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Postcard from Saudi Arabia – The Contradictions of the Thobe

November 9, 2015

Thobe styles

Saudi Arabia is a country of contrasts and contradictions. I suppose you could say that most countries are, but because the Kingdom is such a difficult place to visit unless you’re a pilgrim, a politician or a businessperson, the foreign narrative of an austere, humourless people inhabiting a land largely devoid of water and vegetation tends to dominate the perceptions of those who have never spent time there.

It’s a one-dimensional view that’s far from reality. If you visit the southern Asir region, for example, you will find magical, verdant terrain. Mountains, valleys and lakes, and architecture unlike any to be found in any other part. In some areas, the men even wear flowers in their hair – something that would surprise the superannuated hippies of San Francisco. Cool in the winter, and a good 20c below summer temperatures in other Saudi regions, the Asir is a popular summer destination for Saudis who want to escape the heat and perhaps revisit their tribal homeland.

Saudi Floral Headdress

In addition to the men with their flowery hair, you will find baboons everywhere, their colourful backsides adding a splash of colour to the slate-grey mountains that tower above the meadows and forests.

The Asir is also a fairly conservative region, as witness a report in the Arab News about young Saudis scorning the traditional thobe and ghutra in favour of western attire:

“Many young Saudi men are adopting Western-style fashion trends including clothing and haircuts, which are not in line with Saudi customs and traditions, according to several experts.

They are also increasingly using English words mixed with Arabic that they have picked up from Western television programs and movies, they said. The clothing now worn includes accessories such as bags, short pants, and items with “weird” pictures.

Khaled Al-Jelban, a family and community medicine consultant at King Khalid University, was critical of the way young men dress these days. He said he has seen some brag about their clothing and acting in a manner that does not fit in with Saudi culture.

“Some of them are even decorating their Arabic clothes, which goes against the traditions passed down from our fathers and grandfathers,” he told Arab News recently. This was a “dangerous phenomenon,” he said.

In addition, he said that some young people were trying to sound sophisticated by using a lot of English words, probably as a result of them spending too many holidays abroad, rather than in the Kingdom, and watching too many Western-produced movies without parental supervision.”

I’m not sure what “too many” actually means in this context, but you get the message. As for weird pictures, what Mr Al-Jelban is referring to is anybody’s guess. Mickey Mouse perhaps.

Saudi-youth-celebrate-the-006

Given that these concerns have been widespread for at least the past twenty years, I’m not sure if this piece isn’t something of a filler – the kind of semi-rant that gets dragged out of the drawer whenever there isn’t much “real news” to report, though God knows, there’s enough going on in the neighbourhood to fill the Arab News twice over. Or perhaps it’s a subtle promo for internal tourism, as in “to hell with Orlando, London and Paris, bring your kids to the Asir, where they can climb mountains and commune with baboons”…. in thobes.

Anyway, the piece set me thinking about the male Saudi national dress. There’s actually not much you can do to enhance the thobe, other than raise it towards your knees. The overtly devout have cornered the market in the short thobe just above the ankle, in emulation of the Prophet’s reported dress style. Mini-thobes above the knees? I don’t think so – not so many Saudis have the legs for that, though the Yemenis often sport a midi variant (useful for fishing). Thobes bearing images of Jabba the Hutt perhaps, but that would upset the scholars, who look down on the use of human (and presumably alien) images.

There is a market, however, for subtle variations. Saudis tend to wear collars fastened with a neat little stud, whereas their neighbours in the Emirates go collarless. The inside of the collar also offers sartorial opportunities, such as the Burberry tartan trim you see sometimes on female abayas. Speaking of tartan, I’m surprised that in a region where tribal membership still matters and where there have been skilled weavers for thousands of years, the Arab tribes didn’t evolve a tartan tradition like the Scots. Useful for distinguishing the raiders from the raided, I would have thought.

In the winter, there are numerous opportunities for colour variations. Dark brown, grey and blue tend to be the favoured hues. I dare say a shocking pink thobe would send the elders of the Asir spluttering into their gahwa (Arabic coffee) in shock, and anyway pink is a girl’s colour isn’t it? That’s one western preference that’s firmly ingrained in Saudi society.

So the problem – at least from a young male’s point of view – is that there isn’t much room for the thobe to evolve. And the same goes for the traditional headdress, the ghutra. It doesn’t lend itself to much variation, though the Omanis and Yemenis wrap it round their heads turban-style. So you either go traditional or you go western. And another allure of going western is that you can show off those snazzy haircuts much loved by footballers and sniffed at by the elders.

The other drawback with thobes is that that they don’t really lend themselves too easily to modern sport – a problem not faced by ancestors whose main concern was keeping cool, rounding up the odd goat and scaling date palms. Even traditional dancing is thobe-friendly – very stately, no sudden movements, which is probably just as well given that many of the dances involve swords. Imagine trying to do the balletic moves practised by Indian and Pakistani border guards wearing a long white robe.

