The deceptive power of the thobe

Having been in the Middle East for 8 months now, I should really talk about the Thobe – the traditional male dress in this part of the world.

There is certainly a magical power attached to this simple garment and the head dress which accompanies it.  It seems to give the men who wear it a certain authority, a mystery, a power and a magnetism which, when combined with the scent of the Oudh perfume many of them wear is really quite alluring!  They keep their thobes beautifully pressed and pristine white and are so smart every day, wearing cuff links and starched collars.

It is amazing how ordinary the very same guys look without it.  One of my dearest colleagues (who will remain nameless for obvious reasons) went from all conquering Bedouin Sheikh to New York cabbie in one easy step – simply by changing his regal thobe to jeans and T-shirt!!  What a crushing blow!!! He was a mere mortal after all.   But still, at work, in his thobe, he is all powerful.  One day, I walked in on him just after praying, without his head dress.  It really did feel like walking in on a friend in a state of undress!  He didn’t mind, of course and wasn’t the least bit troubled, but to me, it felt quite wrong!

As many of you know, I have been visiting the local souq since my arrival and have made friends with a group of Yemenis  who are there dancing traditional Yemeni dances to the live music every week (see photo above).   They too wear the Thobe in Doha – This is one of my Yemeni friends, Yazid, in his thobe and ghutra (headdress) during an evening in the Souq earlier this year.

The traditional dress consists of several parts; the thobe itself, the head dress, which has three parts, and the under garments. The thobe – also known as the thawb, dish-dasha, kandura or suriyah is a long robe – usually white, although it can come in other colours such as off-white, beige, brown or black. Thobe means ‘a garment’ in Arabic.  It is usually made from cotton and is commonly worn in countries bordering the Persian Gulf.

The white cotton is very cool for the crazy summer temperatures and humidity.  Now that it is alot cooler here – down to the upper teens in the evenings – I see more guys wearing dark colours in a wool blend.  They look pretty good, especially with a slightly more ornate headdress material.
Underneath the thobe, guys wear a long white version of boxer shorts and a white cotton t shirt/vest.

The traditional dress consists of several parts; the thobe itself, the head dress, which has three parts, and the under garments. The headdress consists of the material called a Ghutra, also known as the Keffiyeh, Kufiya or Shemagh, the crocheted cap called a Gahfiya or Tagiya and an Egal, the black hoops which hold the ghutra in place. This thick black chord was originally used to tie the camels legs together to stop them running away!  

The ghutra can be worn in a variety of ways, with or without the egal.  The photo below shows Yazid wearing the traditional red and white ghutra wrapped around his head in a Yemeni style, without the egal.  The pattern and the style can depend on the region.  Wearing the ghutra without the egal is common in Oman and Yemen and also in these countries there is a wider variety of colours and patterns.

In the Persian gulf countries, guys mainly wear white, black and white or red and white.  The red and white pattern, worn here by Yazid, is in fact closely associated with Jordanian heritage.  In Qatar, Qataris themselves wear almost exclusively white ghutras but some of the younger guys will try different styles. This short video gives a neat demonstration of how many ways the ghutra and egal can be worn and how to wear it properly!   How to wear male Arabic head dress

Going back to the title of the blog, when I say deceptive power, I don’t simply mean its magical powers.   The assumption is, if a guy is wearing it, he must be from this region (to be fair to myself, a natural assumption really!).  This assumption was put to the test when a shop keeper in the souq asked me to guess where he was from….. Well I went through every country in the region and I couldn’t place him.  

Al Jazeera is an incredibly diverse organisation and I know someone from just about every single country in the Middle East and can recognise some national traits such as face shapes, accents etc…… but could I place him?  “I know you’re not Jordanian, I know you’re not Palestinian, I know you’re not Yemeni, I know you’re not Qatari…..” and so it went on until I was completely stumped.

“I’m from India” he said!!!!   I felt extremely foolish and after he told me, of course it was obvious!  But  I’d been blinded by the deceptive power of the thobe – assuming that he was from this region.  He was wearing it because it was expected as he worked in a tourist shop in the souq.

There is so much one could write about the regional variations of male traditional dress and I must admit to learning quite a bit about Yemen in particular – from my new friends.  But I will save this for a future blog about Yemeni culture, dance and fashion!  I also intend to write a piece about the fascinating world of women’s attire here in Doha….. but I need to do some homework first!

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