Muslim world’s Life and sole in London exhibition

Sunday 24/04/2016
Women’s bath clogs inlaid with mother of pearl.

London - An inevitable question comes to mind when looking at the wonderful shoes on display at the British Museum’s Life and sole: footwear from the Islamic world exhibition: Are they practical items or works of art?
The specialist small gallery in the Islamic collection houses about 25 pairs of shoes, slippers, sandals, clogs and boots from North Africa, the Middle East, Turkey, Central Asia and South Asia. Expertly dis­played by curator Fahmida Sule­man, they are being shown in a sin­gle exhibition for the first time.
Dating from 1800 onward, the shoes demonstrate the important role footwear has always played in the social and cultural life of the regions. The display presents a va­riety of regional styles, materials, embellishments and shoe manufac­turing traditions. It examines shoes as symbols of personal status, class indicators and diplomatic gifts.
In the Muslim world, removing one’s shoes when entering a mosque is one of the basics of religious prac­tice. Pig-leather shoes can never be worn. All shoes, regardless of the beautiful designs, are considered dirty in more than the literal sense.
That is why throwing a shoe is considered a particularly contemp­tuous form of protest. Two shoes were thrown at former US president George W. Bush in 2008 by an Iraqi journalist as a sign of protest and shoe-throwing protests have been popular since. Pervez Musharraf, the former Pakistani president who is on trial on multiple charges, had to dodge a thrown shoe on the way to court in 2013.
The London display includes shoes for bathing rituals, children, specific vocations, extreme envi­ronments and ceremonial occa­sions. A pair of richly embroidered red leather slippers (tarkasin), made in Ghadames, Libya, would have formed an important part of a bride’s wedding trousseau. The tongues of hand-stitched slippers are cut onto the shape of khomsas — “Hands of Fatima” — and their uppers are em­bellished with shiny metal studs, which protect the bride from the eye of envy and deflect harmful forces.
From Morocco, there are Berber leather boots with tapestry that prove that footwear can be both beautiful and practical. “Luxury begins the day a man starts wearing shoes,” a Tuareg proverb says.
A pair of men’s sandals from southern Yemen exemplifies foot­wear for extreme environments. They are constructed with distinc­tive shields on top that are designed to flap when worn to frighten away snakes or scorpions in the desert. Still made in Abyan governorate in the 1980s, the style is also popular in Saudi Arabia.
Luxuriant stilted bath clogs (qa­bqab) from 19th-century Ottoman Turkey, more than 26cm tall, would have been worn by urban, upper-class women. Each clog is decorated with inlaid mother-of-pearl and a velvet strap ornamented with gold thread embroidery.
The exhibition is complemented by photographs from 1898 of Pal­estinian women carrying boots in baskets on their heads as they make their way to market. There are postcards from 1904 showing shoemakers in Damascus and from 1910 showing the cobblers of Alge­ria. A photograph from Kadhimiya mosque in Baghdad shows the faithful at prayer, their shoes neatly stacked behind them.
And there are shoes that make a political statement. A pair of qabqab made in 2014 by Palestinian fash­ion designer Omar Joseph Nasser- Khoury uses the form of these iconic sandals to comment on con­temporary Middle Eastern politics.
Suleman explained: “Nasser- Khoury designed and constructed his clogs from beechwood in East Jerusalem and had them laser-engraved and hand-inlaid with mother-of-pearl by two Palestinian craftsmen, Osama Handal and Han­na Yateen.”
“The deconstructed clogs are made using the resized outlines of the Palestine Liberation Organisa­tion’s logo for the footing and the design of six identical stilts of the clogs are references to the concrete slabs of the West Bank separation wall. The inscriptions of the stilts are inspired both by the graffiti on the wall and the inscriptions on tra­ditional talismanic seals and amu­lets,” Suleman said.
In Nasser-Khoury’s view, the 19th-century clogs historically re­flect the decadence of the Otto­mans, and his PLO clogs similarly offer a metaphor on what he sees as “a dysfunctional Palestinian politi­cal establishment”.
“In their capacity as footwear, the PLO clogs are totally impracti­cal and almost dangerous to wear — very much like the relationship the PLO now has with the Israeli occu­pation,” Suleman said.