x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 12 December 2017

An Arab dress code? We have one - we just have forgotten

The rich tradition of Arab dress has been all but forgotten by both men and women, who favour western-style clothes over their own culture.

Picture this: a massive reception is taking place at a sheikh's majlis, with people from around the world paying their respects on the happy occasion of a marriage in the household.

A delegation from India enters, men and women dressed in magnificently tailored national clothes of colourful fabrics that flow elegantly and hide all the flaws.

It is no wonder that at weddings across the region, Arab women often choose to wear an Indian-style dress, whether saris, salwar kameez or churidars. Many even know the different styles. But ask them about Arab traditional dresses and accessories, or about the different designs and embroidery, and many Arabs may draw a blank.

Watching delegations come in, you would look into their cultures through their clothes, and feel a sense of identity and pride inherent in garments and foot wear that have stories and a history behind them.

More often it is women who wear national dress, while men often opt to wear western-style suits.

Arab groups came in with both men and women in modern western-style clothes.

When I whispered this to my friend from Syria, she replied: "Because if they showed up in their traditional clothes, people would think they were a dancing troupe."

This may be one of the issues at the heart of our identity crisis, although most would argue we have bigger problems to worry about first, such as basic human rights. But this one is easier to address.

Traditional Arab dress should not just be worn by waiters and dancers, but by the ordinary Arab whose pride has been crushed for too long under repressive regimes. I say bring back the dignity of Arab clothes, so diverse and intricate.

How funny would it be if Arab men once again started wearing the tarboush in public? Old photos of our grandparents sporting those flat-topped, brimless hats might make us laugh, but in some of the more rural areas of the Arab world, such traditional practices survive. Indeed, photographers often seek out this authentic Arab look.

Of course, city people wouldn't be caught dead in what they call "falah" (farmer) clothes. And yet, I see how beautiful women look in these long, colourful thobes with complicated geometric and floral embroidery. A Palestinian woman once told me how each design or motif had a unique meaning, and almost each dress has a beautiful story behind it and tells where the wearer is from.

For instance, the chest panel of a dress from Gaza is V-shaped, while clothes from other Palestinian areas favour a rectangular shape. "When we sew these, it is a form of national resistance and a protection against loss of identity," she said.

There is another point to consider, however. The abaya hides flaws; a colourful thobe does not, and tends to add a kilogram or two. I know because I have tried both.

But I can't help but feel that we have allowed traditional Arab dress to slip away from our lives and become something of a relic.

Some women still wear traditional clothes on special occasions, such as weddings and Eid, but that's about it. They are also expensive and hard to find now as well.

We have become global dressers. Sure, clothes might fit better, but with a bit of effort, and stitching by the right tailor, maybe we can make our traditional dress fit better too. What you wear matters. Nazrat al nas, "the way people look at you", changes based on this somewhat superficial aspect.

 

rghazal@thenational.ae

On Twitter: @Arabianmau