On the Arabian Peninsula, the fabric of nomadic life was produced at the loom.
“We used to roam all the way up to the Levant and stay there for a year at a time” Nora reminisces as she hands me a mini, supermarket-purchased bottle of fruit juice. It sits incongruously next to my plate of hand-churned goat’s cheese and local dates. “That was before, before all the borders – before the war came.” 1Referring principally to the Gulf War of 1990
Nora is a member of one of the last-surviving tribes of a culture that dominated the Arabian Peninsula from Antiquity until just a century ago. She is a nomadic Bedouin, a lifestyle to which she attributes her health and longevity. “My sons keep trying to move me into an apartment, but I won’t do it. Sleeping in a bed hurts my back…If you put me in a box like that I think I’d seize up.”
She is proud to be Bedouin and proud of her heritage; she can recite the names of her grandfathers up to five generations past. But despite the great historical and geographical reach of her people, they have left few artefacts by way of legacy. Their oral traditions left no scriptures, their nomadic lifestyle, no castle walls. Instead, the story that survives is largely that which has been lovingly and laboriously woven into cloth. And unusually for such a patriarchal culture, it is a story that has been told almost exclusively by women.
“Women were everything, they were the producers and reproducers,” asserts Dr. Mona passionately. A sociologist who conducted research among the nomadic tribes of the far south of Saudi Arabia several decades ago, when such communities were already becoming hard to find, she witnessed the dynamics of tribal life first hand.
Bedouin women had always been afforded greater independence than their settled sisters. In such harsh surroundings, they had to be capable of surviving alone when their menfolk were away on raids, on business, or later, on military service. They managed the livestock, they transported water and once they became available – impervious to state prohibition – they drove trucks to do so.
“The men, they guarded the camps, they kept their wives pregnant…” Dr. Mona explains matter-of-factly, “but the women, they did all the work, everything you saw, it was made with their hands.”
And in a nomadic world, that “everything” had to be durable, flexible and portable, ready to be packed and repacked onto a camel’s back as the tribe marched ever onward toward rain and fresh grazing. And so, the goods of civilisation and survival were crafted, not under the hammer of stone mason or blacksmith, but rather the nimble fingers that worked the loom.
The language of weaving forms a tapestry of its own, the lexicon stitched together with overlapping terms favoured by different tribes, dialects and regions. A word that has become widespread as a catchall term for the craft, the loom and it’s fruits is al sadu, and for simplicity’s sake, it is the one I will use here.
Bright and tough, al sadu items were often dual purpose and encompassed rugs, cushions and blankets; saddlebags and adornments for camels and horses; winter clothing and indeed the very roofs over their families’ heads.
“I built this house” Muna reminisces with pride, her strong, sun-weathered hand caressing the sides of the camel-hair tent we are sitting in. “My mother and sisters and I, we made it together.” The Beit al Sha’ar literally, “house of hair” is the largest woven construction in the world and is traditionally made of black goat hair. The heavy fabric of its walls is produced on large ground looms, whose use can be traced back to Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt.
As primitive as a Beit al Sha’ar may seem, its construction is far from haphazard. Experience taught the women the importance of longitudinal forms and how to position the tent away from the wind. The coarse thread was loosely woven enough to let in soft beams of sunlight, but would swell in the rain to become watertight. In hot weather, walls could be lifted to welcome a breeze.
With the exception of one region, straddling the present-day Saudi Arabian-Yemeni border, these homes and all their woven trappings were exclusively produced by women. Almost from the time a girl could walk, she would be involved in simple tasks – washing and hand spinning – so that by the time she entered her mid-teens, she was accomplished at all the standard techniques of the craft.
So respected was the art, and so central to a girl’s education, that in many regions those young women who became skilled at the loom would be honoured with a celebration and bestowed with the title of thrafrah, “the victorious”. A Bedouin graduation.
Beyond prestige and practicality, in a way of life characterised by arduous labour and extreme isolation, al sadu also formed a cornerstone in nomadic women’s social and community life. When husbands and brothers retired to the majlis, the men’s side of the tent, the women’s council gathered around the loom. There, women would gather to work, to exchange family news, sometimes to chant or recite poetry.
Scarcity, of course, was a pervasive theme in Bedouin life, and consequently, an important shaping force in al sadu. Women tapped into every resource their sparse surroundings afforded them. Looms were often carved from the wood of date palms – themselves a vital resource for nutrition – taking the form of a series of sticks that could easily be gathered, bound and transported when the time came to move on.
Hair and wool were sourced from the tribe’s own camels, goats and sheep. It was sorted according to colour and length, beaten to rid it of debris and combed. It was then washed three times, using water combined with clay, ash or soap before being plunged into boiling pots, infused with natural dyes (pomegranate skins for purple, turmeric for yellow, among others). Only then was it spun on traditional hand spindles and wound, ready for use.
Nothing was wasted. When fabrics wore through they were darned and darned again. Only when they were beyond repair did the Bedouin, aided by their necessary lack of attachment to physical possessions, abandon them to be swallowed by the sands, leaving no trace, for nature – nor for historians and archeologists. This has been a source of some frustration, for not only were women and their weaving responsible for many aspects of survival, they were also, to a great extent the bearers of culture.
