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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 12 December 2018

How Husam Mohammed Jaber became a trailblazer for the return of the besht

We meet a man who is so enamoured with the traditional robe that he’s made it his mission to revive it

Husam Mohammad Jaber is a torchbearer for the besht and a businessman with inspired ideas for men and women. Antonie Robertson / The National
Husam Mohammad Jaber is a torchbearer for the besht and a businessman with inspired ideas for men and women. Antonie Robertson / The National

Husam Mohammed Jaber is on a mission to bring back the besht.

He so lamented that the men’s cloak had become relegated to weddings and decorated occasions that he opened a shop to revive respect for the traditional robe and teach young men the etiquette of the garment. “Nobody is taking care of it,” says Jaber, who opened AlBesht AlArabi in the Central Market, Abu Dhabi, in 2015. “To me, I love it. I would like to wear it all the time, but these days if I have a besht and I wear it outside, people will think that I’m trying to be obvious or that I’m from the royal family. But no, I’m just trying to take care of the tradition and nothing else.”

Jaber can talk for hours about the besht, and he does. Serving sweet tea and Turkish delight, he talks about famous beshts throughout history, beginning with the green cloak worn by Prophet Mohammed to the mid-century styles worn by his Palestinian grandfather, when the embroidered golden trim stopped midchest.

Whenever Jaber sell a besht, he shares the garment’s history and advises on beshtly propriety. “There is a lot of protocol,” says Jaber, whose family moved to Abu Dhabi from Jordan in the early 1970s. “We could write a book about the protocols of the besht. I’m thinking seriously of doing that. I know about the besht more than anybody I know.”

For instance, when a young man is approached by an elder who does not have a besht, manners dictate he remove his cloak as a sign of humility. At a wedding party, only the groom should wear a black besht. “I noticed at a lot of wedding parties the father is wearing black, the brothers are wearing black,” says Jaber, who is 38. “Everybody is wearing black, which is not appropriate. People get confused and they keep saying congratulations to every black besht.”

Even the most basic rules have been forgotten, like wearing light colours in the day and dark colours at night. “They don’t stick to the rules, yanni,” he says. “To me, it’s not just a besht. You have to know everything about the besht before you wear it.”

Jaber points to his Ugandan sales associate and assistant, Hassan Ahmed Kasdzi. “Here is our friend Hassan. Yanni, he knows about besht more than any person here in the Emirates.”

Kasdzi agrees. He was no stranger to the attire when he arrived in Abu Dhabi. “In Uganda, we have this actually,” he says. “My father is a sheikh in Uganda so he wears this, too.”

The problem, Jaber explains, is that nowadays shop owners pay no heed to the protocol of the cloak when selling to a prospective groom. They just, say, ‘OK, the size fits. Mabrook, congratulations’.

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“The bride takes months to choose her dress and she’s going to spend a fortune on the main night of her lifetime. Why the groom should choose a cheap besht?”

Before his own wedding, a salesman talked Jaber out of buying the besht of his dreams. “He said: ‘It’s just for two hours, man. You’re going to spend a fortune on it? You’re going to take some photos, some videos and then you’re going to put it in your cabinet’.”

But photographs tell the truth, warns Jaber. For grooms, he makes a special besht trimmed in 18-karat gold-plated threads that costs from Dh13,000. “The bride will be wearing gold and the gold on the besht is supposed to match the gold on her neck. Otherwise you will see a pinkish colour and the real golden colour will be different.”

Jaber’s designs combine the best craftsmanship of the Gulf. The zari, or embroidered trim, is done in the Al Hasa oasis region of eastern Saudi Arabia and the tissue-thin wool is sourced from Najaf in Iraq, a city renowned for its weavers.

Working on wooden hand-looms, it takes a weaver three to 10 days to make a single piece of cloth. These businesses have been damaged by factory-made textiles. Families who have relied on this tradition for generations are going out of business.

Kuwait has a solution, says Jaber. After a woman from Kuwait’s parliament began to don the cloak, the besht has become popular with women too. His women’s line is modelled on Instagram by the Kuwaiti Shaikha Bashayer Nayef Al-Sabah and orders have come in from women in Abu Dhabi and Dubai.

“Some people find it very offensive that ladies are wearing something for men and they say it’s not appropriate,” says Jabber, pulling out a hot pink besht with gold trim.

Some rules though are simply made so that they are broken.