With the Middle East’s recent and rapid changes, we’re now seeing huge shifts in societal and even sartorial choices that have signalled an embrace of everything contemporary and progressive.
This is where The Zay Initiative comes in. The recently-launched non-profit initiative is making sure Arab heritage is preserved before it’s too late. Founded by Dr. Reem Tariq El Mutawalli, who carved a career out of collecting traditional dress, The Zay Initiative is the region’s first digital archive, documenting and preserving traditional clothing from the Middle East.
El Mutawalli’s passion for all things traditional began over 30 years ago, at a time when her father was the economic consultant to Crown Prince HH Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan. This is when she found her friendship circle comprised of many members of the ruling family, and inspired by their traditional sartorial choices, she began collecting traditional women’s dress. By 2018, her collection included 180 abayas that were once worn by her friends and their older relatives, as reported by Harper’s Bazaar.
And now El Mutawalli has turned her passion into a life-long project. The Zay Initiative’s collection boasts 700 traditional pieces that date back to the 1950s, which she has since taken to the internet. Through the organisation’s online portal, everyone can browse the extensive collection that documents the socio-economic changes in the region, from the pre-oil era all the way to today through a sartorial lens.
The collection includes pieces El Mutawalli acquired from rural families in the Middle East, to the region’s ruling families. Aside from documenting the aesthetic changes that have taken place over the years, the pieces serve as documentation of the evolution in technique, from traditional craftsmanship to modern methods.
Accompanied by a blog that includes articles examining subjects like how the abaya became part of the UAE’s identity, and Palestinian dress, The Zay Initiative is an undeniably needed resource.