We attend a traditional handicraft course in Al Ain
Qumasha picks up the palm frond beach bag with its camel skin straps, takes one look at it and congratulates its creator. This is Mahna’s first beach bag and, considering she’s only attended one Sougha handicrafts course so far, it’s a pretty good attempt. But nothing escapes Qumasha’s keen eye and attention to detail. When she places the bag on the desk it fails to stand. She turns it over to find that the bottom protrudes outward. Something’s gone wrong with the weaving.
‘The finishing on this is poor,’ she says, and Mahna makes excuses as her fellow weavers each offer their two fils about a solution to the problem. The room is enveloped in a cacophony of women’s voices. ‘She needs to do one more course,’ Qumasha says of Mahna. ‘Now that she’s tried it and knows what problems she will face, she’ll benefit from the course more.’
Qumasha has been working on the Khalifa Fund’s Sougha project for more than two years, working as part of a small but passionate team. Originally from Dubai, weaving is not a culture she can lay claim to.
‘My people are beach people, you know, from Jumeirah.’ She smiles ‘We didn’t live in tents so we didn’t need to weave. I learned how to weave after I got married and moved to Abu Dhabi.’
Nonetheless, she’s now a professional who can guide these Bedouin women, helping them to use their skills to make products which they can sell in the UAE today. So boukhour (incense) turns into scented candles; camel harnesses become bracelets and bookmarks; date baskets become beach bags and place mats; and the traditional talli embroidery used to embellish the sleeves and neckline of the khandura is now used for wristbands and coasters.
The aim of the Sougha project is to revive dying arts in the emirates, and also to support these women on their journey to empowerment. Aside from the khouss (palm-frond) weavers, Sougha also supports sadou (textile) weavers, boukhour (incense) makers, potters and more. These are artisans who retain the skills and know-how of their heritage arts, passed down through the generations. But without the need to practise, these skills will die out with the last of the Bedouins that knew them. Before Sougha, most of the women hadn’t woven anything in more than 20 years. When the nomads settled there was no need for tents and date baskets.
‘One lady told me that when her mother joined Sougha, it was the first time in her life that she saw her mother weave,’ Qumasha says. ‘People were telling her, “What’s the point? What will you use this for?” but now these women who started two years ago are experts. Some of them make Dhs20,000 a month from sales. I told one of them, “You’re ready to start your own business.” But she doesn’t want to. She’s happy working with Sougha.’
The Khalifa Fund project offers invaluable support to these artisans. First, it gives them training, teaching them about the market, educating them in the kind of products that will sell, training them in colour coordination, design and finishing techniques, and giving them a crash course on the financial aspect. The daily courses last only four to five hours, because these women have households to run, animals to tend to and families to raise. Following the training, they are provided with all the raw materials and tools they need. Once the women start making money, Sougha links them up with suppliers.
‘We negotiate with the cotton and leather suppliers for them,’ says Leila Ben Gacem, manager of the entrepreneurship development department at Sougha. ‘Usually these ladies wouldn’t leave the UAE’s western region, but now some of them go to Dubai to buy big quantities of supplies and sell to all their neighbours and the tribe – so we’re creating another business.’
If you’d like to support local enterprise development and Sougha’s work, the products will be exhibited at Abu Dhabi Book Fair on Wednesday March 28 until Monday April 2. You can also buy products at More Café outlets in Dubai.