To the undiscerning eye, a Bedouin weaving may appear to comprise of little more than a cloth, patterned than longitudinal stripes and basic decorative shapes. In fact, these simple geometric designs were symbols – clever and original abstractions of the objects, animals and landscapes that nomadic women were most familiar with.
The most common designs are continuous patterns, often inspired by the desert’s dunes, grasslands and animals; a border of dashed lines represent seeds, fine or thick grass, depending on their length and density; rows of dots mimic eyes; runners of interlocking zig-zags are known as ‘horse teeth’.
Individual pictograms are often more recognisable. Here we can find sand ripples, piles of dates and livestock, as well as symbols of peril: scorpions, snakes and the spirals of shrinking water pools.
The most elaborate pieces, woven by the most senior weavers, were al qat’a: the dividers that separated the men’s and women’s sides of the tent. As well as adding beauty to otherwise sparse interiors, they could also be extended beyond the tent’s walls as a gesture of welcome to arriving guests, to whom they also served as a symbol of success and of status.
For weaving could also serve diplomatic purposes. Camel branding symbols were often incorporated to show tribal association. A chain with overlapping rings was used to show unity and cohesion among members of a tribe.
But for all this variety, the strongest theme in al sadu remains a feminine one. A Kuwaiti analysis of collected original weavings found the most common single pictogram to be that of a woman’s traditional earring. Other popular emblems included necklaces and combs: the few treasures in a Bedouin woman’s possession, extended to cover the family home.
In the villages, where Bedouins had settled on fertile land, often in higher, mountainous regions, looms were relieved of their responsibilities for constructing homes and essential furnishings. With more time and storage space at women’s disposal, yet more elaborate creations emerged, often showcased in their clothing. Regional dress was as vibrant as it was varied, with women often donning brightly-coloured trousers and tunics together with ornate headpieces.
Back in the desert, even the seemingly endless expanses of Arabian sands could not suspend the Bedouin in time forever. The arrival of white, processed cotton and then pre-dyed synthetic thread gradually brought new vibrancy to women’s handiwork. And as they continued to document the landscapes around them, new pictograms began to appear: radios, aeroplanes, buses – even tanks, complete with soldier figures.
But the colours and human figures were not to last. In 1979, a siege in Mecca’s Great Mosque, the holiest in Islam, led by a self-proclaimed messiah and his fundamentalist followers, would permanently alter the developmental trajectory of Saudi Arabia, the peninsula’s largest nation state. Although the siege was ultimately unsuccessful, burgeoning fundamentalist feeling was appeased through a shift to a stricter, more conservative application of Islam.
Although the Bedouin had long identified as Muslim, their practice until this point had largely been informal. Now, a new generation of Wahabbi Islamic scholars, recently graduated from the country’s new religious universities, set out into towns, villages, and even the desert, to practice dawah (religious instruction and proselytising).
There they read, and interpreted, the words of the Qu’ran for their largely illiterate audiences. The Bedouin learned the basic edicts forbidding the reproduction of human and animal forms, commonly followed in many Islamic societies. They were also lectured on more fundamentalist, Wahabbi doctrine concerning approriate dress for women. Before long, the embroidered trousers and bright colours of the village were extinguished, rural women uniformly adopted the face veil, and depictions of people and livestock disappeared from Al Sadu.
But in their place came new designs. Mosques and qu’ranic script appeared for the first time in women’s handiwork, which also continued to document new technologies that were sweeping the peninsula as new-found oil wealth paved the way for rapid modernisation.
Sadly, evolution soon gave way to near-extinction. As huge swathes of the populace settled in the cities, swapping hair tents for walled compounds, nomadic Bedouin life all but melted away. Even Nora and her family now spend half the year settled on a plot of tents and concrete cabins on the edge of town.
Al sadu, both its practice and its weavings, have thus been discarded in favour of more prestigious, less labour-intensive, imported machine-spun fabrics. Beit al Sha’ar-inspired tents still stand in many city gardens, as reminders of traditional lifestyles and of Bedouin hospitality, but they and their furnishings are now largely synthetic.
It took just a few decades for a craft, practiced almost without change for millennia, to all but disappear. With younger generations lacking the time and the inclination to master al sadu, there now remain but a handful of master weavers in each Gulf country, carrying in their work bags the fragile poetry of the yarn.
In 2011, Al Sadu earned a place on UNESCO’s “List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding” in recognition of its unique cultural and historical value, encouraging local governments to invest in regional heritage preservation programmes.
In addition, a small but determined cohort of researchers is now doing all they can to chase up the scattered loose ends, photographing and cataloguing surviving weavings and gathering small circles of master weavers to document the names and meanings of those pictograms that are still remembered, before the language is lost forever.
The art of weaving has been with us since humans first began to make tools and shape their environments. Through this age-old craft, illiterate Bedouin women were able to serve as the architects, diplomats, designers and historians of their societies. Its safeguarding is a not just a matter of preserving cloth, but of conserving global heritage, and an important untold fragment of herstory.
About the author: Nicola Sutcliff is a linguist, educator, writer and specialist in Saudi Arabian society. More stories from Nora’s life, as well as those of many other Saudi women, can be found in her book Queens of the Kingdom: The Women of Saudi Arabia Speak (2019, Simon & Schuster)
For those seeking a more detailed account of the practice and symbolism of al sadu, Bedouin Weaving of Saudi Arabia and its Neighbours by Joy Totah Hilden (2010, Arabian Publishing) is an excellent resource.