The article was donated in support of The Zay Initiative’s work by Noura Ahmed Khalid, from Dubai. It belonged to her late father Ahmed Khalid Buti, who was a merchant and passed away in 2015 at the age of 82. She had held on to it in a special trunk that helped sustain its lustrous shine.
This formal attire (bisht) or (abayah) is often made of camel hair, goat or sheep wool, and very rarely of silk or cotton. Lighter more loose weaves are reserved for summer and denser coarser versions are used in winter. Likewise, lighter white, cream and grey colours are favoured for summer, while darker blacks and browns are suited for winter.
Worn draped on the shoulders or folded and draped on the left arm at social celebrations or formal occasions. In earlier times it was only afforded by the wealthy heads of tribes or merchants, and thus it was loaned to others and bestowed as a form of social cohesion. When UAE women wore it, draped off their heads, customarily, on very special and limited occasions, it is referred to as (sway’iyah) meaning hour, indicative of how precious the object is regarded.
Traditionally, the (bisht) is constructed from two equal length rectangular fabrics (fajatayn) sewn together horizontally (khabun) at mid-drift. The basic all-engulfing square shape is then created by folding the two outer edges of each (fajah) to the middle and sewing the top to create the shoulder line. The lengthwise folded sides (fajatayn) thus leave an opening in the middle, that runs the length of the front central line of the body. However, in this example the article appears to be composed of one wide length of fabric (fajah), pointing to a machine weave rather than by hand and sports a label stating made in (Syria). Two small holes are opened at the folded line, on the top corners of each shoulder line to allow the hands to pass through creating the sleeves without having to cut and add a sleeve as in most clothes.
The middle opening of the cloak is highlighted on both sides with a dense band of hand embroidered (khwar) hemline, in gilded metal wire (zari) creating a 3 cm – 7cm wide lapel shape known as (darbawiyah), that surrounds the neckline at the back and extends to waist level in front (on female versions the size of this opening varies to allow the article to rest on the crown of the head). The gilded metal wires (zari) were earlier imported from India, though at present the German, French or Japanese variety are held in higher regard. The darbawiyah is composed of a number of vertical embroidery lines, where the gilded wire on each is applied over a base created by a half a centimetre thick bundle of cotton threads, to form a raised three-dimensional surface. Each line has a specific name and geometric design, starting at the outer edge with (mkasar), (tarchib), (smut), (haylah), (bruj), (tanbit), and ending with (tal‘is)- see detailed image. Commercial, more affordable versions are created today through precise laser guided automated machinery in factories in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere.
The darbawiyah ends with one gilded cord (gitan) that extends the remaining length of the article. The same cord (gitan) is used extended horizontally to mark the shoulder line and hem the two hand openings. At the point where the darbawiyah ends and gitan begins or there about, two additional 25 cm long loose cords are attached that end with a number of ball-shaped knots (‘amayil) to help fasten the article at waistline.
Historically, the finest was woven in Najaf (Iraq) and Al Ahsa’ (KSA). Presently, the finest quality is imported from Japan, Switzerland, and London, with Japan regarded as exporting the best in quality. However, the Najfi (from Najaf) and Hasawi (from Al Ahsa’) are still held in high regard. They come in many different names.