Dr. Reem El Mutwalli discusses the importance of preserving culture and giving back to the UAE, in an interview with Nicola Monteath
Dr. Reem El Mutwalli is a woman of many talents. When I arrived at the interior designer and author’s home in Dubai I wasn’t sure which piece of furniture, or crafted corner, I loved more. Beautifully put together, her home is segregated into various cultural zones revealing a hint of Marrakesh in one corner, artwork commissioned by a Persian artist on the ceiling of one of the family rooms, and a stunning Arabesque lounge complete with adorable tea glasses, a mishmash of textures and colours, and beautiful china upon which tea sandwiches were placed. Dr. Reem evidently has an eye for the right pieces, with heirloom possessions, furniture picked up from travels and art, being at the core of her home. But it isn’t just decor Dr. Reem treasures. She is known for her books, and most significantly, her esteemed collection of UAE women’s dresses that hark back to the pre-oil era.
Originally from Iraq, Dr. Reem moved to the UAE in 1968, when her father was invited by the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, to be an economic consultant to the then Crowne Prince of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan (currently the President of the United Arab Emirates). Dr. Reem was educated in boarding school in England, and studied Interior Design in the US for her first degree, Islamic Architecture in England for her second degree, and got her PhD in Archaeology. Her career began when she moved back to the UAE to become the Head of the Arts and Exhibitions department at Cultural Foundation in Abu Dhabi. Since Dr. Reem specialised in Archaeology, she studied the forts and fortifications of the emirate of Abu Dhabi and published a bi-lingual book on her findings, Qasr Al Hosn.
Preserving culture and giving back to the UAE has always been important to Dr. Reem. “I always had the need to give back to this country that became my adopted home,” she says. Her parents were avid art collectors and Dr. Reem grew up learning the significance of roots and heritage, which is probably why learning the art and history of UAE women’s dresses was imperative for her. “I grew up with the Generation of Zayed. The late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan was very adamant about culture and heritage. I got to meet him, interact with him on many different levels and was lucky in that I was surrounded by people who understood the value of these things,” she tells me. Dr. Reem found herself in a unique situation and believes that she got to experience life in the country, first hand. “Being a female, I was exposed to the lifestyle in the UAE back in the day, which was such a privilege. I felt it was rather important, as a way of giving back to the UAE, to document these things before they disappeared.” Her research and findings came together in her tome, Sultaniwhich explores the transformations in traditional womenswear in the UAE, touches upon regional and political influences, and offers a glimpse into her personal collection. “I learnt about dressmaking, the history of it, how they construct it and also met with the women who made these dresses, to understand it better. I used to wear a lot of these dresses, especially when I became in charge of the Cultural Foundation. I felt it was my duty to wear these dresses publicly,” says Dr. Reem.
Life happens when you aren’t planning, or even aware of what is yet to become of it. And such was the case with Dr Reem. “I was practicing these elements without thinking about it, and then when I decided to do study it, I realised I should compile a collection of dresses and look at my very own collection from a viewpoint of a collector.”
To be honest, even though I grew up in the UAE, I always thought the abaya or jalabiya were the only traditional dresses women from the UAE wore. Dr. Reem gave me a quick history lesson in which I learned that the abaya was actually an incredibly expensive piece of clothing that was later popularised when oil was found. Prior to that, women wore a salwar (ankle-or floor-length pants) with a tunic dress, and a thobe (sheer engulfing garment) on top. Their heads were covered with a sheila, and the face, with a burqa. Pre-oil period, the Sheila was a long garment with two pieces of cloth tailored together to make one long piece. “Ladies of high stature only owned one abaya as they were very expensive, embroidered in gold and made in Southern Iraq. The pieces were also used solely for special occasions and the rest of the tribe would borrow the abaya from the Sheikh or Merchant’s wife when there was a wedding,” says Dr. Reem. I was also told that society was rather small back in the day and to intermingle with each other was not such a public thing. “With the oil came urbanisation and then modernism. By the eighties, we started importing the idea of the black abaya that was worn in Saudi Arabia. It evolved into a cloak, rather than a draped piece of clothing, and acquired sleeves to become a functional piece. Ultimately the sheila became narrower and smaller, similar to the scarf we see today.”Going back to her personal collection, Dr. Reem tells me that collectors are always on the lookout for a certain piece. “I had a few commissioned back in the day when I wanted to wear them, and a lot of other pieces were given to me. My father worked in the ruling court, so my mother wore these pieces too and she preserved them.” When Dr. Reem began studying pieces and curating her collection, people handed her some of their ancestor’s clothing. Nowadays, she connects with people on Instagram and meets with them to discuss her series and work. “If they have a piece that is valuable to them, they ask if they can contribute it to my collection. Sometimes I hear of a piece, meet with them and either buy it or exchange it for something. Eventually I end up with the piece,” she giggles and tells me.
Although Dr. Reem shifted to Dubai a few years ago, she finds herself in Abu Dhabi more so than often. As we chat about growing up in the UAE, Dr. Reem mentions that her books are available in children’s editions too, with illustrations, to teach them about culture. “In the Arabic library, a lot of books are on philanthropy, as part of religious books, which are solemn and detailed. I wanted to create something simple, fun and inspiring and did a book on 365 ways of giving back without giving a penny. I linked this to different charities and organisations worldwide, so that people can look them up and see if they are interested. I’ve printed seven editions and this is the only one in Arabic, because my objective was the Arabian audience,” she goes on to say.
A woman like Dr. Reem naturally has plenty more up her sleeve. When asked about her future goals, she tells us there’s a whole list of things to accomplish. “I want to have a home for my collection, tour the world with it, and have it in different institutions,” she says. The rest of her list entails mentoring the younger generation so that they carry on her work, learning a new language, and spending a few months in China and India to soak up the culture and traditions.