Guide to Arab Clothing

Posted on October 7, 2022 by Amani Elkhatib
Guide to Arab Clothing For a quick guide to Arab clothing, click here

To nerd out on the intellectual origins of the relationship between clothing and national identity, see the descriptions below.  

The Modern Study of Culture The term ‘culture’ is notorious for having countless and non-agreed definitions. Indeed, we would expect nothing less from a word that is, at once, a verb and abstract noun in constant change in time and space, attempting to explain how humans create, experience, interpret, and interact with the vastness, limits, simplicity, and complexity of their lived experiences. In the modern period, culture is traditionally situated in a post-positivist epistemology of a one-nation-one-culture-one-language model. This narrow nationalist interpretation of culture dominates US K12 curricula and world language textbooks (Boylan, 2018; Hantzopoulous et al., 2014; Naber, 2008; Sleeter, 2017). Brisk (2006) notes that although well-intentioned, what poses in schools as cross-cultural curricula such as songs, dress, food, holidays, and other superficial representations of different national cultures actually reinforce and add to stereotypes. Instead, “far more significant are students’ life experiences and their families’ and communities’ body of knowledge and beliefs (p. 4). The postmodern paradigm, one of the most prevalent theories in US higher education today, views culture as a fluid, socially and politically charged, and ideologically constructed concept. The study of culture through this lens “moves away from differences between cultures and towards the question of how people construct and use culture to make sense of each other [and implies] that all of us are equally engaged in the everyday construction of and engagement with culture wherever it is found” (Holliday, 2016, p. 23). Eagleton (2016), as we will see later, criticizes postmodernism’s definition of culture for failing to set boundaries and limits.
Al-Jahiz on Adab Here, it is prudent to note that the study of culture and intercultural communication, or pondering thereof, is not particular to the early modern, modern, and postmodern periods. Great civilizations of times past have also left written evidence speculating on the idea of culture and its relation to human experience. Let us take, for example, al-Jahiz, whom we mention specifically because the Islamicate’s contribution to human civilization is historically excluded or minimized in the US K12 and undergraduate curriculum. In his Epistles or Rasaa’il, al-Jahiz, the Afro-Arab polymath of 9th century Abbasid Baghdad and Basra, developed a definition of adab, one of the medieval Arabic terms that encompass culture, etiquette, and literature, among others. Al-Jahiz states, ‘innama al-adab ‘aqlu ghayrika tuzīduhu fī ‘aqlika,’ which translates, with interpolation, to ‘adab is simply someone else’s mind that you add to your own.’ This may imply that for al-Jahiz, culture, as a whole way of life, is composed explicitly of the human elements that are learned, constructed, and transmitted as opposed to the human elements that are natural, involuntary, and innate. Moreover, in his work On Translation, al-Jahiz notes the importance of interculturality for accurate understanding and communication:  

And what about the differences between restricted, unrestricted, and abridged 

speech? How do we induce him to know the syntactical structure of the 

language, the habits and customs of the people and their means and methods of 

reaching accord? These are but a few of many things to be considered. 

Furthermore, whenever the translator is ignorant of or insensitive to any one of 

these things, he will commit errors in interpreting. (Jackson, 1984, pp. 104-105) 

For a more detailed discussion on the intellectual milieu of al-Jahiz, see Ibn Abi Tayfur and Arabic Writerly Culture: A Ninth-Century Bookman in Baghdad by Shawkat Toorawa (2005).  For now, let us take a quick look at the contributions of Hobsbawm and Ranger’s edited work, The Invention of Tradition (1983, 2012), before moving on to Eagleton’s (2016) critique of culture’s modern and postmodern collusion with capitalism and nationalism.  

The Modern Invention of Tradition Hobsbawm and Ranger (1983, 2012) shed light on traditions that, although perceived to be from time immemorial, are, in reality, more recent inventions than people think. These ‘invented traditions’ often have two main functions. They are either invented or used by the powerful elite to manipulate the powerless masses. Or, alternatively, they are invented by varying institutions to help preserve social unity in response to challenges brought about by the rapid social changes that have quickly taken root over the last 200 years. Hobsbawm claims that in response to the social changes in the late nineteenth century, numerous traditions were mass-produced in Europe to foster national unity due to the waning influence of other societal institutions, such as the church and regional affiliations. For Hobsbawm, invented traditions are essential for historians because they are evidence of how particular societies relate to their past in reaction to their present. The work aims to provide a framework to better understand the recent origins and invented nature of historical, cultural, and social traditions during the rise of imperialism, colonialism, and nationalism. Another area of interest in this foundational work is Hobsbawm’s explanation of the difference between tradition, custom, and convention. Tradition, he argues, implies rituals, norms, values, symbols, and behaviors that establish and imply an unchanging continuity with the past. This is important to invented traditions since they are explicit and implicit rules of a ritualistic or symbolic nature that seek to establish a sense of stability and continuity with a selective past in a quickly transforming present. The opposite of tradition is custom which is malleable, flexible, and changing with the times. Conversely, a convention is a daily routine void of ritual and symbolism. According to Hobsbawm, the significant difference between tradition, custom, and convention is that tradition has an ideological basis, whereas custom and convention do not. Now we will turn to Eagleton to look at how the notion of culture, in the context of invented traditions, has changed over the long 19th and short 20th centuries. 
A Critique of Modern Culture Eagleton’s work Culture (2016) sheds a lucid and witty perspective on the changing notions of ‘culture’ from the premodern to postmodern periods. Eagleton notes that ‘culture’ is a complex word comprised of four major senses:  

1) a body of artistic and intellectual work; 

2) a process of spiritual and intellectual development; 

3) the values, customs, beliefs, and symbolic practices by which men and 

women live; or 

4) a whole way of life (p. 1). 

