Inside Zeman Awwal, the new cultural space in The Mall of Emirates, seated across me, is Dr Reem El Mutwalli, looking regal and resplendent in a white and blue striped overcoat, adorned with elaborate Lebanese Artisana embroidery. Against the backdrop of walls sketched with portraits of Emirati Bedouin women, Reem looks every bit at home, bestowed with the title ‘the custodian of the Arab dress’.

As the founder of The Zay Initiative, the Arab world’s first online fashion history archive, she is always mindful of her role in conserving regional costumes. "What we choose to wear every day, becomes our personal narrative. I am very conscious of representing this link between the past and the present. When I preach about preserving our culture, I practice it on all levels," she says, when asked about her personal fashion choices.

Her brain child, The Zay Initiative, launched in 2018, is really then an extension of her own persona.

The Zay, meaning dress in Arabic, is a non-profit organisation that archives traditional costumes from all across the Middle East. What began with a few hundred pieces three years ago, has grown to a collection of around 2,000 valuable items of clothing including cloaks, overgarments, tunics, accessories, facemasks, headwear and innerwear from across the region. A portion of them is digitally accessible as a catalogue containing detailed information about the origin and making of every piece of clothing.

Some of the costumes on display at the exhibition... a testimony to Arab craftsmanship
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"Each of these garments have come from individuals. On the Zay website, created in the form of a digital dictionary, you can read about the history and the story behind all of them; helping us to record the human narrative through clothes. I feel we need to do this, to safeguard our culture and document it as accurately as possible for our future generations," she explains.

One of the oldest pieces in the collection is an 1870 Syrian woven silk shawl (Izar).

Besides their descriptive online catalogue, The Zay holds numerous webinars and workshops on several aspects of Emirati and Arab apparel. During the pandemic, increased digital usage fuelled into a widespread online reach for the archive. They are now often contacted by people who want to donate their family heirlooms or share that they can trace connections to the images posted on their Instagram feed. One such prized garment in the collection came from a 16-year-old Emirati school girl. "In 2018, Sheikha al Suwaidi contacted us through Instagram to gift us a silver embroidered tunic of her late grandmother. Called Kandurah Arabiyah Khwar Tulah, the tunic is embellished with silver thread embroidery. Her endearing condition before the donation, was to not separate a vial of her grandmother’s perfume from the dress so that it would retain her scent," tells Reem.

The tunic was typical of its times, short enough in length to allow the ankle cuff of the underpants (sarwal) to be visible. It also represented a famous Arabic saying Zinah-Wa-Khazinah meaning beauty and wealth in one, signifying that the silver used in the tunic was a symbol of wealth but it could also be melted and sold in times of need.

The royal connection

The romance with textiles for Reem started early. Born in Iraq in 1963, Reem’s family came to the UAE in 1968. Her late father Dr Tariq El Mutwalli was the economic consultant to President His Highness Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, then the Crown Prince of the UAE. This meant Reem’s formative years were spent surrounded by women and children of the Ruling family in Abu Dhabi. She had access to the enclosed lifestyle of the Royals and over the years it resulted in a unique insight into women’s dressing.

This silver embellished dress was gifted to Reem’s mother by a member of UAE's royal family in 1968
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Several gifts of clothes from the Royal family proved to be the first impetus for Reem’s future passion project. One of the earliest among them, and currently part of The Zay collection, is a silver embellished overgarment and tunic dress gifted to Reem’s mother upon her arrival to the UAE in 1968 by a senior member of the Royal family. "I have been organically collecting traditional costumes from the Emirates and from other Arab countries as I grew up here. The idea for documenting these garments came to me in 1999 after I had completed a PhD in Islamic Art and Archaeology at School of Oriental and African Studies, in the UK, followed by the publication of my reference book Sultani Traditions Renewed in 2011 about the evolution of UAE women’s dress during the reign of Sheikh Zayed," she says.

While writing the book she realised that the Arab world lacked such documented information about the cultural origins of ethnic clothes. She began to look at her own collection of dresses more academically, chronicling them as per their history, technique, materials used and tailoring methods. "It was important that this be recorded, registered and documented before it was gone. Even some of the indigenous people had forgotten details of their own heritage. I felt this was a way to give back to a country that had adopted me," she proudly affirms.

A brocade cloak from Morocco
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It helped that Reem had spent close to 20 years working with the Cultural Foundation in Abu Dhabi. As the Deputy Head of the Foundation’s Art and Exhibition Department, she built the institution’s own art collection. She also published an architectural survey of the fort Qasr Al Hosn in Abu Dhabi, with first published interviews of the members of the Al Nahyan family, who had last resided in it. During her growing up years, and as part of her working life, she had many personal encounters with late Sheikh Zayed, who had a significant influence on her.

"He touched everybody he met. He was a genuine and humble human being, devoid of any self-interest. His love for nature and his total belief in his dream, that we see accomplished today, continue to inspire me."

Driven by passion

The rapid growth of Zay in a short span of time speaks volumes of Reem’s passion for her unique project, streaks of green in her hair and that unmistakable sparkle in her eye, during the entire conversation being visible signs of this underlying fervour. When asked about her favourite items in the collection, she is reluctant to pick one, terming each of them precious and close to her heart. Scrolling through the website, we view a few of the many prized possessions in the resource bank. The traditional brocade cloak from Morocco, for instance, called Qaftan Khrib dated from the 1900s had handwoven brocade pattern, with origins from an ancient master craftsmen’s family – the Bencherif, settled in Fes in 1840. Or the unisex gold embroidered silk cloak from Syria, the two part ensemble purchased at an auction by The Zay Initiative was once the property of the Emir of Barca in Libya.

A 16-year-old Emirati girl donated this short tunic, which belonged to her grandmother
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With her deep interest in indigenous fabrics, Reem undoubtedly possesses a wealth of knowledge and a keen eye on the evolution of modest fashion in the region. "We are always adapting and transforming as individuals and all of this is reflected in our dressing. In the UAE, if you look at the abaya, it was earlier worn by elite women at occasions. Even in the 1970s, it was an engulfing outfit which later, with the advent of women’s education, transformed into a cloak with tapered sleeves giving women the freedom to work wearing them every day. Today, even the colour of the abaya has changed. It has become a style statement matching the shayla, representing women’s individuality," she says. The burqa (face mask) too, she points out, is rarely worn by young women in the Emirates now.

Spreading awareness

Forever in the forefront for the cause of preserving ethnic outfits and accessories, Reem and The Zay Initiative, partner with a number of institutions and events. At the Dubai Expo 2020 recently, they were part of the making of the biggest burqa in the world. A section of their garments from their archives are also on display at Zeman Awwal at the Mall of the Emirates and they recently concluded a successful Thawb makeover competition at Hotel Indigo Dubai Downtown. "I want to leave a footprint behind. We are so privileged that it is important that we leave a legacy for others to follow and be inspired," says Reem.

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