One would be surprised after having watched an epic World Cup final to wake up the next day and find out that an item of clothing was causing controversy. According to media reports and endless commentary on this issue, there is some controversy over Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani putting a ‘bisht’, a traditional black and gold robe on the star Lionel Messi.
Now, another 24-hour news cycle later, we are being subjected to discussions about whether this was somehow wrong for Qatar to put this loose-fitting robe on Messi, a sign of Doha somehow inserting itself and its culture into the final, or whether it is racist to critique Doha for doing this.
The Qatar-backed Al-Jazeera summarized the events, writing: “at the World Cup trophy presentation after Argentina’s win over France in the final on Sunday, Lionel Messi was offered a bisht, a traditional Arab cloak, to wear by the emir of Qatar.” The article continues, explaining that this is a garment that has been worn for centuries in the Gulf and “is viewed as a sign of appreciation and respect and is typically worn by top officials such as politicians, sheikhs and other high-status individuals.”
Seems like enough of an explanation, right? But no, like everything else relating to this World Cup and the Middle East in general, any discussion quickly becomes about Orientalism, racism, and the supposed ignorance of the West when it comes to events like this. While some wondered whether Messi had been strongarmed into wearing the, covering up his Argentina jersey, the narrative in the region was that critics are ignorant.
Others were outraged by the outrage at the bisht, saying it was steeped in ignorance and misunderstanding of Qatar’s culture.
It could, of course, be both. It could be that this item of clothing is part of Qatar’s culture, and that people who live thousands of miles away are not necessarily “ignorant” for not knowing this. It stands to reason that people in Peru or Alaska, or in Japan and Thailand, don’t all need to be experts in various types of clothing throughout the Middle East. It also may stand to reason that Qataris, or people in Iran or Tunisia, may not all be experts on every traditional garment worn in Peru, Alaska, Japan or Thailand.
There was a time in world history when different cultures had different norms and types of garments they wore. There was a time when honoring others by giving them a type of clothing or scepter, crowns, jewels or swords, engraved things or something else would seem normal and not a question or ignorance or forcing one's culture on others. These days it’s not so simple. There is an attempt at cultural export and cultural clash.
Hair coverings: The West vs the Middle East
In the West, the advent of “hijab day” at universities has become an opportunity to encourage women to wear head coverings. There is no similar day for men to be encouraged to wear a head covering. An article in the Columbia Chronicle noted in February “walking into the Student Center, students from the Muslim Student Association of Columbia set up their booth with multiple headscarves and religious garments hanging along a clothing rack with one goal in mind — to give any student the chance to wear one for World Hijab Day. The head coverings ranged from the hijab, niqab, chador and the burka in different sizes and colors.”
At the same time that Western students are encouraged to cover their hair, in Iran, protesters are removing head coverings to oppose the regime. Clearly, the issue of what people wear and how it entwines with religion and regimes is important. The question is whether it is important that Qatari authorities draped a loose-fitting garment on Messi and whether he objected.
It seems that most of the commentary doesn’t touch on the issue of whether he minded wearing the clothing for a short period of time. The commentary instead is divided between people claiming to be outraged that Qatar “exploited” this moment, to those claiming that the critics are ignorant or racist.
Adopting foreign dress
The overall discussion has deeper roots in controversies about the West and the Middle East. In an interesting article in The Paris Review in 2019 titled ‘Dressing for Others: Lawrence of Arabia’s Sartorial Statements’ the author examines some of the issues relating to how Lawrence adopted Bedouin and Arabic dress during his period in the Middle East.
According to the article, Lawrence continued to don these garments in Europe. “When the Emir Faisal arrived in Marseille on November 26, 1918, Colonel Lawrence was attracting the attention of the French: he had arrived from London to greet his Highness, wearing on his head a keffiyeh and ‘iqal, and a gold dagger on his breast: the clothing of an Arab prince. It seemed that Lawrence’s Arab appearance did not please Faisal.”
The article explores several issues relating to Lawrence’s clothing choices. It argues that this clothing was suited to the desert and that Lawrence chose to dress as a “sharif,” a leader. It also notes the importance of knowing the differences in dress and headdresses.
Another article published this month in the Digest of Middle East Studies (DOMES) discusses the changing national dress in the Gulf, particularly the UAE, “national symbols, such as the popularization of kandoorah (or khandoura or dishdasha) and abaya, which few had previously worn.” The author asserts that as these items of clothing became national attire, there was a question about whether it was appropriate for foreign expats to wear the garment.
“As can be concluded from that answer, the attitude toward expats wearing the kandoorah saw a substantial shift between 1996 and 2009. The attitude since 2009 has changed even more dramatically, with pictures of expats wearing traditional clothes becoming increasingly popular.”
It’s worth considering this wider context when looking at the story of Messi and the Qataris putting a bisht on him. We’ve seen a long period of history in the Middle East where westerners have come to know the clothes of the region and in which the region has sought cultural and religious export through clothing.
Of course, this doesn’t only go one way, many people in the region wear suits and ties. Iran’s regime, which forces head coverings only on women, is also against men wearing neckties. “Anti-necktie sentiment in Iran stems from the 1979 revolution, when the accessory was denounced as a symbol of Western cultural oppression,” Turkey’s state media TRT notes. For Iran’s regime the necktie is a “symbol of the cross,” the article claims. Thus it somehow is part of western imperialism. This shows that what many people in the West would take for granted, wearing a tie, is not necessarily a simple thing in Tehran.
The article claims “while the wearing of European suits and ties started to spread from the ranks of the [Iranian] elite and aristocracy to the educated urban parts of the country, a uniform dress code was passed into law in 1928 mandating all public servants except religious leaders to wear Western attire. Later in 1935, a decree made it obligatory for state employees to wear fedoras.”
We sometimes forget how such things as a fedora or fez may have been a sign of class and power, or imperialism, not so long ago. Considering the complex history of clothing in the West and the Middle East, an ever-changing issue, it’s worth considering the largely fake controversy around Messi being given a ‘bisht’ to be neither a case of Western ignorance nor a case of Qatar forcing its culture on others.