YPC Patrons and their guests had the opportunity to meet Dr. Sarah Fee, the inaugural YPC Research Fund recipient, last month at PROM: Circus where she shared exciting news and photos from her research project The Muscat cloth of Oman—Arabian silks for the East African market.
Meet this year’s new YPC Research Fund grant recipient and learn the fascinating details of their curatorial project at YPC Discovery Night and Cocktails with Dinos on May 15, 2012. Don’t miss out on this inspiring annual event and engaging opportunity to see your YPC gift in action. Visit www.rom.on.ca/ypc or email email@example.com for event details.
Over the weekend, I left the capital city of Muscat for the region of Oman known as Sharquya, which is the eastern point of Oman that juts out into the Arabian Sea. I've seen my first camels—now used only for camel racing—and Bedouin desert dwellers who now travel by small pick up trucks.
In the ancient oasis town of Wadi bani Khalid I met with one of the last remaining weavers. He works from very humble quarters, just as 19th century texts describe them. He had very good memories of the earlier striped cloth styles which were popular in both Oman and Africa, which he remembers his father weaving. However, his sons, like the young men in Quryat, have received full educations and want "desk jobs" so Wadi bani Khalid may soon be without weavers.
Today I met with three weavers in another town, Samand Ash Shan. They are still actively weaving and so for the first time I was able to observe men weaving, and even give it a try myself. These men receive commissions from the government and are able to make a decent living and continue to produce daily. The two older men also had many memories of the historic traditions and trades. I was able to purchase several interesting examples for the ROM.
I have had the incredible good fortune to be aided in my research by the Ibra office of the Public Authority of Craft Industries. Saif, an economist with this office, has been traveling with me to introduce me to the weavers. Extending the famous Omani hospitality, he insisted that I stay with his family last night—ten brothers and sisters—where I was fed roast mutton and pomegranate and the best dates imaginable, while his sisters convinced me to paint my hands with henna.
For breakfast, we sat on a carpet in the cool courtyard, eating handmade Omani bread, which is flat and with carroway seeds.
I just got back a few hours ago from an absolutely amazing 4 hours in Quryat, a coastal town south of Muscat!
Upon arrival, we found ourselves in a dusty courtyard and there were 4 pitlooms!! My very first!! But, they were covered and filled with trash. The last weaver, aged about 70, stopped weaving last year.
I was surprised how large the pits are, and how big the loom apparatus is. It must have taken real strength to operate.
We talked for almost 90 minutes with the weaver and the men of his extended family. At one point he berated everyone for not knowing more about hand-woven cloth!
He described all the cloths he made in the past, which include the special silk turbans worn by the royal family, and forbidden to anyone else.
An important discovery was that the weaver knew some of the types of cloth that were formerly exported to Zanzibar. He was able to show me several samples, and had woven some himself!! I was able to acquire several of these for the ROM.
Thank goodness we caught him when we did! Nobody is following in his footsteps -- his two sons present seemed almost offended at the idea. Desk jobs are what everyone aspires to now.
After talking, I got to enjoy my first Omani dates, said to be the best in the world, and Oman's biggest export until oil was discovered in the 1960s.
That's all for now. On Sunday I am off for a week to the true heartland of pitloom weaving in the Sharquiya district to the South.
I have finally arrived in Oman! Off come my Canadian winter coat and leather boots and on come light cotton pants and a tunic for the 85 degree weather.
The Muttrah souk (market) was my first destination to check out some cloth merchants. The souk is a bottomless maze –although a clean and tidy one -- of small stalls selling everything from spices and myrrh to cheap plastic toys.
I was there 2 hours and didn’t make it past the first 4 textile shops!
The fourth stall was a great find owned by a very chatty and welcoming Punjabi gentleman who sells among many other things industrial imitations of mashru, a striped textile that has been prized for centuries throughout parts of the Middle East and India. Its original popularity with Muslims was its blended weave of cotton and silk, so that the silk did not sit against the skin, making it permissible by Islamic standards, which generally frown on silk.
All the merchants are Indian and all the cloths are made in India or China [“nothing but dates and petrol are made in Oman” seems to be a running joke in the souk]. But, these merchants in fact are wrong, for soon I will be heading to villages in the southeast of the country, where Omani craftsmen still handweave cloth for turbans and cloaks.
Hope you enjoy the photos!
Greetings YPC Patrons!
This past month, I traveled to London, England to do some preliminary archival research to gain the proper historical information before going into the field to carry out interviews
I spent a week in June at two institutions: the British Public Library, and the British National Archives. Both institutions are a researcher's paradise: newly built facilities, state of the art electronic databases, and very quick delivery. Which means, one has only to press a button to have 18th century documents delivered 30 minutes later. Espresso bars and wifi throughout keep one fuelled and in touch. As a further bonus for the researcher, at the British National Archives the architects infused the research room with natural light, while the building is set in the bucolic suburb of Kew, on the edge of the famous Kew Botanical Gardens. But of course I was there not to look out (in any event, it was raining cats and dogs in good London fashion), but to pour over trade records and mariners' logs. Among the other interesting finds I made were figures concerning the cloth exports from Oman in the 1870s, a time period that had been missing from my data. I also read the types of textiles sent by the sultans of Oman to Queen Victoria as diplomatic gifts. As so many other countries from Asia to Africa, in southern Arabia textiles represented the height of luxury, sophistication and wealth and were used to metaphorically "bind" people into relationships.
By my good fortune, there is currently on display at the British Museum a small but exquisite exhibit on Omani costume and jewellery! All the regional dress styles are represented, including the men's turbans and women's shawls that most interest me. The heavy silver jewellery on display, a collection recently acquired by the Museum, was a revelation to me. As in many areas, women wore their wealth on them, in the form of thick and ornate anklets, necklaces, bracelets and veil accents. While in London, I met with the British Museum curator of the Oman exhibit, Dr. Fahmida Suleiman, as well as with Neil Richards, co-author of the pioneering 2-volume work The Craft Heritage of Oman, which first opened my eyes to the significance of Omani weaving. Both scholars kindly shared many tips and ideas for my field research, set to begin mid-November.
YPC Research Fund
The YPC Research Fund supports cutting-edge curatorial research projects at the Royal Ontario Museum. Every year, a portion of each YPC gift is directed through the YPC Research Fund to support an exciting initiative that helps build the understanding and appreciation of natural history and world cultures.
This year’s YPC Research Fund will support a fascinating project in the southern Arabian nation of Oman about the little known historic trade of Muscat cloth, the silk turbans and wrappers that Omani pit-loom weavers exported in staggering numbers to the Swahili world from 1750 to 1970.
Dr. Sarah Fee, Associate Curator in the Eastern Hemisphere Textiles and Costume Department of World Cultures at the ROM, is currently working on the project The Muscat cloth of Oman —Arabian silks for the East African market. Her remarkable research indicates that, even more so than Indian stuffs, this southern Arabia cloth strongly influenced the dress, hand-weaving, and trade history of East Africa. Preceded by earlier archival and object study, the YPC Research Fund has made it possible for Dr. Fee to now travel to the southern Arabian nation of Oman to interview Omani weavers and to consult historic cloth and photographic collections.
This important research work will contribute to several articles and publications as well as an exhibition on the historic hand-weaving of East Africa.
Check back often for news, photos and updates from the field on Dr. Sarah Fee’s research project The Muscat cloth of Oman—Arabian silks for the East African market.
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