The Zay Initiative

8th February 2023

First published in Inspirations issue #108 in October 2020, written by Ansie van der Walt

‘I am Iraqi by birth, Western in education and upbringing, Arab in spirit and Emirati in passion.’

Reem El Mutwalli arrived in the UAE in 1968 – the same year oil was discovered – as a young girl of five, when her father started working as economic consultant to Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, then the Crown Prince.

‘My childhood was spent in the company of the women and children of the UAE ruling families. In these inner circles of mothers, grandmothers, aunts, cousins, and friends I was surrounded by love and adoration, as well as with beauty. These memories of female friendship, love and splendour continue to feed my soul and guide my life choices to this day.’

Reem’s passion for textiles and clothing started at this young age when she fell in love with the dresses and garments of the women with whom she spent so much time. As she grew older Reem soon realised that she had a unique insight into an enclosed lifestyle that was not being documented.

‘When the UAE began to open to the world through globalisation, it was important that this closed society was recorded, registered and documented before it was gone. With all the changes that were happening even the indigenous people of the area had forgotten certain details of their past and heritage. It was important that we document it. I find it a way to give back to the country that adopted me.’

After completing a degree in Interior Design and Fine Art in the USA in 1984, Reem returned to the UAE to join the newly founded Cultural Foundation in Abu Dhabi where she continued to work for the next twenty years.

During this time, she was not only in charge of exhibitions but started to build the foundation’s own art collection, advised on the art collections for members of the ruling family, initiated art workshops and eventually became Deputy Head of the foundation’s Arts and Exhibitions Department.

Reem’s position at the Cultural Foundation became one of the cornerstones of her current role as guardian of traditional Arab dress. ‘As I was representing the government, I felt that I needed to dress in UAE traditional dress, in order to better represent the position that I was in. Over the years I began collecting pieces from different friends and older relatives. Members of the ruling family commissioned pieces to be made, and slowly a collection began to accumulate.’

This precious collection became the topic for Reem’s PhD in Islamic Art and Archaeology. ‘I began to look at my collection more academically. Whatever I had amassed needed to be organised, catalogued and properly chronicled. Then I could see where I needed to fill holes in the collection, looking for specific pieces that I knew needed to be added to make it a proper historical collection.’

Reem had to learn how the dresses were made, their history, the construction, the techniques used, the materials, how they were measured by hand, and how each was tailored by hand or machine.

This core collection of UAE dress is now known as The Sultani Collection and currently consists of 575 pieces, with some of the dresses dating back to the 1950s, from the pre-oil era all the way through to today. Key pieces include two dresses, one embroidered with gold coins and one with silver. ‘These pieces are very valuable, and they came from members of the ruling family. This is how the women carried their wealth, keeping their bank account close to their heart because they lived a nomadic life, but only people from the wealthier echelons of society would be able to commission something like this. The dress would probably be worn a few times before a daughter or sister would borrow it or it would be deconstructed and reworked into something new.’

Reem’s collection and PhD thesis culminated in the publication of the Sultani Book, a work of art in its own right. This 600+ page, two-volume tome contains detailed background and research on the geographical, political and cultural influences on UAE dress, detailed information on the construction of garments, the textiles and embellishments, as well as in-depth analysis of the different items of traditional dress including headdress, body covers, underwear, and footwear. It also features unique and never before seen images of Emirati women in traditional dress through the years.

Over time, Reem’s collection grew and now consists of 1340 items, including garments from the rest of the Arab world. Reem focuses on acquiring items from cultures and regions that are being destroyed by war and displacements like Syria, Yemen and Iraq, as well as those that are losing their culture through modernisation and Westernisation. This broader collection, which includes The Sultani Collection, is known as The Zay Collection.

In 2019, Reem founded The Zay Initiative, with the goal of promoting an understanding of the evolution of Arab and Middle Eastern textile and dress culture, to build public awareness and appreciation of this unique heritage, and to reach out to like-minded institutions to lend and display the collection both regionally and around the world.

By using social media to share old images from the region, Reem managed to grow her community as well as her collection. She regularly receives messages from people who recognised family members from previously anonymous images and can explain the purpose of historical garments, or give context to settings, places and time frames that were previously unknown.

‘I often have to moderate lively debates about different interpretations of tradition and custom, and people I have never met contact me and offer to donate their garments or jewellery to the collection.’

The Zay Initiative website is home to what Reem refers to as the Memory Closet, an online archive of her growing collection. It shows detailed images of each item accompanied by full descriptions of the materials and methods used, historical context, and where available, the story of the original owner of the garment. It is more than just a library of facts; it is a living piece of history.

Reem believes that the Arab tradition of oral history and storytelling plays a big part in the lack of published research and scholarly work. That is why it is so important to her to establish this archive ensuring the true historical background of these intricately crafted pieces is accurately recorded and preserved.

‘Dress is so multilayered and complicated, and these variations can confuse if they are not noted. People are beginning to forget what these items are, how they were used and who wore them. For example, there was a side opening that is found on a local dress that has now disappeared and it has become simply a decorative element on the neckline. Young girls today won’t know why it exists there. Much of the information on Arab dress currently available online is often inaccurate and has not always been properly researched, allowing misinformation to proliferate.’

As is the custom in the Arab culture and a fundamental part of Reem’s upbringing, she surrounds herself with like-minded women, reaching out to fellow collectors and protectors of dress and textile culture. Her circles of friends and advisors are constantly growing.

By working in collaboration with people like Widad Kawar of the Tiraz Centre in Amman (see Inspirations issue 105); Marjorie Ransom, Yemeni jewellery expert; Shahira Mehrez, owner of the biggest collection of Egyptian folk dress; and Dr Gillian Vogelsang- Eastwood, textile and dress historian and founder of the Textile Research Centre in the Netherlands, and many others, Reem ensures that the region’s dress heritage is comprehensively protected, documented and researched.

The Zay Initiative started as a side project, a way to formalise her collection and collaborations with art and heritage institutions, while Reem still pursues her career as an interior designer and art consultant. But in a very short time, it has taken on a life of its own and outgrown all expectations. Reem now works with a small team who supports her on a part-time basis, but what she desperately needs is a space to house the collection in proper museum conditions, as well as patrons to help fund her research and conservation efforts.

The childlike marvel of that little Iraqi girl adopted into the UAE culture and taught to love the beauty of art, sisterhood, and heritage is still as vivid as it ever was.

‘Today my passion and dream are to share this beauty with the wider community, both here in the UAE and across the world.’

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