December 9, 2010

Book Review by Dawn Willey

Bedouin Weaving of Saudi Arabia and its Neighbours is a book that simply oozes with the author's long standing passion for her subject. The book's many colourful photos testify to the effort that Joy Totah Hilden put into discovering the rapidly disappearing and often secret world of the Bedouin women, documenting them spinning, dyeing and weaving in a desert environment as they created their beautiful yet robust textiles. Like so many nomadic people, the Bedouin are settling rapidly and the author also examines how modern living is affecting their textiles. The desert life that demanded items such as camel halters, bags and riding litters is close to becoming a life of the past.

This is a book that satisfies on so many levels whether your interest is in the Arabian Peninsula's history, geography, tribes, culture or textiles. having no real previous knowledge of this region I needed the assistance of the Arabic to English glossary and numerous maps provided to help me sort out which tribes lived where and which tribe was the one under current discussion. However, through the text and photos I was drawn into a fascinating world. As a weaver and spinner I was delighted that the author had persevered to find Bedouin women, both settled and nomadic, to teach her their weaving, spinning and dye techniques. Through text, action photos and clear diagrams Joy imparts much of what she learnt and now teaches in order to preserve the knowledge. I really feel that with the aid of this book I could set up a ground loom, weave some of the warp-faced structures and embellish the result with genuine tassels and stitching. Very helpful appendices even contain pattern drafts. Fibre preparation and spinning the Bedouin way are also covered in considerable detail. Language communication limitations and a more casual approach to the detail of dyeing by the Bedouin mean less information in this area, but is still fascinating. This quality book had me in its thrall from start to finish as a completely compulsive read.

Dawn Willey, New Forest and Online Guilds
Journal for Weavers, Spinners and Dyers 236, Winter 2010, p. 43

November 15, 2010

Book Review by Shelagh Weir


By Joy Totah Hilden
Reviewed by Shelagh Weir

There is a bitter-sweet quality to this book, describing as it does an ancient, beautiful and once essential traditional craft in probably terminal decline. For thousands of years the nomads and semi-nomads of Arabia and other desert regions of the Middle East and North Africa have made articles vital for their everyday lives from the hair and wool of their goats, sheep and camels. Now the almost entirely females crafts of spinning and weaving have greatly decreased as nomads settle, or are forcibly settled, animal herding reduces, and mass-manufactured objects and synthetic materials replace traditional articles made from natural products.

Joy Totah Hilden has a background in Fine Art and English teaching. She first encountered Bedouin weaving during her childhood in Palestine, and as a textile-lover was captivated by the subject while living in Saudi Arabia between 1982 and 1994 when her husband was teaching there. This gave her a rare opportunity (especially for a woman) to travel widely within this vast country searching for craftswomen in order to interview them, and study and photograph them working.

After an introduction tracing the origins of Bedouin weaving, Hilden explains the importance of woven articles in nomadic life, focusing on the tent and its furnishings, storage bags and animal trappings. All these items were or are still made on the simple fixed heddle ground loom, which is easy to roll up and transport, or are plaited from wool or leather. The main tent cloth is of black goat hair with occasional white or brown stripes, but tent-dividing curtains and other articles are often highly decorated. Hilden then provides accounts of weaving and textiles in different regions of Saudi Arabia, acknowledging local difference and avoiding over-generalisation. Following this she describes the various techniques used in textile production: preparing the hair or fleece, spinning, dying, weaving and plaiting. She concludes with a survey of similar weaving in other Arab countries, and a poignant farewell to the traditional craft which has occupied many years of her life, and of which she may well be one of the last chroniclers. Bedouin weaving in Saudi Arabia is no largely preserved under the patronage of development projects and museums, with inevitable transformations in materials, quality and types of product.

Other books have covered similar ground to this one with regard to the Gulf (especially Kuwait, Qatar and Oman), and the Syria-Palestine-Jordan region, most of which Hilden references or quotes (an exception is a book on the Negev Bedouin by Elisabeth Biasio, possibly missed because it is in German). But none, to my knowledge, describes the research process in such a charming and illuminating way, nor covers the weaving techniques in such instructive detail. Anyone who has traveled in the region enthusiastically seeking knowledge of local culture will enjoy Hilden’s accounts of her forays in deserts, markets and towns and her personal experiences and encounters. A virtue of the book is her identification by name of specific craftswomen, and her respectful and empathetic descriptions of their personal circumstances and the massive changes they have experienced and struggled to adapt to. Textile lovers will appreciate the wealth of coloured illustrations of a wide variety of woven pieces with their stunning geometric patterns in red, black, brown and white, and detailed descriptions of techniques and motifs. This will be of particular interest to weavers and teachers because instructions are provided for doing it yourself. There is also a glossary of technical terms, and an Arabic-English glossary with properly transcribed Arabic terms, which will be useful to future researchers.

