I decided to wear an Abaya, the black dress traditionally worn in Qatar, to see what it would be like. Wow, after a few days, I realized that wearing this garb had allowed me to enter an entirely new world. It was like Narnia, Arab-style.
I am Arab (somewhat pseudo Arab – to be honest), but the Abaya is not traditionally worn for people of my specific heritage. I decided to buy a few and wear them infrequently and write my observations (if any). I even wore one to the ILQ office and one of the students there was rather excited about the opulence and design (he referred to it as Art). These dresses can be gorgeous!
One thing I noticed clearly, was that your environment in Qatar changes when you wear the Abaya. For instance, in a restaurant, whenever I would sit down, young males in thobes make an active effort to sit with their backs to you. It seems to be a coordinated effort by Qatari men to give their women space and privacy. This will be the case in any restaurant, café, etc.
Even if a waiter or waitress has seated you – where you may be within eyesight of these men – they get up and move.
I was utterly surprised to see how diligent this unwritten code is adhered to. Even if tables are limited, they will move their chairs to ensure the lady is not bothered and enjoys her privacy.
I do not speak an ounce of Arabic (much to the disgrace of Arabs around the globe), so sometimes when some Qatari women see you speaking English and in Abaya, they approach you and ask a couple of questions out of curiosity. I found them to be more comfortable with me and they would often ask:
1. Did I have a Qatari husband?
2. Was I a new Muslim?
And after answering no, sometimes they would then ask why I chose to wear the Abaya. I always let them know it wasn’t my regular attire. Most interestingly, was that almost every conversation ended with these ladies giving me their number and telling me to keep in touch and to call them if I needed anything while living in Qatar. I never called any of them, as I am not sure of the social protocols in Qatar, but I was still a bit astounded at how open and gracious they were. I would never give my number to someone I had just met in passing. These ladies seemed genuinely sincere too.
I rarely wear the Abaya nowadays, but for the few times I did, it provided a lovely little peek into a world we share with a community we know very little about; yet, live amongst everyday.
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