(23) Arabia - Manufacturing, Trade
Manufactures in Arabia
In mechanical arts the Arabs are, as a rule, extremely deficient, though favourable exceptions exist in some districts. The Bedouin or pastoral population know little else than the tanning of leather and the weaving of coarse fabrics, such as articles of overdress, tent coverings (which the women generally make of goat-hair), headbands, and the like. In most villages and towns of Nejd, one or more blacksmiths, whose work is of the rudest possible description, are to be found; occasionally an armourer, a few sandal-makers and workers in leather, with several weavers,-none skilled. Throughout the Hejaz these professions exist, but at a still lower standard; but in Yemen greater nicety of workmanship is to be met with; and gold and silver smiths, often, however, not Arabs but strangers by race get a living in the towns. Formerly Yemen was celebrated for its woven stuffs; this manufacture is now, however, in anything approaching to excellence, the exclusive pride of Oman. In this last-named province, weaving, silk and gold thread embroidery, silver work, gold filigree, and even steel implements, are wrought to a degree of perfection seldom attained by the workmen even of Damascus or Baghdad; and the labours of the Oman loom or forge, when exported, as they are, though not in large quantities, are eagerly purchased abroad. But even here the extreme simplicity, or rather rudeness of the tools employed, and the deficiency of mechanical contrivance, dwarf the results of patient and otherwise ingenious labour into comparative insignificance.
In wood the Arabs are not unskillful artificers; and their drinking-bowls and platters, manufactured chiefly from the "ithel" or larch tree, and studded with small silver knobs, make a good appearance. As masons they deserve little praise; their constructions are clumsy and unstable, the details coarse and ill-fashioned. There is not a single building, public or private, built by the Arabs themselves, of any merit either in regard of utility or of beauty, within the whole of Arabia.
Trade in Arabia
Backward in manufacture, and even showing, on the whole, little capacity for it, the Arabs are singularly alive to the advantages of commerce and trade, and fond of exercising them. No Arab undertakes a journey, were it only from one village to another, without taking with him some object for exchange or sale; and he will sooner chaffer away the handkerchief on his head or the camel on which he rides, than return without having effected something in the way of business. In this respect, Bedouin and townsman, rich poor, are all alike; and their history shows that this propensity is no less ancient than universal in the race. Owing, however, to the want of variety in its productions, and the remarkably uniform, habits of its inhabitants, combined with the scarcity of local manufactures, the trade of Arabia, whether export or import, is soon catalogued. Camels and sheep, hair and wool, come first on the export list; next coffee; then dates, then horses; a very little rice and a few cloaks from Yemen or Oman close the chapter of commerce so far as land produce is concerned; pearls sum up that of the sea. Nor is the import much more diversified or extensive. Cotton cloth, Indian prints, sugar, a little hardware, a few arms, powder and shot, and trinkets of no great value- such are the customary requisitions of the land. Nor has any single Arab, the Imam or Prince of Mascat alone excepted, sufficient available capital for extensive traffic, out or in; while the Mahometan prohibition of interest, and consequently of credit, joined to the illegality of insurance, would, even in a richer land, restrict enterprise within very unsatisfactory bounds. It is owing, indeed, to these narrow-minded laws, introduced by the Koran and co-existent with its observance, that what commerce exists at the seaports of Hejaz, Tehamah, and Yemen, has mainly fallen into the hands of Jews and Banians-that is, Indian merchants; though in Oman, where a more liberal spirit prevails, Arab merchants of considerable capital and with extensive connections are to found. The custom-duties in the ports of Oman and the Persian Gulf, whether export or import, are 10 per cent, except on pearls; in the harbours of Yemen they are capricious, and often very high. The shereef or governor of Mecca used formerly to carry on, through Jiddah, a trade hardly inferior to that of the Imam of Mascat himself; but the devastations committed by the Wahhabees, and in later times the oppression of the Egyptian and Turkish governments, have considerably reduced this source of Arab income.
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Arabia - Table of Contents