The Zay Initiative: Custodian of Culture

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Dr. Reem Tariq El Mutwalli: “Each of the garments in the Zay Initiative comes from an individual.  I didn’t want an article of clothing to stand there on its own like in a museum.  On the website, you can find the story behind all of them.  I wanted the story because I wanted to raise the voices of the women they belonged to, otherwise they will never be known.”

To take in the resplendent clothing that forms The Zay Initiative — the Arab world’s first fashion history archive — is to travel in time and space across exotic lands, reveling in the region’s unabashed love of textiles and crafts. That’s at first glance.  Scratching beneath the opulent surface rewards the visitor with so much more, not least of all an often-overlooked perspective — that of Arab women. Cultural preservation, fostering a sense of identity and igniting dialogue also count among the laudable objectives of the non-profit’s founder, Dr. Reem Tariq El Mutwalli.

Dr. El Mutwalli authored a book based on her doctoral thesis — Sultani: Traditions Renewed. Changes in women’s traditional dress In the United Arab Emirates during the reign of the late Shaykh Zâyid Bin Sultan Âl Nahyân, 1966-2004. The lavishly illustrated tome chronicles traditional Emirati dress through the second half of the 20th century, a period that saw enormous economic and cultural changes following the discovery of oil.  It also features oral histories.

The collection’s 2,000 men’s and women’s garments date from the 19th century to the present and originate from the United Arab Emirates, Yemen, Morocco, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and many other nations across the Middle East and North Africa. (Zay is an Arabic term for the art of dress.) Indeed, all 22 countries of the Arab world are represented in the Zay Initiative.

“We have something from each of those nations,” reveals El Mutwalli who intends to acquire at least one depictive outfit from each group.  She is keen to point out that the area’s unifying factor is the language, not the religion.  “The Arab world is composed of a multitude of ethnicities and religions that co-existed together for hundreds of years,” she explains.  “You have Jews, Christians, Muslims, Armenians, Kurds, Berbers.  They all live together within the Arab world.  What connects them is the Arabic language and a shared history.”

Founded in 2018, the UK-based Zay Initiative is the culmination of a decades-long labor of love fueled by El Mutwalli’s passion for art, architecture and interior design, subjects in which she is well versed with a PhD in Islamic Art and Archaeology, a Masters in Islamic Architecture and a 20-year tenure at Abu  Dhabi’s Cultural Foundation, where the scholar built the institution’s art collection.

Born in Iraq, El Mutwalli moved to Abu Dhabi at the age of 5, in 1968, the year oil was discovered in the region. Her father was the economic advisor to Crown Prince HH Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan. She grew up witnessing the birth of a nation. “Living in the UAE as it transitioned from a closed nomadic society to an open globalized culture has given me opportunities and privileges that others couldn’t have and I could be the voice of many women who are not known to the rest of the world because I experienced that life,” she explains.

El Mutwalli greeting Sheikh Zayed, founder of the United Arab Emirates, in 1968.

This robe (above) and mask (below) embroidered with 18k gold coins were gifted by a member of the Emirati royal family to El Mutwalli upon the completion of her doctoral thesis. It exemplifies the traditional Arab saying, zinah wa khazinah, meaning “beauty and wealth in one.” Although it is a late 20th century garment, it symbolizes earlier dress, offering a glimpse of life before the discovery of oil. In that nomadic society, “the gold decorations were designed to demonstrate style and reflect social standing,” explains the author, “but they could also be melted down and sold in times of need.”

This veritable treasure trove, amassed by way of gifts, at auction and through outright purchases, tells the story of people — mainly women — from the simplest rural families to the ruling families, through their textiles and adornment.  The craftsmanship — the sewing and embroidery undertaken even in times of social upheaval — is often the only trace left behind by the creators of these garments.

The collection serving as a vehicle for self-expression also holds true for its founder because it has enabled El Mutwalli to understand her own multinational identity, molded by her time living in multiple countries with widely differing cultures. “The Zay Initiative is an unconscious way of trying to understand who I am, where I am and where I am going,” reveals El Mutwalli.

El Mutwalli’s daughter, Mae Noaf, modeling the Emirati coin-embroidered robe. Photo: Issa Al Kindy

“I’m often asked ‘Where are you from?’ It’s very difficult to pinpoint because I was born in Iraq but I never really lived there, so the Iraqis do not consider me an Iraqi; I was raised in the UAE, but the Emiratis don’t consider me a native; I went to boarding school in the UK from the age of 10, but British people don’t think of me as British; I studied in America and gave birth to my daughter there, but Americans don’t think of me as American; I hold a Canadian passport, and consider myself Canadian, however, I constantly find myself explaining one culture to the other,” continues El Mutwalli, concluding that “throughout my life, I have always been a vehicle for explaining one culture to another — to the Iraqis, I tell them about the Emiratis, to the Emiratis, I tell them who the Iraqis are.  To the Americans, I explain who the Arabs are and so on.”

