The Zay Initiative puts authentic Arab fashion in the limelight

Amira Noshokaty , Wednesday 3 Jun 2020

Zay initiative
Founded by Dr.Reem El Mutwalli, the Zay initiative is a compilation of ethnic textiles and traditional costumes of the Arab and Islamic worlds

Imagine tracing back the stories behind the colours, fabrics and patterns of the Arab world. The intangible heritage that is subtly safeguarded from one generation to the other with every stitch. The Zay initiative managed to bring all that with just one click. 

Founded by Dr Reem El Mutwalli, the Zay initiative is a compilation of ethnic textiles and traditional costumes of the Arab and Islamic worlds; over 400 women and men’s traditional garments from the UAE, Yemen, Morocco, Kuwait, Iraq, Syria, Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman and Saudi Arabia. 

Born to an Iraqi family and moving to the UAE at the age of five, professor Reem El Mutwalli remembers clearly the vivid colours “ruby red, emerald greens on mom’s figures or the rugs, and the tapestries that filled our home”

Heading the Exhibition and Arts department for over 20 years at the Cultural Foundation Abu Dhabi , El Mutwalli studied Islamic art and archaeology.

For her undergraduate degree she majored in interior design, and for her masters she drew on Islamic architecture, “which led to a survey of the forts in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi, culminating in the publication of the book Qasr al Husn, An Architectural Survey (1995), and for my doctorate continuing this notion of preservation of tradition and the protection of heritage.”

“The subjects I chose to pursue consciously or unconsciously drew from my life in the UAE, and for the blessing it has bestowed on me. Whereby I chose specifically to research the topic of dress and its evolution in the UAE.”


The Zay initiative opens up a whole world for each item, tracing its social history which evokes a fresh, vivid perspective to garments as we see it within context.

“I began gathering the UAE collection (Sultani) organically. As I worked on my doctorate, I found myself in the fortunate position of being the recipient of many of the dresses illustrated upon in my thesis, which was later published under the title ‘Sultani, traditions renewed; Changes in Women’s Traditional Dress in the UAE during the reign of Sheikh Zayid bin Sultan Al Nahyan 1966-2004’,” she told Ahram Online, explaining that the first edition of the book was issued in 2011. At the time, the Sultani collection encompassed 180 traditional UAE dresses.  

“Today, the Sultani collection makes up 500 artifacts of the larger Zay Initiative collection that is home to more than 1,320 pieces from all over the Arab world.” 

Among the most interesting garments in the online archive is the Syrian Traditional Outer Body Cloak. As the text explains:

“This is a crimson red hand-woven abaya of silk, cotton and gold threads, wore by men. Syria was famous for this type of fabric at the end of the nineteenth century and early twentieth century. This fabric involves interweaving the lihma and the sadat in elegant geometric shapes that appear on both sides of the weaving, as was required by the men and women of wealthy families in the cities of Aleppo and Damascus in particular, due to the high price. Part of an ensemble was acquired by the Zay Initiative through an auction. Owned by a French lady and originally given to the vendor’s late husband by the Emir of Cyrenaica in Libya during the late 1930s. Her husband, a doctor, was crossing a bridge in Paris in 1937 or 38 when he saw a young man attempting to commit suicide, and stopped him from jumping. The rescued man was the son of the Emir, and the ensemble was given by the Royal family as a gift of thanks for saving his life.”


Another garment archived is the anteri, antari or antabi that Ottoman woman wore.

“An Ottoman antari dating back to the 20th century. Its length extends below the knees and is sewn in maroon and gold brocade with an ivory lining. The origin of the antari is the northwestern Anatolia region, which was inhabited by the Seljuks in the 11th and 12th centuries, the ‘Ottoman sheikhs’ who challenged the Orthodox doctrine in Eastern Europe and the Byzantine culture in the dark ages.”

“In line with Islamic Sharia law, the women of the region were forced to adhere to a conservative lifestyle. The Ottomans maintained the habit of wearing the Shalwar (baggy pants) underneath the antari, with the Kaftan worn as the outer garment. The fabrics used for sewing the garment reflected the financial status of the wearer. Women belonging to the palace wore the antari in velvet, brocade silk or silk woven with gold thread. The collar of the antari is a U-shaped collar, and above it, the women wore an embellished belt called the Cevberi to complement their elegance.”

The research then follows the transformation of the garment over three centuries. 


Thawb Kandurah, on the other hand, had a cross cutting theme to share as well.

“Mkhawas/Mkhalbas, khwar zari mfasas from 2011, was owned by one of the women from the Emirati Al Nahyan family. It is sewn as one garment made of two layers. Thawb Kandurah Mkhawas was a popular item of clothing with the Arabs and then spread to many regions of the world after the spread of Islam. It is an item of women’s clothing, and it is said that when Shajar Al Dur took over the rule, they dressed her in the Sultana’s khala’a, which is a velvet kandurah embroidered in gold (the plural being kanadeer).”

“In Egypt today, it is called Jalabiyah, Dishdasha in Iraq, Dara’a in Kuwait, kandurah in Algeria, and Jilbab in Morocco. In the Emirates, it is the female and male kandurah. The term kandurah arabiah was used to distinguish the Emirati kandurah from other forms. In general, the kandurah is a long shirt worn by women and men, the length of which ranges between the knee and the top of the foot, depending on where it is worn. “

“These pieces tell the story of people from all walks of Arab life, mainly women, who come to this world and leave little trace behind,” El Mutwalli told Ahram Online, adding that the idea is about “recognising that this area is one that is akin to being a bountiful and constant plethora of rich and valuable resources that are more often than not swiftly being lost or misconstrued because of a lack of accurate documentation. Through the preservation of these pieces, the Zay Initiative plays a significant role in fortifying, encapsulating and sustaining a small but important part of Arab history.”

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