Emiratis battle to preserve dying art of embroidery

Published April 2, 2024
EMIRATI women weave thread during an annual heritage festival in Al Ain.—AFP
EMIRATI women weave thread during an annual heritage festival in Al Ain.—AFP

AL AIN: Far from Dubai’s glitzy towers, Mariam al-Kalbani’s henna-dyed fingers weave brightly coloured threads in a skill she hopes young Emirati women watching her can preserve for the future.

The art of hand-weaving braided shiny ribbons to adorn traditional clothing and bags is called Al Talli, and is on Unesco’s Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list. But with the relentless pace of change in the United Arab Emirates, its days may be numbered.

“It’s a craft of our ancestors and our people,” Kalbani said in Al Ain, the UAE’s fourth largest city, which sits between mountains and the desert. “If we do not take initiative and introduce it to them, it will disappear.”

The 70-year-old craftswoman, wearing a traditional black abaya robe and golden face covering, has been training students and apprentices in the art for 15 years. “The goal is to revive the heritage for the next generation,” she said.

She emphasised that mastering Al Talli doesn’t happen “in a couple of hours — it could take a year or two, especially if training is done just once a week”. Kalbani has been weaving Al Talli since she was a teenager. The simplest Al Talli designs are made from sixthreads — although they can number up to 50 — and mastering the process of combining them with beads, ornaments and precious metals such as gold can take a long time.

Accounting student Reem al-Ketbi watched Kalbani intently as she worked on a round cushion called a Mousadah, weaving a silver thread back and forth during a recent handicrafts festival.

Published in Dawn, April 2nd, 2024

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