a pentrait by Omar the Outsider
© Paul D Kennedy, 1995
These stories are based on a radio series, Life in Kuwait, written for Radio Kuwait's short-wave service.
The popularity of the 30-part series has ensured that it is repeat broadcast each year.
The purpose of the series was edutainment, ie to present Kuwait culture to the world at large in a sympathetic, and nuanced manner.
Several 'pentraits' based on the series have been published in magazines and newspapers in the Arabian Gulf region.
When meeting Kuwaitis in their natural setting, which of course is Kuwait, the most immediately remarkable thing about them is that the males of the species all seem to dress alike. Every Kuwaiti man, with very few exceptions, wears a long plain robe called a dishdasha, a head cloth called a ghutra, a headband called an ogal, and a pair of sandals or naal on his feet. So why do all Kuwaiti men seem to dress the same? The answer is simple. The dress of the Kuwaiti male is a fine example of personal adaptation to the rigours of the local climate. And, a most elegant one at that!
Early one evening I was in Azuz’s diwaniya waiting for the night’s entertainment to begin. I was alone with the Boss, who was reclining on a bench seat against the wall in a long languid pose that had taken years to perfect. He was wearing a fresh extra-white dishdasha and his head was bare. His ogal and gutra lay neatly folded on the seat beside him, with his gafiya on top. I was seated, semi-prone, on a pile of cushions opposite him.
‘It will be a while yet,’ he pronounced slowly, wriggling his bare toes.
‘Before we get the call.’
Azuz shrugged. He slowly extracted a Marlboro from its box, inspected it closely, put it to his mouth, took it out and checked that the filter was at the correct end, put it back in and began polishing his lighter. Then he said:
‘Nabeel is in charge of arrangements tonight.’
‘No,” Azuz smiled pleasantly. 'Occasionally, Achkooee, a leader needs to let the less competent take charge. That way he reinforces his claim to be leader, which in this part of the world is based on the ability to get things done.’
‘But, Nabeel …….’
‘No buts. We’ll just have to be patient for a while.’
Eventually Azuz lit his cigarette, got up and walked slowly around the room checking his dishdasha. The long flowing robe reached from his chin all the way down to his bare feet. He checked that the row of buttons from his navel to his neck was properly concealed behind the stitched panel on the front of his dishdasha. Then he paused at the long mirror near the outside door of the diwaniya. He inserted his fingers into the mandarin collar and ran them around his neck to make sure the collar was standing correctly. He half turned and looked at the pleats that allow for movement at the shoulder-blades, wriggling his shoulders and jerking the tops of the sleeves with his hands until everything was lying smoothly. Then he stood on one leg and moved the other leg back and forth, checking that the inserts at the bottom allowed his dishdasha to move freely around his legs. He did the same thing with the other leg. Then, with both legs back on the ground, he swished the skirt about several times, shrugged his shoulders, flicked his sleeves, swished the skirt again and stared closely at the result in the mirror. He gave a final critical swish and looked himself up and down, full front, in the mirror.
‘You have no rival, Azuz. Without a doubt you are the most elegant dresser in all of Kuwait.’
‘Thank you, Ackhooee, you are quite right.’ He smiled with vague satisfaction. ‘It is the mark of a civilized man to be clean and neatly dressed at all times. In fact, this is a duty which is imposed on us by Islam.’
‘Yes. Under Islam clothing has two purposes, to conceal the body and to beautify the appearance.’
‘I see. Islam encourages flashy dressing?’
‘No,’ Azuz looked at me seriously. ‘Islam requires us to wear clothes that befit our station in life. Without being ostentatious. It’s in the Holy Quran.’
Azuz went back to his seat and sat down, smoothing his dress carefully. Muttering Fat Nabeel’s name, he picked up the telephone. But Nabeel’s number was continuously engaged.
‘We might as well get things ready, though it will probably be hours yet.’ He yelled: ‘Ahmad!’
When the Egyptian servant came in Azuz told him to put the two plastic bags with the bottles in them in the car in the usual place.
‘So we must dress in clothes that fit our station in life?’
