arabic ability: to say 6349, you would say “6 thousand and 3 hundred and 9 and forty.”
sanity status: I was heading into my local lingerie shop the other day to pick out some intimates, when I saw that they’d hired a new female staff! “But, Bader and Sameer knew exactly what I liked,” I protested, to no avail. (They could size me up without asking!)
Nowhere is the assault of globalization on ancient cultural adaptations more apparent than in the Arabian peninsula, where the formerly predominant nomadic way of life is verging on extinction. The age-old strategy for sustaining life on the vast and inhospitable sands of the Arabian desert has been undermined by factors both internal (a desire for access to modern technology, medicine, and learning; curiosity about other places and cultures) and external (dynamic and affordable construction materials and supply chains; popular interest in the new resources of what had long been considered wasteland). Rapid urbanization took place beginning in the 1960s in Saudi Arabia; today less that 5% of Saudis are nomadic (probably far less).
While cultural values and customs have been dutifully transmitted to the present generation of Peninsula-dwellers, much of the material culture of the old ways has been lost.* Perhaps this speaks to the incompatibility of a nomadic existence, emphasizing portable and functional items with specific purpose, versus the urban lifestyle that has taken over, where collecting as much shit as one can afford, the bulkier, the more abstract, and the more specialized the better, is apparently a key objective (or, at least, so the aliens would say if they bothered to do some fieldwork in our basements after their conquest). Tents have long been packed away for camping trip-use, camels have become luxury possessions on the estates of the wealthy, rice has taken over as the food staple, and swords have been holstered, only appearing at weddings. Thus, the iconic fashion of dress for locals has become one of the few remaining tangible links to the past in the Gulf.
*Though one key to being a nomad is that one simply doesn’t get in the habit of hauling stuff, so the old ways no doubt didn’t require many materials. And I’m probably just overestimating how much of my material culture has a lengthy tradition. I mean, my cellphone, my TV, my backpack, my ballpoint pens, my frisbee–exactly which of these, or of any of my possessions represent a cultural tradition that dates back more than a couple of generations tops? But no, stay with me, clearly I’m making valid points. ____
Of course, to anchor the distinctive clothing of the Gulf region today in the Bedouin tradition is a bit facetious, since it’s derivative; modern Saudi thobes bare as much relation to the garments their desert-dwelling ancestors wore as modern Western fashion does to Victorian garments no doubt.* So, speculating about the exact desert and/or camel-riding advantages conferred by modern (male)** Gulf attire is probably inappropriate, but it obviously is well-designed for the prevailing climate of the region.
*Not that I actually researched this claim, I’m just preempting the “seeing Saudis on Eid is like going back in time” assertions typical of some Western travel commentators when presented with any people not wearing suits or jeans, who assume that they’re witnessing something that’s the same as it ever was, since it clearly isn’t “modern.”
**I’m (beyond-my-typical-level-) unqualified to talk about female Gulf attire, given the 100 words or less I’ve spoken to local women during my entire time here.
Different areas of the Gulf feature slight modifications on the common fashion. The Saudi style, which spills over to the north in Kuwait and is also popular in Bahrain, generally favors a shoe-top length white robe, called a thobe, although in “winter” (what a New Englander would call “jacket-weather”) thicker thobes of black or dark colors are sometimes preferred. Worn with it, the white headscarf is called the ghutra, and is considered more formal, while the more popular, striped red-and-white checkered scarf (which looks kinda like a classic picnic tablecloth) is called a shemagh. Why there really isn’t any other style of headscarf, or how the seemingly arbitrary design of the shemagh (at least in comparison to the all-white ghutra) came about are still mysteries to me. The double-ringed, black iqal holds the headscarf in place.* In Saudi Arabia, the thobe is the expected attire on formal occassions, such as weddings or in court (Saudia has courts?!), and at my school students are expected to always attend in thobes (some teachers mark students absent for simply neglecting to wear their shemagh), but you can equally expect to see thobed Saudis out-and-about, shopping in the malls or traveling at the airport, or walking on the corniche. (Don’t try to wear one to a Bahrain nightclub or liquor store, though).
*Conservative Saudis (including mutawa) are discernable not just from their epic beards, but also because they wear no iqal, since in the sunnah Mohammed said no one should wear a crown, and since their thobes are significantly shorter, as Mohammed frowned upon the displays of the wealthy, who could afford to let their garments drag upon the ground.
Qatari style is very similar to Saudi, with the only twist being that their iqals include twin long, black, double-tails or tassels that hang down to the side or behind the head. This alludes to herding days and Qatar’s Bedouin roots, when the iqal might have doubled as a motivator of a stubborn pack-camel. I imagine young Qataris today have a lot of fun in school with it as well.
