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An artisan at work in the newly opened Centre for Traditional Handicrafts and Heritage in the Al Shindagha Heritage District in Dubai Image Credit: Ahmed Ramzan/Gulf News

Hunched over a glistening silver plate, Fatima, an elderly Emirati woman, meticulously etches an intricate pattern of curved leaves, with a chisel and hammer at the Centre for Traditional Handicrafts and Heritage in the Al Shindagha Heritage District in Dubai. These plates, once completed, will adorn the handles of daggers (khanjars) and swords. Belonging to a family of silversmiths from Ajman, Fatima showcases this ancient Emirati handicraft to visitors at the Centre.

Posing as a bridge between the past and the present, the Centre celebrates and preserves Emirati heritage through a diverse programme of craft workshops.

In a room, flooded with warm sunlight coming in through a transparent roof, decked with metal installations, displaying traditional khoos-weaving patterns are a few other older Emirati women. Seated on carpets and floor mats, against the backdrop of a majlis, each of these women is a crusader of an intrinsic Emirati craft, says Younes Abdulla Janahi, senior cultural guide from the Cultural Heritage and Programmes Department, Dubai Culture.

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Even as Younes is explaining, Fatima goes back to work, carving tiny patterns on the silver, her trained eyes keenly following the design from behind a pair of gold-framed spectacles perched on her nose. Her face is largely covered with the burqa, a traditional face mask.

Younes acts as our translator when Fatima, speaking in Arabic says that she learnt the craft of silver making from her grandfather and her husband. ‘It was tough in the beginning, it took me years to perfect it, but now I find it easier,’ she says.

Fatima’s tools are scattered all around her – several hammers (including one that is 135 years old), a set of pliers, a saw and a red metal box with an assortment of tiny nails inside. Amidst these we spot a chunky silver armlet. ‘That I wear on my upper arm, whenever my shoulder and arm ache,’ reveals Fatima.

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It would take her three to four days to carve the plate she is currently designing.

In traditional Emirati culture, silversmiths created ornaments for women, silver agals (a headband worn by Arab men to keep the keffiyeh in place) for men, and wall frames. They also stitched silver thread panels on to garments.

To understand a nation’s culture, it’s important to discover its roots. Before UAE transformed into a bustling modern nation, it was once the homeland of Bedouins. Travelling on camels and horseback, these nomadic communities relied on their surroundings for their livelihood.

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The palm tree was the centre of their existence, its leaves (khoos), were fashioned to make houses, bowls and baskets.

While men wore the long kandura, wrapped at the waist with a belt, tucked with a silver dagger, women tailored their own clothes, adorning them with delicate talli embroidery.

Their souks were the epicentre for all trade dotted with stores trading in handicrafts, perfumes and carpets.

Artisans passed down their skills from one generation to the other. Over the years as oases turned into cities, these crafts slowly began to fade. The craft centre is one of the few establishments supporting these traditions and making them accessible to the public.

Talli embroidery

After showing the silverwork, Fatima introduces talli embroidery to us. Several strands of brightly coloured thread are interlaced over a cylindrical cushion kept on a metal stand, locally called kajujah. Numerous pins hold spools of thread hanging around the cushion. ‘You can try your hand,’ Fatima suggests. ‘Take these spools and interlock them with the two other diagonally,’ she demonstrates, and then holds my hands to help me weave one lock of the braid. Once a round is completed, these spools are pinned back on the cushion, to be replaced by another set of spools for weaving.

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Talli craft was practised in olden times by Emirati women in their homes. Coloured cotton thread is braided together with metallic gold and silver straw (khus) in several talli pattern styles to create strips of embellishments for garments. It was typically stitched into collars, cuffs and sleeves of women’s overgarments and on the leg cuff of underpants (sirwals), explains Younes.

The talli patterns were mostly inspired from nature. Some of the common designs are sayer yaay (coming and going), fankh al bateekh (slice of watermelon) bu khostain (double strand) and bu khosa (single strand). As its handmade, each talli braid is unique reflecting the creativity of the artisan. It could take from weeks to a month to complete a whole talli strip, says Fatima.

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At the craft centre, visitors get to weave their own talli hand and hair bands.

While sipping a hot cup of karak tea, I get to meet Ayesha, draped in an abaya, her henna dyed hands skilfully stitching talli embroidery on a multi-patterned sirwal. An Emirati from Dubai, she shows us various jalabiyas that she has stitched and adorned with talli embroidery. A vintage box holds her sewing kit. ‘We let our visitors, including school kids, learn how to stitch these embroidery panels on these garments,’ says Younes.

Dukhoon making

We move on to dukhoon making. A form of local perfume, dukhoon is made with a blend of scents. It is burnt in Emirati homes, hotels and coffee shops often, and especially during special occasions such as weddings to welcome guests. In Arab culture, the dukhoon tray is passed among guests so that they can scent their clothes, hair and hands.

Going back in time, the world’s first recorded perfumer is said to be a woman named Tapputi from 1200 BC Mesopotamia, modern day Iraq. Perfume plays an integral role in the culture and traditions of the people in the region.

Ayesha mixes generous amounts of ground incense in a bowl, then shows us a tray with an assortment of scents. ‘I add some rose, amber, jasmine, musk and then some sugar to bind this mixture,’ she says. Once these ingredients are blended well, she rolls them into small dough-like balls to be kept covered and dried in a dark room. They are then ready to be burnt.

Palm frond weaving

The palm tree forms the base for most handicrafts in the UAE. Its leaves and branches (khoos) are used in numerous ways; made into circular mats (surood) to place food, hand fans used to keep cool in the summers, lids to cover food and baskets to carry dates and fish.

The technique of weaving these palm leaves is called safeefah.

A little away, Shamsa sits on a wooden bench with a bowl of water and dried coloured palm leaves showing visitors safeefah styles of weaving. ‘The best quality of leaves for weaving comes from the middle of the palm, the softer ones,’ she tells us. ‘We also use the leaves surrounding the tree to make other products.’

The collected, dried palm leaves are cut, washed and then segregated. They are soaked in water, kept covered with a sack to help soften them for weaving. They are then dyed purple, green and red. Shamsa weaves strands of colourful khoos with the natural undyed ones to create a strip like a long ribbon. Several such ribbons will be stitched into a mat.

From Ras Al Khaimah, Shamsa, a grandmother has been weaving palm fronds for decades having learnt it as a young girl. The response from the visitors, she says, has been overwhelming as they get to experience these age-old Bedouin handicrafts.

The craft centre has several rooms dedicated to demonstrations and workshops for the public in the heritage district.

In another room we meet Aisha Rashid, also from Ras Al Khaimah. All the elderly Emirati women are dressed similarly in traditional black abayas, their faces mostly covered with the burqa. Also called battoulah it is a face mask, cut out from a fabric with a metallic sheen, worn by traditional women in Qatar, Bahrain, Oman and in the UAE.

Several cut-outs of the burqa lie around Aisha as she begins showing us the designing process. The cloth imported from India is called Nelee. ‘You fold it and cut out a rectangular piece with eye slits then stitch a part of it like a pocket. Insert a wooden stick to make a bridge for the nose and add small sticks of wood on the sides to hold the burqa and then attach it with a red string to tie it together,’ she explains.

While young visitors at the centre get to create their own burqas with coloured paper. Before I leave, I get to wear a real one and click a few pictures in front of the large mirror in the room. It’s a popular selfie spot, I am told.