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Volume 34, Number 3May/June 1983

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the craftsmen

Photographed by Tor Eigeland

Like craftsmen everywhere in the world, the potters, the weavers, and the silversmiths of Omanas well as othersare an endangered species.

In Nizwa, for example, one silversmith, deftly working glittering strands of super-fine metal thread into elaborate patterns on the scabbard of the khanjar, the ornate curved dagger still worn by Omanis as a symbol of rank and status, explained that this art, practiced by his family for centuries, is dying. The younger generations, he said, are seeking new occupations.

Elsewhere the story is the same: a potter in Bahla, a weaver in Ibri and a boat builder in Sur had similar complaints as their lovingly worked articles are replaced by modern equivalents: water jars by plastic containers, handwoven rugs by machine-made carpets, and wooden dhows by fiberglass boats.

Attempts are being made to save some of Oman's traditional crafts. At al-Khaburah, on the Batina coast, for example, women have been taught to weave blankets and rugs traditionally made by men. Most craft industries have difficulty surviving because they are labor-intensive and the products undervalued, but one way to save them is to create new products and markets. At Sur, for example, former boat builders are turning out models of Arab dhows instead of full-sized versions.

"It's not quite the same" admitted one old man sadlyremembering boats he and his forefathers built that once sailed as far as China, and comparing them with models that now go no further than an office shelf.

Some life-size dhows are still built at Sur, and one, at least, did recently sail as far as China. It was the vessel Sohar, a replica of a ninth-century Arab dhow held together by coconut string, which, in 1981, traced the legendary voyage of Sindbad the Sailor nearly 10,000 kilometers (over 6,000 miles) from Oman to Canton (See Aramco World, September-October 1981).

Although the shipwrights of Sur now use nails instead of string, their building methods have otherwise changed little since the days Arab merchantmen dominated eastern trade; one of the shipwrights' main tools, for example, is still the migdah, a drill driven by hand using a string bow, and their measurements are still made in "lengths" from elbow to finger-tip.

And although engines have replaced the dhows' graceful lateen-rigged sails, they are still built to basically the same designwith a romantic sweep from high stern to curved bowas when Omani man-o-wars ranged the Arabian Gulf and the Indian Ocean unchallenged.

This article appeared on pages 30-31 of the May/June 1983 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.

See Also: OMAN

Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for May/June 1983 images.