Wednesday 2 January 2013
Last Update 1 January 2013 8:14 pm
The discovery of oil in the Gulf after World War II triggered the rapid development of an industry that relied largely, in the beginning, on Western experts and technicians. Many expats searching for beautiful souvenirs were inevitably attracted by traditional objects such as ornate chests, old doors, household items, silver jewelry, daggers, swords and even Bedouin clothes.
Until recently, the local people could not really understand the expats’ interest in objects they were too happy to get rid of. In many Gulf countries, heritage was not on the government’s agenda and when it became a political issue, many beautiful antique pieces had already been sent abroad.
One of the most prized items was the so-called traditional Arab chest. Expats working in the Gulf countries whether, in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Qatar or Bahrain, were particularly interested in this decorative piece of furniture.
Until the late 1970s, it was possible to find beautiful antique Arab chests for reasonable prices. Nowadays, most of the chests that are up for sale are modern reproductions. Ancient Arab chests are not only rare but also extremely expensive.
Most of the people who own a chest, I included, know very little about its origin and style. Therefore, I was particularly delighted to come across, “The Arab Chest.” In this entertaining and informative book, Sheila Unwin shares with the readers her enduring passion for the Arab chest. The author saw her first chest in Dar es Salaam during the late 1940s. It was love at first sight and from thereon, her life became a lingering search for Arab chests.
“There has been no thoroughly researched account of this subject. So we have to discover something of the history of invasions, settlement, trading and colonization of the Indian Ocean and Far Eastern territories to fully understand the influences behind the evolution of traditional domestic chests into the prized and valued Arab chests. This is the quest at the heart of this book,” writes Sheila Unwin.
This is the first exhaustive study on the Arab chest, an item used both as a suitcase as well as a functional and decorative piece of furniture. The simplicity of its shape is not only inspiring but it also highlights the beauty of wood in its natural form. The brass fittings are decorative but the real hero is the wood. There is no other material like it on the planet. Timber is a living, breathing thing. And while wood has never lost its appeal, it is becoming fashionable again because of sustainability issues.
The author acknowledges that the term “Arab chest” denotes ownership rather than provenance. “In reality early chests were trade items collected by Arabs from the ports or areas on the west coast of India with which their names came to be associated… Later, in the Gulf and Oman, Arab craftsmen picked up the designs, so that it is undoubtedly true that chests from that region at least were fully “Arab” in terms of both provenance and ownership.”
The high demand for Arab chests can be explained by the consumers’ interest where not just skilled work counts, but provenance and a respect for history too. Furthermore, people, now, want things that are built to last several generations yet won’t look dated. And they are also looking for something exclusive which they won’t see everywhere, and that’s what you get with an old hand-crafted Arab chest. People know they’re buying something of value and will respect the object for the sheer fineness and quality of the workmanship too.
The use of a noble material such as timber, the embracing nature of the brass ornaments and the quality of craftsmanship all combine to provoke a warm reaction. The Arab chest really speaks for itself.
Sheila Unwin takes us along in her travels to Oman, India, Yemen, Pakistan, Iran Portugal and the Netherlands. She invites us to discover the truth about the chest’s unrecorded origins and also, to appreciate its beauty that is seen with such frequency but is often overlooked.
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