talking with

Dr. Reem el-Mutwalli

In 2021, I had the pleasure of speaking with Dr. Reem el Mutwalli, founder of the Zay Initiative. Dr. El Mutwalli has over 30 years of experience in art and cultural heritage. Since the early 1980s, at the Cultural Foundation Abu Dhabi, she has been contributing to the establishment of cultural & art departments; advising on museum displays, leading and driving projects, hosting seminars, undertaking cultural tasks of different capacities and curating exhibitions. And in addition to all that, she is a most warm and caring person who generously shares her vast knowledge! We talked about collecting, about sharing and about the responsibilities that come with managing a unique collection.

Your core collection is the Sultani Collection. What made you decide to invest in a collection in the first place?

To clarify The Sultani Collection (presently at 530 articles) relates to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in particular and it is the core of the larger more comprehensive Zay collection (1350 and growing) that aspires to encompass samples from the entire Arab world.

I began gathering the UAE collection (Sultani) organically as I grew up in the UAE and personally experienced wearing many of them. Eventually, as I worked on my doctorate, I found myself in the fortunate position of being the recipient of many of the dresses illustrated in my thesis that later was published in a book; Sultani, traditions renewed; Changes in Women’s Traditional Dress in the UAE during the reign of Shaykh Zâyid bin Sultân Âl Nahyân 1966-2004. Making it the first and only published collecting in the UAE.

I think a key aspect of what my mother, Buthaina Al Kadi, instilled in me is a keen eye for constantly searching, identifying and valuing traditional objects as well as the general appreciation of art and culture. Continuing this notion of preservation of tradition and the protection of heritage is a major component of what the Zay Initiative stands for and where much of my focus lies at present.

You have an active call on the platform for people to participate and share their heritage, be it actual pieces of dress or the stories that go with it. How is the response so far? What trends do you see developing since you first launched the initiative?

Having published the book and as I sporadically exhibited the collection, I noticed this attracted many followers and with the onset of the web & social media world I started first the Instagram account @sultanibookuae. This generated a direct and immediate interactive platform populated with daily dialogues related to the topic. What used to take me years in research became at my fingertips in hours. Live arguments and varied answers to questions stimulated conversation between followers that led to connections with likeminded people. This snowballed to people seeking me out to donate items belonging to their loved ones. Or directing me to individuals that might have such items to seek out.

Let me share an example of Shaikha al Suwaidi, a young lady in her twenties, who approached me through Instagram. She wanted to donate her paternal grandmother’s Kandūrah (UAE tunic dress). Her grandmother Hamdah al Miri had passed away in her eighties in 1980. She had held on to this article of dress and in 2018 found in us the right custodians to honour her memory. She had one condition though, to keep a vial of her grandmother’s scent together with this article, which touched me even more as I am a believer in the power of scent and memory. I drove three hours to get to the remote area where Shaikha lives to collect this article, I got to meet her mother and bond with both. I believe it is these human moments that enrich me personally and illustrates the intrinsic value of the Zay Initiative. You can view this object on the Zay web site in The Collection (ZI 500256 K UAE).

Consequently, it is this body of cultural and historical significance that prompted the creation of the second Instagram account @thezayinitiative widening our reach, as we began to engage with a larger audience, collect facts and document Arab culture. This then culminated into the blog and the digital archive collectively creating The Zay Initiative.

What challenges do you encounter in managing such a large collection?

Collecting as a hobby is one thing and collecting with the intention to seriously document and share culture is another. The latter comes with great responsibility and quite an institutional perspective. Crossing that bridge is a daily learning process which is both enlightening and overwhelming at the same time.

Deciding to create the initiative as a non-profit organization grounded the project, yet opened doors to a whole set of administrative, technical and manpower obligations. From what was once a personal passion overnight evolved into a continuous team effort that requires dedicated and spirited individuals to record, catalogue, maintain, preserve, store, photograph, animate, research, write, translate, edit, create content, input data etc.. the list is endless.

Leading to the need to look beyond the present, in order to find the experts and the funds to sustain the work, to make it available to the general public and generations to come. It is truly a totally consuming endeavor that requires passion, perseverance and lots and lots of patience!

What roles do you envisage for the collection in the future? In your ideal vision, what will The Zay Initiative have developed into, say 10 years from now?

Ultimately the dream is to become a beacon for the art of Arab dress or fashion. I am always confronted by the seeming split between traditional dress history and the contemporary fashion industry. However, I see them go very much hand in hand, for the later cannot exist without the former. Especially after we come out of this global pandemic, I feel the new normal will more likely prompt us to reflect and appreciate the past, look at ways we can recycle and sustain what we inherit and use it to find better solutions for our shared future.

I feel the Zay Initiative is an ideal vassal to help industry learn from history for true creativity to flourish. But as the saying goes: the journey of a thousand miles begins with one step! We are taking it one step at a time as we fulfill what we identified as our 5 pillars:

  • Collect, document and conserve Arab dress and adornment.
  • Present and contextualize it through a digital archive and blog.
  • Encourage intercultural dialogue to highlight a shared humanity.
  • Inspire and educate designers to create for a sustainable future.
  • Empower women regionally and globally by bringing their untold stories to life.

Having said this, I feel that the Zay Initiative is a collective work open to anyone who is passionate about this cause to participate or contribute. Be it as you do, by writing one blog a month, I really can’t thank you enough for the effort you put into this. Volunteering to help with back end work. Becoming a friend of the Zay Initiative, or subscribing to our mailing list, engaging with us through social media and spreading the word. Donating an article to celebrate a loved one, or generously donating (we have just added a donate button where you can give as little as the cost of one cup of coffee a week) to help us sustain the legacy.

Tell us a bit more about your plans for the online archive? It is already established and growing, but I’m sure there is much more in store for everyone interested in traditional dress from the Arab world in the future!

We call it The Collection (Digital archive), where the vision for this dual language digital platform (as it can be accessed in both English and Arabic), stems from the idea of a memory closet where visually it delineates details of each article and brings it to life by recording the names and narrating the stories of those who created or wore it, thus preserving it through out time. Many articles will further be animated through short-narrated video clips.

On another level it serves as a reliable platform for scholars and designers to reference accurate information as well as find inspiration. As you know the Arab world is vast and encompasses a multitude of ethnicities and influences that directly lead to variances in terms and terminologies. Such discrepancies are difficult to navigate and can easily be misunderstood.

Interestingly, the body of work in this field was written in 1845 by Dozy: Dictionnaire détaillé des noms des vêtement chez les arabes. Since then not much has developed. This prompted us to work on a glossary to clarify and at the same time preserve these terms. It is exhilarating that today through the Zay Initiative we seek to provide such a global digital platform that I hope can continue to grow.

For more information, see

The Zay Initiative:

Sultani Book: Sultani, traditions renewed; Changes in Women’s Traditional Dress in the UAE during the reign of Shaykh Zâyid bin Sultân Âl Nahyân 1966-2004.