Not everything cooked up in an Emirati kitchen is served on a plate.
Back in the 1970s, the young Halima and Mariam Al Naqbi from Khor Fakkan would dye textiles using home ingredients. Every day for at least an hour, they would dye raw materials.
“We love colour,” says Halima, wearing a traditional dress of vibrant purple, red and gold under her abaya. The love for colour and how to dye all evolved from her ancestors, she says.
In the past, say the sisters, people imported plain white textiles from India, Iran and other neighbouring countries. Then there came a point when people got bored with wearing the same colour.
It was not long before Emiratis came up with effective ways of using natural materials on most types of textiles, including silk and cotton, explains Mariam.
This year at the third annual Qasr Al Hosn Festival, Mariam and Halima are opening a window to the past by demonstrating how people made a livelihood from dyeing textiles.
“I have participated in all the Qasr Al Hosn Festivals. I enjoyed textile dyeing and still do it to this day,” says Halima, a mother of 12.
The sisters can be found in the Abu Dhabi Island zone of the festival, which is further divided into subsections, each of which explores traditional crafts – from textiles to cosmetic treatments.
These are demonstrated live by elders, to “reawaken the social spirit of the Emirate’s ancient times”, as described in the festival’s programme.
Halima, 63, and Mariam, 50, are exactly the type of people that the Qasr Al Hosn Festival aims to promote.
Like many Emiratis, the sisters are also storytellers. Halima sits comfortably at her booth and her charismatic personality draws in visitors of all ages and nationalities.
With a heartfelt laugh, she explains the tradition of painting textiles using turmeric, pomegranates, blue indigo, saffron, henna, and the leaves of almond trees, al waras and al yas plants.
“Most natural ingredients we used in the past might not be familiar to the new generation,” says Halima.
Only two pieces of equipment are needed for home dyeing: a cooking pan and a wooden stick.
“This is called indigo, darling,” she says, reaching for the powder. To dye materials she fills the cooking pan with water and indigo until both become extremely hot.
Next, she pours the mixture in another pan to refine it. Finally, she places the raw material in the pan and stirs with a wooden spoon.
“We dip the white cloth in the pan for a few days till it fully extracts the colour,” says Halima. “When you wash the cloth, the colour doesn’t fade.
“Even in our era, colours were gender-specific. Women would wear dark colours while men, light.
“Men only had three colours to choose from, white, light turmeric and indigo. They only had four kanduras.”
Two were white. One of them was solely for Friday prayers and the other, for weddings and work.
The choice of colour reflected a man’s personality, Halima says.
“If he wore light indigo, it meant he was OK,” she says, gesturing with a thumbs-up.
“It was a big shame for men to wear pink. The tradition didn’t allow it.”
“What happened if men wore pink in the past?” asked one visitor.
After much chuckling, she finally reveals: “It meant he lacked manhood.”
Dying textiles is something the sisters hold dear to their hearts and they have passed the skill down to their children.
“Our ancestors might not have been educated, but they were wise, and life taught them many lessons,” says Halima. “I am also not educated, but life was my teacher.”
Sitting a few stalls away from her is Umm Essa from Al Gharbia. She is taking part in the Local Botanical Benefits section, where mixing herbs, oils and spices illustrates the foundation of many Emirati traditions.
Umm Essa’s speciality is traditional beauty regimes. And while most people might guess that she is in her 50s, she is actually 70.
“I never used make-up,” she says, with a smile from behind her burqa. “I only put natural kohl around my eyes, and I always moisturise my face and hair using natural herbs and oils.”
Whatever the mother of six has been using throughout her life seems to be working. The only wrinkles visible on her face are slight laughter lines around her eyes, set against high firm cheekbones and glowing skin.
Her long, healthy hair, in one thick braid to her waist, is covered under her shayla.
“A woman’s hair is like a green field – if you don’t water it properly and nurture it, it will dry up and die,” says Umm Essa.
For those willing to test her herbs, she will mix a special recipe for hair or face. She displays rows of different sized bookiya, or small aluminium containers with a padlock-like latch, and metal bowls filled with herbs and spices next to bottles of oils.
“Depending on the skin type, you can use this as a lotion,” says Umm Essa, pointing to crushed mahlab seeds, mixed with al waras and olive or sesame oil, as well as rose water.
Umm Essa is happy to share her beauty secrets. “The indigo dye, when rubbed, adds a shiny, pearly hue to the skin,” she says.
But what she really likes to do, and has been brought over to the festival to demonstrate, is braiding.
Known as aajfa style, this consists of between 10 and 15 braids tied with ribbons, often cut out from a shayla. The braids are then tied tightly around the back of the head.
There is also the aajla version, which is just two braids. The hair is often decorated with dangling chains of gold and precious gems.
“You put ground curcumin [a colouring extracted from turmeric] mixed in with ground-up saffron and coconut oil on the roots and the hair, and leave it like that for as long as you can,” says Umm Essa.
“You can also add sesame oil – it is good for both hair and skin.”
She rubs bits of amber on her hands to demonstrate its strong smell, and says: “We use this as perfume.”
Oud and sandalwood are other ingredients used in traditional perfumes and incense, and were often brewed and mixed at home in the past.
“There you go – you look like a beautiful bride,” says Umm Essa, after finishing an aajfa braid for one of The National’s reporters.
The effect is striking if the visitor does not mind walking around for the rest of the festival with oily yet glowing hair, plus an orange tinge to the hair and side of the face, since part of the ritual includes putting the oily yellow mix along the tip of the chin and the forehead.
Help is needed to remove the tied-up braids, with a pair of scissors to cut through the ribbons.
Later, it takes two to three rinses with shampoo to wash it out, followed by a conditioner. But the shine and strength added to roots after just one session is noticeable.
“I am just worried about unknotting this,” says a visitor, who has gone through the treatment.
“I might need scissors, because it looks a bit complicated to untie otherwise.”
“We braid our hair and keep it for a week,” says Umm Essa. “When we unknot the braid, our hair is shiny and smooth.
“We didn’t have proper shampoo in the past, so we would use al sidr, where we dry the leaves and grind them into a powder, and then add water and use the paste as a shampoo.”
For covering up grey hair and strengthening hair in general, Umm Essa recommends henna. “But make sure it is the real thing – organic – as those you buy in a supermarket are not good.”
Having different henna designs drawn on your hands and demonstrations of how different mixes of burning herbs create different incenses, or dukhoon, are also part of the botanical experience at the festival.
Along with the elders, there are young Emiratis working as ambassadors and guides to help with any language barrier.
“When you take care of yourself with natural ingredients, there is no need for make-up and surgeries,” Umm Essa says, with a laugh. “You can age gracefully, just like nature does.”
• Qasr Al Hosn Festival runs until Saturday.