‘Is that the reason why Kuwaitis wear dishdashas?’
‘Perhaps it is one of the reasons, Ackhooee.’
‘But, Azuz, I once saw you in a rather nice suit with a bright tie. At a party.’
‘Why not? Sometimes we have to go to extremes to relax people and make them feel welcome.’
‘Indeed. Though I must say you did look a little uncomfortable.’
‘And you are quite right. The Kuwaiti dishdasha is much more comfortable than your Western clothes. That is why we Kuwaitis have always worn our dishdashas.’
‘Ever since Kuwait began?’
‘Yes, for hundreds of years we Kuwaitis have been wearing our dishdashas, with hardly a break. It is one of the things that identify us as Kuwaitis.’
‘So, was there ever a time when Kuwaitis did not wear dishdashas?’
‘Well yes, in a way, a few decades ago, in the 1950s. When the oil first started flowing, our fathers, many of them, abandoned the dishdasha for a while, and took to wearing Western style trousers and shirts. But they soon changed back again.’
‘So why did they start wearing the dishdasha again?’
‘For several very good reasons, Ackhooee. The first one is, the dishdasha is more suitable to our climate than your Western clothes,’ said Azuz. He got up and swished. The skirt of his dishdasha flared and settled back.
‘The dishdasha allows the air to circulate, Ackhooee, which is probably one of the main reasons why our Kuwaiti ancestors designed it the way it is.’ He sat down again and became serious. ‘Both the dishdasha and gutra reflect the heat of the sun. The traditional clothing style of Kuwait is ideally suited to our desert climate. Also, as we grew richer and became disillusioned with western values, we realized that Western clothing was not vital to our progress as a nation.’
‘Really? The dishdasha has been described as being similar to the sleeping gown worn by London gentleman in the 18th century.’
‘Well, ackhooee, it is a good thing you are among friends.’ Azuz knew my ways and I wasn’t worried. ‘The Kuwaiti dishdasha is much more stylish, dignified and elegant than anything a Western tailor has ever produced, in this century or in the 18th. And we wear our dishdashas in the daytime.’
‘Sorry, Azuz. You know I can never resist a barb.’
‘That’s ok, Ackhooee. Just make sure they aren’t boomerang barbs.’
Azuz tried Nabeel’s number again, several times, and then slung the telephone back down on its hook.
‘That son-of-a-bitch is still yakking, Ackhooee. He’ll probably be half the night. We have no choice but to continue waiting.’
‘No problem. I always have plenty to talk about. Let’s see, where were we, Ackhooee? Oh, yes, the dishdasha. It’s a very practical garment.’ He stood up and faced me.
‘Look here. On either side there are these great pockets.’ His hands disappeared into the deep rectangular plackets on each side of his dishdasha. ‘There’s enough room down here for a mobile and pager as well as a wallet and spectacle case.’
Azuz removed his hands and flipped the lip of the single breast pocket on the left side. ‘Here’s where you can keep cigarettes and bits of cash for trifles. The dishdasha is a very practical piece of clothing.’
‘Sure,’ I said. ‘But, to me, there seems to be little difference between one dishdasha and another. Why are they all the same looking? Are you a nation of white ants?’
Azuz grunted and stared down at me. ‘I’ll let that one pass, except to say that there are plenty of differences between dishdashas. You don’t see them because you do not look closely enough, Ackhooee. There are great differences between dishdashas. But these differences are very subtle.’
‘See here, the edge of my collar is slightly rounded, he said pointing to his throat. ‘Others prefer a square cut-off.’ Azuz put his hands down and opened the tops of the side pockets, pulling them outwards. ‘These pockets have pleats that allow them to expand and keep a shape. You pay extra for that.’ He flicked his sleeves. ‘See the neat cuffs. Plenty of men prefer just plain ends. The permutations are endless, Ackhooee, even if they are not immediately obvious to the untrained eye.’
‘But isn't it a bit boring, Azuz, every one wearing the same white clothes all the time?’
‘It’s not the least bit boring. You cannot improve on perfection, which is what the dishdasha is.’
