The age old skills of the UAE ancestors are on full display at the Festival Promenade in Dubai Festival City during the Dubai Shopping Festival 2013, as the busy and deft fingers of Emirati craftsmen and women turn the simple raw materials traditionally available in the region into works of art and utility.
Traditional crafts have always been important to UAE society. For centuries, the date palm was nurtured by the people in the region and various bounties were derived from it. While the fruit has always been the staple that made life in the harsh aridness of Arabia possible, nothing from the tree was wasted. The fronds gave fibres for threads that were used in making rope and weaving baskets, and the trunk was used to make a variety of carved items for daily and decorative use as well as to make small boats. With the advent of modern life, these traditional products have fallen out of common usage, but the art of making them is being steadfastly kept alive by a few dedicated Emiratis.
And this DSF at the Festival Promenade, several tents are providing visitors a taste of that past when beauty was created in the midst of adversity. Both craftsmen and women can be seen working away with their chosen raw materials, turning them into lovely finished products.
In one of the tents, three ladies sat in a circle, their fingers working away at what seemed like separate objects in the making. However, when they were complete, the three things miraculously became one product in the end. The first lady was embroidering a dress, the second spun the thread while the third worked on the Burqa – the thin strip of metal that Emirati ladies traditionally used to cover their face with. The entire ensemble, when complete, became the whole traditional dress.
Speaking about their craft, the ladies said that having something handmade added beauty to the product. Explaining how a dress is made, one of them said: "It all starts with preparing the basic materials for the embroidery on the top part of the ‘thob’ or dress. The embroidery is done using a special thread called the ‘Al Tiely’, which is available in different thicknesses depending on the ‘thob’ that is being made. The entire ‘thob’ takes approximately three months to complete."
"The most important thing about these dresses is that the colours do not fade even after several washes. Another great aspect is the precision, consistency and beauty of the work. Besides, such dresses also last a long time." In another tent a little ahead, Nasr Khalfan was working away on a beautiful handmade fishing boat. The raw materials he was using were all from the date palm. Explaining the craft, he said: "Acquiring this skill does not come easy. It needs a lot of time, training and experience – as well as a lot of patience because it takes a while to build a complete boat. You also have to master your materials. I use strips of the trunks and the dried fronds of the date palm."
Lamenting the effects of modernity, Khalfan said: "These traditional skills began disappearing after the emergence of cheaper, machine made alternatives that could also be produced faster. However, I still think that though there is a decline in traditional handicrafts, one day people will realise the beauty of these handmade things and the need for the preservation of the skills of our forefathers –and there will be greater demand for handicrafts."