Every month Moon Community Club profiles a cause that is close to our hearts. This month, we’re focusing our attention on Herfa Association – an organisation supported by Princess Noura Bint Mohammed Al Saud – whose vision (in broad brushstrokes) is to preserve the cultural heritage of crafts in the Kingdom.
With so much craft-based and artisanal history though, how does the association set about doing this? We took a closer look.
Linking the past and future through crafts
Established in Buraydah in the Al-Qassim Region in 2008, Herfa Association’s aim is to contribute to the historic craft culture in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia by bringing heritage skills into the present day – and contemporary economic marketplace.
The association does this through its empowering programmes: by educating and training women about sustainable craft skills, which have long been a part of the country’s history, they can then become producers in their own right, providing for their families and wider community rather than having to rely on financial subsidies.
‘Herfa’s greatest impact and benefit is on women in the workforce – and their empowerment,’ says Sahar AlHomoud, who is one of the Association’s board members. ‘The best thing about working with Herfa, for me, is being involved in female empowerment, which is part of Saudi Vision 2030.’
As well as building a personal sense of pride and autonomy, this process has the added impact of helping to maintain the knowledge and use of traditional processes, meaning this aspect of our culture continues to be passed on to future generations.
‘We want to preserve the cultural heritage of crafts in the Kingdom and develop it in a modern style, while keeping its originality and unique identity,’ says Sahar, ‘So the craftsmen and craftswomen are well trained with high levels of quality and excellence.’
Who is involved in this training?
Since 2013, more than 9,000 beneficiaries have engaged with Herfa, through 283 courses and 19 specialist workshops, many of which are led by 184 female trainers – individuals who are already well-versed in the various skills and creative products that the organisation is aiming to preserve.
Beyond the core team who work directly with the beneficiaries, the caliber of the education and resulting craftsmanship is, in part, achieved through partnerships with local and global experts – think the likes of Saudi designer Naeema AlShuhail, Paris-based Italian couturier Maurizio Galante, researcher and educator Dr. Laila Al-Al-Bassam and Sarah’s Bags, a Lebanese initiative working in a similar arena, training underprivileged local women in artisan skills.
On top of these industry connections, Herfa has built strong ties with highly regarded institutions within the Kingdom, working on design-led projects with organisations such as the Turquoise Mountain (with the backing of Alwaleed Philanthropies and Baree), and looking to the future of the craft industries by building a relationship with the General Authority for Tourism and National Heritage.
Additionally, an academic partnership in the field of heritage, crafts and produce at Princess Nourah Bint Abdulrahman University has helped to secure a more formal space to study this specialist area.
What crafts is Herfa working to preserve and share?
Textiles are one of the key areas that Herfa has placed a focus on; one of its projects is to document embroidery and stitching types with the aim of registering them as intellectual property across the Arab World.
As every region in the Kingdom has its own modes and styles of embroidery – on soft or thick tissues of cotton, linen, silk, wool or leather – this is quite a task. Some examples of styles that have been secured so far are the Al Qassim Rose, the Al-Ahsa Eye and Horse’s Teeth designs.
A more hands-on and practical approach to textiles also sees participants in Herfa’s programmes crafting and sewing to produce high-quality raw materials, and also producing artworks and souvenirs that reach far beyond the Kingdom.
Beyond this, other participants have learnt the processes that go into making natural soaps, and work on producing this for consumers in one of the country’s first organic soap factories.
A different flavour of craft and hands-on heritage skills come in the form of cooking. As well as engaging in the production of traditional and modern sweet-making, some of the individuals Herfa has worked with have been trained in classic cookery techniques and recipes.
Mixing authentic and long-cherished flavours with contemporary tastes, these cooks have been serving up beautiful dishes in the Herfa Cafe, which has not only won awards for excellence but has seen the first female Saudi chef graduate from its kitchens.
All of Herfa’s dedication and hard work has seen the association praised internationally – as well as winning a European Commission Prize for the protection of craftsmen’s rights in 2010, it was recognised by UNESCO in 2012 as the first Saudi non-governmental organization to take care of, and preserve, heritage globally.
‘Craft is a national heritage, and your support maintains this heritage,’ says Sahar. ‘In my opinion, the importance of preserving the culture is related to being proud of your own identity, and then sharing that with others.
‘The older women who do the Sadu work are now teaching their handicraft to their daughters and granddaughters,’ she continues. ‘They are making money out of these beautiful craft pieces and at the same time preserving their culture and feeling proud of what they are doing.’
Our crafts and the histories that they weave together are stories that we don’t want to lose as we look to the future. As such, the wider cultural and historical impact of Herfa’s work, both locally and globally, cannot be underestimated.