Interview With Joy Totah Hilden, Author Of Bedouin Weaving Of Saudi Arabia And Its Neighbours

Joy Totah Hilden

After stumbling upon Joy Totah Hilden’s book and reading the answers to the interview questions I posed to her, I recalled an interesting detail my husband had told me about his childhood. He was born in a white, gray and black colored bait al-sha’ar (Bedouin tent or house of hair) and is mighty proud of it. The hair came from the animals they raised, sheared by the men of his family and woven by the women. He remembers his female relatives sitting on the floor (a carpet upon sand) and weaving. I wish that I could see the colors and design of his ancestral tent but he does not have pictures, only a photographic memory.

Who is Joy? She gives a brief description which I have copied from her website, Beduin Weaving, “Joy May Hilden (“Totah” is the surname of Joy’s father which she uses professionally) has been doing field research on Beduin weaving since 1982. With her husband, who taught in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, she traveled near and far in search of weavers whose knowledge of this fast-disappearing craft she wants to preserve.”

By 1988 she was featured in a Saudi Aramco World magazine article which she wrote herself, “After three and a half years in Saudi Arabia, I was finally on my way to visit a Bedouin weaver. I had been admiring, buying, looking at, studying and imitating Bedouin weaving, with its wonderful variety, color and hardiness, and trying to find a woman to teach me to weave the Bedouin way. We are determined to return some day, for we’ve learned enough about Bedouin weaving in Saudi Arabia to know that there is much more to learn, and many more weavers to search for.”

Joy’s research and hard work culminated in a book called, Bedouin Weaving Of Saudi Arabia And Its Neighbours. She graciously agreed to this interview for FHWS. Thank you Joy! Tara Umm Omar

What inspired you to write “Bedouin Weaving Of Saudi Arabia And Its Neighbours”? I wanted to help to preserve the techniques of spinning, weaving and dyeing of the Bedu, and to convey that information to a wide audience.

How did you decide on the title? It was a straightforward description of the contents of the book.

Who designed the book’s cover and what is the significance of the picture? The photograph was one that I took and the book designer, Jamie Crocker, completed it. It conveys the thrust of the book, hand-weaving.

Who is the targeted audience of your book? It is directed toward a general audience, as well as textile and museum professionals, students, ethnographers, collectors and connoisseurs of flat-weave textiles. The detailed instructions in techniques are directed toward weavers and other craftspeople.

What benefits or messages do you expect readers to get out of your book, if any? I hope readers will enjoy the beauty of the weaving, appreciate the culture from which it comes, and learn about the lives of a variety of people in the Arab world.

Did you learn anything from writing your book? Please explain: I learned about the richness of Arab culture; the patience and skill of the weavers; my own ability to follow through the project to the end, in the face of many difficulties.

Do you weave and what do you like to weave? I used to weave, spin and dye, but I’ve not done any for years. I learned the techniques of Bedouin weaving and did some for the purpose of learning. Before involvement with that, I enjoyed making simple clothing, shoulder bags and bands.

Were you able to use your knowledge of weaving in Saudi Arabia to make a successful weave the Bedu way? I was able to do simple, small and rudimentary pieces, but was not interested in making large pieces. It was particularly difficult weaving on a ground loom, which requires sitting on the ground.

Does the weaving of the Bedouins vary by tribe as far as method, design or even the dyes used? Bedouin weaving doesn’t vary much by method, but colors and designs are varied by tribe or region.

What has been the reception in Saudi Arabia and internationally towards “Bedouin Weaving Of Saudi Arabia And Its Neighbours”? I have not learned yet of its reception in Saudi Arabia. Its reception in the USA and the UK has been most favorable.

What are your hopes for “Bedouin Weaving Of Saudi Arabia And Its Neighbors” in the future? I hope there will be wide exposure to the book. A paperback will be available soon in the USA and UK.

Is your book also available in Arabic or any other languages? It is not available in Arabic or other languages. It would be difficult to accurately translate much of the language in the book.

