Dhaka weaves a new tale with muslin, the long-lost royal fabric

Weavers use handlooms to make traditional muslin garments at the Dhakai Muslin Project facility in Narayanganj, Bangladesh, on Jan. 8, 2022. (AFP)
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Weavers use handlooms to make traditional muslin garments at the Dhakai Muslin Project facility in Narayanganj, Bangladesh, on Jan. 8, 2022. (AFP)
A weaver uses a handloom to make traditional muslin cloth at the Dhakai Muslin Project facility in Narayanganj, Bangladesh, on Jan. 8, 2022. (AFP)
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A weaver uses a handloom to make traditional muslin cloth at the Dhakai Muslin Project facility in Narayanganj, Bangladesh, on Jan. 8, 2022. (AFP)
Workers weave traditional muslin cloth at the Dhakai Muslin Project facility in Narayanganj, Bangladesh, on March 14, 2022. (Bangladesh Handloom Board)
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Workers weave traditional muslin cloth at the Dhakai Muslin Project facility in Narayanganj, Bangladesh, on March 14, 2022. (Bangladesh Handloom Board)
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Updated 19 March 2022

Dhaka weaves a new tale with muslin, the long-lost royal fabric

Dhaka weaves a new tale with muslin, the long-lost royal fabric
  • Light, soft and almost transparent, Dhaka muslin used to be known as ‘woven air’
  • Complex skills to produce the handwoven cloth were forgotten by the early 20th century 

DHAKA: Dhaka muslin, a fabric so light and fine that poets have described it as “woven air,” is poised for a rebirth in Bangladesh after years of research to revive long-lost production techniques.

The delicate cloth derives its name from the city of Mosul, now in Iraq, where it was first manufactured in the Middle Ages.

The fabric became popular in the Indian subcontinent under Mughal rulers, and from the 17th century production was centered in Dhaka, where weavers developed the cloth to its finest form, soon exporting it to the far corners of the world.

Dhaka muslin dominated the global market for 200 years. International royalty were among those who favored the fabric until it all but vanished in the early 20th century, phased out by machine-made alternatives and high import tariffs in Europe.

The complex technique required to make the fine handwoven cloth, which has thread counts ranging from several hundred to over 1,000, as well as knowledge of which cotton types were suitable for production, disappeared along with a generation of weavers who abandoned the craft.

Once the pride of the region, Dhaka muslin was forgotten for decades. Five years ago, however, researchers from the Bangladesh Handloom Board set out to revive the fabric. But it was not an easy task.

“We didn’t have any authentic samples to hand,” Mohammad Ayub Ali, who leads the project, told Arab News.

“But we didn’t give up. All of us nurtured a firm determination in mind to restore the secret.”

Ali’s team traveled to India, Egypt and the UK to find original samples of the historic fabric, and eventually relied on a version found in the Victoria & Albert Museum in London.

To determine the cotton species used by the old weavers of Dhaka, researchers turned to “Species Plantarum,” the groundbreaking book published by the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus in 1753, which listed every species of plant known at the time.

The plant was thought to be Phuti carpus, which researchers feared was now extinct.

“We prepared a morphological sketch of Phuti carpus and searched across the country to find if any sample of this cotton still existed,” Ali said. “Thirty-nine species of cotton samples were collected in this process.”

DNA testing, which matched the samples with muslin thread from the London museum, found that one plant, collected in the Kapasia region of Gazipur district, north of Dhaka, was almost 100 percent compatible.

To save it from extinction, the plant is now grown on experimental farms.

Prof. Mohammad Monzur Hossain, a University of Rajshahi botanist who led the search for Phuti carpus, said that the plant has features not found in other species.

“The fiber of this cotton has a high tensile strength compared with other cottons. And these fibers are short in length, which is convenient for hand spinning,” he told Arab News. “The muslin produced from Phuti carpus was so thin and transparent that it was called ‘woven air.’”

The “woven air” metaphor originated from classical Persian poetry — as did “flowing water,” “evening dew” and other terms. To bring these descriptions to life, however, proper skills and techniques were also essential.

Weavers taking part in the project were trained for over a year to use traditional wooden spinning wheels and hand-drawn looms to make fabrics with thread counts many times higher than what they were used to.

Higher thread counts — the number of crisscrossed threads per square inch — make materials softer and tend to wear better over time. The target was 500, but in the beginning the artisans could not go beyond 80.

