My UAE: Haleema Ali Al ­Shehhi’s many-fronded life

Haleema Ali Al Shehhi, who weaves palm fronds at the National Theatre in Abu Dhabi. Christopher Pike / The National
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When Haleema Ali Al ­Shehhi was young, women would gather outside her house in Dibba at sunset, after prayers. The women would sit on the ground, chatting and weaving palm-frond baskets, mats, brooms and fans that they sold to neighbours. In the early 1970s, the palm tree was still central to life for Dibba’s women – a source of food, shelter, materials and income woven from dried fronds.

Today, Al Shehhi, 48, is one of the leading palm-frond weavers at the National Theatre in Abu Dhabi. In her life, she’s also worked as a bridal beautician and starred as a guest cook on Emirati TV shows.

“I know khoas [palm-frond] weaving from the days when I was young,” she says. “I watched my mother. What my mother did, I did. I was maybe 13 years old.”

As a young girl, she worked alongside her parents at their 400-tree plantation.

But her father, a fisherman and date farmer, and her mother, a master-weaver, stressed the importance of education. Al Shehhi was among the first generation of Dibba’s women to attend formal schooling.

When she married, at age 14, she and her husband moved to Abu Dhabi, before eventually settling in Shahamah. Al Shehhi then became known as a bridal beautician. On the eve of a wedding, she would visit the bride’s house to adorn the bride in henna, whiten her face with an indigo paste and anoint her body in wurs, a yellow aromatic powder.

Al Shehhi returned to school when her youngest son entered grade four. With her four children grown, she now spends weekdays with her sister at the National Theatre women’s crafts centre, where her daughter ­Khadeeja works.

“All the things my grandmother did, I see my mother doing now,” says Khadeeja. “She liked to help everyone.”

What’s your favourite hobby?

Cooking. I do nice Indian-style biryani. On the television programmes, I make different foods, but harees is the dish that everyone wants. On a wood fire, it takes about seven hours. I cook with cardamom, saffron, cinnamon and black and red chillies.

Where would you like to travel?

Now, I would love to go to Salalah [Oman]. My family, maybe 70 of us, drive there every year. I’ve been to India and Jordan, but my favourite place is Saudi Arabia, because it has the House of God [the Kaaba].

What’s your favourite cosmetic?

Henna. I like old styles. I did henna design for many years. Before we did it with lots of dots, the stars and the moon. Sometimes we would just put a drop in the palm and squeeze it.

What’s your advice to women for a happy and peaceful marriage?

We have difficult days and we have fun days. Some years are good. Some years are difficult.

What’s your favourite type of jewellery?

Gold. I put on my gold every day. I like the menthurah style of necklace best.

Who’s your role model?

What my mother did, I try to do and do it as she did it. Without mothers, the world would not be any good. Without mothers, there would be no world at all.

What’s the best advice that your mother gave you?

Love people. My mother said: ‘Don’t skip prayers and help others. Help them if you can.’

What’s your advice to young people?

Sheikh Zayed said don’t lose the art of handicrafts. We must continue to teach these arts to children and our newborns.

What’s your favourite city?

My favourite city is Abu Dhabi. I live here and when I married I came here. It has changed a lot since that time: new buildings, streets, houses. Now it’s much better. The parks are nice, there is sea and there is greenery.

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