The “Little Black Dress” of the Middle East

I asked Anseya, one of my beautiful Bahraini training clients, who, over time, has become a dear friend to me, to share her thoughts on wearing the “abaya”, the long black robe worn by Muslim women in many Middle Eastern countries. There are so many misunderstandings about and false impressions of this piece of clothing, that I wanted to hear it first-hand from someone who is from this culture. It is important that we don’t naively and blindly accept general (and often incorrect or skewed) portrayals of people groups different from our own when we have yet to personally experience their culture and customs.

I personally loved wearing it when I visited my father in Saudi Arabia. I packed hardly anything, and appreciated not having to think about what I was going to wear, if my clothes were clean, ironed, and hole-free, and how to stay cool in warmer weather – I simply wore a tank top and shorts underneath, and no-one knew.

Anseya, thank you for giving me the gift of understanding and deeper appreciation for the traditions and values of this culture that I have come to love.

The Abaya, written by Anseya

By the grace of God, and my very good fortune, I have been lucky enough to travel to different places around the world, experience many different cultures and meet very nice new people, but as soon as we get to speaking about where I come from the same questions arise – do you like wearing the abaya? Don’t you feel oppressed? Do you have to wear it? Does everybody have to wear it? Why do you wear it? Sometimes it really does bother me that it so very misunderstood when it is really a very versatile and elegant garment.

First of all I’ll start with the basics. Yes, we live in a Muslim country; yes, we are surrounded by Muslim countries; No, we are not as extreme as Saudi, and no, we are not as open minded as the United Arab Emirates. I am so proud to be Bahraini. We are a country that is well balanced in all areas. We have a diverse expatriate population ranging from American to Indians and everything in between. We are very small country; I sometimes think of it as a very large gated community. We are very liberal in our views, however we have very strong roots that stem from religion and morals. The Arabic culture has so many plus points, it is sad that it is overshadowed by the generalizations of the bad aspects of the Muslim religion.

The Arabs have been known for generations for their hospitality and warmth. When they used to live and move through the desert, they would welcome guests with feasts and dress in the most extravagant animal skins to show their status and also to put forward their best selves for their guests. Men are extremely protective of their women. This is where the misunderstanding arises. Yes, they are overpowering.  Yes, they think they are stronger and yes, they think that they have the upper hand. In some cases this is good and in some bad – like in every other culture in the world.

Regarding women in the Arab world: in the Arab culture, men want to protect them from everything that is bad for or harmful to them. In Islam, it is said in the Quran that women should cover their hair, their hands up to their wrists, and their legs up to their ankles. That is all. There is nothing about covering the face or anything extreme. Islam, unfortunately, is wrongly portrayed so often, in so many ways. The intention behind this covering was to protect women from those men who objectify women. As time passed, the abaya evolved for this reason.  

The abaya is a long, black, dress-like garment. It is black in color because black is the absence of color.  It is basic, and meant to be simple and subtle. Just like that little black dress we all own, hanging in our closets. The abaya, however, is worn on top of clothes. This is done to cover the whole body with one garment. It is loose-fitting and long.

The abaya fashion industry is a world of its own over here in the Arabian Gulf and the Middle East. With the evolution of designs, there is something new every day. They come in different materials, lighter materials for the summer and heavy ones for the winter. In my opinion, abayas are very elegant. The magic of this garment is that it is so diverse; you can get in in different styles and different shapes, with different designs and work done on it, like beading or thread work. The abaya is worn by women for different reasons: some, because of religion, others because they like the way it looks. For many, it is easy to wear as you can easily throw it on over pajamas on a bad day, or on a day you can’t choose what to wear, throw on some lip-gloss and you are good to go!

Sadly, it is so misunderstood, but the reality is, for those of us who wear it every day, we love it. We love the fact that you can have a formal abaya and a casual abaya. We can wear it for a quick grocery run or out to a formal dinner. Imagine one garment that you can wear anywhere, at anytime. I can keep it on the whole day because it is comfortable it does not get in the way. Many women in the Middle East think it is very elegant; and I use the word “sexy” here because it is mysterious and at the same time conservative. It leaves a lot to the imagination. It is versatile, useful, comfortable, and can be as simple as plain black or as ornate and beautiful as a royal gown. The abaya is worn by choice, at least here in Bahrain; it is not forced or expected. For me personally, it is a way of life and I love it.

I hope this post was not too long. I hope it has given you a better understanding of the abaya and cleared the mystery and misconceptions regarding it. Thank you for your time and interest, and please come to Bahrain and visit us. Who knows? You may love wearing an abaya as much as I do!

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Turquoise and Gold
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Hofuf, Saudi Arabia

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Haunting Calls

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Al Khamis Mosque, 692 AD

I remember as a child being comforted by the evocative notes of the mosque calls. Perhaps it was their consistency, a familiar sound I could count on each day, five times a day, a part of my daily routine.

My family and I lived out in town on Safwa Street, in Al-Khobar, Saudi Arabia, in a walled villa down the street from a small aquarium and video store that we frequented often. (“Out in town”, as opposed to many of our friends who lived in the compounds of companies their dads worked for, something we coveted). Memorable because the videos brought us, as third culture kids, a small taste of American culture; albeit with portions of movies showing contact between male and female (even father and daughter) completely censored. Each town and village had its own mosque, so no matter where I was, the call of the muezzin (the person appointed at a mosque to lead, and recite, the call to prayer) was woven into the fabric of my day-to-day life.

Not too long ago, I was visiting the Bahrain Fort, a historical beauty thought to have been occupied for 5,000 years; at one point, because of where I was standing, I could hear all the calls to prayer simultaneously from each minaret in nearby and distant villages: it was mesmerizing, standing there on ancient desert ground, notes of worship and prayer echoing and suspended in air. In that moment, I, too, with eyes closed, entranced, was suspended in time, taken back to my childhood filled with these haunting, reverent calls.

It is a sound I had not realized I missed, and one I know I will deeply miss once again.

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Bahrain beauty
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Saying Goodbye to the Land that I Love

Bahrain
This beautiful journey…where it all began.

I am still in a state of shock, and the reality of our move to Italy hasn’t      really hit home yet, even though we have hit the ground running with five days to pack up and pack out. Josh interviewed on July 2nd, was notified of his acceptance the morning of July 4th, and here it is July 29th, just back from a whirlwind Stateside trip, and the wheels are already fully in motion. The plan is to get back on a plane on August 10th, heading back to Europe where we just were two days ago. Miles have definitely been accumulated this summer!

Italy. Italy?!? The land of pasta and wine, mountains and islands, rich history and culture. The Boot. We are moving to the Boot…..and a waiting list of visitors has begun!

As glamorous and remarkable as it sounds, as excited as I am to experience life in a country that has more UNESCO World Heritage Sites than any other country in the world, my heart breaks to leave the Middle East, the land of my childhood. While many exhale with relief, I inhale the fragrance of all that is beautiful here. There are so many misconceptions of Bahrain and its people, and of the Middle East as a whole. In an effort to unload the burden off of my heavy heart and paint a clearer picture of a region the media has sometimes muddled and tainted, I will be blogging my thoughts, memories and treasured experiences in the coming weeks. It will be cathartic for me as I say farewell, for the second time in my life, to a place I call home.

 

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