Ask Ali: On westerners wearing Emirati dress

Is it OK for westerners to wear Emirati national dress?

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Dear Ali: I was at a desert safari and they had a stall where you could put on Emirati clothes for men and women. I tried on the dishdash (also known as the khandoura) and the headscarf, but I felt uncomfortable because everyone was laughing. I'm curious to know how Emiratis feel about tourists wearing their gear? RE, London

Dear RE: Wow, maybe some of this stuff I do is wearing off on expats. I'm very impressed that somebody felt this way, even if it was just a feeling. Most Emiratis don't mind other people wearing our national dress, but we do mind if it becomes a joke. We are extremely sensitive about how our fellow Emiratis view us; we notice if your khandoura hasn't been ironed or has a stain on it, or if you are missing your farokha (the tassel on the front). We even comment on the tailoring of our mates' khandoura and suggest different colours that might look good on them. What can I say: we are true sticklers for detail.

In any case, if we are so sensitive to how our countrymen dress, imagine how we feel when we see an expat using a khandoura as a prop. Ninety-five per cent of the expats who try to pull it off, wear the khandoura too short and almost all of them have the wrong cut for their bodies. Often, it looks like they are wearing khandoura-pyjamas! I know you might view it as a big, white sheet, but to us, it is like a bespoke suit.

The khandoura shouldn't be too baggy, nor should it stick to your body, so that you have enough space to walk comfortably. It should fit you properly at the shoulders like a well-tailored suit, and it should reach all the way to your ankles: most men like to see their feet when they walk, unlike women, who don't mind if their longer abaya sometimes touches the ground while walking. And don't get me started on how expats wear the ghutra. My point is that if the national dress is worn improperly, it makes us feel ashamed or angry instead of proud. It's sort of like the Scottish kilt; there's a fine line between making fun and paying respect.

By the way, we see many expats - Arabs, Indians and Pakistanis - who wear khandoura, ghutras and abayas. Because they are fellow Muslims, this does not bother us, as modesty is part of Islamic culture. Most important is the respect with which you wear your clothes.

Dear Ali: I was watching an Egyptian football match on television and wondered why Arab players kiss the ground before they take to the pitch? I thought this was a Christian blessing. WF, Abu Dhabi

Dear WF: Not only are you a fan of the beautiful game, but you are also an astute one, too. This custom for Muslim players was developed after seeing Christian players crossing themselves before a game. It began with Egyptian players, as many of our customs do. In Islam, we have a common custom of kissing the palm and back of our hands. It is a sign of appreciation to God for all the things given by him. So when a Muslim footballer takes to the field, he touches the ground then kisses his hand. He then touches his forehead, which is the holiest part on a Muslim's body, as it is the highest point that touches the ground when we pray to Allah. When these players score, because they are Muslims, they tend to prostrate themselves and thank God - "Al-hamdulilah". Let's hope we see this last custom a lot this year for Al Jazira, my beloved football club.

The proper pronunciation of the word for a follower of Islam is "muss-lim", not "muzz-lim" or "mahs-lim". Some other misperceptions: Allah is the Arabic word for God; it is not the name of a god. The name of our holy book is spelt Quran, not Koran. The term "jihad" means struggle, as in personal or inner struggle, not war. "Arab" is a noun or adjective; "Arabic" is the name of our language. To further confuse matters, "Arabian" is an adjective that refers to Saudi Arabia, the gulf between Iran and the UAE, and the famous breed of horse.