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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,, A History of Saudi Arabia, Sam’s friend Sheikh Rayan

March 22, 2014 Posted by | Arab lifestyle, Arabian Desert, Jeddah History, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

History of our universe written in the Arabian Desert

Meteorites are found frequently in numerous parts of the Arabian Desert.

Black “space rocks,” or meteorites, are found in numerous parts of the Arabian Desert. Sam found a nice one just the other day.


History of our solar system 

Meteorite scientist

Florian Zurfluh, a doctoral student at the University of Bern, conducts an in-situ X-ray fluorescence analysis of the freshly found achondrite meteorite.

The oldest matter found on earth originates from outer space. This debris from far away worlds falls from the dark depths of space onto the ever-changing surface of planet Earth. These meteorites provide valuable information about the early history of our solar system.  

Scientists are now investigating unusual surface areas of the Arabian Peninsula where meteorites are found, often in dense concentrations.  In these black stones one learns about the early beginnings of  the birth and death of celestial bodies. Today, in almost every country there are scientists who work on decoding the hidden messages of this space debris.

Most meteorites are fragments of asteroids, some containing organic matter. Some preserve information on the chemical make-up of the solar system before the formation of planets. Other meteorites found in the Arabian Desert are known to be impact debris from the surfaces of the Moon and Mars. Martian and lunar meteorites, which are rare, are often fragments from the past, having been knocked off into space millions or even billions of years ago.

Mars literally in our hands

Meteorites provide the only samples from Mars that we have in hand to analyze in a laboratory. However, we do have material collected by astronauts from the Moon. Lunar meteorites provide clues to early processes in the Earth-Moon system, such as the a period known as the “late heavy bombardment.” That’s the period when huge numbers of meteorites pelted the Earth and Moon some 3.9 billion years ago, just when life may have started on our planet.

“Searching for meteorites is of paramount importance for astrobiology and planetary science,” according to Dr. Beda Hofmann, head of Earth Science at the Natural History Museum in Bern, Switzerland. Hofmann and Edwin Gnos of the Natural History Museum in Geneva, Switzerland are leaders in meteorite hunts taking place in Oman.

Hiking in the Arabian desert near Ryhah, Sam found this piece of space history.

Hiking in the Arabian desert near Rumah, Sam found this piece of space history.


Antarctica and desert hunting grounds

For 30 years, the frozen desert of Antarctica has been one of the richest sources of pristine meteorites. The black stones are easy to pick out from the white snow, and there are no rivers or other natural processes to carry the meteorites away.

More recently, the hot deserts of Africa and Australia also have produced new meteorite discoveries. The dry conditions in deserts tend to preserve stones, and the lack of rain means they are less likely to become eroded or be covered over by sediment.

In 1999, an incredible number of meteorites appeared on the market due to activity by private collectors and dealers.

Oman a big source of space rocks

Within the last ten years Oman has yielded almost one-fifth of the world’s meteorites, a huge cash of more than 5,000 fragments weighing greater than four tons. The Oman finds include one-third of all known lunar meteorites, and a handful of specimens from Mars.

Amateur collectors are cautioned to accurately document their finds, which will make life a bit easier for the scientists who might want to study the rocks. Amateurs found the first Mars meteorites in Oman; in fact it was the appearance (and sale) of those rocks and lunar meteorites that caught the attention of a group of Swiss researchers. They enlisted the support of the government of Oman, and on their first mission in 2001, the team recovered a Mars sample.

Dr. Beda Hofmann is proud that his team’s meteorite collection is conducted in collaboration with the Omani government. “So far we have obtained permission to take all samples necessary to Switzerland,” he says, “but the samples remain the property of the Sultanate of Oman.” Eventually representative samples will be displayed in the Natural History Museum of Muscat, the Omani capital.

Sam with Bedouin herder near the location on his meteor find.

Sam with Bedouin sheep herder near the location of his meteorite find.


Fossils from outerspace

Meteorites are the fossils from which geologists recover the history of our solar system, but most of the meteorites found in Oman did not fall on Earth recently. They have been lying in the desert for several thousand years. A major thrust of the Swiss research is to learn how the environment contaminates meteorites, and see how a meteorite might change its appearance and composition prior to discovery and conservation.

The deserts of Oman seem to be a rich source of unique meteorites, and the precious fragments can tell planetary scientists about conditions in the early solar system when stony objects first formed. These fragments subsequently were glued together by gravitational attraction to construct planets, moons and asteroids. By helping us reconstruct the early history of our solar system and our planet, meteorites bring us a step closer to understanding what conditions were necessary for the origin of life on our world.

