Aisha Ahmad buys plastic parts in bulk and transforms them into Emirati-specific dolls. Mona Al-Marzooqi / The National
Aisha Ahmad buys plastic parts in bulk and transforms them into Emirati-specific dolls. Mona Al-Marzooqi / The National

My UAE: the dollmaking traditions of Aisha Ahmad

Aisha Ahmad gives each of the dolls that she makes the bridal treatment. She sews them kandura robes, paints their palms and the soles of their feet with henna, paints their eyebrows and covers them in fake gold.

Her workshop is strewn with small plastic limbs. A detached head wearing a burqa; a disembodied arm painted in henna.

The dolls arrive as a collection of arms, legs and torsos that Ahmad, 55, assembles with love and care. She chops off their golden locks and carefully wraps a ghutra or shayla over each doll’s head to transform it into an Emirati boy or girl.

The adjustments are necessary “because the hair is a golden colour and before we had no golden hair. Only black or brown. Like this,” she says, tracing on a doll’s ­moustache.

Male dolls have painted sandals, dark eyebrows and beards. “A man’s eyebrows must be thick,” she says.

Female dolls are given miniature plastic martasha necklaces and their fingers and feet are painted in one of three henna styles used in the UAE. She spends weeks preparing them, sewing small kanduras and making tali, a braided decoration, for the cuffs of dresses and sirwal bloomers.

“We need to show the young girls what the grandmothers wore normally in old days, like which gold was worn at parties and which gold was for everyday use,” she says.

Ahmad made simple dolls of cotton and palm fronds for her own children after she married at the age of 15. “Before I made dolls just for family. Now I do them for trade,” she says. “Plastic is better. It’s easy to build a plastic doll.”

The pearl diver’s daughter has seven children. Now, Ahmad enjoys retirement with friends at Abu Dhabi National Theatre handicraft centre. Her dolls are sold at the centre and local festivals, but aren’t named or based on real-life people. “They are just dolls,” she says.

Favourite dish to cook?

Harees. I love it a lot. It is my favourite and I cook it because I love to eat. I know how to cook everything – saloona, biryani, kabeesa. I started to cook when I first married. I also love sweets, like balaleet and aseeda.

Favourite verse of the Quran?

Surat Al Baqarah (The Cow). It makes me relaxed. I can’t read or write, but when I hear it, I feel relaxed. I listen. I know a little of it. I heard it since I was a child.

Are you a morning or evening person?

You know, I exercise every day on the road by the sea after morning prayers. When I do exercise, I feel very good afterwards. I like the morning.

Favourite place in Abu Dhabi?

I love Samha because I find my childhood in this area. It’s all sea and houses by the sea.

Favourite style of henna?

I like the old style, with lines across the palm, because I love old things and heritage.

What does you think of Barbie?

It’s all right. I just prefer the Emirati style.

Favourite handicraft?

I love tali because I can put it onto dresses.

Favourite accessory?

I love the martasha [necklace]. I put it on my dolls. I have one that I wear to weddings, which my husband bought for me. He got it from Sharjah. That was more than 20 years ago. It was a surprise. It was for the birth of my fourth son.

Favourite cosmetics?

Kohl and henna.

Favourite style of facial hair?

I like this style, the beard. The goatee is new. The beard is very old, for Bedu men. They would let it grow out a little bit more. The new style is better.

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