The Treasures of Tradition: A Saudi Perspective

The Treasures of Tradition: A Saudi Perspective

By Dr. Delayl M. Al-Qahtani with Arlen Gargagliano

Foreword by Arlen Gargagliano

Dr. Delayal M. Al-Qahtani, the current Chief Curator of the National Museum, boasts a myriad of accomplishments in the realm of Saudi heritage. Her MA thesis, Women’s Traditional Ornaments in Asir Province, and doctoral thesis, Al Sadu and Traditional Knotting in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia led to the publication of two of her many books. As part of her extensive research, she’s been an active participant in many seminars and lectures, as well as a leader of several female teams, both inside and outside the Kingdom.

I had the pleasure and honour of meeting Dr. Delayl in her office in the National Museum in Riyadh. She is not only a woman of many accomplishments but also one who works from the heart; her passion for her family and her profession shines through all of her conversations and work. Soft, smiling, and with a gentleness that weaves you in, her stories of sadu and other crafts are such a part of her life; you feel she is bringing you right in and showing you all that she’s lived through and seen. Hearing her life story reminded me of a quote by the poet Maya Angelou: “We delight in the beauty of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty.”

“Life is not easy. You will have problems, but you have to focus on what you want.”

My childhood was similar to others in Saudi at the time. My mother, my dad’s second wife, raised my four sisters and three brothers and me, in our home in Riyadh, which we shared with my father’s other wives. Maybe, today someone would look at this and think it was a problem. But then, it was normal. Together we were a family of 21 children. The other wives were my aunties; the other children were my siblings and playmates.

When we were little, my mother animatedly recounted chapters of her Bedouin upbringing and repeatedly reminded us, “you are living a good life!” Mom told us of her seven-year-old life when her responsibilities included the care of sheep and camels. Though we all loved to hear her stories, we didn’t appreciate what she had done. Despite the fact that she didn’t read and write, she was determined, creative, and inquisitive—and the person everyone in the family home always consulted if they had a problem or needed a helping hand.

                               Sadu on a loom

Additionally, she was always an advocate of education—ours and then her own. And here’s a great example of that: one of my brothers earned the opportunity to study in the United States. My parents were very supportive, and so he went. While he was away, he wrote and sent us many letters (this was before WhatsApp and computers!). My mother loved hearing from him. When the letters arrived, she would ask one of us children to read his letters aloud. At one point, she declared that wanted to understand directly what her son was writing to her. So, with eight children and a household to care for, she decided to study Arabic reading and writing in a special school for people who didn’t have the chance to study before. She got up early to make us all breakfast, she prepared lunch for us, then studied five days a week, until 6 pm, when she would then come home to make dinner for us all. I was seventeen years old at the time, but I remember she studied for three years, and in that time, she met her goal: she learned to read and write Arabic and was able to read the Quran—and her son’s letters.

Fast forward to my education and early adult life: I started my studies at King Saud, but then my husband got the opportunity to study criminal justice at Lewis-Clark College in Idaho, so we moved to America. Actually, he stayed for four years; I was just there for two. I moved back home and got a job outside Riyadh. It wasn’t a bad position, but I wanted something more.

                                                                       Sadu photo from Sami Altokhais

It was my father who told me that my commute to work was too far (back then women were very far from driving), and suggested that perhaps I could attend King Saud University. I had my first baby, and then I enrolled and started majoring in Islamic Studies. There I broadened my knowledge about not only Islam but the history of Saudi Arabia. I loved studying and decided to go on for my MA. By then I had two little girls, and we were living with my husband’s family. My husband, thankfully, was very supportive. My sister-in-law –who also lived in the same complex — was hugely helpful and we shared chores; she prepared the lunches (I was in school) and I prepared dinners. Life was not easy, but I focused on what I wanted.

For my master’s degree, I chose to focus on our traditional Saudi jewellery making. At that time, my father-in-law had a lot of connections with Asir, so it was easy and convenient for me to travel there, the location of a lot of silver and Saudi heritage jewellery work, to meet the jewellery makers in their small shops. At first, the travelling was difficult; my aunt and uncle would consistently ask, “How can you go and leave the kids?” But, like my mom, I was determined. Luckily, my husband was very supportive, and so I continued my work both in the field and at home. I attended many informational workshops (once the committee approved my thesis), and in between travelling and school, I gave birth to my third daughter. At that same time, my husband’s work was getting better and better and so we moved into our own home. Though my sisters were travelling the world, I wanted to stay closer to Saudi Arabia and do research; I focused on my family—and research—and alhamdulillah, all was good.

Working with the artisans sparked a secondary desire: I wanted the artisans to be proud of their craft. I wanted them to recognize the value of their work, which, contrary to what they seemed to believe, went way beyond production. I told them, “This is not easy! This is a great job!”

My days weren’t easy then either. I started my research after everyone was asleep, and worked until 6 am; I made breakfast and slept until 1 pm. Okay, I did have the luxury to have someone assist with cooking and cleaning. Yet—at times it was quite challenging. Nevertheless, I enjoyed every single moment.

                                                                                  Sadu photo from Sami Altokhais

When I started working with the sadu artisans, and doing my research, to the delight of the weavers—I helped them recognize that they knew more than they thought they knew! For example, I reminded them that their work started with their choosing the right sheep for the wool that they would use to weave. They declared, “Right!” followed by “How did YOU know that?” I remembered the sadu work of my grandmother, and reminded them, as I learned from her, that many of their sadu-making steps may seem small, but in fact that they are crucial. And like that, I recognized that my mission of promoting their work and making them realize that their work was valuable and had to continue.

I’ve visited many archeological sites, and did a lot of research about our folklore, authored more than five books to date, and my work at the museum, which now marks its 20th year, is the marriage of my research and life experience. Additionally, I’ve been able to assist in the support—in terms of both time and money—of my husband and our family.  I enjoy bringing the mission of the museum to Saudi children. My key messages to young Saudis is the same as the one that I gave to my own children, grandchildren, and the artisans I’ve met throughout the years: You have to be proud of your heritage—and the richness and diversity of Saudi handicrafts. Additionally, I tell them all, “Life is not easy. You will have problems, but you have to focus on what you want.”


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