Our past, present, future

While meteorites are important because they reveal the very source of life on Earth, they have also contributed to the development of our life-sustaining environment.

Meteorites provide not only a glimpse into the past but also a window to the future. They represent, in a very real sense, both birth and death; creation and destruction.

Today, they are being studied because of their significant threat to life on our planet.  With increasing regularity, we are discovering asteroids and comets with unusual orbits — ones that take them dangerously close to Earth and the Sun.

Though just a very few of these bodies are potential hazards to Earth, by understanding more about these “near earth objects” early on, we are better prepared to take appropriate measures to head off a collision with our planet in the future.

For sure, I am joining the hunt for these fascinating interplanetary objects. I have marked carefully the coordinates of where I found my meteorite and hope to return there in the near future.

The following brief video helps us better understand meteorites and to easily distinguish them from meteoroids and meteors.

Sources: NASA,, Science Magazine, National Geographic, University of Bern archives,, Hossam Malallah

March 12, 2014 Posted by | Arabian Desert, Archeology, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

British duo cross Arabian Desert with cart in tow

Alastair Humphreys and Leon McCarron pull their cart

Alastair Humphreys and Leon McCarron pulling their cart

Cart tugging across “the Empty Quarter”

Humphreys and McCarron with their cart

Humphreys and McCarron with their cart

The pinkish-orange sand dunes of Saudi Arabia: a beautiful part of our earth’s biodiversity–challenge any who seek to cross its barren stretches. British adventurers Alastair Humphreys and Leon McCarron seek to better the camel in the Arabian desert. “The locals we met were the kindest, friendliest and most welcoming, but they thought what we were doing was completely crazy.”

Humphreys and McCarron crossed “the empty quarter.”  The Empty Quarter (in Arabic known as Rub’ al Khali) is the largest sand desert in the world. It encompasses just about all of the southern third of the Arabian Peninsula, including Saudi Arabia and areas of Oman, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. The desert covers some 650,000 square kilometres (250,000 sq mi). 

The goal of the two men was to retrace the footsteps of a great British legend–Wilfred Thesiger, who had made two separate desert explorations in the 1940s charting vast tracts of the Empty Quarter.

Truth be told!

Just as I, these two adventurers came to Saudi Arabia having received dire warnings of terrorists and impending danger. And, just as I, Humphreys and McCarron found themselves safe–safer than some places we might be in our home countries.

“It was very safe,” Humphreys said. “Before I went a lot of people were thinking  ‘Oh you’re going to the Middle East. You’ll definitely be killed by Islamic terrorists!’ but it was so much safer than even the United Kingdom.”

Read more about these adventurers at:

Or, watch this YouTube video describing their incredible desert adventure:


Sources: CNN, Wikipedia, YouTube,

February 4, 2014 Posted by | Arabian Desert, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Saudi Arabian falconry–an amazing UN World Heritage Sport

Falconry has a long history stretching from ancient Mongolia to Europe and the Middle East.

Falconry has a long history stretching from ancient Mongolia to Europe and the Middle East.

Sam is introduced to "Sushan," a Bedouin hunting falcon.

Sam is introduced to “Shuja,” a Bedouin hunting falcon.

“Shuja” pays me a visit

Abdulla Al Ghamdi and two of my Saudi Bedouin military friends, brothers Majed and Fahad Olayan, dropped by my office a couple of days ago for a surprise visit with their Saker falcon “Shuja” (Arabic for courageous or brave).  “Shuja” is being trained for hunting rabbits in the nearby deserts.

The falcon, among birds known as “raptors” or “birds of prey,” has amazingly acute vision and can identify prey at a distance of several kilometres. It can fly at speeds of over 100 km per hour, approaching 200 km per hour during dives.

The art of falconry is a big deal here in Saudi Arabia, with well-trained birds selling for thousands of dollars.

Hunting with birds of prey

Falconry has been practiced in many forms for thousands of years by many cultures.  Some specialists place falconry’s origins somewhere between 4,000 and 6,000 BC in the plains of Mongolia. Other historians believe that the practice could be much older, with its beginnings in the deserts of the Middle East, particularly here on the Arabian Peninsula.

Wherever it began, falconry, which was originally used for subsistence and not sport, was well established in both Asia and the Middle East by 2,000 BC, and gradually made its way westward to Greece, Italy and eventually to Medieval Europe.

European falconry

Beginning in the early 6th century and extending through the Middle Ages, the popularity of falconry (or “hawking”) surged in Europe. It was the sport of royalty for centuries. The possession of falcons and other birds of prey was considered a status symbol.

