Woven back to life: the women reviving a traditional Bedouin craft

In a few isolated towns in Abu Dhabi's remote western region, women weavers are reviving a craft that was once central to Bedouin culture. They are honing traditional skills while building pride and independence.

In a few isolated towns in Abu Dhabi's remote western region, women weavers are reviving a craft that was once central to Bedouin culture. Helena Frith Powell meets them and explains how, with the help of the Khalifa Fund, they are honing traditional skills while building pride and independence.

Leila Ben-Gacem travels to the farthest western reaches of Abu Dhabi twice a week, but unlike most foreigners who go there searching for oil, she is looking for local women with traditional skills. Ben-Gacem, a Tunisian, works for the Khalifa Fund for Enterprise Development and is trying to keep the country's heritage alive. For the past year she has been weaving together a network of women operating in tents, caravans and homes across the barren landscape who will help her to do this. The project she is in charge of aims to revive the Beduoin art of weaving in the two most remote towns in the region: Ghayathi and Sila, both of which are closer to Saudi Arabia than Abu Dhabi.

The region is also miles away from Abu Dhabi in terms of its way of life. Although all the residents had houses built for them by Sheikh Zayed in the mid-1970s, a lot of them still have tents, some pitched outside their concrete homes. There are no shopping malls in the region and the only colour you will see on a woman's nails is henna. The women are completely covered; only their dark eyes are visible. Formally known as Al Gharbia, the western region of Abu Dhabi is the largest in the Emirate but the most sparsely populated, with just over 138,000 inhabitants. The Ghweifat motorway runs parallel to the coast, with a beach stretching some 350 kilometres.

From Abu Dhabi to Ghayathi, our first stop, the road is lined with palm trees and bushes. There is a watering system in place and the foliage is well-tended. This region is obviously not as forgotten about as some think, although on a journey of 230 kilometres to Ghayathi we see only a handful of cars. Ben-Gacem is a lively woman with seemingly endless energy and enthusiasm who laughs easily. During the journey she talks about the region.

"The people here are all one tribe," she says. "And a lot of people you now meet in Abu Dhabi originally came from here. Most people have the same surname. In Ghayathi and Sila most of them are called al Mansoori. The UAE does not end at Madinat Zayed," she laughs, as we drive along the motorway out of the capital towards Ghayathi. "There is a lot of potential out here but these people have never been given the chance to show what they can do."

We turn left at Ghayathi's only traffic light and pull up outside the Bayat Al Radouin Girls' Primary School in the centre of town. Ben-Gacem has organised a sewing class that has been going on all week to improve the skills of the group of seven women in the pilot project here. The skills are all the more necessary now because in just over a month they will have a stall to fill at the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair. It will be the first time the women's products will be on sale to the public, aside from a small event at the Liwa Date Festival last July. There is already a buzz around the class; the teacher is yet to arrive but Ben-Gacem's group is there, impatient to show her their latest work and discuss progress and strategy for the book fair. They show her their weaving, measuring the lengths to demonstrate how many pencil cases one piece of woven cloth will make.

"I'm so proud of my ladies," says Ben-Gacem, glowing with pleasure. "They didn't even use a tape measure before." She recruited the women by going from house to house knocking on doors. And weavers were easier to find than oil. As her colleague Moza al Mansoori, who comes from Ghayathi and is the heritage revival field co-ordinator at the Khalifa Fund, says: "Every woman in Ghayathi can weave." Al Mansoori says she joined the Khalifa Fund because "their convictions are similar to mine; I aspire to help women reach their potential through opportunity creation and helping those with financial needs, not through giving them money but through skills development and market opportunity creation. This project means a lot to women from the western region, it represents a new life full of challenges."

Before Sheikh Zayed ordered the building of houses for everyone in the region, weaving was a necessity. The women would weave tents, camel bags, cords and carpets. When Ben-Gacem came knocking on their doors asking if anyone was interested in reviving this ancient craft, she was greeted with a mixture of surprise and delight. "They were surprised," says Ben-Gacem, who originally trained as an engineer before starting her own business exporting crafts from Tunisia to Europe. "I would knock on the door and say, 'We are the Khalifa Fund, we're interested in your weaving, can you still weave?' A lot of them felt weaving is something that had to be forgotten now that life is so modern. And they were happy; they were living day to day worrying about whether they would be able to bridge the gap between themselves and their country."

