“It’s a sure sign of summer if the chair gets up when you do.” – Walter Winchell
Currently as I write this post, outside it is 38°, Celsius of course. For those back home, that’s about 101°F. Not a bad day in Dubai considering the humidity is relatively low. Mid-summer highs can easily be 45°C (113°F) for multiple days with humidity averaging over 90%. Thinking about heading to the beach to escape the warm temperatures? Think again! Sea temperatures can reach 37 °C (99 °F).
Back home, I remember winter days spent longing for the summer heat. I would complain, as many of my friends still do, that the winter temperatures were unbearable. Now, I pray that summer ends quickly (sorry friends in Connecticut)! This is my third summer in Dubai and thankfully I am better prepared. In fact, my husband (Rocket) loves to make fun of my progression:
When I first arrived:
After my shoulders started burning:
After I found out my hair was damaged from the sun:
Now I get it…
Before I moved to Dubai, my perception of local dress for women was that it’s way too hot to wear all black and it’s oppressive. I was also scared to speak to them or even look in their direction. This perception took some time to change since I rarely interact with women who wear abayas. Nevertheless, I soon learned that interacting with them (even as a devout Christian) wasn’t as scary at all! It may sound silly, but the first time I talked to a woman in an abaya was in the mall when I got enough courage to ask for makeup recommendations. I was thoroughly surprised by her friendly and helpful reaction!
However, it wasn’t until Rocket and I visited the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding with visitors from Iraq that I understood many of the practical benefits of the local dress. Every feature of their clothing (for men and women) is derived from a specific purpose suitable for surviving daily life in the desert before urbanization with AC’s. For example, the Agal (cord that secures a man’s headdress) was used to tie a camel while resting in the shade. The cloth head covering (shemagh for men or hijab in different styles for women) was used for protection against sun and sand storms.
During dinner, our Emirati host also explained many historical aspects of their culture such as the pearl diving industry that sustained Dubai before the discovery of oil, and interesting features of the local architecture.
Check back later this week for videos of our host sharing cultural insights that evening.
Before moving here, it was easy for me to overlook that this region has never been populated 100% by Muslims. In the gulf region, there are Christians and even Jews that speak primarily Arabic and even attend sermons in Arabic. As our host mentioned, it wasn’t just the Muslims who covered themselves. If you research Christian or Jewish clothing in this region during Jesus’ time, you can see examples of robe style clothing for both men and women. People in the region, regardless of religion or sex, covered to weather the elements.
Even though my first perception of the local dress was filled with apprehension, I now realize that despite the religious connotations worldwide, individuals have a wide variety of reasons for choosing to wearing a kandoura or abaya. After living here two years, I’ve learned that someone could wear local dress for a nice dinner, but the next day western clothes while shopping in the mall. Family, culture, experiences, occasion, and personal religious beliefs can all play a part in those decisions day-to-day. Despite this, around the world kandouras and abayas commonly symbolize Islam and women’s oppression. So much so that most Emiratis choose not to wear their local dress while traveling to many places abroad.
Living in Dubai has changed the way I perceive the regional dress (and summer!). In fact, a lot of fashion trends in the United States right now are variations of abayas, kaftans, or jelebias. I’m still searching for the right style of abaya, kaftan, or jelebia for this summer heat! I’ll keep you updated.