And talking about regulation, get this! By the 17th century in England, falconry came to be governed by a strict set of customs called the Laws of Ownership, which dictated the birds of prey that were permitted to be flown by citizens of various social ranks. For example, a king could fly a gyrfalcon; a duke, a rock falcon; an earl, a peregrine; a yeoman, a goshawk; and a servant, a kestrel.

During the reign of Edward III, 1327-77, stealing a trained raptor was punishable by death.

Falconry is believed by many to have been a part of Arabian Bedouin life for thousands of years. These ancient birds of prey are still used for hunting rabbits and desert quail.

Saudi falconry today

Once the pastime of the rich, falconry now continues as a highly structured sport that demands a lot of time and serious commitment. For some Bedouins it remains a primary method of hunting rabbits and other desert animals.

Saudi birds are generally bred in captivity and when hunting, often have a small radio transmitter attached under the tail for tracking.

Training a falcon is time-consuming and requires enormous patience since the falconer must carry the bird on his arm for several hours each day. That might be possible for the Bedouin, but try fitting that into a regular 21st century work schedule!

The falcon hunting season here in Saudi Arabia is from October to March. The two most popular falcons are the Saker and the Peregrine. The Saker is valued both for its outstanding beauty and for its ability to withstand adverse weather conditions. Because the Saker completes its annual moult early, it can start hunting in October, while the Peregrine may not have sufficient feathers until January.

Nothing compares to God’s falcon

In the Old Testament (Torah) book of Job there is a reference to the keen sight of this wondrous raptor, “No bird of prey knows that hidden path, no falcon’s eye has seen it.”

The celebrated 13th-century Persian Muslim poet, in his work “Mathnawi,” wrote, “The falcon made the king’s hand his joy, and became indifferent to the search for carrion. All animals from the gnat to the elephant are of the family of God and depend on Him for sustenance. What a sustainer is God!”

The motion picture industry has championed films like The Maltese Falcon and Day of the Falcon. And in America we have our Atlanta Falcons football team. Oregon has it’s Falcon Cove. The US Air Force has its Falcon F-16 and Raptor F-22 fighter jets. But certainly no man-made imaginary compares to God’s incredible creation of this eagle-eyed, warp-speed hunter of the Arabian Peninsula.

The United Nations has proclaimed falconry a World Heritage Sport. Watch this short video I found on YouTube about this popular Saudi sport:

November 13, 2012 Posted by | Animal Rights, Arabian Desert, Geography, Jeddah History, Travel | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Sam’s adopted Arabian camels!

Sam has been a lover of camels since he was a child. He enjoys visiting his camel friends here in Saudi Arabia.

Samuel Shropshire has been a lover of camels since he was a child. He enjoys visiting his camel friends here in Saudi Arabia.

Updated 6 June 2015… 

Sam with his adopted camel "Leila" in the Arabian desert near Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

Sam with his adopted camel “Leila” in the Arabian desert near Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

My adopted friends!

When my Saudi friend, Ra’id Baty, heard that I was interested in camels, he invited me to go to his family’s farm, about 30 miles outside Jeddah. I’ve always been interested in legends and stories about camels—as told in historical narratives about Marco Polo and the famous Silk Road or in the Bible. When I was a child, my mother would often read to me from a book entitled The God of Abraham.  I remember being enamored by the colorful pictures of camel caravans. I began collecting camel toys and figures–big and small, plastic, wooden, leather, etc.

Camel facts–“ships of the desert”

   The camel has a single hump;
     The dromedary, two.
   Or else, the other way around.
     I’m never sure. Are you?    (“The Camel” by Ogden Nash)

Well, it is the other way round! There are two kinds of camels: (1) the Arabian camel, also called dromedary, which has one hump, and (2) the Bactrian camel, which has two humps. In the past, hybrids (crossbreeds) of the two species were used widely in Asia. These hybrid camels had one extra-long hump and were larger and stronger than either of their parents.

Camels have been domesticated for thousands of years. The dromedaries may once have lived wild in Arabia, but none of them live in the wild today. There are several million Arabian camels, and today most of them live with the desert people of Africa and Asia. A well-bred Arabian can sell for millions of dollars! Known as “the ship of the desert,” the camel has in past centuries caravanned heavy burdens for thousands of miles along African and Asian trade routes. You can easily argue that international trade was founded on the backs of camels.

