The hennaed hands deftly move, over and under, over and under, maneuvering seven reels of cotton and silk thread to braid a talli strip. Khous gold thread glitters as the artisan’s swift fingers create this centuries-old Emirati handicraft. It requires immense skills of concentration, patience, and care to ensure the braid – used to decorate the chest and sleeve area of Emirati women’s traditional kandura – is faultless. Finishing a kandura using these traditional crafts can take up to month, making it almost couture-like in its execution. The skilled weaver is surrounded by a group of 10 other women, all amiably chatting away, dressed in bright green, turquoise, and pink kanduras, with beaded black veils, and battoulah. Some are weaving talli, while others are hand-rolling wool for al sadu, a traditional form of weaving ubiquitous throughout the Emirates even today. Other crafts on display include intricate woven mats made from palm leaves and used as rugs and food covering.
The artisans are part of the Women’s Handicraft Centre, which was established by the General Women’s Union (GWU) in Abu Dhabi in 1978, under the chairmanship of HH Sheikha Fatima bint Mubarak. The GWU is the formal representative of Emirati women, taking an active interest in all aspects of women’s lives, from their health to education, family counseling, and legislation. Today, under the guidance of HH Sheikha Fatima bint Mubarak, these projects have been widely expanded and GWU seeks to build women’s competencies, in partnership with UN Women, so they can enter all fields, including technology and the UAE government. Part of the GWU’s mandate is to preserve the country’s unique heritage, which is a cause close to the heart of HE Noura Al Suwaidi, director-general of GWU. “The best way to ensure the survival of our heritage is to blend it with the modern, to revive it,” Al Suwaidi says. Since her appointment 20 years ago, Al Suwaidi has worked under the directives of HH Sheikha Fatima to support women of all nationalities in the UAE.
The Women’s Handicraft Centre features a permanent exhibition center with symbols of everyday life showcasing the country’s history – from how women used to prepare for their wedding, to what perfumes and beauty products were prevalent throughout the ages. All aspects of daily life in the Emirates are displayed, showing the rich, creative history of people using their arid surroundings to its fullest. Hand-mills for grinding wheat into flour, floor looms for weaving al sadu, and hand spindles for processing camel and sheep wool into textiles, and spices that were used medicinally all tell a story. Here, the 70-odd women who are part of the center can display their skills while earning a living and safeguarding time-honored crafts. They work from nine to one every day, forming a happy community where they share laughs and stories while creating their intricate products. Many of them – ranging in age from 30, with the oldest one not knowing her age because she’s never had a birth certificate – came to the center thanks to the government, and some have been here for decades, earning a living they otherwise might not have been able to. While some have been taught the handicrafts by their mothers or grandmothers, others learned it at the center, becoming skilled in all the techniques before choosing the one they excel at and want to specialize in. Oum Ali is one such artisan, who credits the center with enabling her to become her family’s breadwinner. “My husband passed away when our children were very small. I’m so thankful to Sheikha Fatima because she gave me this opportunity to do this work, in order to have a decent life,” she shares. The group also includes people of determination, who have found a purpose and loving community where they can contribute to the culture of the nation.
“Women are still attached to their heritage,” Al Suwaidi says. “They never stop wearing talli or the cotton mokhour in their daily lives. They always glow in their traditional costumes that feature embroidery. The Emirati wedding ceremony is not complete unless the bride sways beside her groom wearing a luxury green traditional thobe.”
The GWU showcases these handicrafts whenever official delegations visit the country, as well as sending products to the Emirates’ embassies around the world. But the crafts are not just shared in an official capacity – many young people today have a renewed interest in their heritage, and are curious about its modern applications. A recent visit by architecture students led to some of them incorporating the handicrafts into their final projects in innovative ways. Schoolchildren and students regularly visit the center, with the GWU also recently signing an agreement with the Ministry of Education to enable female students to visit the GWU to meet its women and see their handcrafts. An annual competition for best traditional costume also attracts many entries, demonstrating the next generation’s fascination with tradition. “We are preparing to establish an industrial academy to teach more women the traditional Emirati crafts,” Al Suwaidi says. “The GWU strives to conserve the UAE’s heritage and ensures its survival by passing it on to the next generation. Heritage is not just the past, but also the present.”
Originally published in the January 2020 issue of Vogue Arabia
Videography: Arsh Sayed
Editing: Hue Studios