This 1930s Turkish “harem” outfit dates to a time long before pants became a wardrobe staple for Western women.  Clothing like this influenced the 20th century avant garde, including fashion designer Paul Poiret and founder of the Ballets Russes, Serge Diaghilev, illustrating the cross-cultural impact of fashion.  “Cultures are always influencing one another,” remarks El Mutwalli.  “It’s not a one-way street.  It’s always a combination of give and take.  One culture takes from another and vice versa.  For a long time, the Arab world was on the silk route, the nerve center for trade and commerce that connected East with West.  During the golden age of Islamic rule, the centers of production for silk, cotton and muslin were centered on this route.  Muslin is from Mosul, a city in Iraq.  Damask is from Damascus in Syria and so on.  The medieval period was a period when Islamic textiles, clothing, even terminology filtered into the Western world.  You have many distinct influences — like pants which were very Islamic, very Ottoman — that spread through the Arab world from northern Africa to the Levant, on to Europe and by extension, the Americas.  There are many influences that filtered into the Western world from the Islamic world.”

A scene from the Ballets Russes’ Scheherazade, ca. 1910.

Evening pants from 1913 by Paul Poiret. Courtesy of Victoria & Albert Museum.

The collection, with its painstaking catalogue of items, has not only taken its founder on a journey of self-discovery, but has also held up a mirror to the cultures represented therein, perhaps most notably the Emirati culture.  “It gave me a way of giving back to this country that adopted me.  I felt I needed to give back by recording all of this and preserving it,” says El Mutwalli.

Cultural preservation is a key goal because the traditions represented by the Zay Initiative are quickly disappearing.  Witness the UAE and its astonishing metamorphosis from rural isolation to wealthy global power over the course of only a half century.  But it’s not just the UAE that is quickly transforming in real time.  “The Arab world in general is facing a huge crisis in the fact that so many of us are in the diaspora and with entire generations being born outside these places, our children are not connected to their roots,” laments El Mutwalli.  “And now, with the internet, information is easily misconstrued, so it is very important that we have a reliable source that people can revert to when they need to understand something.  If we can achieve that, I think it’s quite an accomplishment.”

Dr. El Mutwalli with her daughter, Mae Noaf Al Kalamchi and her mother, Buthaina Al Kadi.  All three generations are wearing the same Iraqi overgarment (Hāshmī).

By hewing as close as possible to the source — the unique history of that garment – El Mutwalli hopes to foster discourse.  The focus on individual stories allows one “to keep an open mind and an inclusive mind,” according to the founder.  This way, “you can have a dialogue whether you agree with that person or not.  Creating the platform was an important step.”

A Libyan man’s outfit from 1965.  There are many men’s outfits that El Mutwalli would like to acquire, but financial, space and time constraints present obstacles to building a comprehensive collection.  At present, the collection is housed in a private storage facility in Dubai and can be viewed by appointment only.  Several items are currently on display in Dubai at Al Shindagha museum and at the Zeman Awwal cultural space in the Mall of the Emirates.

An early 20th century red abaya (outer robe) has a particularly poignant provenance. El Mutwalli received a call from a man in the US asking her if she’d be interested in a garment that had belonged to his father, a French doctor.  The doctor was crossing a bridge in Paris when he saw a young man about to jump. He rushed up to the young man, talked to him, eventually prevented him from committing suicide. The young man turned out to be a prince from Libya. His father, who ruled Libya before Muammar Qaddafi, flew to Paris to thank the doctor personally.

“And a typical tradition in the Arab world,” explains El Mutwalli “is when you want to thank someone, you honor them by bestowing onto that person something that you own.” So, the king took off his costly abaya, which was woven in Syria, because that was the center of production then, reveals El Mutwalli, and gave it to the doctor.  “This article of clothing traveled from Syria to Libya, then was gifted to a man in France and then many years later, his son in the US said “Would you like to have it?”, marvels El Mutwalli.  “Now we’ve got this whole story with this article of clothing and this is what I am interested in.”

As can be imagined, sourcing, acquiring, storing, researching and cataloguing the trove of 2000 garments (and counting) is extremely time consuming and labor intensive, not to mention costly. The comprehensive dictionary included on the site is notable in and of itself.

Currently, El Mutwalli is mostly funding the Initiative herself and also with donations from Friends of the Zay Initiative. “I’m constantly struggling to find the right resources, collaborations, affinity, the right individual or institutional connections to make this continue,” states El Mutwalli.  Ideally, she would like to be affiliated with a larger entity like an educational institution, that can develop the Initiative into an established resource center. Alternatively, she hopes the collection will be preserved in a museum.

The limited resources render the Zay’s achievements all the more impressive.  There’s a webinar series and there have been exhibits at the Dubai Expo and more recently, at a London art gallery.  Perhaps most notably, in the 4 years since the formation of the organization, no fewer than 2 students used it as a resource for their PhDs and 3 students relied on it for their Master degrees.  “I never thought of people using us as a data bank,” marvels the founder.  “I never dreamed of that because I didn’t think that could happen.”

In the Arab world, non-profit endeavors are generally founded and backed by governments, not individuals, explains El Mutwalli.  “We don’t have that culture.” And so, “although [the Arab world] does not completely understand the value of what I have done, the more time passes, the more I realize what an important task it is because many of the young generation don’t know what I have written about.  It has already gone into the past.  Most of our Friends of the Zay are American,” reveals El Mutwalli. “They’re the ones who understand the value of what we are doing.”

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