Suleman’s ‘The Fabric of Life’ showcases social history of textile in the Middle East

Suleman has raised the status of textiles, which she says have been underrated.
February 25, 2018
Cover of Fahmida Suleman’s new book  “The Fabric of Life: Textiles of the Middle East and Central Asia.”
Exploring tradition. Cover of Fahmida Suleman’s new book “The Fabric of Life: Textiles of the Middle East and Central Asia.”

Books on textiles or carpets are often organised by geographical region and therefore styles, types of dyes or knots. Fahmida Suleman, curator for the Modern Middle East at the British Museum, has upended that tradition to show the links between the objects and their purpose.

“I’m looking at the social history, how these textiles relate to a person and their everyday life,” she said in an interview. “It’s not just what you wear but what surrounds you. It includes amulets you carry with you, prayer rugs and contemporary works of art that people use to convey a message about the politics of their time.”

Suleman’s new book, “The Fabric of Life: Textiles of the Middle East and Central Asia,” is therefore organised by themes: childhood; marriage and ceremony; status and identity; religion and belief; house and homestead; politics and conflict.

The book, published by Thames & Hudson in collaboration with the British Museum, has lavish photographs of more than 200 pieces. These are among 3,000 held by the museum.

Born to an Indian family in Uganda, Suleman took a love of textiles from her mother and after growing up in Canada studied Islamic archaeology and art in Oxford. Since becoming a curator at the British Museum, Suleman has raised the status of textiles, which she says have been underrated, partly for practical reasons.

“The [display] cases aren’t built for textiles,” she said. “You need special humidifiers and lighting conditions. Ceramics, metalwork, glass — they can just stay in their cases.

“Or was it [the lack of due paid to textiles] because they are predominantly a female domain? There are male weavers and professional male embroiderers but this is largely a female activity.”

Especially the bridal trousseau. “The Fabric of Life” includes a Jordanian Bedouin cotton handkerchief for wedding dances, an Omani dress of indigo-dyed silk and a lavish 1860s Baghdadi Jewish wedding outfit reflecting both Ottoman and Indian styles and therefore the trading networks of the time.

A photograph of three Zoroastrian women in Iran in 2010 shows their preference for red and green, colours long deemed fortuitous by the sect. Nineteenth-century garments show how Zoroastrians dealt with a legal ban on their buying yards of cloth by stitching together small pieces in many colours.

“The men were allowed only to wear certain types of trousers and turbans,” said Suleman. “The women were not allowed to buy cloth, so they bought remnants. At a young age they started embroidering those strips of silk, then sewing them together. That’s their identity; they made something beautiful out of it.”

The extent of Palestinian textiles in the collection — one-third of the total — reflects that many came from the Church Missionary Society. “They collected garments, sometimes ceremonial, sometimes daily life,” said Suleman. “They would come back [to Britain] and put on plays depicting the life of Jesus. When the Missionary Society closed in the ‘60s, the British Museum bought a lot of their material.”

“The Fabric of Life” shows a collection of model Palestinian hats from 1890 to the 1920s. An urban man wore a tall fez (tarbush istambuli), a Hasidic Jew donned a velvet and fur hat (shtrayml) and a Muslim scholar a tarbush wrapped in a white turban. A villager wrapped his tarbush in a green turban to signify he followed the Qadiriyya Sufi order.

While the missionaries were, said Suleman, “anthropologists of their day,” they misunderstood how clothing changed: “Part of the reason they put on displays was that in their minds, the village dress in Palestine had not changed since the time of Jesus.”

When in 2011, Suleman exhibited Omani jewellery and textiles, she included a glitzy woman’s outfit from the Luwati community. “At the opening, young people stared at this garment for ages,” she said. “They told me it was something their grandmother would wear, not them. It was out of fashion.”

But customs do persist. “You will notice a Baluchi in Oman right away, particularly women,” said Suleman. “One of their many garments is illustrated in the book, this long dress with an ‘A’’-shaped pocket and matching baggy trousers. It was made in 1990. Once the pocket kept embroidery thread, a bit of snuff, maybe some coins. But in 2010 when I purchased it, it was their mobile phone, credit card and car keys. It’s a multipurpose pocket and it screams ‘Baluch.’”

In exploring change, “The Fabric of Life” acknowledges fashion designers such as Jerusalem-born Briton Thea Porter, Tunisia’s Azzedine Alaia and Turkey’s Rifat Ozbek. Their influence is found in the “modest fashion” developed by labels DNKY and Tommy Hilfiger.

Suleman is preparing for two galleries opening in October “on the top floor, the heart of the museum.” One will feature ceramics, glass and metalwork. The other, she promised, would have an “entire wall of textiles.” Those already poring over her book likely will be first in the queue.