All of which is my twisted way of trying to tell you how I felt when I donned a thobe for the very first time the other day. I selected one of Riyadh's hundreds of traditional clothing stores almost at random: I'd been given advice as to which part of the city to go to, but from then on it was all my own work.
I told the two Pakistani assistants that I wanted the full kit, and before I knew it one of them had whipped his tape measure out and was taking my vital statistics. He measured my height shoulder to ankle, followed by my waist. They must keep the "fatty" sizes out the back because he immediately walked past a wall filled floor to ceiling with boxed thobes and through a curtain to get one from the store room. There are several collar styles, with the main two being a high, round collar and the other a more conventional shirt collar. The accepted norm here seems to be that the round collar is preferred by the Young Bucks, while the older men wear the regular one. I chose the round one, however, partly because I didn't want to be lumped into the Old Man category and partly because I think it looks better. Besides, the Young Bucks leave theirs unbuttoned, so as long as I button mine up I'll look respectable and not mutton dressed as lamb -- at least, it's a theory.
The next dilemma was choosing a ghutrah. With hundreds on display and all subtle variations of a single standard pattern, there wasn't much of a choice to be made, so I just said, "I want a ghutrah" and accepted the first one, presented in a nice box, that they offered me. To that I added an iqal -- the black ring that goes above the headdress, and a skull cap that goes on the head and helps stop the ghutrah from slipping. Also in the pile were white undertrousers and T-shirt. I was quite impressed with the packaging. Although shopping very much at the budget end of the market, the ghutrah, iqal and thobe each came nicely presented in their own, substantial boxes.
The whole lot came to just over 200 Riyals, which is about £26. I could have spent a lot more and had a thobe tailor-made, but I'm running short of time and will probably only wear it once in a blue moon anyway.
I made my way home expecting none of it to fit. I hadn't tried anything on and the chaps in the shop had made some pretty snap assessments of my size, but I should have known better than to worry. When I got home and tried it on it fitted perfectly; they know their stuff alright. The only thing that felt a bit odd was the iqal, which felt too small, but then I don't know how one should feel so it might be normal. Not worth worrying about and I don't have time to go back and exchange it.
I toyed with the idea of having it on when Karen came home from work as a surprise, but thought she might have a heart attack and press the panic button on being confronted by a Saudi in the house, so I waited for her to return and then gave her the fashion show. She managed to keep a straight face too as she snapped these photos in our back garden. Do I look like a natural Arab or a fool with no self respect?
The mobile phone is the ideal accessory for posing like a Saudi. The image would have been complete with a cigarette in the other hand.
So if you're in Royal Windsor anytime in the next couple of months and you see a Saudi walking down Peascod St. wearing light blue Crocs, come and say Hi, because I expect everyone else will be giving me a wide berth.