June 26, 2011

The Cult of the Dishdasha

My good friend, Abu Tharthara, and I had a fascinating discussion recently about the role of national dress in Omani society.  At his request, I am writing about it - many of these thoughts are his, some are mine.

For those who don't know, the "dishdasha" is the ankle-length, closed shirt or gown worn by most men from Oman.  Equivalents are all over the Arabian peninsula, where you might find versions called "thobe" or "kandoora", and in North Africa and elsewhere, with "jalabiya" being the common terminology.  Although they all have different names and styles, they represent the same thing: a national cultural tradition.

There is a difference though between how Arab countries use their national dress.  In North Africa and the Levant, even Iraq, the traditional style is usually confined to the older generation or the working classes.  It represents tradition, but frequently also poverty and backwardness.  In Egypt for example, the educated, the government office workers and businessmen, the politicians and the professionals, wear a suit.  Men of religion are the exception - even important ones might wear traditional dress, but often with a tailored jacket over the top.

So really, what Abu Tharthara was complaining about, was the role of the dishdasha/thobe/kandoora etc., in the Gulf.

Here's a question: is it illegal for a non-Omani to wear Omani national dress?  I have been wearing Omani national dress (albeit very occasionally) for about ten years, and I still don't know the answer.  If it's not illegal, then many people certainly assume it is.  And yet as a non-Omani, I've never been criticised for wearing it - on the contrary, people seem to like it.  They don't much like tourists wearing the kumma (little African-style hat that Omani men wear) on the back of their heads over their dreadlocks, with jeans and a t-shirt.  Or worse, some kind of dishdasha over their bermuda shorts and running shoes.  But then again, I've never heard of anyone arrested for that either.  Informed answers would be welcome - illegal or not?  And if not, why do so many think it is?  And if it is, why do I not get arrested in a room full of policeman who know I'm a foreigner wearing the Omani "full monty"?

How people react to the dishdasha is the interesting thing though.  Abu Tharthara is Omani, but most of the time wears "western" clothes.  He finds it more practical for work, and has just been used to it for a long time.  But he still wears dishdasha for formal meetings and certain social occasions.  His perspective is perhaps a rare one: as an Omani who is not dressed as an Omani, he feels he is treated less well.  When people assume he's foreign, he feels he is relegated immediately in terms of social respect.  In my experience, he might well be right.

When you're standing in a short queue in a petrol station to buy a bottle of water, most people would think twice about pushing right past you and everyone else, and expecting to be served first.  Especially if, like Abu Tharthara and I are, you're a pretty large, confident, man of age.  But put a small, weak, timid young man in dishdasha, and his countryman Abu Tharthara in jeans and a polo shirt, and the little goblin is suddenly a VIP. Never mind anyone else, he's the "citizen", everyone else should wait for him.  It's an extraordinary thing.  Yet, conversely, put the foreigner The Linoleum Surfer in dishdasha, and nobody will mess with him.  The queue is observed, waiters look nervous, even in traffic, nobody wants to risk upsetting that big mussar'd head!  Perhaps I'm imagining it; it's rare enough I dress that way.  But Abu Tharthara isn't imagining it.  Every day when people think he's a foreigner, he gets the shitheel treatment.  When he wears his national uniform, he doesn't.

What started this whole conversation was the subject of Abu Tharthara's son's school uniform.  Now he's a certain age, Ibn Tharthara is required to comply with a strange kind of uniform apartheid.  The Omani nationals must wear dishdasha at all times.  The non-Omanis must wear a complete school uniform with shirt and trousers.  The Omanis must wear sandals.  The non-Omanis must wear shoes and socks.  At play time, Bin Tharthara wants to run around and jump and wrestle and play.  Not so easy in dishdasha.  He wants to wear shoes and shorts like he's always done - much better for a small boy's games.  But he can't.  It is a fixed rule - he is Omani, and he has to look like one.