Mohammad Rubel Mia learnt the craft as a child more than two decades ago and was accustomed to weaving delicate saris with thread counts around 100, but it took him a while to learn the muslin technique.

“Initially, it was not easy to deal with this almost microscopic thread,” he said. “We failed again and again.”

For Mohsena Akter, another worker at the Bangladesh Handloom Board’s Dhakai muslin project facility in Narayanganj, southwest of Dhaka, it is the most difficult task in her life.

The fabric is so fine that the fingers that weave it must always be soft.

“If our fingers get dry or become hard, we can’t deal with the delicate threads of muslin,” she said. “There is no time to lose focus, even for a fraction of a second, and it demands the highest level of perseverance.”

Fifteen spinners work for the Dhakai muslin project. It takes them 150 days to produce enough thread for just one piece of a muslin sari.

As they are preparing to enter the market, the project lead, Ali, said one muslin sari would cost an estimated $7,000 to $17,000, given the labor it takes to make it.

Hopes are high that the reborn historic fabric will be welcomed by the world’s fashion industry after an absence of almost 100 years.

“I believe it will also help in branding Bangladesh as the finest cloth-producing country,” Ali said. “We are considering taking in different fairs across the world.”


WHO: Nearly 200 cases of monkeypox reported in more than 20 countries

 An employee of the vaccine company Bavarian Nordic shows a picture of a vaccine virus in Martinsried near Munich. (REUTERS)
An employee of the vaccine company Bavarian Nordic shows a picture of a vaccine virus in Martinsried near Munich. (REUTERS)
Updated 28 May 2022

WHO: Nearly 200 cases of monkeypox reported in more than 20 countries

 An employee of the vaccine company Bavarian Nordic shows a picture of a vaccine virus in Martinsried near Munich. (REUTERS)
  • Dr. Rosamund Lewis, head of WHO’s smallpox department, said that “there is no need for mass vaccination,” explaining that monkeypox does not spread easily and typically requires skin-to-skin contact for transmission

LONDON: The World Health Organization says nearly 200 cases of monkeypox have been reported in more than 20 countries not usually known to have outbreaks of the unusual disease, but described the epidemic as “containable” and proposed creating a stockpile to equitably share the limited vaccines and drugs available worldwide.
During a public briefing on Friday, the UN. health agency said there are still many unanswered questions about what triggered the unprecedented outbreak of monkeypox outside of Africa, but there is no evidence that any genetic changes in the virus are responsible.
“The first sequencing of the virus shows that the strain is not different from the strains we can find in endemic countries and (this outbreak) is probably due more to a change in human behavior,” said Dr. Sylvie Briand, WHO’s director of pandemic and epidemic diseases.
Earlier this week, a top adviser to WHO said the outbreak in Europe, US, Israel, Australia and beyond was likely linked to sex at two recent raves in Spain and Belgium. That marks a significant departure from the disease’s typical pattern of spread in central and western Africa, where people are mainly infected by animals like wild rodents and primates, and outbreaks haven’t spilled across borders.
Although WHO said nearly 200 monkeypox cases have been reported, that seemed a likely undercount.

FASTFACT

No vaccines have been specifically developed against monkeypox, but WHO estimates that smallpox vaccines are about 85 percent effective.

On Friday, Spanish authorities said the number of cases there had risen to 98, including one woman, whose infection is “directly related” to a chain of transmission that had been previously limited to men, according to officials in the region of Madrid.
UK officials added 16 more cases to their monkeypox tally, making Britain’s total 106. And Portugal said its caseload jumped to 74 cases on Friday.
WHO’s Briand said that based on how past outbreaks of the disease in Africa have evolved, the current situation appeared “containable.”
Still, she said WHO expected to see more cases reported in the future, noting “we don’t know if we are just seeing the peak of the iceberg (or) if there are many more cases that are undetected in communities,” she said.
As countries including Britain, Germany, Canada and the US begin evaluating how smallpox vaccines might be used to curb the outbreak, WHO said its expert group was assessing the evidence and would provide guidance soon.
Dr. Rosamund Lewis, head of WHO’s smallpox department, said that “there is no need for mass vaccination,” explaining that monkeypox does not spread easily and typically requires skin-to-skin contact for transmission.
No vaccines have been specifically developed against monkeypox, but WHO estimates that smallpox vaccines are about 85 percent effective.
She said countries with vaccine supplies could consider them for those at high risk of the disease, like close contacts of patients or health workers, but that monkeypox could mostly be controlled by isolating contacts and continued epidemiological investigations.
Given the limited global supply of smallpox vaccines, WHO’s emergencies chief Dr. Mike Ryan said the agency would be working with its member countries to potentially develop a centrally controlled stockpile, similar to the ones it has helped manage to distribute during outbreaks of yellow fever, meningitis, and cholera in countries that can’t afford them.
“We’re talking about providing vaccines for a targeted vaccination campaign, for targeted therapeutics,” Ryan said.
“So the volumes don’t necessarily need to be big, but every country may need access to a small amount of vaccine.”
Most monkeypox patients experience only fever, body aches, chills and fatigue.
People with more serious illness may develop a rash and lesions on the face and hands that can spread to other parts of the body.


