You ain't got these moves

After a very stressful week and promises to myself as well as my close friends that I would not touch my email all weekend (despite not having a Blackberry, I often am ‘that girl’ these days on my Nokia if there is wireless internet available), I tried to pull together some modicum of energy to meet some social obligations I felt less than ready for.

Despite being four months pregnant, I managed to squeeze my growing belly into not one but two different dresses this weekend, first for a former student’s wedding and second for a friend’s graduation party. In the ex-pat community in Qatar it is an honor to be invited to a wedding – well in all societies a wedding invite is a treat – but here especially where there can be limited interaction between people of various ethnic groups and particularly since women’s gatherings are private domain where people literally let down their hair otherwise coiled beneath headscarves at work, the gym, or mall.

I’ve been to weddings before and confess to dreading them because often the invitation comes from a friend or relative of the bride. So you don’t know her, but find yourself in a room with hundreds of other women made up to rival any Hollywood movie premier, waiting for the bride’s arrival which is often hours past the start of the reception.

In this, Qatari and western weddings are similar: people waiting for the guest of honor, waiting to eat, in short, all dressed up and waiting. The first time you go to a wedding, this waiting is filled with nothing short of ogling because this may be the first time you see so much female flesh amongst the abaya clad set that normally perambulates as dark figures with hints of color on sleeves and headscarves on the streets and malls of the Gulf. I was no less guilty my first visit to a wedding (published as an article in Melusine literary magazine,

Because women are so nondescript in public, the western is often shocked at the contrast in public where strapless, midriff, or skin tight are the norm. It’s the constant inability to understand what other cultures find instinctual: there is a division between public and private and no one feels the pressure to prove anything to those who aren’t in both spheres. After all, opposite of individualistic cultures, the importance isn’t on the life lived outside the home, but the one and the relationships connected to the home. As a young South Asian girl growing up in the U.S., I may no have worn an abaya but I certainly couldn’t compete with my American friends when it came to shorts, bathing suits, or prom dresses (when I was allowed to go to the occasions that necessitated any of these items).

For Qatari brides, they have some of the same restrictions of South Asian brides: even after they enter, it is unseemly to smile, dance, or in general be happy. With my students and friends I’ve had endless talks about how this particular tradition is wearisome and against what they would actually want to do. But they are bound to do the smile-less  fifteen minute minuet to the raised platform on the other end of the room because if they don’t, people will talk.

Every time we watch our wedding video with anyone (or ourselves) I see the same conflict on my face as my parents bring me down the aisle: I enter looking down, the exact opposite of all the Hollywood scenes; then my true personality must have kicked in because I dart up and give a smile to those who are nearest me – then the head goes back down. I hadn’t worn a veil but maybe I should have because it would have given me a traditional look in keeping with my demure downcast lashes.

Then imagine my joy on Friday night when the bride came in, doing the minuet walk to the other end of the room, and then broke out into a red-lipsticked-diva smile on her way to the waiting dais! After about twenty minutes of photos and videotaping, she came down and danced with us. I was very tired by this point having exceeded my normal bedtime by about two hours but when she approached me and extended her hand, I twirled. She said something I couldn’t hear because of the loud music.
“What?” I asked, leaning in close.

“Shway, shway,” she said, giving me dance advice.

Now I’m not sure if my new belly was throwing off my groove, but my whole life – admittedly lived amongst mostly white friends – I have been the one with the rhythm. Not so, apparently, that night amongst the mostly twenty something Arab girls crowding the dance floor.

The next night saw me as one of four people on time to a graduation party.

The foreigners are the only ones here I text to a Qatari friend who was on her way and we thought we were being fashionably late by showing up thirty minutes past the advertised time on the invitation.

The music this evening was pure khaleeji, or Gulf, not the Arab pop of Egypt or Lebanon. Most of the women in attendance were Qatari and you could tell when there was a popular hit – the dance floor would be crowded with women of all ages, shapes, and styles. This wasn’t the belly shaking of the night before – or the booty shaking of American dance floors. This was measured two stepping that took the dancers across the floor in parallel lines, the focus on their legs and footwork, with some graceful hand movements every once in a while. If someone was particularly inspired, she didn’t wait for partners, she just took to the middle of the room and danced – all by herself, under the weight of the eyes of the onlookers. I had nothing on these women – particularly not this group of women who not only knew these songs but clearly loved them – and was content to watch. This time it wasn’t with my ‘year one of arrival’ stares at their dress, or make up, or hair. It was in admiration for how they celebrated their creativity and sensuousness, not needing men or vulgar lyrics to aid them.

After a twenty minute stop for dinner which began at 10:30 p.m. the music roared up again as I said my goodbyes and slipped out. It was midnight when I got home, an hour I had not seen on the clock since the second month of pregnancy.

Parties and weddings are much better when you know the women who are at the center of attention – whether in Qatar or India or America. I’m so glad that after five years of living here, I can say that I do.  I knew things were changing because not only did I know the bride/graduate directly but I also didn’t feel ‘sad’ when the women left the room and put their abayas back on. I waited as one of my friends, resplendent in an orange gown, matching shoes, shawl, and plunging neckline with yards and yards of hair, wrapped up and we went down to meet her husband. Normally when people leave these things or the groom shows up at the end, expats exclaim at the change that comes over the room as it goes back to black.

Since I started wearing an abaya to the office last month (on days when I can’t get it together otherwise) I supposed this transformation wasn’t as stark to me. I know what’s underneath: beauty, power, grace. It isn’t because we’re ugly that we wear it. It’s actually the opposite. We have better things to focus on when out in public or at the workplace. And when we are at home, we shine.

National dressing requires discipline

Between the Bollywood themed birthday party last weekend and the young American men wearing thobes in Qatar,  I have learned a healthy amount of respect for cultures where people wear a national dress (notice I did not use the word costume). Costumes you play in. National dress marks you as a member of a certain society, with all the rights and obligations therein.

Both the slippery saris at our house and the wrinkled thobes in the classroom are examples of how complicated it is to wear something that one is not used to – and yet you don’t notice this until you try it on. The discipline comes from starting at an early age: most saris, thobes, and abayas are worn from teenage years onward. That’s when you learn how to keep your shyla (head scarf) from slipping off the crown of your head. That’s when you begin wraping the edge of your sari pallu (the part over your shoulder) around your waist to anchor it. 

There are moments when we must shock those whose national dress we are wearing: for example when I looked across the room and saw a that a friend’s sari had slipped, revealing the entire right side of her blouse, something akin to exposing yourself in your bra in public.

Or when a non-Qatari male wears a thobe right out of the Carrefour package, folds and all, in contrast to all the perfectly starched and ironed men coming into a resturant.

But mostly there is just enjoyment and appreciation that someone is trying to understand your culture and now appreciates a small portion of what makes you unique. After all, now you know we make it look easy, because at one point it was hard for us too.

Ever worn something that wasn’t the usual for you? Did you get positive or negative reactions? Would you do it again?