September 12, 2015
I also experienced how it feels to be “the other”. In my jeans and button-up shirt and hiking shoes, I felt like an oddity among the sea of white thaubs and kurtas. At least 90% of the people wore some form of Arabic clothing. For so long I fought against the notion of having to “Arabize” myself. But now it’s pretty much become a necessity. And I mean that quite literally, because even with my tolerance for warm temperatures, I’m nearly dying in my jeans, shirt and socks. I bought a couple thaubs and a kurtah... [which have] helped me to feel more comfortable (both physically and emotionally –these things pretty much breathe when you’re outside).
After accepting Islam, I was thankfully never pressured to change anything but my heart. Unfortunately, this is not always the case with new Muslims. Some are led to believe that it’s a religious duty to change their name, wear a kufi (head cap) or a thaub (a body-length shirt, similar in appearance to a nightgown), and adopt practices and beliefs that, frankly, are purely cultural and not religious. They basically have a foreign culture transplanted into them under the guise of religion.
This is not right.
In his essay, “Islam and the Cultural Imperative“, Dr. Umar Farooq Abdullah states that Islam is not culturally predatory. Instead the waters of Islam are “pure, sweet, and life-giving but—having no color of their own—reflect the bedrock (indigenous culture) over which they flow.”
For myself, I subtly rebelled against the notion that to be a Muslim you have to be “Arabized” or that your own culture and identity and language are not Islam-compatible. If I’m called “Haroon”, I politely say I prefer “Aaron”. I say prefer to say “God” instead of “Allah”, because many people (like myself, pre-shahada) don’t know the two terms refer to the same Deity and, honestly, the word brings more comfort to my heart. I wear jeans, t-shirts, suits, dress shirts—all of which would be condemned as “kafir-clothes” by more extremist views. I feel an attachment to my country and culture, of which there are many things that easily fall under the pale of Islam. My appearance, my culture and my nationality are all part of my identity, just as my faith is.
But there were times where I felt that I needed to express my Islamic identity more visually somehow. I would wonder how I could present myself and my “Muslim-ness” to the world. In these moments, I would grab a white kufi, fit it over my head, and look in the mirror. It never did look right on me, and so I would promptly put it away. Sometimes I considered changing my name, even if it was just my name badge at work. Eventually, though, I resigned myself to express my Islam through my words and actions–much like I’m doing now.
But in Medina, things were different.
For the first time, I truly felt like an outsider. All around me was a sea of white thaubs and khurtas and other styles of dress that were rare to see back home. I couldn’t speak conversational Arabic. I was dressed as I would normally dress in Canada: jeans, undershirt, underwear, t-shirt, shoes and socks. But within a few hours of experiencing the +45C degree heat of Saudi Arabia, I found myself in need of a wardrobe change, if only for my survival. My friend, Zakee, had gone to India prior to my trip and had brought back a teal kurtah for me, which is like a long, knee-length shirt with openings on the side. It’s the only piece of, shall we say, “Middle-Eastern” clothing I had, and so I quickly changed into it. Immediately, the light, breezy fabric was a relief. Afterward, I went shopping to outfit myself with some more climate-appropriate clothes. I came to understand that these clothes l refused to wear in Canada were necessary here. The long, light thaub keeps the body cooled and breezy, the kufi keeps one’s skull from getting burned (especially after shaving one’s hair for Umrah). It was simply more comfortable to wear them. And when that’s your day-to-day dress, it becomes part of your culture and identity, just like jeans and a t-shirt do in Canada.
By the end of my trip, I had two white thaubs, a grey khurta with pants and Zakee’s teal khurtah. For those first few days in Medina, I felt comfortable in my new clothes, and less like an outsider, allowing me to focus on enjoying the holy city.
I kept the kufi off my head, though; I used an umbrella instead.