By Arlen Gargagliano
“Give me a week and I can teach you,” declares Bakria one of the palm weavers we collaborate with in Al Hofuf. I’m sitting across from her, feeling the warmth of her gaze, while being mesmerized by the constant movement of her fingers. She makes this statement in Arabic as she works—without watching—to blend the palm fronds into organized braids.
Bakria is just one of the many artisans Turquoise Mountain Saudi Arabia has the pleasure of representing. It’s my job to watch, learn, and document the crafts and in this way, help to preserve the beautiful traditions, and keep their stories alive. Giving their crafts as gifts is another way of sharing the tales of their work.
My colleague and I are seated on the floor of a windowless room. Like Bakria and her daughter, we’ve removed our shoes at the entrance and sit on the rug and cushions. The sweet warm, rose-tinged air is as embracing as Bakria’s gaze.
Bakria’s smile widens as our awe increases. She picks up coloured fronds in front of her and adds them into the mix, all without missing a beat. Reminiscent of watching Gregory Hines—or Baryshnikov—move across a floor, we watch her fingers dance.
Bakria nods at one of her seven daughters, Ida, who’s seated on the cushions next to me. Ida picks up a bunch of natural coloured palm fronds and starts splitting them by tearing them in half using a fingernail.
“Shufti?” Bakria asks me if I’ve seen what Ida is doing.
I smile and nod a yes. My colleague says something to Bakria and though I don’t understand the words, I know she is telling Bakria that I’m loving the experience.
Bakria shifts into teacher role; she explains that after drying the palm fronds, and prior to weaving, they must be dampened slightly. She reaches to her side to show us a bunch of ready-to-weave palm fronds, cushioned in a damp tea cloth next to her.
“They’ll break if they’re too dry,” she tells my colleague to translate for her.
The door of Bakria’s studio opens, and one of her many young grandsons hands us bottles of water. She says she’s sorry that she doesn’t have more for us. I tell her that we are so grateful for her time—and that I want to come and live with her so that she will teach me palm weaving and Arabic.
“You are welcome,” she says. And she means it.
Note: The work of many of the artisans that Turquoise Mountain collaborates with can be found in the Radisson Blu gift shop, located adjacent to the reception area of their beautiful DQ hotel. You can follow Turquoise Mountain on Instagram.
Author Bio: Arlen Gargagliano, native New Yorker, mother of two, home chef, educator, former restaurateur, author/co-author of over 15 cookbooks and textbooks are currently working with Turquoise Mountain Saudi Arabia, a nonprofit dedicated to the support of Saudi artisans, and the preservation of Saudi heritage crafts, to document relevant information about the creation of these crafts. Currently co-authoring, The Career Guide for Musicians: Turning Your Talent into Sustained Success, to be published in January 2021, with Julliard music professor and multi-Grammy Award-winning drummer and percussionist, Ulysses Owens Jr., Arlen most enjoys supporting people of all ages as they work to improve their skills in a myriad of areas.