x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Preserving the art of the woven house

The art of the arish, the traditional Bedouin tent housing, is being lost as new villas and high-rises become the norm for UAE residents, but conservationists are trying to resurrect the practice.

An Emirati woman in Al Wougan, weaving a goat's-hair rug for a tent, taken in 1974. Gertrude Dyck / Oasis Hospital
An Emirati woman in Al Wougan, weaving a goat's-hair rug for a tent, taken in 1974. Gertrude Dyck / Oasis Hospital

Modern building construction involves untold numbers of labourers and supervisors, several lorries pouring hundreds if not thousands of cubic metres of cement and not a few kilometres worth of rebar.

As these new buildings, whether villa, apartment building, hotel or breathtaking resort, rise in the middle of the desert, they've replaced the arish, the homes made by the Bedouin using palm tree leaves and branches, and the traditional Bedouin tent. Unless people - Emirati or foreigner - go off-roading and camping somewhere on the edge of the Empty Quarter, they lack the true experience of living in the desert. Even campers are more likely to be sheltered in tents of new-fangled construction and materials.

Not like the goat's hair rug this Emirati woman is weaving for a tent in Al Wougan. The type of tent was known as "bayt al shaa'r", meaning "the house of hair" for its main component. The tent kept those inside warm at night and in the winter, and the thick woven material prevented dust from coming in on windy days. Tent residents were always just one step away from a fresh breeze.

The skill, like the tent, is endangered, relegated to arts and crafts days or heritage exhibitions, though there have been recent attempts to resurrect arish-making.

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