Emirati Vibes: How camel's hair and palm tree fronds were once a source of livelihood in UAE

In the fourth of a five-part series that explores what defines the UAE, Khaleej Times looks at some of the most integral materials used in traditional crafts



by

Lamya Tawfik

Published: Wed 30 Nov 2022, 6:00 AM

Camel’s hair, sheep’s wool, palm tree fronds — these are just some of the materials that are used in traditional Emirati crafts.

“Crafts are works of art that require knowledge and skill. They have economic, aesthetic and cultural returns,” Ghamasha Aldarmaki, from the research and studies department at the Hamdan Bin Mohammed Heritage Centre told Khaleej Times.

She added that the economic and social conditions of the past were the reason why many professions were born, and these crafts were important for their livelihood and to achieve self-sufficiency, “which was the basis of stability”.

The crafts varied based on the nature and geography of the different emirates, and they even reached to other Gulf, African, Indian markets and anywhere their ships reached worldwide.

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“Even though some of them may have disappeared today, many are still practised and are a source of livelihood for those who practise them,” she said.

According to the centre, the crafts are divided into three categories: those related to the sea (such as diving or fishing), those related to daily life (the weaving of hair houses, tents made from palm fronds or carpets made from camel hair, and the spinning of wool and weaving women’s gowns), and finally crafts that were practised by Emirati women to meet the needs of their families.

Here are a few examples:

  • Al Sadu: The raw material used is camel hair, goat hair and sheep’s wool. Emirati women colour the wool and then place them on a wooden frame called sadu. They are then woven together to create a thick fabric used to make hair tents and household essentials like blankets, carpets, pillows and ornaments to decorate their camels.
  • Al Safafa: Palm fronds are cleaned, sliced, dyed and soaked in water to soften them. They are then weaved to create items such as baskets and mats.
  • Al Yahal (pottery making): Red, green and yellow clay are mixed, then put on a pottery wheel which is moved by the maker’s leg. As the wheel rotates, the maker shapes the clay to produce items such as incense burners, water pot, ovens to bake bread or kitchen utensils. The items need to be placed in a shaded place for nearly two weeks to dry and harden before being painted.
  • Al Shasha (boat making): Fishing boats were made entirely of palm tree fronds. After cleaning the fronds, they are left to soak in sea water for a full day before being stacked and connected with a thin rope to strengthen it. The boat-making process may take up to three days.
  • Al Maleh: Fish such as Al Qabab, Al Sad and Kingfish are sliced and opened so that they can be completely submerged in salt. They are then placed inside the bucket for a month under the sun’s rays and protected from humidity at night till the salt dissolves.

“Despite the UAE’s great industrial development which is witnessed in all fields, traditional crafts still maintain their position as the most important elements in intangible cultural heritage,” said Ghamasha, adding that the UAE has made great efforts when it came to preserving traditional crafts.

Al Sadu, for instance has been inscribed in 2011 by the UNESCO as part of their list of intangible cultural heritage in need of urgent safeguarding.

Many organisations, such as the Hamdan Bin Mohammed Heritage Centre, are also working on preserving the crafts and encouraging the younger generations to learn them.

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