Sam's Life

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The fascinating history of Arab men’s apparel

Loia wedding in Jeddah

Traditional thobeshemagh and egal worn by friends attending Abdulhadi’s recent engagement party in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

Dressing like a Saudi

Sam dressed in thobe and shemagh with egal at the national Saudi Janadriyah Festival.

Sam dressed in thobe and shemagh with egal at the Saudi National Janadriyah Festival.

I always wear the white Saudi thobe here in the Kingdom, and on very special occasions I wear the full Saudi attire. I don’t always get the shemagh positioned precisely correct, and sometimes I’m a bit embarrassed when my black egal falls off! (Hey! I have a great new idea! How about an egal with Velcro on the bottom to hold it in place?)

I recently wore this complete Saudi traditional outfit at the celebrated National Saudi Arabian Janadriyah Festival near Riyadh where I was the guest of the Kingdom’s Ministry of Defense. To my surprise, groups of Saudi young people recognized me as I walked through the grounds. Some would approach to practice their English and to shake my hand, and, on one occasion, there was a shout of appreciation in English, “Welcome, Uncle Sam! We love you!”

The white thobe

The thobe is a full-lenth garment commonly worn by men throughout the Arabian Peninsula. It is normally made of cotton, but heavier materials such as sheep’s wool can also be used, especially in the colder climates of Iraq and Syria. The most common color is pure white, but darker colors are sometimes worn during the cooler months.

The style of the thobe varies slightly from region to region. The long sleeves and the collar can be stiffened to give a more formal appearance.

Other names may be used for this garment. In Oman, dishdasha is the most common word used; in the UAE, the word kandura is used; in Jordan, it is called keffiyeh.

I always wear the thobe in Saudi Arabia. It fits the warm to very hot desert climate.

The shemagh head covering

In the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia a white thobe is most often worn with a white skull cap and a head covering called a shemagh. All is generally considered essential clothing in every Saudi man’s wardrobe. The thobe and shemagh are generally requisite dress when visiting government buildings, attending formal gatherings like state functions, weddings, funerals, dinners or the weekly Friday jumah worship service at one’s local mosque.

The customary wearing of the shemagh began with the Bedouin tribes of old. Designs and colors have varied through the centuries. Like Scottish tartans with designs and colors for the various Scottish clans, colors and designs of the shemagh have often represented the various Arabian tribes. In Saudi Arabia the predominant design today is a red, checkered effect while an alternative solid white is also fashionable.

Friday jumah service at Tukwa Mosque in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

Friday jumah service at Tukwa Mosque in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

The shemagh historically has served many purposes. It is used to shade one’s head and neck from the desert sun, but it also many other practical uses, as I discovered when overnighting in the Arabian desert with friends. On windy nights it can be used to conceal the face from blowing desert sand and dust. It can also be worn as a neck scarf to retain heat during cold weather or rolled and worn in a turban style to absorb sweat during hotter, sunny days.

According to the English language daily Saudi Gazette, the shemagh has evolved into a symbol of manhood, particularly among Saudi teenagers who are sometimes expected to wait until they graduate from high school to wear an egal with their shemagh.

Thobes and shemaghs today brandish such names as Armani, Cardin, Gucci and other leading fashion houses. The very best handmade outfits sell for thousands of dollars. But, a custom made thobe in the Al Balad (Old Town) of Jeddah can be purchased for $100 or less, depending on material and quality.

A crowning touch–the Egal

The egal is the black, woven camel or sheep wool cord that is doubled and used to hold the shemagh in place. It has an interesting history, as I learned recently from a close friend in Riyadh. When milking or grooming a camel, Bedouin tribesmen used this black cord to pin the she-camel’s front right leg in order to keep her from moving. What more convenient place to keep the egal than on one’s head!

Today, not wearing the egal is considered by some of the more pious Muslims as a sign of humility, especially those who are devoted observers of the religious teachings of the sunnah; however,  most Saudis overcome their humility with pride of Arab tradition. In the short video below, an American tourist is instructed by a Jordanian in the many varied ways to wear his new shemagh.  

Sources: The Saudi Gazette, wikipedia.com, A History of Saudi Arabia, Sam’s friend Sheikh Rayan

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March 22, 2014 - Posted by | Arab lifestyle, Arabian Desert, Jeddah History, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

6 Comments »

  1. So I didn’t get the shemagh positioned exactly correct, and my egal is a little off, but you get the idea, right? i wore this complete Saudi traditional outfit at the National Saudi Arabian Janadriyah Festival near Riyadh. I was the guest of the Kingdom’s Ministry of Defense. To my surprise a large group of Saudi young people recognized me and were shouting in English, “Welcome, Uncle Sam! We love you!”

    Comment by Sam Shropshire | March 22, 2014 | Reply

  2. Next time try the cobra style, you gonna love it.

    Comment by Hifz | March 22, 2014 | Reply

    • You must teach me, Hifz!

      Comment by Sam Shropshire | March 22, 2014 | Reply

  3. Most interesting Uncle Sam. Neat to be called “”UncleSam” by your young friends. do you think “Uncle Sam” is symbolic for America – as it was in WW II?

    Comment by Mardy Burgess | March 23, 2014 | Reply

    • Yes. Young people here have great love and affection for the the US. All use “Uncle Sam” as a term of endearment for the America. We pray that the coming talks will go well as Obama will be here before the end of March. Saudi Arabia is totally surrounded by wars and conflict. King Abdullah wants strong reassurances of US support.

      Comment by Sam Shropshire | March 23, 2014 | Reply

  4. I didn’t know this but am glad to read it. I laughed and nodded at the camel rope story. Clever and practical. Nice read. Thanks!

    Comment by AdventurerDeb | September 23, 2016 | Reply


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