So how does a young Saudi man stand out from the crowd? Not easily, and I guess that’s the point. After all, this is a society in which conformity with social norms is expected and admired. They’re expected to be good sons, good Muslims, respectful of their parents and of authority generally. Deviations from those norms are seen as a problem, as the Arab News article makes clear:

“Saud Al-Dahain, a social sciences professor at King Saud University, said young people are rebelling by adopting these fashion styles. “It’s a cry for attention from young people who don’t want to be marginalized,” he said.

He said that the best way to deal with this situation was to provide counseling and advice for these young people. He said that society needs to deal with these young people in a wise manner.”

Personally I’m all in favour of this approach. Young people who want haircuts like Sergio Aguero and like to wear trousers suspended halfway down their boxer shorts definitely need help. But then again perhaps the fact that I’d need a stick-on Aguero rub, and my every step wearing trousers at half-mast would send them plunging down to my ankles might have something to do with my shamefully illiberal attitude.

But the spirit of conformity is where some of the contradictions come into play. This is the home of the sacred sites of Islam where pilgrims, regardless of status, wealth or origin, don the simplest of garments – white towelling robes – when fulfilling the obligation of the Haj. You might think that the simple thobe is equally a symbol of an egalitarian ethos. In theory, it is, though not in practice.

Arafat_pilgrims

Saudi Arabia has about twenty million citizens and nine million expatriates. In terms of the working population, expatriates outnumber nationals. Foreign workers – from the Philippines, South Asia, North Africa and the Arab countries – tend not to wear the thobe. Through a mixture of disinclination and subtle discouragement by the locals, they stick to Western dress, or, if they’re working outdoors, uniforms.

This means that in most workplaces, Saudis are instantly recognisable. A cry for attention from people who don’t want to be marginalised? Far from it. Foreigners who work in the country develop an instinct for paying deference to, or at least recognising, anyone in a thobe. It’s an unconscious reflex that helps you distinguish between the masters and the servants, the owners and the guests. The bisht, a gossamer-thin, gold-trimmed robe worn on formal occasions and seen here, serves to accentuate the distinction further.

Arab networking

Take away the national dress, and the relationship dynamic changes in subtle ways. Some of my work is with medical staff, who might be wearing white coats and even scrubs. Though I find it pretty easy to tell the Saudis from the non-Saudis through their names, there’s less of a sense of exceptionalism within these groups than there would be if half the people were wearing national dress. And the Saudis I meet in these groups seem to be quite happy to be wearing their medical garb. It wouldn’t be fair to say that they’re relieved not to have to be seen to be different, but I do sense a spirit of teamwork less evident in other dress-delineated workplaces.

The same goes for factories, where I sometimes work with middle managers who show up wearing neat uniforms with the company logo on their shirts. Again, the barriers seem to break down. When you look at faces, especially in a multi-ethnic city like Jeddah, almost anyone could be a Saudi. If everyone’s dressed in the same way, you’re then reliant on language and accent to distinguish, say, between a Saudi and an Egyptian.

This is less the case in cities with a less cosmopolitan flavour, like Riyadh, where ethnic antecedents and tribal bloodlines are important social markers. Sometimes you notice the Najdis from central Arabia looking down their noses at the ethnically diverse people of the Hijaz, the region that encompasses Jeddah, Makkah and Madinah and draws its genetic mix from centuries of pilgrimage. People from Riyadh even try to distinguish themselves by the distinctive style in which they wear the ghutra. So within the country there are signals of origin for each region, some far too subtle for me to recognise.

The Arabian Peninsula is one of the few regions left in the world where a national is instantly recognisable because of the way he dresses. The thobe, like the Pakistani shalwar kameez and the short skirt favoured by the Yemenis, is a genuinely traditional garment. It has survived the transition from a utilitarian garment suited to the hot and dusty plains to an elegant urban attire. You will very rarely see a Saudi wearing one that is anything other than immaculately laundered – at a massive cost in cleaning bills.

So the thobe is a symbol of exceptionalism, and perhaps for that reason its use isn’t likely to decline any time soon. But it’s also a symbol of tradition in the way that manufactured national dress styles aren’t. For example, you can’t describe the (entirely sensible in my opinion) Iranian aversion for neckties as anything other than a contrived mark of rejection of western style, even though non-clerical leaders manage to sport very smart and expensive suits. Same goes for the Mao suit, which has largely fallen out of fashion everywhere except in North Korea.

The elders of the mountainous South shouldn’t fret so much about their young men abandoning traditional Saudi dress. Every generation needs its own way of differentiating itself. Better to do so by wearing shorts and tee shirts with Guns’n’Roses motifs than by trekking up North and playing with real guns in Syria. And anyway, once the fun’s over and they have to start earning a living, they’ll be happily wearing their thobes to the office and mosque just like their dads and granddads.

As for me, I’ve always been a little envious of wearers of the thobe. It’s so effortlessly dignified, especially on those whose girth, like mine, has expanded over the years. Large people, of whom there are many in the Kingdom, cruise like battleships rather than waddle like penguins. That expanse of white cloth covers bodily terrain that even a well-tailored western suit doesn’t manage to disguise.

If we lived in a world less sensitive to cultural appropriation, and I had to choose between and a thobe and a suit, I’d take the former any day. Not great for golf on a soggy November morning, though.

As for female attire in Saudi Arabia, well, that’s another conversation….

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