Tribe discovers money in heritage

Traditional handicrafts such as perfume making and weaving are providing profitable for women of the Habus tribe

RAS AL KHAIMAH // For women, the first Habus tribe festival is about more than heritage. Women dominate the market, not just buying products but also selling them. They boil qimat dumplings, sell perfume and cook bread made with saffron and rosewater over glowing coals.

Festivals like this one, which runs through Friday, are a new economic incentive for women from the mountain tribe to continue their traditional handicrafts. Aisha Alwan, 52, earns an average of Dh2,000 (US$545) to Dh3,000 a month selling home-made spices and bakhoor, wood chips scented with perfume. "I do it all in my house," said the mother of 13. "I get the oud and amber, rosewater, musk and I look for perfume that I like. We mix it like bread and add the perfume and mix."

With the rising popularity of heritage markets, she saw an opportunity. "This is my hobby," she said. "I saw all the others do this and thought, 'Why not me'?" "She's a businessman," her friend said with a laugh. Ms Alwan is not alone.Folk festivals are increasingly popular with older women, especially widows, who enjoy the good company of other women while they make traditional crafts. It was rare to see Emirati women working in RAK 15 years ago and almost unheard of in the private sector. But the higher cost of living and greater postsecondary education opportunities have seen a surge in the numbers of women who work.

There is also more social acceptance and support. Abdul Nasser al Thahab, the organiser of last week's career fair in RAK, which attracted an estimated 10,000 people, said: "Now everything is expensive. [A graduate] wants to work and she want to help her husband and family," said "When she marries, she wants to work here in RAK. Salary is not a problem." For older women without formal education it can be more challenging. Markets are a way for women to earn money with the skills that they have practised since childhood. As a bonus, most of the work can be done at home.

"Here, it's easy," said Entesar al Zaabi, a teacher who sells home-cooked food several times a month. "I am the manager, I am the worker and these are my products. "The rent on my house has become very expensive. We pay for rent and electricity and this money helps." In one stall, several women wove palm mats and make tali, a braided decoration used to adorn women's clothing. Six spools of cotton thread and one metallic thread are intertwined, although expert hands can work with up to 45 spools at a time.

Tali, sold for Dh5 per metre or Dh25 a bundle, is popular among women's associations, like the 20 women have come to the festival with the Julfar Society, many of them widows. "Look, sweetie, here's how we do it," says Sheikha Mohammed, nimbly twisting her henna-painted fingers through the threads. Her friend, Tarifa al Shehhi, a 51-year-old mother of 12, works on a green strand of tali. "We do this for fun and also for money," Ms al Shehhi says. "Before, there was no interest in it but now it has become popular again, humdullilah."

Four of her daughters are teachers but, like many women her age, Ms al Shehhi never went to school. Amna Mohamed, also from the Julfar area, nods her head. "Schools came in '68," she said while weaving a purple strain into a palm mat. The festival sees hundreds of visitors a day who come to enjoy poetry recitations, magic shows and a walk through replicas of houses of the Habus mountain tribe.