Apart from perhaps being a less practical clothing choice for little boys, the imposition of the dishdasha at school for Omani citizens only, sends a very strong statement that all are not the same.  National, foreigner.  Dishdasha, uniform.  Kumma, bare head.  Above, below.  I visited a school a while back and couldn't help noticing that the boys in shorts were all playing together, and the boys in dishdasha were completely separated, talking in their own group.  Do small boys do this naturally?  I don't think so.  Most of the non-Omani boys were also Arabs or mixed too, so language wasn't the issue (and they were at the same school after all).  Maybe it was the more restrictive clothing on the Omani boys that kept them out of the game?  Or maybe, just maybe, they had somehow internalised the subliminal message that all boys are not the same.  Not equal.  And not really to mix.

Naturally not all people keep themselves in tight little national communities.  I am not Omani.  Most of my friends, actually almost all my friends, are.  Most of my friends have nice manners, don't jump the queue (except in traffic maybe...hopeless cause?), and generally treat others with respect.  So who are all those other guys?  That little gnome who pushes in front of me at the petrol station as if I don't exist, yet would wet his wizaar if I raised a hand to him.  The man who double parks behind the cheapest-looking car he can see, and goes shopping - safe in the assumption that the driver is Indian, not influential, and won't get him towed.  The man who shouts across the room in the airport, over the heads of all the foreigners, expecting someone to come to him or wave him across to the first class counter.

I don't know how the cult of the dishdasha impacts on the manners of the individual, but something is.  When I first came to this country, people were just more polite.  My friends tell me that when they were younger, people were even polite on the road.  Even over the last few years, I've noticed that it's rare now for anyone to invite a woman to jump to the front of the queue in a bank (and how shamed they look when I do it instead!).  I've noticed this culture of selfishness get worse.  Shameless queue-jumping, littering, swearing at other people like waiters or shop assistants.  As long as they're not Omani.

The strange thing about the dishdasha, thobe or kandoora as we know it now, is that it's new.  Go back to previous eras as late as the seventies and find a picture of a group of Omanis (Saudis, Qataris, whoever), and that uniform just doesn't really exist.  Just as women in the GCC have adopted the black abaya and shaila as a public uniform, the men have done the same.  Dishdasha/thobe.  Mussar/kumma/shammagh/ghutra.  Sure, with national variations, and even tiny variations within a country to be distinctive.  But basically uniforms nevertheless.  Maybe it began with the generation of khaleejis who first ran ministries or joined international companies.  They wanted a smart uniform like the international-standard suit.  But they also wanted to be different.  Distinctively home-grown.  Maybe there's nothing wrong with that, apart from the loss of individuality and sartorial variety.  Keeping traditions is nice.  But is that all this is about?  Or is it just a visible reminder, a badge, a VIP pass, that says the others are on a level below?

Abu Tharthara's recommendation is that everyone be compelled to wear national dress at least one day a week at work, and also be free to wear it whenever they like.  It's an interesting idea.  But I'd start by ending the separation of children, and let them wear what they like.  Maybe they would grow up believing they are all the same.  That's certainly the message I try to send to mine.



macbookprodad said...

I have a dishdasha for a year now, i was a gift but I never wear it.

Anonymous said...

Is Omani society suffering from racism? if not then why people should be treated differently? Answer is painful but truth has to come out.

Fatma said...

Regarding the uniform apartheid as you put it, I think the officials in these schools are afraid of one day in the near future when the dishdasha will be something that Omanis wear only on formal occasions like Weddings. So they want to make didshdasha part of the kids lives even if they don't want to. They apparently don't need to force foreign kids to wear dishdashas and hence the separation. For your information all kids in public schools regardless of their nationalities wear dishdashas.
On the matter of politeness, I would like to say that chivalry is dead to all and not only Omanis. I cant count how many times an Omani ignored me standing behind and didn't offer me to step before him or how many times Indians tried to cut the queue for cinemas, ATMs or even baying at different shops...you name it. Or how many Westerners looked at me savagely because we are aiming towards the same parking space and of course all natives in his\her mind cant drive.