Is your book sold in Saudi Arabia? It is available in Saudi Arabia through Al Turath publishers in Riyadh.

Is your book available on Kindle? No, it is not.

Is there anything else you would like others to know about your book? The book represents about 25 years of work. It documents a craft that is ancient and is changing dramatically.

Any other books on the horizon? I am working on a biography of my father, Dr. Khalil A. Totah.

Enter the URL address for a website, blog, Facebook/Twitter fan page, etc: My website is


Your nationality and country of residence: I am an Arab-American and live in the USA.

How long did you live in Saudi Arabia? 12 years.

What are the things you like/liked about living in Saudi Arabia? I enjoyed meeting expatriates and local people of many different backgrounds. I enjoyed traveling throughout the Kingdom and surrounding countries.

What are the things you dislike/disliked about living in Saudi Arabia? I disliked the difficulty of traveling on my own, the feeling of being a second-class citizen in that way, particularly on buses and trains.

What would you like to see improved in Saudi Arabia? I would like Saudi citizens to be able to vote, and for women to be treated as equals. I would also like to see the crafts promoted equally among women and men, for example at the folk festival in Janadariyah. I would like to see weavers encouraged and their work marketed.

Do you think non-Saudis should change anything about themselves in order to fit into Saudi society? I think they need to be sensitive to the customs of the country, religion and culture.

Do you think a non-Saudi man/woman can be happy in Saudi Arabia? Yes, they can. I think they need to be informed before they go there to live or visit.

Do you think a non-Saudi woman can live alone in Saudi Arabia without a husband or her family? It is possible, but would be difficult. The woman would need to be mature and informed about the way of life and its limitations.

What do you think non-Saudis should know about Saudis? Non-Saudis should have an open mind and not make assumptions about what a Saudi would think, feel or do. Saudis are a very diverse people.

Watch a video of Joy’s book on YouTube.

An Amazon review of Joy’s book by Gail Birch: “In traditional Arabian Bedouin society, women wove and built the family shelter, tents made of goat hair, by hand, using wool from their own herds as well as materials available in the environment around them or nearby towns. Joy Totah Hilden’s sumptuous and substantive volume holds nothing back in its thorough and fascinating exploration of the art of Bedouin weaving and its practitioners. The author lived Saudi Arabia from 1982 until 1994, learning everything she could about Bedouin weavers and their art. On weekends she sought out weavers at Bedouin markets and villages. She befriended them and learned their spinning and weaving techniques. Being a weaver and weaving instructor herself, she knew what she needed to learn, and sought this knowledge with great determination, eventually covering every region of Saudi Arabia. Hilden stayed in touch with her favorite weavers over the years, noting how their art changed with the passage of time, and with their families’ integration into the modern economy. While few if any young women in Saudi Arabia practice the traditional craft today, Hilden notes that many cultural institutes in the region are trying to preserve it. Hilden shares the fruits of her research with great generosity. Her fascinating discussion of Bedouin life through the lens of weaving reveals the gentle harmony they kept with the desert environment. The thorough information about the weavings photographed in the book will help collectors and archivists. This book is also a precise and accurate capsule of knowledge for those who would like to make their own Bedouin weavings. It includes specific directions on the weaving patterns of the Bedouin, spinning and weaving techniques, and information on natural dyes. As the last Bedouins disappear, one hopes that the knowledge Hilden has gathered and shared here will inspire future weavers to keep these ancient techniques alive.”

Photo Credit: Joy Totah Hilden

Further Reading:

Interview of Joy by Cold Night; Distant Campfire
Saudi Gazette’s Weaving The Story Of Bedouin Textiles by Susannah Tarbush
The Re-Invention Of Traditional Weaving In Saudi Arabia by Laila Mohammed Nour Salaghor
Bedouin Weaving Lecture At The de Young by Erin Canoy

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Tara Umm Omar

American married to a Saudi.

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