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