Draped in richly embroidered clothing that narrates the deep history of traditional Emirati craft, the guardians of heritage stand with pride and glory at the heart of the UAE’s Golden Jubilee.
In a year marked by the UAE’s 50th anniversary, followed by the return of a grander Ball of Arabia, we celebrate the nation’s cultural wardens, supported by the General Women’s Union (GWU). Established by the chairmanship of HH Sheikha Fatima Bint Mubarak, the GWU will lend immersive cultural experiences unlike any other to the Ball of Arabia. On December 12 at Raffles The Palm Dubai, guests will get the chance to indulge in the very best of Emirati art and music, alongside a live crafts sessions that will take over the venue.
These crafts, rooted deep in tradition and history, are upheld by the guardians at the GWU, who we visited at Abu Dhabi’s Al Wathba Desert Resort & Spa ahead of the Ball. Dressed in traditional jalabiyas in bright colors with delicate finishing and fine embroideries, they poetically chant traditional anthems of nobility. Six pairs of wrinkled hennaed hands maneuver in a paced motion as they weave pieces and fabric between their fingers. They recount their skills in detail, eyes glimmering with pride.
This is a story of the future that harvests its power from the past. It is where heritage is placed first, ensuring the lifelong preservation of the UAE’s cloth. The GWU aims to provide national women all the means necessary for their wellbeing and to thrive through an extensive range of programs and projects, namely family counseling, female health and empowerment, and heritage preservation. Therefore, the GWU sponsors women of craftsmanship, honoring them with the title “Guardians of Heritage.”
Representing the UAE at many regional and international occasions, such as Expo 2020 Dubai, the guardians have been transforming thread and cloth into monumental works of art for decades, a practice they have adapted as a source of income for themselves and their families as well. “Government and private agencies play a major role in the success of the guardians of heritage project, which aims to preserve identity, revive heritage across generations, and provide job opportunities for several creative female citizens in this field,” says Lulwa Al-Humaidi, director of the Handicrafts Center at the GWU.
In addition to offering the guardians a platform to showcase Emirati heritage to the world, GWU hosts workshops that shed light on local traditional industries, such as Talli crafting, Sadu, sewing, and henna engraving, employing around 130 women in the process. “HH Sheikha Fatima bint Mubarak, President of the General Women’s Union, Supreme President of the Family Development Foundation, ‘Mother of the Nation,’ was always keen to preserve the heritage and introduce it to new generations, in addition to promoting it regionally and globally,” reveals Al-Humaidi. With collective perseverance, they look to their background, considering it the identity that defines them. Screening a film highlighting the nation’s traditional craftsmanship showcases its impressive intricacy and its agility for materials used. It requires patience, effort, and an eagle’s eye for details as one small mishap may completely alter the whole piece’s message.
Highlighting on the principal components of their craft is Ateeqa Ahmed Al Muhairbi, whose journey started at seven years of age. She masters the Talli. She learned how to make Talli from a neighbor. Passed down from mother to daughter, Talli is a textile handcraft that demonstrates beautifully intricate strips made of golden threads and colorful embroideries. This creation is used to embellish all sorts of clothes from wedding gowns to everyday wear and is created by gently twisting and braiding thread together on a cushion that rests on a metal stand called Kajooja. “A single piece of Talli might use more than six bobbins depending on the number of threads used, and is popularly designed in silver, as well as black, red, white, and green,” says Kaltham Al Mansoori, who also learned this craft from a very young age.
Another important practice is creating the burqa’a. It’s a traditional form of modesty for women, that masks the face to distinguish married from unmarried women. “It is lined with a delicate fabric that is traditionally imported from India, and differs in color, quality, and cost,” says Ateeqa Abdullah al Mansoori. “Red being the most expensive and thickest in quality, yellow is classified as less expensive, and green as the cheapest with the thinnest lining.” Bridging the mask over the nose is ‘Al Seif,’ which is composed from any form of wood or bamboo, to all comfortably rest on the face through the ‘Al Shubuq’ harness. Like some traditional crafts, the burqa’a has evolved significantly over the years, and is now worn by younger women during special occasions to highlight their beauty. “The traditional burqa’a is very big, the burqa’a developed over time and became smaller in size,” says al Mansoori.
Listed as an Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding by UNESCO in 2011, Al Sadu is recognized as a pivotal traditional component, adapted by the Bedouins, and accounts for one of the most vital economic contributions by women. Patterned with a labyrinth of weaved camel hair, goat, and sheep wool, Al Sadu is transformed into sheets of fabric for tents, carpets, belts, blankets, and decoration for camel saddles. “They create the Sadu through the wool that I weave from the goat. We then cook it and dye it,” says Maryam Rashid al Mansoori.
Sheikh Zayed Al Nahyan maintained a sharp vision to revive, strengthen, and share the deep-rooted Emirati heritage with the world. He led by example and encouraged other initiatives to shed light on the importance of traditional wear. Founded by Dr Reem Tariq El Mutwalli, author with over 40 years of experience in art and cultural heritage, Zay Initiative aims to collect, document, and conserve Arab dress and adornment. It inspires and educates designers to create a sustainable future, and empowers women regionally and globally by bringing their untold stories to life. “With over 1 500 pieces from across the Arab world, the collection helps tell the story of the tangible and the intangible,” says El Mutwalli.
HH Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan once said, “He who does not know his past cannot make the best of his present and future, for it is from the past that we learn.” Building the future with an eye to the past is the father of the nation’s vision. He leaned on solid Bedouin values to prize the inherent national identity in light of his motion for modernization and progression.
Production: Ankita Chandra
Location:Al Wathba Desert Resort & Spa