It's a typical domestic scene: He's serving coffee to a visitor and she's on the other side of the tent wall, heavily veiled and going about her weaving. But he did make his own coffee and he had to ask her for the beans and, furthermore, she's free to throw pithy comments over the tent wall.
These are some of the sociological truths you can glean on a tour of the Traditional Crafts of Saudi Arabia exhibit at the Textile Museum through May 22. You can also learn a little Arabic. After docent Jan Gibson has welcomed a group of Barrie Day School third-graders to the tent with the words "Ahlan wa Sahlan," she asks if they know what a jamal is.
"It's a camel," she tells them.
"We know what a Bedouin is," volunteers a boy. "It's a nomad."
Nomads move a lot, which presents certain practical problems the children are quick to appreciate.
"They have to pack that thing?" asks a girl, sizing up the tent.
This gives Gibson and the other docents a cue to talk about the portable lifestyle and the articles adapted to it. Take the tent top itself, which is woven in narrow strips:
"She couldn't have a huge loom if she had to travel," says Gibson, pointing out the manageable size of the mannequin's loom on her side of the tent. Since breakable things are impractical, the desert Saudis favor durable things, she adds, pointing out woven baskets, wooden bowls, copper water carriers and brass coffee pots.
Coffee isn't just a drink but a ceremony, she explains. To serve it properly, you need three of the curved pots in graduated sizes -- one for the hot water, one for the coffee and spices and the smallest one for serving. The coffee's poured into small cups and it's not polite to have more than three cups. After the third, you shake your cup to indicate you don't want a refill. After coffee, there's incense burned in small portable vessels, some decorated with mirrors. While it burns, people like to let the scent waft into the folds of their robes.
Speaking of robes, there are lots of them in the exhibit -- thawbs, ankle-length white shirts worn by men; abayas, long black outer robes worn by men and women; and, of course, the veils worn by the women.
"Why is she wearing a mask?" asks Gibson, pointing to the mannequin on the women's side of the tent.
"To keep out the sand," ventures a girl with a practical turn of mind.
"At that time people thought women shouldn't be seen," offers another.
"In Saudi Arabia, they still think so," says Gibson. There are simple masks worn by Bedouin; long, flowing veils worn by village women; and ceremonial face masks, hung with coins, worn by the wealthy. Very young girls don't wear veils, but they do wear black cotton headdresses elaborately decorated with beads and buttons, pearly-style.
"Even baby girls wear them," says docent Ingrid Cassidy, leading a smaller group of children past the display cases. In one, there are dresses woven in bright shades of red, green and magenta.
"You saw the women wearing black, but underneath they can wear brighter colors," she explains. "At home when there are no visitors, they take off their outer robes. This is a caftan. Maybe your mothers have some."
The cases in another room are filled with jewelry -- heavy silver necklaces, turquoise and coral hair ornaments and lockets.
"They put small papers with prayers on them inside," explains Cassidy "so that Allah -- that's their word for God -- will protect them. And they don't just put on one thing. They wear everything at once because that's their wealth."
Gibson has a bracelet that isn't in a case and shakes it to make a point: "I wanted to give you an idea of the sound the jewelry makes when it moves. Although everything you see in the exhibit is standing still, the life of the Bedouin is movement."
The sine qua non of this movement is, of course, the camel, a fanciful form of which stands in one corner of the gallery.
"If you were living on the desert, what color would you see all the time?" asks Gibson.
The answer is tan or camel-colored, and to brighten the landscape the women weave saddle bags with long tassels in bright colors, Gibson explains, showing the children the tassels hanging from the ersatz camel.
"I want to be a nomad," announces one boy.
"What is it about nomadic life that attracts you?" asks the docent.
"Riding a camel," he answers.
"Ladies don't ride camels," adds Gibson. "They ride in carriages or they walk."
Walk? Across the desert?
Not one of the girls expresses an interest in becoming a nomad. TRADITIONAL CRAFTS OF SAUDI ARABIA -- At the Textile Museum, 2320 S Street NW, through May 22. The museum is open Tuesday through Saturday, 10 to 5, Sunday 1 to 5. For adults, a $2 donation is suggested, while children are asked to pay 50 cents. Drop-in tours are conducted by docents Saturdays from 11 to 1. To arrange group tours for children or adults, call Nancy Payne at 667-0441.