Ben-Gacem and al Mansoori chose a small group of weavers and tested the skills of its members, providing them with cotton and drawings of what they should produce. They did the same in Sila, a smaller town more than 100 kilometres away, eight kilometres from the Saudi border. The women were not chosen for their weaving skills alone. They needed to have a certain entrepreneurial spirit. They had to be prepared to work for nothing until their product was sold. In the past, weavers in the region were sometimes given salaries just for being able to weave. This is a mindset that takes time to change, but the women Ben-Gacem picked were all up for the challenge.

Once they had picked the pilot groups, a designer and artisan products specialist was brought in from the UK for a month to train the women, funded by the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage. She showed the women how to adapt their traditionally large woven products to small ones that fit with today's market and taught them about colour co-ordination by using a big round colour chart that they all sat round while explaining how some colours go better together than others. Their education continues with workshops and classes, such as the one we attend. The teacher arrives and installs herself by the sewing machine. The women cluster around her to watch; one student is even taking pictures with her mobile phone. The Khalifa Fund has provided women with machines that can sew the thick material they weave. The teacher today is there to show them various techniques for sewing on lining and zippers. There is trouble in the form of a couple of gate-crashers: women who are not part of the group keen to take advantage of the skills being taught. But these skills and the materials there are only for the chosen few. Ben-Gacem deals with them gracefully and they eventually retreat, realising the class will not continue while they are there.

One of the newer members of the group is a 48-year-old widow called Bkhita. "My mother taught me to weave when I was young," she says. "I stopped for a bit but still had ideas of patterns in my mind. This is the legacy of our ancestors and we should not stop." Bkhita has always produced crafts and says that without the additional income she can earn "things would be very difficult for my family". "I have only one hand," she says, meaning she alone is responsible for her five sons and one daughter. "I have seen how people on TV have hobbies and they turn them into a business and make an income. I hope it will be the same for me. I am very happy when people buy my products."

Ben-Gacem says that when they first asked the women to make bookmarks and pencil-cases, some of them were insulted. "They were used to making huge things like tents and thought we were undermining their skills. I had to explain we were adapting their skills to the modern market."

"And now I am excited about pencil cases!" laughs 45-year-old Afrah, who is weaving "75 per cent" of her time to prepare for the book fair in her caravan in the desert. "I tried them in material first but decided on a product strategy change and wove them instead. I hope I will live up to the responsibility. I can't wait to see my products there and am very excited to have the things I have made exposed to such an audience."

Afrah is married with "enough" children. She is a formidable woman with a smooth, deep voice and lively eyes and gestures. She wears a flame-red dress under her abaya. How does her family feel about her spending so much time weaving? "My husband is happy now, but he wants me to sit with him and pour him coffee. My brother threatens 'come sit with us or I will cut your weaving in half!' But I am so excited I don't want to stop. I want people to know that I am an artisan and I always want to improve." In fact, she is so excited that she cuts short the interview to go back to watching the teacher on the sewing machine.

We leave them to their work and drive towards Sila. "The road is going to get very boring now," Ben-Gacem warns me. She is right, suddenly the trees have stopped, there is nothing green at all, just miles and miles of open road and sand. During the drive to Sila, where we are due to meet the second pilot group, Ben-Gacem tells me about the plans for the book fair. They hope to assemble between 500 and 700 products for it and have decided to charge between Dh150 and Dh200 for a pencil case, Dh25 to Dh50 for a bookmark and Dh300 to Dh500 for a laptop case, depending on the quality of the weaving. She will work with al Mansoori at the stall, as the women don't yet feel comfortable in public.

"I know the products are not cheap," she says. "But they take a long time and I see it as treasure. How many Emirati women will do things with their hands?"

We drive up to the Family Development Centre in Sila for our meeting. Sila is even smaller than Ghayathi; there is not much there by way of shops but there are two new gleaming banks. A lot of the houses have tents outside them. We are here to meet a group of women Ben-Gacem calls "the master weavers of Sila". These are women who are still able to do the "shira" weave; an intricate weaving pattern which would probably have been lost for ever without the Sougha project. But Ben-Gacem is worried; the last time she saw them they had not produced anything for the book fair.

"I was very severe with them," she says. We wait for the master weavers in the director's office. She is away on business. Her staff brings us tea, biscuits, pastries and water. After a half-hour wait, the women arrive laden with bags. Ben-Gacem is so excited she is almost jumping up and down. Moza is the first to show what she has been working on. She has created a laptop cover that you slide the machine into. The screen and the keyboard are covered with thin plastic so you can still type. The weave is a beautiful combination of colours; beige, turquoise and black stripes. "My son tested it," she tells us. "In fact, it was his idea." It rather reminds me of leaving the plastic on a car seat, but would certainly protect my laptop from my children.