UK PM Johnson faces new call to resign over ‘partygate’

UK PM Johnson faces new call to resign over ‘partygate’
Updated 27 May 2022

UK PM Johnson faces new call to resign over ‘partygate’

UK PM Johnson faces new call to resign over ‘partygate’
  • Johnson said after the report was issued that he took responsibility for the events but refused to quit
  • Other Conservative lawmakers this week have said they had submitted letters calling for a confidence vote in Johnson

LONDON: A Conservative lawmaker submitted a letter of no confidence in Boris Johnson on Friday and another quit a role as an assistant to Britain’s interior minister, putting new pressure on the prime minister over illegal parties at his Downing Street residence during COVID-19 lockdowns.
Bob Neill, the chair of parliament’s justice committee, said an official report on the parties issued on Wednesday showed a pattern of “unacceptable behavior” over months during Britain’s coronavirus crisis, and said he did not find Johnson’s explanations to be credible.
“Trust is the most important commodity in politics, but these events have undermined trust in not just the office of the prime minister, but in the political process itself,” Neill said in a statement. “To rebuild that trust and move on, a change in leadership is required.”
Johnson said after the report was issued that he took responsibility for the events but refused to quit.
Another Conservative lawmaker, Paul Holmes, said earlier on Friday he was resigning from his government role as parliamentary private secretary at the Home Office to focus on representing his constituents.
“It is clear to me that a deep mistrust in both the government and the Conservative Party has been created by these events ... It is distressing to me that this work on your behalf has been tarnished by the toxic culture that seemed to have permeated Number 10,” Holmes said in a statement.
Other Conservative lawmakers this week have said they had submitted letters calling for a confidence vote in Johnson to the chairman of the party’s 1922 Committee — which would be triggered if 54 such letters are written.
The letters are confidential, so only the chairman of the 1922 Committee knows how many have actually been submitted.
However, Holmes confirmed to Reuters he had not written a letter to call for Johnson to resign.


As springs dry up, Nepalese farmers tap into harvesting raindrops

Residents of Kuinkel Thumka sit next to a conservation pond that supplies them with water during prolonged dry periods.
Residents of Kuinkel Thumka sit next to a conservation pond that supplies them with water during prolonged dry periods.
Updated 27 May 2022

As springs dry up, Nepalese farmers tap into harvesting raindrops

Residents of Kuinkel Thumka sit next to a conservation pond that supplies them with water during prolonged dry periods.
  • Prolonged dry periods have been more frequent in recent years due to climate change
  • Farmers build soil-cement ponds to store rain and runoff water

KATHMANDU: Water scarcity in Kuinkel Thumka, a mountainous village in eastern Nepal, has for years made life difficult for residents — until a few months ago, when they started to capture excess rainfall during the monsoon season.

Located in the Middle Hills, between the Himalayas and Tarai, the village of 850 people lies in Kavrepalanchok district of Bagmati province, where the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), has introduced soil-cement ponds to store rain and runoff water.

“We built a soil-cement tank in our village eight months ago and started to collect rain,” Gita Kuinkel, a 53-year-old farmer, told Arab News.

“Before this tank, we didn’t have enough water and our lives were hard. It was not enough for our cattle, household chores and irrigation. Now, the water is enough,” she said.

“We don’t have to buy vegetables, we grow and eat vegetables from our own home gardens.”

Cheap soil-cement conservation ponds are constructed in the region with the help of ICIMOD, an intergovernmental research center serving countries of the Hindu Kush Himalayan region, and the Center for Environmental and Agricultural Policy Research, Extension and Development (CEAPRED), a leading Nepali developmental NGO.

The ponds capture excess rainfall during the monsoon, making water available during prolonged dry periods, which in recent years have been more frequent, even in the Himalayas, as South Asia is experiencing unprecedented heatwaves due to climate change.