Number one “green animal”

Sam with camels in South Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

Sam with camels in South Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. (Photo / John Elliot)

The Qur’an asks Muslims to consider the camel as symbolic of God’s wonders in creation. Surah (chapter) 88, verse 17 says, “Do they not look at camels and how they are made?” Yes, God indeed came up with an incredible design for the camel! It’s a marvelous creature. It is the foremost “green animal” in the world. It recycles practically all its liquids in a very unique fashion.

The camel’s nostrils are designed to trap large amounts of water vapor as it exhales—returning the water to its body fluids. Its kidneys have a remarkable ability to recycle water. When it urinates, it produces a thick syrupy material which is said to have homeopathic abilities. (Now think of that the next time you pay $10 for a tiny tube of triple-antibiotic ointment! Maybe there’s a market for camel urine?)

When this beast of burden defecates, its dung is dry! It can be used for building fires, cooking and keeping warm, very much like those Duraflame fire logs we use in our fireplaces! And the camel’s milk is not only nutritious, it is also said to have curative powers. Its red blood cells are not designed as other mammals. They are oval, not round, and thus they are able to swell, and not burst, when the camel takes in large amounts of water.

A full-grown camel can drink 35 to 40 gallons of water at a time and not need to drink again for months. Its hump doesn’t store water (a common myth), but it contains nutritiously rich, fatty deposits. Because this fat is concentrated in the hump it shields the camel’s body from the desert sun. For camels, everything is adapted for life in the desert. Their feet are broadened to walk on sand. The huge feet of camels help them to walk on sand without sinking into it. A camel’s foot can be as big as a large plate.The camel’s long legs also prevent the animal’s main torso from being terribly affected by the reflected heat of the desert sands.

Muhammad and the “crying camel”

Islam, contrary to the beliefs of some, is a religion that greatly respects life in all its forms. The prophet Muhammad told his companions many stories encouraging kindness to animals. He spoke kind-heartedly about camels as “God’s beings.” He taught that camels, along with all animals, must be treated with gentleness and care. (In Islam, this respect for life, extends to plants as well:  “Even looking after plants and trees is an act of virtue.”)

We should note that King Solomon in the Old Testament Proverbs expressed similarly, “A righteous man cares for the needs of his animal” (Proverbs 12:10). Muhammad is said to have voiced his concern for a “crying camel.” According to Anas bin Malik, one of Muhammad’s close companions, the prophet came across a camel tied to a post. The animal looked desperately malnourished. As Muhammad approached, the camel began to speak to the prophet. Sobbing, the camel complained, “My master overburdens me. I’m never given sufficient food or water. When I am weak and barely able to walk, he beats me. I can hardly bear this difficult life.”

It’s told that Muhammad searched out the owner, and exhorted him, “Don’t you fear God because of your poor treatment of this camel?” The prophet explained that God had given the camel into the man’s care, and he had a duty to treat the camel well. Humbly the owner accepted Muhammad’s rebuke and immediately repented, declaring loudly before all who were present, “I have done wrong.” He promised the prophet that he would extend greater care to all his camels.

Fresh camel milk is soon coming to a store near you!

Camelicious milk is already at local supermarkets here. Exporting is now underway to nearby countries and several  European markets.

Fresh camel’s milk is already being mass produced at the Camelicious camel farm in Dubai. His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai, has invested significantly to make sure all Arabian people have access to quality camel milk.

Creamy and nutritionally rich, camel milk has been a common sight on the shelves of UAE supermarkets since 2006, and it’s now being exported. It is said to be higher in protein, potassium, iron and vitamin C than cow’s milk, yet it contains just half the fat and less than half the cholesterol. It’s also said to be low in lactose. According to Dr. Nisar A. Wani, the head of reproductive biology at Dubai’s state-run Camel Reproduction Centre, camel milk can boost immunity.

Thanks to the camel’s “nanobodies” (antibodies unique to camels), it’s a virtual healing center on hoofs. Wani has great hopes for the future. He envisions genetically modified camels as “walking pharmacies” serving up milk that can be used both to prevent and treat health problems such as gastric ulcers, arthritis and blood-related ailments. Camel milk is now available in strawberry, chocolate, date and saffron flavors. But why stop at milk? Al Nassma is a Dubai-based company that makes camel-milk chocolates, and Starbucks coffee shops here on the Arabian peninsula have already included camel milk in their beverage lineup.

In Dubai you are greeted by the local Starbucks’ staff, “Have you tried our new camel-chino?” And, be sure, they come in short, tall, grande or venti sizes! Here’s a short video about camels! A Saudi businessman talks about his herd:

May 21, 2012 Posted by | Animal Rights, Arabian Desert, Geography | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments