Humble sandals to high street fashion: Meet the man who made this possible

Emirati Mohammed Kazim, who quit a government job to preserve the region's rich culture, tells us how he revived traditional Arab footwear

By Mazhar Farooqui; Visuals by M Sajjad

Published: Tue 7 Jun 2022, 5:34 PM

Last updated: Tue 7 Jun 2022, 5:46 PM

With a Master's in clinical engineering from a US university, one would have thought that Mohammed Kazim would make a career studying and researching medical equipment.

But the mild-mannered Emirati had other plans. He quit a comfortable government job to embark on an entrepreneurial journey that is rooted in traditional values and focused on the study and preservation of the region’s rich cultural heritage.

Kazim started off with an unlikely item — a humble Arab footwear that dropped off the fashion radar around seven decades ago.

In 2013, he partnered with Muneera Al Tamimi, his friend from Saudi Arabia to launch Tamashee — a luxury footwear brand that gave a contemporary twist to the traditional sandal while retaining its distinct Arab identity.

“Only a privileged few could afford footwear in the past. They wore open-toe leather sandals that came from India. Since these sandals were rare, there weren’t any cobblers to fix them when their top came off due to wear and tear,” recalls Kazim.

“The only option people had back then was to send the broken sandals for repairs to a small town called Az Zubayr in present-day Iraq. Craftsmen would stitch back the top piece to the base using rings and camel hides, often adding geometrical patterns to the end product.

“This spawned a whole new style of sandals variously known as zbairiyas, medas or nadjeya,” says Kazim, who has extensively researched the subject.

Most Arab nobles and merchants wore zbairiyas before the footwear lost ground to naals (wedge sandals) in the fifties.

Kazim said he and Muneera worked with top manufacturers and designers in their bid to revive the zbairiyas and turn them into a fashion statement.

Of course, bringing the 70-year style out of obscurity was not easy.

“There were many challenges. We had to make the sandals comfortable and appealing while adding traditional elements into contemporary designs.” They added signature elements like turquoise-coloured heels after research showed that turquoise was the dominant colour of traditional attire back in the day. They also incorporated motifs like rock art and ancient inscriptions from the region (see below).

Tamashee's zbairiyas sandals, priced between Dh400 and Dh850, are now a rage among the young and old alike. The footwear brand also sells key rings, passport covers and leather notebooks, all of which are influenced by the fascinating history of the Arabian Peninsula.

“Everything we do has three core values – preserving identity, representing culture and colouring lives,” says Kazim.

The latter is a motto attributed to the brand’s charitable element. It’s also the closest to Kazim’s heart.

Tamashee, which means waking and compatibility in Arabic, also conducts cultural workshops, guided tours and curated events to showcase the history of the Arabian Peninsula.

A licensed tourist guide, Kazim spends his spare time exploring the region to uncover its hidden traditions. One such recent trip took him to Ru’us Aljibal — a 100-square kilometre peninsula that lies directly on the Strait of Hormuz, through which around 20 million barrels of oil pass annually.

Inspiration for Zbairiyas sandals

His sandal brand is inspired by the handicrafts of local tribes living in remote mountain regions of the UAE. Commonly known as ‘Heads of the Mountains’, Ruu’s Aljibal is inhabited mainly by the Shehhi, Huboos, Dhuhoori and Kumzari tribes who trace their lineage to the ancient Arab tribe of Al Azd that was known for its loyalty and strong faith. “Trustworthiness is in Al Azd,” Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) said about them.

It was in a small village in the rugged mountains between the UAE and Oman that Kazim found the inspiration for his latest footwear collection as well as the subject of a riveting documentary.

What piqued his interest was an elderly tribesman named Saeed Bin Ali Bin Huraz Al Shehhi – who makes a multi-purpose long-handled axe that is used as an accessory by people in the Musandam region, much like the dagger in certain parts of the Arabian Peninsula.

“Yerz, also called jerz, is more than a hatchet that chops wood. It is used as a prop to haul luggage over the shoulder. It also protects against wild animal attacks and serves as a handy walking stick on steep mountain slopes,” said Kazim, who has captured the fading art in his documentary. Yerz handles are made using Sidr and Arabian almond wood that are native to the region.

The axe head is fashioned from intricately engraved metals such as copper or steel. Kazim said the handcrafted inlay work has deeply influenced Tamashee creations.

“Many people view this region as a dazzling showpiece of urban delights, which is true, but it's also a treasure trove of culture and heritage. And this is what we want to promote. The idea is to create a soulful narrative from within the region that contribute to advancing the Arabian Gulf identity,” he says.

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