Timeless Art of Bedouin Weaving

By D. W. AOSSEY
Courtesy of “Bedouin Weaving of Saudi Arabia and its Neighbors” by Joy Totah Hilden)

Bedouin Weaving of Saudi Arabia and its Neighbors
By Joy Totah Hilden
Arabian Publishing,2010

Of the various art and craft forms identified with the Arab World, textiles and hand weavings are amongst the most interesting and unique. From the blue and yellow sarongs of the Sahara to the fellaheen costume patterns of Palestine to the keffiyeh that adorn the entire Arab world, the beauty and variety of this craft are almost endless. In “Bedouin Weaving of Saudi Arabia and Its Neighbors,” Joy Totah Hilden introduces the reader to the magnificent patterns of the Bedouin weaving.  Starting with a brief history of textiles in the Arabian Gulf, Hilden describes a nomadic world where hand-stitched fabric is key to Bedouin survival. Activities like tent making, weaving saddlebags and fashioning heavy clothing, blankets and rugs were done to protect these desert people from the harsh climate. As the author portrays, the technology used to make various Bedouin fabrics has barely changed over the centuries and millennium. Camel hair and other fibers – goat hair or sheep’s wool, sometimes cotton – are still spun by hand and dyed in boiling pots on propane burners with natural dyes like madder root for reddish tones, dried limes for green, pomegranate skins for purple and turmeric for yellow. Large ground looms call natu or matrah, are still the standard tool used to make larger heavier materials, such as tent walls. These looms can be traced back to Mesopotamian times and are used by both men and women, though for different roles in tribal weaving rituals. Hilden also takes the reader on a journey through various regions in the Arabian Peninsula, meeting some of the weavers and discussing their technique. In eastern Saudi Arabia at the Qaysariyyah camel market in Hofuf, for example, we find qati and shaf – tent dividers and blankets – for sale by the local weavers. In Qatif Oasis, Hilden presents Umm Eid, a member of the Bani Khalid tribe, who first spins and dyes her own yarn, then weaves intricate geometric patterns into various rugs on her ground loom. Acting as more of a travelogue than a reference guide, the book is a truly entertaining look at an obscure but important slice of Arab life. For those interested in how Bedouin textiles are made and used, or just Bedouin life in general, “Bedouin Weaving of Saudi Arabia” is very insightful.

This book review appears in Al Jadid, Vol. 18, no. 66.

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