He went back to the telephone but had no joy with Nabeel’s number. He called for the servant and told him to bring his naal and put them by the door.
‘No matter what, we’ll have to leave shortly, Ackhooee. We’ll find something to do when we get to Nabeel’s.’ He smiled pleasantly. ‘At least we’ll be able to congratulate him on how well he organizes things.’
Ahmad came back with a pair of shiny leather slippers with big-toe loops and showed them to Azuz who nodded his head. Ahmad placed the slippers just inside the going-out door.
‘Why do you guys never wear shoes, Azuz?’
‘Because we like our feet to remain cool, no matter how hot it is. Like our dishdashas, our naal are extremely functional that way. And they can be slipped on and off easily when going in and out of the house.’ He gave me a severe look.
‘This is very important, Ackhooee. You should always take your shoes off when entering a house. No one would wish to see the dirt and dust from outside being taken into his diwaniya. So we Kuwaitis have designed our footwear in a very simple way, to be slipped on and off at will.’
‘You designed it? Most of the slippers on sale hereabouts come from Europe or the Far East.’
‘Well, what I mean to say is that these slippers were designed with our needs in mind.’
Azuz started making preparations to leave. First he picked up his gafiya, went to the mirror and placed the geometrically patterned skull cap on his neatly cropped head. He centred it over the crown and checked that it could not slip.
‘Why bother?’ I said. ‘It can’t be seen once you have your ghutra on.’
‘It is necessary. It stops the ghutra from slipping.’ Azuz walked back to the bench.
‘Interesting things, our gafiyas. In the old days they used by be crocheted by hand by our mothers, sisters and wives.’ He sighed. ‘Nowadays, Ackhooee, we have to buy them readymade.’
Azuz sat down and placed his ghutra, a simple square piece of white cloth, beside him on the bench. He laid it out into a perfect square and then folded it neatly in half so that it formed an isosceles triangle. Then he took hold of it by the ends of the hypotenuse, one end in each hand, stretched it slightly, flicked it back over his head and placed it on his head like a shawl and pulled the two corners he was holding under his chin back and forth until the lengths were equal. The third corner was down behind his neck. Then holding the two corners under his chin with his left hand, he took his ogal in his right hand and got up and went over to the mirror. He folded the simple black circle of the ogal in half, creating a double band, and placed it top of his head, tamping it down. Then he puckered the front edge of the ghutra over his forehead, using his three middle fingers, the centre one above the cloth and the other two below, to create a wave over his brow. He turned and faced me.
‘Ackhooee,’ he said, ‘you have been in this country a long enough time. But you still need learning. I do not believe that you yet understand the subtle ways we have of expressing ourselves and our moods and the situation we are in. Observe.’
Azuz looked at me very straight, his face still and utterly devoid of humour. His ghutra hung straight down like drapes around his serious face and his ogal was set straight on his head but tilted just slightly back from his forehead.
‘This how the sheikhs wear the ghutra on grave and formal occasions, or when they are receiving important visitors.’
Azuz put his hand to his chin, the palm facing his throat, his four fingers and thumb forming a half-circle under his lower lip, and said slowly and earnestly: ‘If I had a short pointed beard, I could be the gravest of them all.’
I grinned in recognition and his solemnity broke.
‘Ackhooee, there are dozens of different ways to wear the ghutra and ogal. Let me show you a few more. We have plenty of time.’
Azuz pulled the end of the right-hand drape past his chin and dropped it over his left shoulder. He took the left-hand drape, passed it across his nose and took it up to the top of the right hand side of his head and tucked it under the ogal. His face was fully covered, only his eyes showing.
‘This is for sand-storms.’
He flicked his ghutra loose so that the ends fell evenly as before. Then he took one end and pulled it outwards and up and let it fall across the top of his head. He did the same with the other end. Then he reached behind and brought the end that fell down his back up over the top of his head and tucked it in around the other two ends. The ghutra was piled high on his head.
‘This is for when we Kuwaitis perform hard manual labour.’