Moza brings out more products, all beautifully woven and wrapped in cellophane, ready for sale with her name on a small sticky label. Both the photographer and I fall in love with a purple laptop bag. I ask how much it is. "It took me a long time," begins Moza. "These things are all handmade. Imagine you pay 400 dirhams for that bag," she says, pointing at my handbag, "which is made by a machine. Imagine then how much my bag will cost." She quotes me Dh500. I say I can't pay that much. Moza raises her arms to the sky. "I had a dream," she says excitedly, "about two foreigners coming here and negotiating and trying to get the price down."

There is much laughter and banter but Ben-Gacem brings them back to the business of the day. Ben-Gacem looks on delighted. "What I love about what I am doing is that the first time I met them they were shy and whispering, their lives revolved around their husbands and their children" she says. "Now look at them, they are confident and self-assured, negotiating prices and discussing market access opportunities."

Al Mansoori agrees with her. "I am attached to this project because many of the women we work with do not have enough education to get jobs and they feel left out of society, and so their self-worth is low," she says. "This project makes them realise their potential and see that they can contribute to society and to their families." One by one the other four women show what they have achieved since Ben-Gacem's last visit. Fatma brings out a bag that Ben-Gacem has ordered from her. She says she chose the colours - brown, beige, grey and white - because those are the colours Ben-Gacem usually wears. It is a beautiful design combining horizontal and vertical stripes. The quality of all the products is outstanding.

The last one to show her goods is Bkhita, the mother of Moza and Hamama. Fatma, another group member, is her niece. Bkhita has made a shira bag that her daughter Hamama, who has gone back to finish her schooling at the age of 30 with a view to going to university, says was so hard to make that "my mother's arms were almost paralysed". Ben-Gacem is impressed. In fact she is so excited that she runs around the room, checking the products and congratulating "her ladies". The conversation is animated and loud. In between the Arabic I can distinguish words like BlackBerry and computer. There is a great feeling of harmony and affection between the women and their project leader, which even extends to us, the tough-negotiating foreigners. And this despite the fact that, other than the technical terms mentioned, the master weavers of Sila speak no English at all, except for one word: welcome. "I'm so glad you are happy," says Hamama to Ben-Gacem. "We didn't even sleep so we could get it all done!"

We get up to drive back to Abu Dhabi but are told that we cannot leave because they have slaughtered a sheep for us. We are invited to lunch in their tent, which is just short drive out of Sila into the desert. The tent is large, woven from brown and cream wool with coloured carpets all over the floor and majlis cushions along the sides. There is a small fire burning where coffee is brewing. Outside a goat is tethered and its kids run around it and into the tent to try to steal food.

During lunch, which is served on a plastic sheet on a large carpet in the middle of the tent, Fatma says she stopped weaving for almost 25 years before the Sougha project as the Khalifa Fund project is called; sougha meaning souvenir in local dialect. "This project has brought weaving back to life," she says. Her aunt Bkhita talks about how central weaving used to be to the Bedouin way of life. "Men go to the army, women do the sadou," she says. Sadou meaning weaving. "I was very happy when this project started and I was very excited because my country came to me and asked me to do something. This is our heritage and it must continue."

She tells a story of the evening she cooked camel for Sheikh Zayed when he was hunting in the desert near to her tent in the mid-1970s. They talked and he asked her to describe their life in Sila. That night he ordered houses to be built for all the residents of the town. But you get the feeling they are almost happier in their tents.

"We miss the free Bedouin life," says Hamama. "We love the weekends here in the tent. We are all together." The women all talk excitedly about their lives, their weaving and the past. Ben-Gacem does her best to translate. Moza apologises that she has not had a chance to wash her hands after lunch because she was so eager to talk to us. I spot another bag Fatma has made which I prefer to the first one. She asks Dh400 for it and I pay it without further negotiations.

As we leave, the master weavers of Sila line up to wave us off. "Tell people about Sila," they shout as we turn the car around and head towards the motorway. "Tell them we have the beach and the desert. Tell them you can sit here all night, that it is calm and safe. Welcome, welcome."

The women's products will be on sale at the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair March 2nd to 7th at the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre.