Dances with Wool
Her hands seem to have spoken the language for years. They plucked, danced and worked across the strings of wool with such ease that she did not even need to watch what she was doing as she spoke to me. And all around us, spinning wheels and yards of yarn sat in silence as if listening in on the stories these remarkable women were sharing.
Having lived in Bahrain for most of my life, I thought I knew of every little hidden gem hiding beyond conventional social sight. This was up until Sunday when I accompanied my friend, Hessa, to Capital Mall near the Seef Area, a place that showcases and sells beautifully made Bahraini handicrafts ranging from woven palm frond baskets, painted pottery and rugs. Supposedly a tourist attraction and a haven, I was surprised to find that, like myself, not many locals knew of, or frequented the Mall.
We ventured in with the objective to meet with the women responsible for creating hand woven woolen textiles, when we found ourselves distracted by glittering goods and handmade objects - running our fingers over the textures and colors - but eventually made our way upstairs to meet the ladies of woolen wonders. They were just finishing up breakfast and preparing their day of intricate works as they sat behind their stringed panels.
And so, they sat and worked as we asked questions and listened. One by one they unraveled their stories. Many of the questions asked were about their time spent here at Capital Mall and how they learned this intricate skill. As they played their silent harp of weaving and brought designs to life, they explained that they had been practicing for over 27 years and were first introduced to this incredible craft by an English woman who had taught them the art in order to help support themselves. However, Hessa and I discovered that the lives of women of wool was a challenging one and they felt forgotten and discarded.
They explained that regardless of their hard work and hours spent weaving elaborate crafts, they often struggled to make ends meet to support their loved ones and themselves, and did not even have insurance. The sadness and fear rang out in silent protest behind their eyes as their hands still fervently danced across the strings.
These were educated women with an incredible ability that has been around for thousands of years, and yet they had been placed in a cramped corner of the mall, with no recognition and hardly any support. A couple of the women coughed and wheezed, breathless as they continued to speak with us. Since they did not have medical coverage, they could not see a doctor to be treated. One of the older ladies explained that their job was a physically laborious one, and therefore, they could not afford to get sick or even take a day off. Without insurance, they had no safety net - something that many of us take for granted.
As our day continued of traditional treasure hunting, we visited another spot in Manama to meet a group of remarkable women who created paper from hand-made date palm leaves. Upon our arrival, we saw a man hunched over a piece of wood in earnest. It was an opportune moment to speak with him about a TGLC product that required thin slivers of wood. He then invited us to step into his workshop to discuss the logistics of the project.
We stepped into a world of stages of life where different pieces of wood were being carved and crafted to create stunning cabinets and ingenious shelves, molded from the mind of Adel, who owned Al Areesh. Once he discovered our interest in his craft, he took us around his workshop to show his pieces of work. An old radio was playing classical Arabic music and the air hung heavy with detruis of wood shavings, which were revealed in beams of sunlight that spilled in through the windows. He told us he had attended university in Riyadh and graduated in statistics, and you could tell that his understanding of numbers and statistics came alive upon his works of art. The number 4 in Arabic seemed to appear upon indigo cabinet doors and wooden sculptures, whispering little clues into his preferences and style.
I will always remember that part about him.
After being delightfully sidetracked, Hessa and I carried on to go meet the ladies of the palm tree papers. We entered a workshop of women, some painting upon light brown textured date palm paper, and some working in front of screens which they immersed into milky opaque water, fishing out the pulp-like material from the murky depths.
When the paper is finally dry, it will be used to create a range of things like notebooks, business cards, bookmarks, season greeting cards and more. Date palms trees have been an integral part of the Bahraini culture for centuries and watching this innovative idea of creating paper from date palms, which has been around since 1990, was inspiring. It was an heartening site to witness as these dedicated women gingerly painted characters, shapes and words upon date palm paper they had made by hand.
After having discovered three different gems hidden within the heart of Bahrain, I realized that there is much to be explored on our Island. There are stories to be told by those who continue to preserve the past through practices done today. There are those in need of a voice. In need of help. In need to have their stories told so that we, as a collective community, can come together and support those struggling to stay afloat in a sea of trouble.
Go hunting for buried treasure across our Island. Stories await you.
Written by: Laila Al-Yafi