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.