Mansoojat Foundation

Museum of Saudi Arabian Costume online

Mansoojat Foundation's Costume Presentation at The Victoria and Albert Museum, London

"It is a live exhibition!" we are reminded again by one of the organisers, as another one of us casually calls the costume presentation "a fashion show". The Victoria and Albert Museum's seminar room 3, now turned into a dressing room for the weekend, bustling with the vibrant energy of the volunteers, boys and girls aged between the ages of 16 and 27 and one brave 9 year old, shedding their modern day jeans and t-shirt and replacing them with the traditional costumes from the Mansoojat Foundation's special collection.

The Mansoojat Foundation is a charity founded by a group of Saudi women, united by their passion for ethnic attire and textiles of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Its mission is to not only preserve but to revive the traditional designs and costumes of the various regions of Saudi Arabia. The Foundation also strives to promote a deeper understanding of the history and culture of the region, while raising public awareness for the appreciation of this unique heritage. The members' thorough efforts to fulfil their objectives is what brought us all to one of London's oldest and most prestigious museums to participate in the Arabian weekend, 'Souk, Scripts and Soundbites', an event open to the public sponsored by the Jameel Islamic Middle East Gallery. 'Experience the sights and sounds of an Arab marketplace' read the brochure advertising the event -and an abundant wealth of sights, sounds, smells and flavours is most definitely what greeted everyone who came.

It was the first day of the two day event, and as I walked down the middle of the striking John Madejski Garden at the heart of the Museum, trying to distract myself from the audience's expectant faces and my trepidation-laden footsteps, I wondered if any of the others were thinking about the traditional costumes they were wearing, or about the lives of the person who wore their particular costume so many years before? The array of costumes and colours were astounding; one only had to see the crowd's reception and hear the comments afterwards to be confident of the exhibition's and of Mansoojat's success. The costumes came from different tribes and regions of Saudi Arabia: Bani Saad, from Taif in the Makkah region, famous for being the tribe of Halima Al Saadia, the Prophet Mohammed's (Peace Be Upon Him) wet nurse; Thaqeef from Wadi Muharam and Jahdaly from Lith, both also from the Makkah region; and city outfits from the Central (Riyadh) and Eastern (Al Hassa) regions. The visitors were treated to a plethora of locally died Saudi fabrics, shiny metal beads in intricate geometric patterns, endless embroidered bands of coloured cottons and gold threads, and delicate tulles embroidered in multi-coloured sequins.

Clad in an exceedingly colourful printed dress, with a wide-brimmed straw hat and basket of flowers, I was ashamed to admit to a spectator who inquired about the history of my outfit that all I knew was that I was a farmer girl from Abha, the capital of Asir in Saudi's Southern region - I purposely failed to mention that my only two pieces of knowledge about Abha was that it was my father's birth city and the area code was 07. To correct my ignorance, that evening I stocked up on Abha tid-bits and highlights, learning what I could about the hometown of my outfit. I faced the exhibition the next day filled with a new-found respect and excitement about my costume. I dressed eagerly, refreshed by the mental images I now had of Abha's steep mountains, lush greenery, cool breezes, and the fact that they still maintained quite a traditional lifestyle: men and many women still wear certain parts of the costumes in the exhibition. The men of Asir wear embroidered jackets over traditional thobes, brightened with multicoloured sashes, flowers in their hair, and occasionally daggers suspended from their belts. I was surprised to read that the people who inhabit the region today are descendants of the Asiri tribes from the tenth century A.D, and that evidence has been found of settlements dating back as far as the Neolithic period, around 4,000 years ago! It was interesting to discover that each year the women paint the insides and the outsides of their homes with bright colours in geometric designs and floral motifs; how I wished it were a tradition practiced all over Saudi Arabia. How exhilarating would it be to paint my house in preparation for this year's Eid Al-Fitr? The bright colours and flowers prompted ripples of encouraging applause from the audience, we were having a blast!

The live exhibition culminated with members of the audience joining us in the centre of the garden, taking pictures with us, dancing to famous Arabic songs; we all revelled in the charming atmosphere that had been created by the costumes and the unexpected pride we had developed in wearing them. As I glanced around at my compatriots, I saw the widest smiles all around, evidence of their embodiment of the roles dictated by the powerful textiles they wore.

'Where we go in the future is determined by where we have been in the past' is the Mansoojat motto; it certainly held true today. Through giving us the opportunity to wear the unique Arabian costumes, we were awarded a glimpse of a previously undiscovered world, a vital part of our culture and heritage. The experience left many of us thinking about the present and the future. How had so much changed in Saudi Arabia? Why had we lost touch with so much of our valuable traditions? Why, representing a truly authentic Saudi female figure, had I donned the most colourful and vibrant cloths, and yet the current modern day symbol for a Saudi woman was one all in black?

The Mansoojat Foundation's participation in this event was generously sponsored by Aseel and Sharaf Alharthy.

Assia Khashoggi

July 2006, 'What's Up Jeddah' Magazine