How Sheikh Zayed inspired a book on national costume

'You can learn a lot about a people by the way they dress,' says Reem Tariq el Mutwalli, author of coffee table book based on years studying traditional Emirati costume.

Provided photo  Dr Reem (aged around 20)  with Sheikh Zayed  from the book Sultani: Traditions Renewed, by Dr Reem el Mutwalli published by Adach - courtesy of Adach.
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ABU DHABI // Reem Tariq el Mutwalli was five years old when she first met Sheikh Zayed, founder of the nation.

On each subsequent visit, and there were many, he insisted she wear traditional Gulf clothing. It is something he is reported to have done with all the women in his presence.

"It meant a lot to him that the women of the family and those close to him dressed in traditional costume when they were with him," she said. "It stayed like this until the day he died and it stayed in my mind always."

As her father Tariq el Mutwalli was the economic consultant for Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed, Crown Prince at the time, Dr Mutwalli, an Iraqi, grew up alongside the ruling family.

There are many photos of her with Sheikh Zayed, which she has combined with years of research conducted while earning her PhD. The result is Sultani: Traditions Renewed, an 800-page coffee table book printed in Arabic and English and illustrated by a group of Emirati and Iraqi designers and artists. The book was published this week by the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage (Adach).

The book examines female Emirati dress between 1966 and 2004. It includes transcripts of recorded interviews with sheikhas from the Al Nahyan family, photographs and descriptions of dresses they donated to Dr Mutwalli in the name of research.

It also includes a history of the Gulf and explains how the climate, trading routes and changing socio-economic circumstances influenced clothing.

"There is true passion in my work," said Dr Mutwalli, who lives in Abu Dhabi. "Without knowing we make assumptions about people based on the way they look, so you can learn a lot about a people from they way they dress. It is not only about taste or status or background, it is about identity."

It is important to note the difference between fashion and costume, said Dr Mutwalli.

Fashion changes with time but costume stays constant, meaning it is more closely entwined with national identity.

Since 1984, Dr Mutwalli has been curating the private art collection belonging to Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, and his wife. A year later she established the art and exhibitions department in the capital's Cultural Foundation.

In 1992 she earned a master's degree in Islamic art and archaeology from the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London and published Qasr al Hosn, a historical, archaeological, and architectural research document about the Old Fort in Abu Dhabi.

In 1997 she embarked on an in-depth study of traditional Emirati women's dress for a PhD from the London school. Sultani: Traditions Renewed is the result of this research.

Juma'a Al Qubaisi, the director of the National Library at Adach, said the book was in line with the authority's vision.

"It is part of what Adach is consistently trying to achieve," he said.

"To document and record anything to do with our heritage, whether it be oral, visual or written. I talked with Dr Reem before we published the book and I think she has done a great job of compiling the work. She is specialised in this field."

The book carries a dedication to the late ruler and his wife, Sheikha Fatima bint Mubarak, who is often called the "mother of the nation".

It is illustrated by Mohammed Mandi, the calligrapher who designed the UAE banknotes and the cupola in the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi. The cover painting is by Hayv Kerman, an Iraqi artist. Work from the Emirati artist Fatma Lootah is included in the foreword and summary. Her brother, Zeyad el Mutwalli, provided photographs.

Over the past decade Dr Mutwalli has also spent much of her time designing traditional dresses for the women of the ruling family. These dresses have been displayed in fashion shows across the emirate.

She founded her own design company in 2000 and began reworking the original styles of dress by including new cuts, shapes and embroidery.

"I think it's important for the generation growing in the contemporary society to be exposed to their traditions," she said. "When you don't use something it becomes folklore and it only has a place in museums, but when you continue to use it then it continues to have life.

"It is essential for the younger UAE generation to have access to this book and to their traditions so they remain embedded in the culture. Without that, their identity will become lost and this would be unthinkable."