This metallic straw embellished underpants (sarwal) was gifted by Halimah Isa al Sayigh, Um Hamdan, to Dr. Reem Tariq el Mutwalli.
The two ladies met at one of Dr. Reem’s many regular visits to the palace of Sheikhah Hamda bint Mohammed al Nahyan, maternal aunt to the late Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayid al Nahyan, as she was compiling data for her Ph.D. research on the topic as early as the 1980s.
Sheikhah Hamda was instrumental in allowing Dr. Reem to meet with her entourage and visiting guests at her daily open reception (majlis) be it in
Abu Dhabi or Al Ain. It was there that she met Halimah and discussed the topic at hand.
A few days later Halimah sent this article that was handed to her by her mother as a gift to add to the research collection, which eventually became part of the (Sultani) collection in the UAE section of The Zay Collection.
Halimah Isa al Sayigh, Um Hamdan, born in Al Ain in 1950s, did not attend any formal schooling. She married her paternal cousin at the age of 14 and bore 5 daughters and 3 sons. She came from a well-known wealthy family of merchants that exposed her to a life of privilege. She can carry a basic conversation in English without being able to read or write it.
Due to the prevailing notions of modesty in Arab cultures, such an article of clothing is among the rarest to come by because of its age, and because it embodies a private and personal attire.
These underpants (sarwal) are made from two different types of fabric, which was the norm before oil wealth transformed the Gulf region. The visible lower part of the pants is made from the more expensive material, in this case, satin silk (satan). The hidden top part was generally made from cotton or either lower grade or leftover silk remnants. Cotton was normally the preferred choice as it was more functional. It breathes better and is more durable than silk; especially important for a garment that is in constant contact with the body.
In this example, the top part of the underpants is made from a gold-coloured printed on red cotton fabric known locally as (kamri). The lower portion is made from Chinese satin silk with well-spaced floral embroidery that resembles a flying bird, hence the local name for the motif is (bu_tayrah).
The visible cuffs are generally composed of multiple lines of braids (fatlat) or (ftul), that are individually created by knotting together cotton (hdub), silk (brisam) or synthetic (nailon) threads with silver (fadhah), gold plated, or metallic straw (talli). This has resulted in the creation of over 40 distinct recorded designs, in varying widths and intricacies, often named after the motifs depicted on them.
The badlah basically consists of the large central part (bayt) and the edges (traf) also known as (bruwi). The bayt can be between one and 20 braids of (ftul talli) with different decorations, then the braids are sewn manually with each other so that the bayt is surrounded by the traf to form its borders.
The traditional basic style of badlah includes several stripes called (talli_shakl) or (bruwi), which are located between the bayt and the traf. Usually, a (talli_qitan) is placed on the lower edge, while the upper edge (bruwi) is decorated with a (talli_ghuli) or (talli_minsharah). Each braid is made separately and then the braids are manually sewn together.
The large and wide badlah as this example illustrates is usually reserved for social occasions, and the smaller, narrower one is applied on an everyday sarwal or those worn by an elderly woman.
This decorative cuff (badlah) has a basic traditional form typical of this period. The talli adornment is completed in tinsel khus. In this example, the top braid is in black cotton (hdub) thread and silver colour tinsel straw (khus), created in a saw-tooth motif called (talli_minsharah); followed underneath by a line of 5 cm silver colour straw khus, in one running stitch motif called (talli_fatlah) or (talli_ftul) or (talli_Khusah); the third band below is in green cotton thread and silver tinsel straw khus, in repetitive diagonal (half chevron) lines similar to melon slices (talli_finkh_al_batikhah); the fourth band that follows is in red cotton (hdub) thread and silver tinsel straw khus in (talli_ftul); ending the center portion (bayt) with a 2 cm wide band in (talli_muthalathat).
The cuff edges (traf) are created in bands of silver coloured tinsel with; red cotton thread talli_fatlah or talli_khusah or talli_ftul; followed by a white of the same, and ending with black (talli_ghuli).
The underpants are opened and closed using the traditional buttons (igam). The loops (ghiram) that these buttons are put through are original, made from a form of red twine. However, it is likely that the mismatched navy-blue buttons are a later, crude addition, probably taken from a Moroccan article of clothing. Not only are these cotton buttons made from a different material to the loops, but the colour doesn’t match anything else on the underpants.
The garment features a woven multi-coloured cotton cord (nsai’ah) to fasten the underpants at the waist.