The UAE's collectors: preserving Arab culture through clothing

Reem El Mutwalli has gathered more than 2,000 pieces of traditional Middle Eastern clothing, playing a crucial role in sustaining a small, but important part of Arab history

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One woman’s passion for collecting clothing from around the Middle East has gradually evolved into an invaluable and unparalleled record of a fast-disappearing facet of local culture.

Reem El Mutwalli began accumulating regional clothing while she was working on her doctorate project: Sultani, traditions renewed; Changes in Women’s Traditional Dress in the UAE during the reign of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan 1966-2004.

“I began gathering the UAE collection 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,” El Mutwalli explains.

Now called The Zay Initiative, the collection has grown exponentially. El Mutwalli continues to gather items that are handmade, and often decorated with patterns, colours and motifs relevant to a specific region, person or event. In documenting the stories behind each piece, she and her team are preserving a disappearing aspect of history. It is, however, a daunting task.

Reem El Mutwalli, founder of The Zay Initiative. Photo: The Zay Initiative

The Zay Initiative currently holds more than 2,000 articles of Arab dress, with no end in sight. “We continue to collect and preserve pieces and through our online digital archive,, 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,” she says.

Yet despite accumulating a “bountiful and constant plethora of rich and valuable resources”, El Mutwalli and her team are aware that many other pieces are being thrown away as older generations die and their families do not understand the significance of the clothing they leave behind. “More often than not, [they are] swiftly being lost or misconstrued because of a lack of accurate documentation.”

The role of the collection is simple, El Mutwalli explains. “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. Hence our slogan, collecting the tangible to narrate the intangible.”

As the custodian of so many unique items, she says it is impossible for her to single one out as the most special. “I don’t have the heart to choose just one. Each piece is worthy of being treasured. Each demonstrates, in its own way, a special technique used, a unique cutting method incorporated, a distinctive placement of pattern, a particular type of embroidery or a distinguished arrangement of motif.”

El Mutwalli is driven by the prospect of all that is still out there. “My passion to collect and preserve as many pieces as I can find, learn about them and educate others in the process, is boundless.”

The Zay Initiative preserves Emirati history through fashion. Photo: Waleed Shah

However, there is a caveat. “Collecting as a hobby is one thing and collecting with the intention to seriously document a culture is another. The latter comes with great responsibility and an institutional perspective. Crossing that bridge is a daily learning process that is enlightening on a personal level and overwhelming at the same time.”

The scale of the task taken on by El Muwalli and her team is vast; so she has this advice for others looking to take their collection into the realm of institutional resource. “Make sure you love it. It is a lonely undertaking and so, the more invested you are in what you are doing, the more it will drive you.

“Even when some people might think what you do is not significant, remain steadfast in the knowledge that your collection will not only truly sustain a small part of our shared history, but also educate and inspire people, maybe not today, but years from now, and someone will have you to thank for preserving it.”

Updated: November 14, 2022, 4:08 AM