Eagleton observes that culture, in the first sense of the term, usually involves avant-garde and innovation. At the same time, culture is the fourth sense of the term, generally involves habits and customs. On the one hand, the first three meanings may seem more helpful in defining boundaries, whereas the fourth runs the risk of having no boundaries. The added difficulty with the fourth definition, as Raymond Williams (1921-1988) notes, is that the definition of culture over the modern and postmodern periods has continuously been forced to be extended to the point that it almost has become synonymous with our whole everyday life. For Eagleton, to view culture and civilization as the same or synonyms may be proper for premodern and tribal societies, but it is not valid for today’s world. “Until the advent of modern cultural technologies, civilization was a more cosmopolitan phenomenon than culture, which has traditionally been a more parochial affair” (pg. 15).  The view of culture as a whole way of life is a fallacy he finds in postmodernism’s view of culture. He maintains that one of the significant differences between culture and civilization is that civilization is fueled by an ideology that eventually gets caught up in the maintenance of political power; the opposite of what culture ought to stand for. What culture and ideology do share is that they are both functionally variable terms; what may be cultural or ideological at one time and place may not be cultural or ideological at another time and place. He notes that postmodernism theorists from the 1980s embraced the doctrine of culturalism, the idea that everything in the world is cultural, coupled with cultural relativism, which denies any universal truths or values.  

To see everything as relative to culture is to turn culture itself into an absolute. It 

is now culture that one cannot dig beneath, as it used to be God or nature or the 

self…Culture is not identical to our nature, as the culturalists claim; rather, it is 

of our nature. (pg. 42-43).  

The problem, for Eagleton, is that the notion and definition culture has been coopted, subsumed, appropriated, and usurped by capitalism. Particularly, late-stage capitalism and its fixation on infinite growth, its never-ending exploitation of raw materials working hand-in-hand with the scientific lab of innovation, all in tandem with mass-production and hyper-consumerism where everything has become a commodity, even culture itself.

Therefore, Eagleton asserts, culture needs to be revisited and put back into its proper place. He concludes that while central questions confronting humanity in the new millennium have cultural aspects to them, such as drugs, hunger, and war, culture, in and of itself, is not at the core of these central questions. “Civilization is the precondition of culture…but the truth is that culture is the creature of the very civilization to which it seeks to lend some spiritual foundation” (pg. 12). 

‘Traditional Clothes’ and the Nation-State ‘Traditional clothing’ is a display of national narrative theatrics or a mockery thereof. In turning subjects into citizens, nationalist movements of the 19th and 20th centuries romanticized the role of their respective rural inhabitants, which they included as playing a central role in the nationalist narrative within their artificially drawn borders. Therefore, traditional clothing identified with the nation-state and nationalist politics is a contemporary response providing a sense of timeless stability and simplicity in eras of rapid social change. It is more a modern reflection of nationalism’s romanticization of their imagined past rather than an accurate historical representation of history. Clothing often serves as nodal points for much larger and more complex social phenomena. Wearing a hijab in France after it was publicly banned or the rise of the hijab in the US post-9/11 are symbols of freedom and defiance of state-sponsored Islamophobia. However, movements in Egypt calling on women to take off the hijab and Iranian women removing their hijabs in protest of the murder of Mahsa Amini are acts of freedom and defiance of the state. Women wearing designer hijabs in various forms and styles are also expressions of freedom within areas of conformity. Being forced to wear a hijab in religiously and socially conservative families, circles, and societies is oppression; wearing a hijab in Islamophobic families, circles, and societies is an expression of freedom. Some may wear the hijab and not be religiously observant or do so in conformity not to be ‘the talk of the town.’ Others may not wear the hijab and be more religiously observant than some of those who wear it. Some may wear the more conservative hijab to conceal their male or female identity, especially when wanting to be off the radar or advertise ‘the oldest profession in the world.’ The former only scratches the surface of space, freedom, identity, and expression regarding women’s hair. Digging deeper, one finds that the hijab pre-dates Islam and is found within and outside of Islam. The examples mentioned above are all responses to the transformations from pre-modern to postmodern periods. Similarly, in male clothing. The keffiyeh, shemagh, ghutra, etc., can symbolize social status, religious status, tribal affiliation, national affiliation, political party affiliation, personal preference, a symbol of resistance, protection from heat or cold or storm, or whatever designer color was left at Urban Outfitters after their fall sale. For example, the male robe, called a thobe, dishdashah, or galabiyyah, can also become a status symbol or national identity. A short tassel on the side is ‘Omani,’ a long tassel in the middle is ‘Emirati,’ no tassle but with a collar may be ‘Saudi,’ no collar and of darker hue may be ‘Egyptian,’ etc. The bedouin dress might be the national symbol of Jordan during the national theatrics of the dabke. In contrast, the peasant dress is the national symbol of Palestine during national theatrics of dabke. The fez headdress may represent Morocco but could also represent Turkey or Arab Ottoman secularism. The list goes on. Hint: do notice the similarity of women’s embroidery, aka tatreez, and the material they are made from, in the former Ottoman Empire from Eastern Europe, the Caucuses, and Eastern Mediterranean,  that have become symbols of national and regional identity, supposedly from a time immemorial and continuous past.


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