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Volume 38, Number 5September/October 1987

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Skilled Hands, Designing Hearts

Written by John Topham
Photographed by Tim Callahan

Saudi Arabia's traditional culture produced woven, wooden, leather and metal objects whose great beauty sprang from their everyday usefulness and the tastes of their makers. Over the past few decades, however, most of these objects have been displaced from people's lives by mass-produced substitutes and by the changes in life-style brought by prosperity. The old-fashioned, the inconvenient, soon became uncommon.

In the course of only a few years in Saudi Arabia, John Topham assembled and organized a large collection of these traditional village and Bedouin crafts. He compiled what he learned into a comprehensive and beautiful book and, later, a traveling exhibition that The Washington Post said "captures and preserves some of the most beautiful achievements of this vanishing culture... [and] reflects vividly the artistic tradition of ...Arabia, in which artwork and artifact are one." Here, Topham writes about putting together his collection.

My work as a construction manager and consultant took me to eastern Saudi Arabia in 1977. I was one of thousands - possibly tens of thousands - of foreigners who came to the kingdom under like circumstances during the years Saudi Arabia laid its economic foundations.

I was very eager to learn about the country. For many years I had been a collector of old maps and of descriptive travel journals, so my curiosity about this new, stark but - to me - romantic country was great. En route to Saudi Arabia, I had bought a few of the books by such great European travelers and writers as H. St. John B. Philby and Alois Musil, and in Dhahran I read them as I found time, increasing my eagerness to learn more.

I also had an interest in crafts, especially weavings, since one of my artist daughters makes wonderful tapestries. Over the years, I had built a small collection of rugs. I developed a special interest in nomad weavings and owned some good kilims and Navajos - flat-weave rugs that have practical value in everyday use.

My first purchase in Saudi Arabia was in the teeming babble of the fruit and vegetable suq in Dammam. A little way off from the crates of Lebanese apples and the stacked bunches of local radishes, there were some Bedouin women selling rugs of their own or their friends' making. They were somewhat loosely woven striped pieces 120 to 240 centimeters (four to eight feet) long, and I bought several to soften my linoleum-lined house. Later, I discovered that used goods were sold in a walled suq elsewhere in Dammam, and I searched through it whenever I found it open. I bought a fine wool lady's cloak there, with gold embroidery, and my first Arab coffee pot. With their narrow-waisted shape and tapering, curved spouts, these dallas are brass symbols of Arabian hospitality, and almost every visitor acquires at least one.

I learned only a few polite greetings in Arabic and some essential descriptive words, but negotiating and buying were not difficult. English is widely taught in Arabia, and I often had eight- or 10-year-old children translating for me, or an adult with English would appoint himself negotiator, graciously looking after my own interests as well as the seller's. Sometimes, when no interpreter could be found, the sellers - usually old ladies - would negotiate by folding down my fingers one by one, each finger representing 100 riyals - then $31 or $32. When they approached my maximum price, I would resist the pressure to fold the next finger down, and often we settled at a half or quarter finger. I bargained less and less as I acquired some feeling for prices and more knowledge of what good quality was: The item was either worth the asking price - to me - or it wasn't. No doubt I disappointed many a seller, for bargaining is a much-loved art, and surely I sometimes grossly overpaid, but some of my best things cost the least. I paid only about 700 riyals ($220) for a very old mubarrid, a wooden container used to cool coffee beans between roasting and grinding. It is now my favorite item in the entire collection.

After several months I was able to expand my explorations to old Hofuf in the al-Hasa Oasis. Some strip rugs turned up there, finely woven in a twill technique that produces a herringbone-patterned face. Though the designs of such rugs are similar to Bedouin designs, they were ordinarily woven only in the more settled areas because they require a more complex loom that is less easily transported.

To find this kind of distinction between similar products, and understand its reasons, was fascinating to me. I wrote to knowledgeable friends in England and the States to locate books on Arab crafts, but they found very little. On a trip home I looked more deeply and found that there was next to nothing in any organized form, beyond H. R. P. Dickson's sketches and description in his book, The Arab of the Desert. The use of the artifacts, and the light they shed on the culture that produced them, were loosely covered in travelers' journals, but even the great Philby and Musil did not provide accurate descriptions, make tribal identifications, or show variations. I resolved that it would be my hobby while I remained in Arabia to put together a comprehensive collection of the crafts, especially the weavings, and publish a book with superior photographs that would lay the basis for a reasonably accurate picture of Saudi traditional crafts.

In early 1978 I took an opportunity to work in Jiddah, moved onto the ninth floor of the Kaki Hotel, and located the old rug suq about a half mile away. On its wide sidewalk - used by the merchants both to display their goods and as the site of a lot of important socializing - I found a miscellany of African-made objects, Saudi and Yemeni daggers, and Bedouin jewelry from all over the Peninsula, and during the working week I spent most of my evenings there. In time, I became a good friend of Abdullah al-Zahrani and his family, owners of the suq's most considerable shop. Saudi weaving of any quality - rugs, tent pieces or camel gear - was rare in that suq, but Abdullah must be one of the most knowledgeable men in all of Arabia on rugs and the traditional crafts, and - translated by his sons - he gave me much information and great help.

It was during my stay in Jiddah that I decided to try to get an organized sampling of jewelry, costume, leather work and woodenware, as well as weaving. The al-Zahranis were especially helpful, particularly when they came across a group of very old, finely crafted bracelets and other pieces of jewelry that had undoubtedly been made in Najran. They had the opportunity to buy the entire group, but recognized that, because it was expensive, their customers were unlikely to take more than single pieces. They felt that a group of this quality should not be broken up, and they gave me the opportunity to buy it directly from the seller, thereby passing up a considerable profit for themselves.