The Linoleum Surfer said...

Interesting Fatma. But only nationals of other Arab countries can attend government schools so it's still a limited diversity. I heard an interesting case just now of a boy who wore his own Arab national dress non-Omani)at the same school as Ibn Tharthara. Nobody objected, although it wasn't uniform. I wonder why? And also why he wore it - it's unusual in his country, and his educated parents never wore it. An effort to be seen as "different but the same" or "not really a foreigner" maybe?

I agree about preserving the national dress. In Tunisia many years ago I noticed that it was made compulsory for members of parliament to help prevent it dying out and have it seen as something respectable. But in reality it's already died out in the Gulf: the standard now is different to the great cultural variety of a generation or two ago. I'm sure the Saudi thobes with collars and cufflinks, accompanied by laced up Italian shoes, socks, and a Dunhill shammagh with threads of silver in it, would have looked bizarre if seen in our grandfathers' time! Preserving is one thing, but fashions and tastes change.

As for manners, I couldn't agree more. Except that it's true that Omanis can't drive...fifteen years in the GCC, never seen one :p. Not their fault though while there's still no system for qualified instructors, no published highway code and virtually no training even for the traffic police. It's just a pity that those who had the advantage of proper driver training tend to respond so rudely, or by driving worse themselves! I think it's exacerbated by the broader lack of manners in this society though.

And yes, the general lack of manners applies to all nationalities sometimes. What depresses me is that people who you would consider educated, who talk about Islamic morality, who are educating children of their own in manners, are now some of the worst. I'm sure people used to be more polite. Maybe we all think the past is better than it was, but on this I'm certain!

Thanks for the comments!


Nadia said...

All kids in schools, regardless of nationality, can wear the dishdasha. I assume non-Omani kids choose to not wear it because, like you said it's not convenient when trying to kick a ball or run.

I know for example, that at Dhofar University in Salalah, all Omani students are forced to wear the dishdasha because a few years ago some guys showed up at college in jeans and word reached the Minister that Dhofaris were misbehaving :)

I have mixed feelings about the whole thing. I'd love to see the dishdasha live on for generations to come but at the same time, I think people should wear what they're comfortable with.

The Linoleum Surfer said...

Seems some school have a different policy...and as these are the ones with the most mixed group of pupils, it strikes me as a pity.

♡ αmαℓ said...

I'm not a man, so I don't really know much about wearing the kandoora, but I do like to see people wearing it. It's wonderful for people to keep tradition alive, and plus it's Sunnah. :) I do agree it is worn in a way to separate foreigner and local here (UAE) tho. And a lot of the times when these men go abroad (unless it's to another Arab country) they ditch the kandoora completely and wear Western clothes. They want to stand apart from foreigners in their own country, but blend in in Western countries :-/ It's kind of like a lose/lose sitaution...You want to keep tradition, but you also want people to have a choice... And I think if people had a choice, a lot of them wouldn't wear it (atleast not that often)...

The Linoleum Surfer said...

Interesting point, Amal! You're right, very few wear it when travelling. Are they embarrassed? Afraid of being stared at? Or just thinking that they don't want to be seen the way they see foreigners...? Maybe the answer anyway is like Abu Tharthara said, to encourage more foreigners to "blend in" and keep the tradition by wearing it too. "When in Rome..."

As for the "sunna" part, I take your point in the most literal sense. But that would be equally valid to say about long hair (for a man), going commando and cleaning your teeth with a "miswak" stick. All perfectly valid choices, but not religious obligations. Anyway, the supposedly "traditional" garments worn these days bear little resemblance to anything worn a century or more ago, let alone in the early days of Islam.

