January 15, 2012

Gulf Times, Book Review

Gulf Times, Oct. 25, 2010
Book Review by Fran Gillespie

Title: Bedouin Weaving of Saudi Arabia and its Neighbours
Author: Joy Totah Hilden
Publisher: Arabian Publishing Ltd
Language: English
Price: Amazon US$ 120.00

Joy Totah Hilden, the author of Bedouin Weaving of Saudi Arabia and its Neighbours, lived in Saudi Arabia from 1982 until 1994. While there she became fascinated by the traditional methods of weaving employed by tribal women, and she set out to learn as much as she could about this dying craft, amassing a vast knowledge en route and also a magnificent collection of textiles, many of which are illustrated in the book.

Born in 1935 to a Palestinian father and an American mother, she spent her early
years in Palestine where her own paternal grandfather had been a village weaver. Later, trained as an art teacher, she had some practical experience of the craft before she and her husband went to live in the Kingdom. In her explorations around this vast country she had the great advantage of speaking fluent Arabic.

Hilden travelled all over Arabia, visiting women's markets, making friends among the spinners and weavers and often being invited to visit them in their homes to watch them at work.

The author covers the historic background of the bedouin, a few of whom still pursued a semi-nomadic lifestyle at the time she was living in the Kingdom, and the various styles of weaving. There is a chapter on some of the weavers interviewed, and their families and communities. A chapter on the techniques of spinning, weaving and dyeing, with diagrams and instructions, is so detailed that theoretically it would be possible for someone to learn the craft simply from the instructions, from manufacturing natural dyes to constructing a loom.

Throughout the world, modernization, conflict and the ever-more rigid definition of political boundaries are threatening nomadic lifestyles. This beautiful book is a record, before it disappears forever, of a craft passed on from mothers to daughters for generations, employed to produce both useful and decorative artefacts which beautified their often harsh mode of existence, and served to ornament the rituals of family and tribe.

The book is lavishly illustrated, with hundreds of photographs in colour and clear diagrams of different types of looms and the knots and techniques employed in weaving.

As well as her travels within the kingdom, Hilden visited other Gulf countries to record the practices of bedouin weavers, the majority of whom were women. In 1990 she visited Qatar as a guest of the Red Crescent Society and observed women from the Al-Murrah family producing finely woven cushion covers and dividing curtains for use in tents.

In the 21st century, weavers who still practise this ancient tradition increasingly make use of commercial synthetic dyed yarns imported from India, Syria, Iraq and Pakistan, rather than yarn dyed with extracts from roots, fungi or pomegranate skins. Today's weavers have been encouraged to view an art which they once took for granted, as part of their everyday life, as a conscious effort to 'save part of the Arab cultural heritage'. Rather than producing useful and ornamental everyday articles as an integrated part of their lifestyle, they are becoming aware of the demand for their skills from ethnographical museums and from tourists and charge accordingly, producing small, portable items such as cushion covers and mats in place of the larger, woven panels crafted by their mothers and grandmothers.

A range of organisations in the different countries help to maintain traditional techniques and style of weaving, with little or no help from their governments. Sadly, the author concludes, ' Since the nomadic lifestyle is disappearing, and commercial products are available, more women are turning to these new ways of working. My personal preference is for weavings made with sheeps wool and goat hair and spun in the traditional ways. I prefer the look and feel of them, as well as the color quality. However, it is very hard work, and I can see why it might not fit into the modern, electronic age.'

Fran Gillespie