January 15, 2012

Book Review by Susannah Tarbush

Saudi Gazette, Tues., Sept. 7, 2010
Weaving the Story of Bedouin Textiles, by Susannah Tarbush

When the American-Palestinian textile enthusiast and art teacher Joy Totah Hilden moved in 1982 to Saudi Arabia, where her husband Robert had been appointed as an English teacher at King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals (KFUPM) in Dhahran, she embarked on an intensive exploration of Bedouin weaving. Hilden’s interest in weaving and textiles had begun at an early age. She was born in Jerusalem in 1935 to a Palestinian father and an American mother from the mid-West. Her paternal grandfather was a village weaver, and Bedouin wove on ground looms near the family orange grove in Gaza. She spent her early years in Palestine, and when her family went to live in America, she got to know the work of her mother’s ancestors in sewing and quilting.

During the 12 years she and Robert spent in Saudi Arabia, Hilden traveled widely to observe the working practices of Bedouin weavers, most of them women. As she puts it: “The search for weavers and their secrets of spinning, weaving and dyeing became a full-time occupation, a new career”. Hilden also visited Bedouin weavers in other countries in the region, and she has read many historical and contemporary sources on the subject.

The fruits of Hilden’s travels and research are now to be found in her book “Bedouin weaving of Saudi Arabia and its Neighbours”, published jointly by Arabian Publishing of London and Al-Turath of Riyadh.

Bedouin Weaving” is an exceptionally handsome volume that is bound to be regarded as a definitive work on its subject. Its 270 pages record in words, photograph and drawings the practical and aesthetic arts of Bedouin weaving

The renowned Saudi sociologist, anthropologist and authority on Bedouin culture Dr. Saad A. Sowayan, of King Saud University Riyadh, first met Hilden at Berkeley, California, more than 25 years ago. He has contributed the introduction to her book. Dr. Sowayan writes that weaving’s functionality “links it organically to Bedouin culture; thus one can come to a true appreciation of it only via an authentic understanding of Bedouin culture. The intricacies, sophistication and profound symbolism of Bedouin weaving, given the very simple tools used in its production, make one think twice about such loaded designations as ‘primitive art’”.

Most of the fine photographs in the book, as well as many of the drawings and diagrams, are by Hilden. She also includes several pictures from the past, such as Carl Reinhard Raswan’s striking 1920s photographs of the Ruwala tribe with an imposing camel-mounted ‘market’ (ark or throne) decorated with ostrich feathers.

Hilden traces Bedouin weaving back to its earliest origins. From the ancient Arabian city of Qaryat Al-Faw there is evidence of thriving textile production between 3rd century BC and 3rd century CE. Elsewhere, ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian weavers used ground looms similar to those used by Bedouin weavers today.

Hilden describes the vital role of Bedouin women in producing woven goods and coping with the desert surroundings. She writes that “being able to create your own shelter and all that you need from the materials in your surroundings is a powerful impetus for survival and for harmony with the environment.

It was traditionally women who wove tents from the hair of goats or the wool of sheep, and who erected and packed them up.

The ground looms on which tents were made could easily be assembled for use, and then rolled up for storage and transportation.

Women made almost all the woven items for the nomadic lifestyle, including the dividing curtain (qati’ or sahah) between the men’s and women’s sections, which can be up to thirty feet long and six feet high. They would make rugs, cushion covers, saddlebags and other gear for camels and horses, riding litter, the markab and camel trappings.

The riding litter or ‘hawdaj’ (which is also known by other Arabic names) is a powerful symbol of the woman, and was made by women. It is ina ‘hawdaj’ that a bride would ride on a camel to the bridegroom’s house on her wedding day.

In the Arabian Peninsula the ‘hawadij’ vary in style between tribes, the brilliance of the decoration reflecting the wealth of the family. Hilden writes: “Weavings that are made for the litter are some of the most beautiful ornaments the badu make”.

Hilden provides detailed accounts of her encounters with weavers and their communities in different parts of Saudi Arabia.

She writes warmly of the women, who come vividly to life as personalities and as weavers. One particularly skilful weavers was a woman name Damtha in the village of Judah, west of Al-Khobar in the Eastern Province. Damtha supported herself working full time on weaving commissions. Not all the weavers Hilden met were women. In Najran, for instance, she met male weavers.

The oil era has led to profound changes, with many nomads settling in urban areas. Even those who still have a nomadic lifestyle may buy items made by machine in place of those previously made by hand.

Canvas has been replacing handwoven tents. The art of spinning is rapidly declining, and rather than spin sheep wool, or the hair of goats and camels, many weavers prefer to buy synthetic yarn.

In place of dyes, Saudi Bedouin weavers mostly now use commercial dyes imported mainly from India, but also from Syria, Iraq and Pakistan. Natural dyes, such as dried limes, madder, pomegranate skins, turmeric and the toadstool burnuq, are sometimes combined with commercial dyes.

There is still much nostalgia for the old ways, and for the pleasures of being close to nature. While most Bedouin are now settled, many erect tents next to their houses and “still enjoy being out-of-doors in a woven environment, which is more pleasurable than their concrete houses”. Numerous families, Bedouin or non-Bedouin, love to camp in tents in the desert during vacations.

One of Hilden’s aims is to provide sufficient details and instructions so that “a person wanting fully to understand and perhaps to create this type of weaving could do so with the help of this book.” She provides clear instructions on how to assemble a loom and on different weaving techniques.

She provides an eight-page glossary of Arabic terms, and two pages of definitions of English weaving terms, outlining for example the difference between a ground loom, pit loom and floor loom. She also explains the difference between war0-faced and weft-faced weaving, and illustrates weft twining – the oldest weaving technique known in the world. Typical Bedouin weavings are made on a ground loom using a warp-faced plain weave. Hilden also describes the finishes – tassels, stitches and braids – which are such an attractive feature of Bedouin weaving.

A chapter on Bedouin weaving outside Saudi Arabia examines the similarities and differences in weaving over the vast area in which warp-faced weaving on ground looms is practiced, including not only the Arab world but also Iran, Turkey, Pakistan and other Asian nomadic areas.

In the past 20 or so years much has changed for Bedouin weaving. “Nomadism is a phenomenon of the past. Bedouin weaving has ceased to be functional and has evolved into a decorative and historical art. Today, where it is managing to survive, it owes its preservation to a self-conscious effort to save part of the Arab cultural heritage.”

War and the so-called war on terror have affected Bedouin weaving in some countries. “In Iraq the destruction and fracturing of society has undoubtedly put an end to the Bedouin lifestyle”. Upheavals among the Palestinian Bedouin in the 20th century have also taken a toll on weaving. Hilden discusses the initiatives in various countries to preserve and encourage Bedouin weaving. In Saudi Arabia, for example, several women’s charities promote the weaving tradition, and Hilden also pays tribute to the endeavors of Leila Al-Bassam a professor of clothing and textiles, in promoting Bedouin weaving in new ways.

Hilden thinks that cultural preservation projects of Kuwait and Oman could serve as models for other countries in the Arab world. She concludes: “Hopefully this book will contribute to the awareness of the precious resource of Bedouin weaving and so to its perpetuation.” - SG