It's funny though, I've seen Asian kids in the West wearing Saudi-style thobes, complete with collars and cuffs, as if it is some kind of Islamic uniform. It's definitely not great in the cold either! But I have to admit, I do find the dishdasha an elegant item as a man, and I quite enjoy wearing it. Definitely suits the climate too!

Anonymous said...

I am an Omani, and I've experienced all that you've mentioned. Ive also been in the situation your friend was, and its something you definitely notice: dressing in the dishdasha earns you more respect. So that's what I ended up doing.

I got a chance to move abroad and I took it. I'm in the West now, and by and large, people are MUCH more polite, much nicer. It's so sad: we were supposed to have the reputation for being polite.

Anonymous said...

Great post. You could also have called it "the misplaced arrogance and selfishness of the Gulf Arab". And you're right; Oman felt quite different till only a few years ago; people were much more polite and welcoming, and had what seemed like genuine charm.

I felt things change in around 2006-7, and I was utterly speechless the first time I saw an Omani man barge past a line of tourists waiting to check in at an international hotel, and when challenged, say "I'm an Omani". In many years of living in many different parts of the world I had never seen anything like it. The norm almost everywhere else in the world is to defer to foreigners and treat them as guests.

Oman seemed to go from "charming and welcoming" to" arrogant and threatening" in a few short years. Perhaps Omanis just caught the Gulf Arab disease a little late. But it has certainly taken hold now. It is a very shortsighted and stupid way to allow your national 'culture' to be defined.


Modh Baluchi said...

Im an 18 years old Omani guy,,
wut I dont really understand iz that we have to wear this uncomfortable uniform (dishdasha) 4 college.. I mean 4 God sake we r fully grown ups but they still make us wear it..
regarding to the treating, i never wear dishdasha n i dont really c that people treat me differently, they just talk n interact with me like any other guy..
but still the dishdasha iz totally uncomfortable to wear..so a message to the people who make us wear it (knock it off pinheads, n let us wear whatever we want in college)

Omani Princess (not Omani LOL) said...

I do think it unfair that if you are an Omani girl and don't wear abaya or headscarf they don't make you in college but they do make the guys who don't wear dishdasha wear dishdasha...

But where we live men have always worn dishdasha, for 100s of years, not just recently. Though the abaya replaced the colourful laysu as jilbab out of ease for women for the most part. My husband wears it when he travels, he doesn't care if he stands out, he's Omani and feels more comfortable and elegant in dishdasha so it should be worn for some occasions (so it isn't lost).

But as a foreigner you can always choose to dress like a local. It isn't against the law or dresscodes anywhere. I find Omanis seem happy to see women in abayas or Omani regional dress, or men in dishdashes, unlike other Gulg states where people give you the death stare for daring to don their "local dress".

Anonymous said...

This is an interesting post. But what you have observed for men, it is worse for Omani women who choose not to wear the abaya, or in particular, the hijab. At worst they are considered a whore, at best they are automatically assumed to be non-Omani. And in many cases, other people think its their place to suggest they dress more conservatively because they are Omani.
I think for most people, what you wear is just related to what you're comfortable in, and not everyone feels they need to make a statement about themselves.

Ulrike, Dubai said...

Very interesting - I do feel for the young boys. I used to live in Oman and always watched them hiking up their little dishdashas when running or climbing. Cute but impractical.
I have added a link to your story on my blog this week.

Laylah said...

Good post and I would say most of that would apply to Saudi-Arabia too.
Interestingly I found the Omanis the most polite, friendly and generous from all the Arab countries I visited. In fact I thought the people were one of the best things about Oman.

Why is it ok for the Arab men to change to western clothing when they leave but women are looked down upon if they dare remove their veils, let alone abayas!

Omani Princess (not Omani LOL) said...

