Tradition and opportunity draw Emirati women to Al Ain’s Souq Al Qattara

At Souq Al Qattara, the keepers of venerable handicrafts gathered to showcase their skills and the bright artistic threads that have run through generations, casting light upon an important aspect of Arab communities past.

Maryam Al Mansoori sells meticulously handcrafted objects and gifts, in her kiosk called 'Shafwa' in Al Qattara Festival. Mona Al-Marzooqi / The National
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It was a portrait of an Emirati woman making Arabian bread – regag – outdoors, against the backdrop of a black tent and mud houses. Taking shelter under a tree, she gently spreads the dough over the roasting pan.

Now it hung in her frond kiosk, although at first of Maryam Al Mansoori had no thought of selling it. Looking at the picture was enough to take her back to the winters of the 1960s.

The picture, she explained, had a sentimental attachment. She had helped her daughter make it 15 years ago. “It was painted by my eldest daughter Reem when she was in the middle school,” says the mother of five. “My daughter is a grown-up woman now and she got married a few days ago.”

Mrs Al Mansoori had long wished to showcase her artistic talents before a wider audience, but lacked the opportunities. It was then she heard about the first National Traditional Handicrafts Festival which finishes today at the Souq Al Qattara in the heart of Al Ain. Immediately after hearing the news, she rushed to register her participation.

Under the patronage of Sheikh Hazza bin Tahnoon Al Nahyan, the handicraft festival is organised by the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority [TCA] and aims to highlight the importance of traditional craftsmanship and help them to pass on their skills and knowledge for the generations to come.

That includes looking at the types of handicrafts on the market and developing ways to help craftsmen and women to develop products that fit the modern world, while at the same time protecting what makes those crafts so unique.

Mrs Al Mansoori is exactly the type of person the festival is there to promote. Apart from her portraits, Mrs Al Mansoori sells meticulously handcrafted objects representing life in the past. Like many women in Al Ain, she wants people to know that they are gifted with unique skills.

“Many of us are here to promote our talents,” she says. “We need more festivals to busy ourselves and cut down boredom.”

As for the picture of the woman making bread, Mrs Al Mansoori says it reminds her of her childhood, sitting next to her mother while she prepared breakfast. Those moments of accompanying her mother and listening to her talking were enough to make her day, she says, as a few tears of happiness pool in her eyes.

Then she points out the finer details of the work. “If you take a close-up look at the women’s cloth and burqa, my daughter and I glued cotton on the drawing and then stitched recycled cloth on top of them to give it a rounded look.”

Around her, visitors are arriving to look around the souq. Built in the middle of the last century in the time of Sheikh Shakhbut bin Sultan, it was restored and renovated two years ago as an example of a typical traditional marketplace.

To get an overview of desert life in the past, Souq Al Qattara takes visitors into an era when life was simpler. Long before Starbucks and Costa made their way to the UAE, Souq Al Qattara was the cultural and social hub for the villagers as the meeting and greeting point of the community.

Today visitors are able to look at hundreds of palm frond kiosks scattered across Al Qattara village and stroll through the mud brick shops and workshops in the Qattara Historic Village.

Another of the exhibitors is 34-year-old Ayesha Mubarak. Ms Mubarak’s attention is consumed with decorating a plain coffee pot. Since she was young, she has always enjoyed painting and drawing, she says.

Now she decorates coffee pots with famous characters and places. To the outsider, Ms Mubarak might seem a bit bored as she waits for the next customer. But how can she bored, she says, when she is in the company of Umm Khamas, Umm Saeed and Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashed Al Maktoum?

“I started my small business this year,” she says.“My business encircled family and friends before.” Brought up in a strict family, Ms Mubarak is anxious to showcase her talents. “I didn’t take part in this festival to make more profit, I don’t need it actually.

“A lot of people don’t know about our talents. We want to contribute in our society, but we don’t get enough exposure,” the mother of six adds.

Even though the festival is a showcase for Emirati crafts, the renovated and reopened Souq Al Qattara also attracts other nationalities.

Hina and Leena Mushfiq were born and bred in the UAE although their family is originally from Hydrabad. The two sisters still remember vividly the changes Souq Al Qattara underwent.

“There was only that fort and a souq here before,” says Leena. “This place was abandoned and then Sheikh Shakhbutt took it over.”

Festivals like this are a stepping stone for home-based business entrepreneurs, she says, while westerners can become acquainted with the traditional dance, food and handicraft. Everything in the Souq Al Qattara is ancient and traditional but also has a little modern craft with it, she says.

She compares it to Global Village in Dubai, which, she says, represents different countries, but has more of a business than an educational mindset.

Hina, 23, says she would like future festivals to be more multicultural.

“There should be a fusion of cultures in UAE festivals. Different cultures have been growing here, so we need to share and merge cultures in festivals.”

Souq Al Qattara has the potential to be a “major tourists attraction”, she says, “if utilised properly”. As a young person, “We need to have more hang-out places where we could go and chill”.

“It would be nice if we get to see different phases of growth through the years. They could show how the wedding style has changed and how the living standard has changed.”

Meanwhile, back in the souq, Mrs Al Mansoori has been persuaded to part with her much-loved picture of breadmaking that has been in the family for over a decade; to a customer she describes as “exceptional”.

“I saw appreciation in that customer’s eyes,” she says.

“From the way the customer was staring at it with her gleaming eyes, I thought to myself, ‘she will preserve it on behalf of me’.”