This style of wearing the ghutra is used when we have to do physical work.’
‘And when might that be? Since when do Kuwaitis do anything remotely resembling physical labour?’
‘Often,’ Azuz smiled. ‘If we had more time I’d give you some examples.’
He shucked the ghutra loose with a few flicks of his hand so that it hung loose and formal as before. He pushed his ogal sideways so that it leaned down to the right. Then he took the left drape and pulled it back over his shoulder so that the line ran along the top of his head. The left side of his face was exposed while the right was covered by the free-hanging drape. The side-slanting ogal and flipped-back side-piece gave his a very raffish look. He turned his profile to me.
‘You look like a bookie’s tout, Azuz.’
‘I mean you look very sophisticated in a devilish way.’
‘Of course I am. My nature cannot be helped.’
Azuz flipped back the drapes and re-centred the ogal on his head. Then he folded each side-piece back over his head so that the edges crossed each other over the top of his head. Both sides of his face and his ears were exposed and the front of his ghutra rose over his forehead in a smooth white quiff. The edge of his gafiya showed from under the ghutra. He looked at me full face. Behind his ears the cloth fell like the pillars either side of the head of an Egyptian mummy.
‘This is the cool way, Ackhooee.’
He began to play with the quiff and the lie of the folds across his head. He puffed up the quiff and smoothed down the sides of the ghutra, stopped and turned his head this way and that, watching me out of the side of his eye. Then he smoothed the quiff, straightened the lie of the two sides across the top of his head and eyed the result critically in the mirror.
‘You’re just like the young studs in the hotels. Every time they pass a mirror ….’
‘You mean the shebabs, Ackhooee. You’re right. Getting the ogal and ghutra to sit just right is vital for our young men.’
Azuz flicked the ghutra back down straight again. Then he turned the two front corners back so they rested on his shoulder and the drapes, instead of hanging down straight, were sloped. They ran from the top of his head to the middle of his shoulder.
‘This is my style, Ackhooee.’
‘Ah, yes. Debonair but not flashy. Giving the impression that you are elegant, courteous and carefree.’
‘Precisely, Ackhooee. And what an appropriate and correct impression it is.’
Azuz went back to the telephone. But he still could not get through to Fat Nabeel. I picked up an ogal that was lying on the cushion beside me and began twirling it on my right arm.
‘The history of the ogal is interesting, Ackhooee.’
‘I know. Abdullah the Cupboard tried to explain it to me once.’
‘“Oh, so what is the history of the ogal according to Abdullah the Cupboard?’
‘Simple but interesting. The ogal was originally a loop of rope which the Bedouin used to tether their horses. They used the loop to join the front and rear legs on one side of the horse. That way the horse was hobbled and could not wander off during the night.’
‘I see,’ said Azuz.
‘During the daytime, when they were riding their horses, they used to fold the loop over several times and carry it on top of their heads. That way the loop was always available for hobbling the horse at a moment’s notice.’
‘I see,’ said Azuz. ‘Abdullah the Cupboard told you this?’
‘Oh, yes. Some time ago.’
‘But Abdullah the Cupboard speaks no English and you speak no Arabic. So how did he manage to tell you all this?’
‘Through an interpreter.’
‘Who was this interpreter?’
‘Some Egyptian who works in Abdullah’s office at the co-op.’
‘I see. What you were told, Ackhooee, was an old Egyptian lie. The Egyptians make up lots of lies about our culture. They think they are superior.’
‘I’m sorry, Azuz. So it’s not true. I presumed it was true because Abdullah the Cupboard is a Bedouin.’
‘It’s not your fault, Ackhooee. But be careful about things you hear when it comes to believing them. In fact, our ogals come from Syria.’
Azuz took the ogal I was holding and folded it over. ‘Our modern ogal is a loop which is doubled over. In the old days we preferred a single thick band of cord with a long, slender end hanging down at the back. And before the modern ogal came into fashion years ago we used a shifta, which was two cords bound together in four places using golden thread. These were very nice but had to be custom made as we Kuwaitis tend to have different sized heads.’
