Keeping Bedouin traditions alive by bringing them to market
Launched just three years ago and with only seven women, Sougha was established by the Khalifa Fund to preserve and promote the traditions of Emirati artisans in a thoroughly modern way. More than 100 talented nationals have now benefited from the initiative, developing ranges of leather accessories for the scheme, which means "souvenir" in Arabic. As part of a collaboration with the online retailer Fashion ComPassion, a new collection of covetable, handcrafted clutches is about to be rolled out internationally. Ahead of the launch, we caught up with the Syrian-Russian Kristina Hamza, a designer and consultant for Sougha.
It all started when …
… the Khalifa Fund and the Sougha team approached me to help them design a new line of accessories to be sold abroad. So I've been heavily involved in workshops sponsored by the British Embassy, educating and supporting Emirati artisans in everything from sketching, designing and pattern cutting to sewing.
All of the artisans are Emiratis …
… and all of them have traditional skills. By delivering workshops in the Western Region of Abu Dhabi and the northern emirates we've been educating them in the quality of new materials and tools. Not so long ago, most of the ladies were Bedouins and based at home, without real jobs. The majority didn't know how to make money out of their skills and that's where Sougha has created the opportunity for them.
Originally, the Sougha team would go into a city …
… and almost be knocking on doors to drum up interest and support. But it soon became much easier for them, as women began bringing their sisters, cousins and nieces to the workshops and they all became involved. When the enterprise first started, the average age was 50, 60 years old and above, now the age has come down to around 30, which is very encouraging because it means more ladies are interested in such a project and will help us preserve the Emirati heritage.
The new line of modern clutches …
… was a collaboration with the artisans at every step, from sketching to sourcing the camel and cow leather and paying close attention to the finishing. For the bags, we've focused on three colours: yellow, green and classic black. We've also worked closely with a tannery called Al Khaznah in Abu Dhabi. It's one of three factories in the world, and the first one in the UAE, producing a unique type of biodegradable leather that we use for our clutches.
We're helping the artisans create businesses at home …
… because in the Emirati and Arab tradition, it can be very difficult for some women to go out and work. Some ladies don't read and write either, making it hard to put them into the fashion industry per se, so we're helping them create small businesses this way. Some have done it and some are on their way. And with this new line we're hoping to expand Sougha internationally. We're already selling here in the Emirates - like at More Café and O'de Rose in Dubai. Aldar also gave us a booth within the Central Market souq in Abu Dhabi.
Fashion ComPassion is an ethical online retail shop helping …
… people all over the world create small enterprises. Our latest project was designed in collaboration with them and the artisans. The owner, Ayesha Mustafa, will be helping us launch our clutches in Pakistan and all the lines in the UK and it's so encouraging for the women to see their projects sold abroad.
What the artisans have to say:
Emirati artisan: Salma Ahmad Al Mansoori
Origin: Ghayathi, Western Region, Abu Dhabi
How and why did you become involved in the Sougha project?
Three years ago, the Sougha team came to town and saw our work. They organised training in Ghayathi and soon realised we were struggling to get raw materials. So they brought us some cotton for weaving and our products were transformed. They also provided us with sewing machines and trained us how to use them. Sougha has helped me, and the others, secure a monthly income for our families.
What have you gained most from working with the team?
Before, I was just sitting at home, and now I am regularly making products which continue to improve in quality, as do my sales. We’re also now very excited to start exporting our goods. It truly fills me with pride to be bringing Emirati handmade products to customers outside the UAE.
Why do you believe it is important to preserve the traditional handicrafts of Emirati artisans?
This is our identity. When the Sougha team came to see us first, all of us had stopped making sadou. Now, at least our daughters see us weaving again and are showing an interest. They feel a renewed sense of identity and pride.
From whom did you originally learn these skills?
From my mother. She used to weave all the time to make our household items and animal accessories. But, with modernity and today’s lifestyle, there became no need to weave tents anymore, for example.
Will you be teaching your children the same skills?
My daughters are helping me with the production of these items and I pray that they will take over in the future.
Emirati artisan: Fatma Mbarek Al Mansoori
Origin: Sila, Western Region, Abu Dhabi
When and why did you join the Sougha project?
I joined Sougha in 2009 when the team contacted me and explained how the programme worked. As I already had the skill of weaving and the sincere wish to develop it, I signed up.
What’s the most valuable lesson Sougha has taught you?
My finishing skills have improved a lot, thanks to the team. They truly made our work leap into the future, helping us in creating modern accessories from our traditional Bedouin weaves.
Which of the pieces you have made so far is your favourite?
A make-up case I designed with Bedouin sadou detailing. It has a camel leather base and I lined it myself. The Sougha team showed it to Etihad Airways and they loved it. Now, many women in Ghayathi and Sila make this bag for the airline’s orders.
Why is it vital to build upon traditional Emirati crafts and skills?
We have to keep our identity alive and the UAE’s identity is in its traditions. We have to preserve them and educate the world about them.
How did you originally hone your weaving skills?
I learnt from my mother, but my skills were never really put to use because the traditional way of life changed and we didn’t need to weave anymore.
How will you pass down your skills to the next generation?
I wish to teach my daughters because I would like them to learn these crafts. They love what I do, but they’re busy with school and university right now.
Follow Arts & Life on Twitter to keep up with all the latest news and events @LifeNationalUAE