In the UAE and Oman, the thobe goes instead by a different name, kandoura or dishdasha. Whereas young Saudis like to have tailored thobes that are a little bit tighter around the chest, young Emiraties instead distinguish themselves by going without an iqal, preferring to tie their shemaghs around their heads, leading many foreigners to erroneously call them turbans. In Oman, the dishdasha often features a short string dangling from the neck, and they frequently wear a kimma, a small cap, instead of a headscarf.
Of course the point of all this was to explain why, upon arriving in Saudi Arabia, it quickly became clear that I needed to acquire a Saudi thobe. I held off for several months, though, until I’d notched some Arabic understanding, partly to reward myself, partly to feel a little bit less ridiculous about it.
And so it was that on an action-packed, end-of-the-work-week Wednesday night in Alkhobar, a Saudi friend took myself and my similarly inclined flatmates to the tailoring district of Khobar’s “downtown” market neighborhood and one of his preferred tailors. Through incessant questioning we’d already gleaned some thobe knowledge off of him: Yes, Saudis typically have 6 or 7 thobes: No, it isn’t a good idea to wear one of your good thobes while smoking shisha; Usually we buy new ones right before Eid; No, no one will be offended if you wear thobes; Yes, you probably will look funny in thobes. No, you probably can’t wear one more than a day without washing.
Having never at any time commissioned any clothing for myself before, the 2-visit process was entirely foreign to me, but probably isn’t much different than having a suit made. First, you pick out your fabric from among a dizzying array of different, blindingly white cottons and polyesters, which they call “silk,” although silk, like gold, is actually haram for men. (Dark-colored, thicker winter fabrics were also available, but never in contention for me–it had to be white.)
Next, the tailors get intimate with their tape measures–we’d all elected after all for the tapered-waist look, popular among young Saudis. The thobe ends up slight narrower around the chest and waist than at the shoulders and legs. Maybe its effeminate, but it also prevents the garment from looking like a baggy cloth sack pulled over your body. Probably the most important measurement, though, is from the shoulder to the foot–if your thobe’s too long, you’ll be dragging the whole time and tripping yourself, too short, and you’ll look like an agent of the morality police.
The third step is where you customize and personalize your thobe: buttons or a zipper down the front, exposed or hidden? pointed, wide collar or rounded, narrow collar? no collar? rounded cuffs? chest pocket? extra pocket for a pen, inside the chest pocket? I went with the double-hemmed stitch, although my favorite feature is the small cellphone pockets sewn inside the side pockets–my students all must abuse this feature given that many carry around as many as 3(!) cell phones with them.*
*I take one away, then always out comes another one. “Teacher, one for family, one for friends, and that one…haha, teacher…” Apparently a student has been known to have 5.
A week later the thobe was ready for me. First, though, I had to go next-door to accessorize, picking up all the necessary complimentary items. If there’s one obvious downside to the thobe, it’s that this is not a low-maintenance garment, you can’t just throw one on over your normal clothing.
Being an all-white garment, my colored boxers wouldn’t do, either. Instead, I purchased and donned the normal set of all-white undergarments which, worn alone, would make me look like a member of a fringe religion. For footwear I picked up a pair of madas sharqi, or sandals of the East, distinctive in the opening they have specifically for the big toe, and popular in Saudia year-round. On the head, first goes the taqiyah, a small white cap that some wear by itself but I think looks like a piece of lace stitching my grandma might have made. Then, on top you put on the headscarf. I went with a ghutra, since I was more familiar with the all-white headscarf before arriving, though the shemagh is more popular and less formal. The final purchase is the iqal, although some like to pimp their thobes with bling, adding cufflinks and a pen for the chest pocket.
I’d never worn a dress before (that anyone knows of), so the thobe was a novel experience. It’s kinda like a pull-over dress-shirt that’s just super-long. Perhaps the hardest part of wearing it, besides learning how to put on the ghutra properly (any laundry place will iron it in 5 minutes for you for a couple riyals if you wrinkle it) and worrying about spilling food, is managing to not drop the iqal when sitting down, or flailing one’s arms about, or simply tilting one’s head. Many times I’ve seen iqals in the trash in the bathrooms at school–I can imagine this is a recurring issue. During exams, the silence of the room (well, during the moments without whispered cheating) is sometimes punctured by the crash onto a desk of a falling iqal–it’s a little weightier than it looks.
My favorite part of the attire is the way the thobe limits stride length. Wearing it shortens my paces, which cues me to remember to walk like a Saudi, and then I fall into that deliberate, relaxed pace of an Arabian gentleman. It is in these moments that the national bureaucracy makes so much more sense. Playing around with the headscarf when standing before reflective surfaces is also a novel vanity experience. Incidentally, going to the bathroom was a more fluid experience than I anticipated. But probably the biggest surprise is how warm the thobe is. What I assumed to be a purely summer garment actually keeps me pretty warm in the “jacket-weather” of Saudia winter (which is, by the way, almost already over and we’re just in January).