Bedouin Weaving of Saudi Arabia and Its Neighbours
By Joy Totah Hilden is published by Arabian Publishing, 2010
Price: 60 pounds

Shelagh Weir is a member of the MEL Editorial Board

September 22, 2010

Book Review by Smadar Lavie

Swift modernization and the forces of globalization are hijacking nomadic lifestyles throughout the Arab world. Joy Totah Hilden's Bedouin Weaving of Saudi Arabia and Its Neighbours is a book that celebrates nomadic women's textile worlds. It is also a requiem to generations-deep traditions of arts and crafts, weaving ornaments to beautify the everyday and decorate rituals of family, kin, and tribe. Hilden presents her compassionate text and spectacular photographs with the great spirit of cross-cultural humanism. Her life-long field and archival research are diligent and rigorous. This invaluable book provides a rich and detailed portrait of Bedouin weaving as it rapidly disappears. Old weavers die; the axis of young women’s life is modernity. The earthy natural fibers are being replaced with imported synthetic yarn. Hilden presents the liberating power of weaving that allows women to master a world of their own through the production of aesthetic objects. Aside from describing the weavers’ lives with dignity, spirit, and nuance, the book provides excellent hands-on instructions for cooking natural dyes and forming traditional patterns.

Professor Smadar Lavie, Ph.D.
Author of The Poetics of Military Occupation


Sept 15, 2010, "My Country", video conversation with Joy Totah Hilden, hosted by Howard Vicini. To see the video on Vimeo, click here.

August 4, 7:00 pm, KPFA interview on the program, "Voices of the Middle East and North Africa." To subscribe to the podcast via iTunes, click here. View or listen to the program's archived podcasts. Visit the web site at KPFA.

June 23, 2010

Past Book Events

Slide-lecture and demonstration of Bedouin spinning and weaving,
Bookworks, 4022 Rio Grande Blvd. NW, Albuquerque, 87107, October 16, 2011

Slide/lecture program, Textile Arts Council, De Young Museum, San Francisco, March 19, 2011

Slide/lecture program, Kensington Public Library, 61 Arlington Avenue, Kensington, CA 94707, December 13, 7:00 pm

Holiday Bazaar featuring Palestinian crafts, Sunday, December 5, 10:00am - 4:00pm.
Live Oak Park Recreation Center, 1301 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley, CA.

Book signing, Conference of MESA, Middle East Studies Association, Nov. 18 - 21, 2010
San Diego, CA
Signing: Nov. 20, 10 - 11 AM
MESA Exhibit Hall, Booth 61 - 62, The David Brown Book Company

Slide/lecture program, Santa Cruz Weavers, November 10.

Illustrated lecture, Sept. 23, 5 pm. Center For Middle Eastern Studies, University of California, Berkeley. CMES - Center For Middle Eastern Studies, 340 Stephens Hall, Sultan Room.
For more information:

Live interview
, Cable Channel 76 (San Francisco), June 30, 6:30 - 7:00.
Show - 'My Country' - broadcasts on Comcast channel 76 and Astound channel 30 in the San Francisco cable jurisdiction ... also broadcast on the Internet in real time at this link for anyone with a fast web connection.

Book launch at Pegasus Books, Berkeley, CA; July 15, 7:30.
1855 Solano, Berk. 94704. 510.525.6888

Book Talk, Travel Bug Book Store, Santa Fe, NM, July 27, 5:30.
839 Paseo de Peralta, Santa Fe, 87501; 505-992-0418;

Slide/lecture program, Arab Cultural Center, San Francisco, Aug. 5, 7 pm. 2 Plaza St., 94116. 415.664.2200.

Television: "My Country," September 1, 6:30 - 7:00, Cable Channel 76 (San Francisco) or Astound channel 30 (San Francisco). For live stream on Internet click here.

In-Depth Review for the New Book!

“Bedouin Weaving” is an exceptionally handsome volume that is bound to be regarded as a definitive work on its subject.
Susannah Tarbush, Saudi Gazette

Please click here to read the entire review article, "Weaving the story of Bedouin textiles."

April 20, 2010

More Appreciations

Besides the help of my husband, to whom I dedicated the book, I want to thank my daughter, Lyla El-Safy, for her constant encouragement over the years, and her thoughtful suggestions about the research, the book, and ideas for videos. My grandaughter, Yasmine El-Safy, provided the voice for the Youtube video, and also took the photograph of me on the back jacket of the book.

I am grateful to the following people who read my rough draft in 1997 and gave valuable comments:

Snjezana Akpinar
Ibrahim Muhawi
Ahlam Nabulsi-Scaun
Eleanor Nicholson
Margot Blum Schevill

March 16, 2010

In Appreciation of William Facey

In appreciation of William Facey, museum consultant, writer, publisher and authority on the Arabian Peninsula:

As publisher of Arabian Publishing, Ltd, and editor of Bedouin Weaving of Saudi Arabia and Its Neighbours, William Facey was a pleasure to work with. I thank him for his willingness to stand by this book for many years; for his meticulous work in editing it and contributing his ideas to it; for his expertise on the language, culture and history of Saudi Arabia, and for his flexibility in decision-making.

Facey was awarded the Rawabi Holding Award by the Saudi-British Society for making a significant contribution to Saudi-British relations. More information and his speech at:

March 5, 2010

Interview with Joy Totah Hilden

Author and Middle East Specialist, Kay Hardy Campbell, presents her interview with Joy here on the fascinating blog, Cold Night; Distant Campfire.

Bedouin Weaving of Saudia Arabia and Its Neighbours

The book, Bedouin Weaving of Saudi Arabia and Its Neighbours, by Joy Totah Hilden is now available for order. For more information, please click here to visit the web site.