Sanjeev Bhuchar, a water management expert at ICIMOD, told Arab News that more than 80 percent of Nepal’s 13 million population was dependent on mountain springs as the primary source of water. But the springs are drying up.

“In Nepal and other Himalaya-Hindu Kush countries, depletion of springs is one of the major emerging water crises,” he said.

“There is increasing evidence that spring discharge is decreasing, or in some cases, ceasing altogether.”

Within the past three years, more than 400 ponds have been built across the country, according to Kiran Bhusal, project coordinator at CEAPRED.

“Farmers can easily build such tanks because the procedure is very easy. It is built with mixtures of soil, sand and cement,” he said. “It is helping the people so much.”

Kamala Adhikary, another resident of Kuinkel Thumka, said that it cost the village about $160 to build a water conservation pond, and the standard of living has changed ever since.

“We didn’t have enough water for drinking, we had to buy water from other areas,” she said.

“Now we can wash our clothes, use it for our cattle and even we do farming, and earn money because of it. It improved our economic condition. A lot of problems have been solved.”

 


Concerns raised over criminalization, transfer of asylum seekers in UK

Concerns raised over criminalization, transfer of asylum seekers in UK
Updated 27 May 2022

Concerns raised over criminalization, transfer of asylum seekers in UK

Concerns raised over criminalization, transfer of asylum seekers in UK
  • Number being granted refuge hits 30-year high
  • Most enter via small boats or other irregular routes now exposed to risk of prosecution

LONDON: Charities have raised concerns over the potential for asylum seekers to be criminalized or transferred to Rwanda as the number being granted refuge in the UK hits a 30-year high.
The Guardian reported on Friday that Home Office data for the 12 months to March shows 75 percent of asylum claims were granted, with Syrians, Eritreans and Sudanese forming the majority of people making their way from countries with typically high approval rates.
However, most of them entered the UK by small boats or other irregular routes now exposed to risks of prosecution under the Nationality and Borders Act passed last month.
The same dataset also showed an increase in the number of Afghans making their way to the UK via the dangerous English Channel crossing, indicating that the resettlement schemes launched after the fall of Kabul to the Taliban last year are not working.
“The government has said it is giving Afghans a ‘warm welcome,’ but these figures reveal that many have felt they have been left with no option but to take this dangerous route to make it to the UK,” said Marley Morris, associate director for migration at the Institute for Public Policy Research.
“The government’s new plans in response to the Channel crossings could mean that Afghan asylum seekers will be sent to Rwanda.
“Contrary to the government’s claims, there are few safe routes for people forced into small boats to make it to the UK.”


Monkeypox can be contained if we act now, WHO says

Monkeypox can be contained if we act now, WHO says
Updated 27 May 2022

Monkeypox can be contained if we act now, WHO says

Monkeypox can be contained if we act now, WHO says
  • "We think that if we put in place the right measures now we probably can contain this easily," said Sylvie Briand, WHO director for Global Infectious Hazard Preparedness
  • So far, there are about 300 confirmed or suspected cases in around 20 countries

GENEVA: Countries should take quick steps to contain the spread of monkeypox and share data about their vaccine stockpiles, a senior World Health Organization official said on Friday.
“We think that if we put in place the right measures now we probably can contain this easily,” Sylvie Briand, WHO director for Global Infectious Hazard Preparedness, told the UN agency’s annual assembly.
Monkeypox is a usually mild viral infection that is endemic in parts of west and central Africa.
It spreads chiefly through close contact and until the recent outbreak, was rarely seen in other parts of the world, which is why the recent emergence of cases in Europe, the United States and other areas has raised alarms.
So far, there are about 300 confirmed or suspected cases in around 20 countries where the virus was not previously circulating.
“For us, we think that the key priority currently is trying to contain this transmission in non-endemic countries,” Briand told a technical briefing for member states.
Needed measures included the early detection and isolation of cases and contact tracing, she added.
Member states should also share information about first generation stockpiles of smallpox vaccines which can also be effective against monkeypox, Briand said.
“We don’t know exactly the number of doses available in the world and so that’s why we encourage countries to come to WHO and tell us what are their stockpiles,” she said. A slide of her presentation described global supplies as “very constrained.”
Currently, WHO officials are advising against mass vaccination, instead suggesting targeted vaccination where available for close contacts of people infected.
“Case investigation, contact tracing, isolation at home will be your best bets,” said Rosamund Lewis, WHO head of the smallpox secretariat which is part of the WHO Emergencies Programme.