaced by another set of bobbins for knitting.
The talli craft was once practiced by Emirati women in their homes. Colorful cotton thread is woven with gold and silver metallic straw (khus) in various styles of talli patterns to create strips of ornament for the garments. It was usually sewn into the collars, cuffs and sleeves of women’s garments and into the cuffs of trouser legs (sirwals), Younes explains.
Talli patterns were mostly inspired by nature. Some of the common designs are sayer yaay (coming and going), fankh al bateekh (watermelon slice) bu khostain (double thread) and bu khosa (single thread). Because it is handmade, each talli braid is unique and reflects the creativity of the craftsman. Fatima says it could take weeks to a month to complete an entire strip.
At the craft center, visitors can weave their own hands and hairbands.
As I sip a hot cup of karak tea, I meet Ayesha, draped in an abaya, her henna-stained hands deftly sewing talli embroidery into a multi-patterned sirwal. An Emirati from Dubai, he shows us several jalabiyas that he has sewn and embellished with talli embroidery. A vintage box contains her sewing kit. “We let our visitors, including school children, learn how to sew these embroidery panels into these garments,” says Younes.
Crafted by Dukhoon
Let’s move on to making dukhoon. A form of local perfume, dukhoon is made from a mixture of scents. It is often burned in Emirati homes, hotels and cafes, and especially during special occasions such as weddings to welcome guests. In Arab culture, the dukhoon tray is passed around among guests so they can smell their clothes, hair, and hands.
Going back in time, the world’s first recorded perfumer is said to be a woman named Tapputi from 1200 BC Mesopotamia, modern-day Iraq. Perfume plays an integral role in the culture and traditions of the people of the region.
Ayesha mixes generous amounts of ground incense into a bowl and then shows us a tray with an assortment of scents. “I add a little rose, amber, jasmine, musk, and then a little sugar to tie that mixture together,” she says. Once these ingredients are well mixed, roll them into small dough-like balls to keep covered and dry in a dark room. They are then ready to be burned.
Palm leaf fabric
The palm tree is the basis of most handicrafts in the United Arab Emirates. Its leaves and branches (khoos) are used in numerous ways; converted into circular mats (surood) for placing food, hand fans used for cooling in summers, lids for covering food and baskets for carrying dates and fish.
The technique of weaving these palm leaves is called safeefah.
Some distance away, Shamsa sits on a wooden bench with a bowl of water and dried colorful palm leaves showing visitors safe weaving styles. ‘The best quality of the leaves for weaving comes from the middle of the palm, the softest’, he tells us. ‘We also use the leaves that surround the tree to make other products.’
The dried and collected palm leaves are cut, washed and then separated. They are soaked in water, kept covered with a sack to help soften them for weaving. Then they are dyed purple, green and red. Shamsa weaves colored khoos threads with the undyed natural ones to create a strip like a long ribbon. Several of these ribbons will be sewn into a mat.
From Ras Al Khaimah, Shamsa, a grandmother has been weaving palm leaves for decades after learning how to do it as a child. The response from visitors, he says, has been overwhelming as they experience these ancient Bedouin crafts.
The craft center has several rooms dedicated to demonstrations and workshops for the public in the heritage district.
In another room we meet Aisha Rashid, also from Ras Al Khaimah. All elderly Emirati women are dressed similarly in traditional black abayas, their faces mostly covered with the burqa. Also called a battoulah, it is a face mask, cut from a fabric with a metallic sheen, worn by traditional women in Qatar, Bahrain, Oman and the United Arab Emirates.
Around Aisha are several cut-outs of the burqa as she begins to show us the design process. The cloth imported from India is called Nelee. “You fold it and cut a rectangular piece with slits for the eyes and then sew part of it as a pocket. Insert a wooden stick to make a bridge for the nose and add small wooden sticks to the sides to hold the burqa and then attach it with a red string to tie it up,” she explains.
While young visitors to the center can create their own burqas with colored paper. Before leaving, I put on a real one and click a few pictures in front of the large mirror in the room. It’s a popular spot for selfies, I’m told.