Karen Dabrowska

Arab Weekly Article

Originally published: 24th April 2016

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Muslim world’s Life and sole in London exhibition

Dating from 1800 onward, shoes demonstrate important role footwear has always played in social and cultural life.


Women's bath clogs

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.