‘So the modern ogal fits all sizes.’
‘In a sense, Ackhooee, in a sense.’
Azuz went back and got on the telephone again. He managed to get Fat Nabeel. But the conversation, though it began fairly calmly, ended in a torrent of acidic Arabic. Azuz slammed down the ‘phone.
‘That fucker-mother ….’
‘The word is mother-fucker.’
‘Yes, of course. That gawad has mother-fucked things as usual.’
‘You mean fucked things up, as usual.’
‘You’re a great teacher, Ackhooee. We’d better go over soon before the whole night is ruined.’
We both went to the outside door. Azuz slipped his feet into his slippers and opened the door. I got my feet into my shoes and bent down to tie the laces.
‘Come on, Ackhooee.’ Azuz fretted at the open door.
I looked up. He was looking down with an air of arrogant superiority. I knew it was coming.
‘I think you will agree, Ackhooee, that the Kuwaiti style of dressing is functionally superior. To get ready, all a Kuwaiti has to do is slip his dishdasha on over his head, button it up, drop the ghutra and ogal onto his head, slip on a pair of naal and he is away. We Kuwaitis do not have to spend the first half of the day trying to decide what to wear and the second half struggling with shirt buttons and silly ties, like you do. And shoe-laces,' he added, though it was not an afterthought.
We went out. Azuz opened the back door of the Chevy and pulled up the seat. The bottles were in their place, snug and safe. Azuz put the seat back down and motioned Ahmed to get in.
‘Sit lightly,’ said the Boss. Ahmed looked puzzled as he gently lowered his rotundity onto the seat. I got into the passenger side at the front. Azuz started to get into the driver’s seat. The end of his dishdashas snagged on the door opening and he stumbled into the car. He grunted. Then he leaned down, grabbed the door handle and slammed the door shut. Then he opened it again to release the end of his dishdashas which had become caught at the bottom of the door. I looked at him.
‘Pretty functional, huh?’
Azuz’s mood finally improved as we drove along the Fourth to Salmiya. He began to expound on his native dress once again.
‘You will probably have noticed, Ackhooee, that for most of the year we wear white or light-cream coloured dishdashas with matching gutras.’
‘Difficult to miss.’
‘But during the cold of winter we change. We wear heavy woollen dishdashas.’
‘I’ve noticed that. In sombre colours too, grey, navy and brown, sometimes even discretely pinstriped. And you change your gutras to match.’
‘Well, often in the winter we don’t wear a ghutra, we wear a shemargh. But that’s just another name for a ghutra except that it’s a heavy white and red checked cloth.’
‘But why does everyone change to the coloured dishdashas at the same time, almost on the same day.’
‘And it’s usually a Saturday, correct?’
‘Well I’m not sure.’
‘Yes, a Saturday in November, each year. That’s because we don’t change until the Amir does. On Friday the Amir will have attended prayers in the Grand Mosque wearing a coloured dishdashas for the first time that year. Then the rest of us change.’
‘You wait until the Amir changes?’
‘Yes, the good and the great go first, Ackhooee.’
‘And I suppose it’s the same in springtime.’
‘Yes, we get the cue from the Amir on a Friday.’
‘And then its back to white again, a nation of white ants.’
‘Please, Ackhooee. There’s someone else in the car.’
‘Sorry. But when we consider Kuwait’s sea-trading past, how come you’ve never been influenced by the bright colours of India and Africa. Why is your clothing so austere? It seems strange. You guys have a natural vivacity and love of life, yet you only wear one colour.’
‘Because, Ackhooee, we Kuwaitis like to project a solemn and muted image in keeping with our natural dignity and sophistication.’
We had arrived. Azuz parked the car carefully and looked around. He took the bottles out of their hiding place and gave them to Ahmed to carry as we crossed the road to Nabeel’s place.
'Touché! So the dress of the ordinary Kuwaiti male is simple, highly sophisticated, extremely elegant, and completely functional.'
‘Mashkoor, Ackhooee, I could not have put it better myself.’
© Paul D Kennedy, 1995