Most Omani girls I know don't wear abayas when they travel abroad either, or opt for colours. Same with Saudis. Very few go "khaleeji black" in Europe and America. But almost ALL Omani girls I know keep the hijab on. It isn't forced on them and they choose to keep it on out of religious beliefs, even away from Omani society and Mommy and Daddy. Maybe paired with skinny jeans (not really hijab as per Qu'ranic guides but then, Qu'ranic guides are rejected in their home country anyways, as the black abaya could be any colour in Qu'ranic guides but not Omani culture).

lil-beeyotch said...

Hey TLS,

The contrast is really interesting. In South Asia for instance, being foreign gets you more rights and respect than being native South Asian. Same from Non-Resident Asians who live abroad, they get more respect than native Asians.

I guess wealth comes into play, and in South Asia at least, being foreign gives you more of a probability to be wealthy so people just behave well?

Idk, but the patriotism is very high in Arabic countries .. don't know why .. its an interesting contrast none the less!

Warda said...

We were recently talkin bat this "change" in Omani culture, where you find people parking their cars infrint of you front gate or even blocking the entire road without giving it a 2nd thought.

It's strange and u feel it's developed to the naive prospective we used to pot ray as society. We were seen as very forgiving to the extent of being labelled as naive. If someone would pass an Omani in a line....then it would be taken for granted that said person won't be reprimanded due to the other person being Omani. Guess we just woke up n aren't taking it anymore

Anonymous said...

Its not illegal to wear Omani clothes. It is illegal for a taxi driver NOT to be in Omani dress, Gov. officials, bankers, and some others also must wear the Omani dress @ work. Omani citizens going to govt. places to handle work/issues must/should (depending on how lax the place is) wear the omani dress. There are some places that are "Omani only" like visa purchases @ the MOM. So a non-omani dressed up there could be considered highly suspect(rightly so in my opinion i might add).

Anonymous said...

Come on, lets be honest the reason why locals in Oman wear it these days is to look different from the Indian community. Its hard to tell the diffence in plain clothes.

Noora Higgins said...

My brothers used to wear dishdasha at school too (back in the day) but had shorts or trousers under it and they'd lift their dishdashas and tie it up (like fishermen do) when they played footie at break time...so what's the big deal!

Expats probably sit in different groups because they are in different grades. When I was in school (assuming your friend's son goes to a private school) for example if I was in 3rd grade there'd be 3a, 3b (both omani) and 3e (I think it was called e, and that's for expats). Arab students can choose to go to either the omani class or the expat class but omanis are obliged to go to the omani only. Expats cannot go to the omani one unless they can speak arabic because some of the subjects would require them to speak and read arabic obviously.

About racism, I've lived and went to school in London and PULEEEASE everywhere you go you'll find a racist. I didn't get as many racist comments or gestures as much as most people I knew only because british people also care about your social class and would treat you according to that. During the summer though they are most racist because there are a lot of arabs at that time and I guess they can take it.

Anyway my point is that you cannot generalize and say this is the treatment you'd get as an omani and as a foriegner.

P.S the dishdasha is not a "modern" thing. Yes during the 70's you might not find a lot dishdasha wearing Omanis but that's only because that was the time the Sultan came to the throne and he helped send people willing to learn abroad, so that's when people started dressing in western attire. The dishdasha was always around. The abaya probably not though!

Ron Hanneman said...

I love wearing dishdasha,
I wear dishdasha most of the time
and it would not bother me if I was required to wear dishdasha always.
with that thinking is it possible
to take an oath to remain in dishdasha ?

Jimmy Johns said...

Arabic Mens Clothing Arabian Clothes Online High Quality, Stylish Muslim and Islamic Clothing for Women, Men and Kids a really good place to see all the different variations and interpretations of Islamic attire, Muslim fashion. YathribStore.com aims to bring Arabia closer to all around the world by providing affordable Islamic clothing and other Arabian through a user-friendly website implementing safe shopping measures and comes with customer support for an enjoyable shopping experience.

Ron Hanneman said...

I like wearing dishdasha,thobe
given a choice I would never wear anything else,
I would remain in dishdasha for life