I found more help in the old suqs of Ta'if, in the hills 150 kilometers (95 miles) east of Jiddah, where I was soon spending almost every Friday morning and evening. One shop in the rug suq dealt primarily in Bedouin weavings - the only such shop I ran across in my travels in Arabia. It was run by a kind older gentleman who became my very good friend and who made his shop my Ta'if home. I bought my best qita - one of the interior walls of a tent - from him. My Jiddah hotel room began to fill.

But accumulating objects was not my primary goal. I wanted to learn regional and tribal identifications of the patterns, symbols and colors in the weavings and other craft items I was buying, to be able to associate certain objects with certain places and, ultimately, with the people - their skilled hands and designing instincts - who made them. But such identifications were hard to come by, and few things I bought came with attributions. I made Polaroid photographs of the weavings and other objects I had acquired, then made photocopies of the photos, and carried both around with me to show to potential informants. I wrote down their information - and speculation - on the photocopies, and by the time I left Saudi Arabia these papers were covered with all kinds of notions. I had to sort out the more likely and the statistically dominant ones, and gradually I became confident of some tribal identifications and certain of regional ones. And though the identifications in my book are cautious, I have run into Saudis of various tribes since publication who, looking at the book with me, have confirmed most of the attributions.

I traveled in Saudi Arabia as much as work permitted in search of handicrafts, and one of my pleasures when I returned to Jiddah from those forays was to show Abdullah al-Zahrani my purchases and watch his reactions: When he tried to buy them from me I knew I had been pretty successful. His greatest compliment came when I returned from Asir with the unique lidded mubarrid with its handmade brass studs. Abdullah nursed and patted the box for a long time, and after he gave up trying to buy it from me, he patted me on the shoulder and pointed approvingly to my eye.

By early 1979 my searches in and around Jiddah were becoming less productive, and I had an opportunity to move to Riyadh. In the Ministry of Information there I saw a picture of a pile rug said to have been made in the al-Jouf region, and since I had seen no Saudi pile weaving anywhere, I was eager to look for it there. When the opportunity came to get away for a week, I simply flew to Sakaka, in al-Jouf, and went to the amir's office. Prince Sultan al-Sudairi was presiding at the majlis - the daily public reception - representing his father the amir, and he acted with typical Saudi hospitality and kindness. He fed and housed me, and arranged for an Englishman on the amir's staff and a young Saudi engineer of the Shararat tribe to take me about. I visited in tents, went to feasts in the desert and had a thoroughly good time. Prince Sultan gave me a camel-hair pile rug of simple pattern, woven locally, and a day or two later, while visiting at an encampment, some children led me to an old lady who was making a similar rug on a ground loom - the only weaving I was to see in progress during my whole stay in Saudi Arabia. She told me that pile weaving was a recent skill: She and some other ladies had decided to try it some fifteen years earlier. They were apparently good at it, for when the weavings were examined later by Tony Landreau, a well-known expert on nomadic weaving, he found they had locked their pile in with extra warp twining, and had made perhaps the most substantial pile rugs he had ever seen.

While visiting in a tent near Sakaka I showed my host and his friends some pictures of rugs that I had in the States, including Navajos. He asked if he could show the pictures to his wife, and when he told me how much she had enjoyed them I urged him to have her select any that she wanted to keep. She kept the photos of the Navajos, and sent back by him as a gift to me a cushion with a pile-woven cover which she had made. The colors were chemical dyes and almost gaudy, but it is a very effective design and a well-made piece of work.

That cushion was one of several items I acquired as gifts. In Riyadh I got to know a wonderfully entertaining poet and writer, 'Abd Allah al-Zamil. He was knowledgeable in Bedouin culture and had a varied collection of Bedouin artifacts of his own. He gave me a small door with colored incised patterns that had come from his family home in 'Unayzah, in the country's central al-Qasim region. Because it was an interior door, it had retained its original colors although it was over 150 years old.

On another search for Saudi pile rugs, I went to Tabuk, in Saudi Arabia's northwest corner, to hunt for the shag rugs I had heard were made there. Though the amir of that region also received me with great hospitality, the only shag rugs I saw were in his coffee room: I could find no others anywhere. Three years later, in the States, I visited Colorado Springs with the exhibition that resulted from publication of my book. There, an ex-Army colonel who had once been posted in Tabuk invited me to his house to see some of the things he had brought from there. Out of a bag tumbled two exemplary shag pile rugs of Tabuk manufacture. I got him to show them in the Saudi crafts exhibit at the Textile Museum in Washington, and eventually I acquired one of them myself - so that particular search led from Riyadh to Tabuk to Colorado.

Those trips to al-Jouf and Tabuk, like all my travels and searches in Saudi Arabia, were full of the excitement of discovery, full of difficulties, and filled even more with the pleasure of the generosity and hospitality of the Saudis. From prince to "commoner" - and the commoners behaved like princes! - they were open and friendly and interested in my efforts to collect and catalogue this significant part of their country's heritage. The book that was finally published - after considerably more work than I had anticipated - will, I suspect, never pay for itself in money terms, but the collection that it documents, supplemented with objects lent by other collectors, has been exhibited in 10 museums around the United States. So I have had the satisfaction of helping a wide audience understand the high technical and esthetic quality of Saudi crafts, and, in a way, of repaying my Saudi hosts with a gift of their own devising.

John Topham lives near Rochester, New York. His book, Traditional Crafts of Saudi Arabia, is distributed in the United States by the University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia.

This article appeared on pages 30-36 of the September/October 1987 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for September/October 1987 images.