Saturday, May 15, 2010


How are your brand recognition skills? What about your Arabic reading abilities?

Starbucks, Caribou Coffee, Subway, Krispy Kreme, Popeye's Chicken, McDonalds, Sbarro, KFC, Baskin Robbins, Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, California Pizza Kitchen, Macaroni Grill, and Chili's.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Kandy Man

One of the UAE's most common symbols of success and social class is the kandora that men wear. A divinely white robe (although other colors are popular) is in sharp contrast to the desert landscape and the dusty atmosphere. Whatever one wishes to say about the traditions behind this dress, kandoras were never kept this white before the advent of modern washing capabilities. If my washing machine cannot keep white dress shirts their original color, I can only imagine what it would be like washing a white robe a hundred years ago. Blemished well water or the Gulf's salt water would be even less effective whiteners than my washing machine. Now, dry cleaners are as common as payday lenders at home, popping up at most strip malls and at the exits in the malls. The mysterious power of bleach and other harsh chemicals aid the cleaning process to leave the kandora pressed and as white as new every time it is worn. I have seen two dirty kandoras since I've been here, one, from someone who looked like he had sat in an ice cream sandwich and, more dramatically, from a boy who had hot chocolate poured down his frontside during the National Day celebrations at school. Because of the importance that Emiratis place in separating and affirming their identity in a country where they are the minority, the kandora is an outward declaration of birthright, with the privileges and respect that are supposed to follow.

Now, the kandora stands as the national dress not because of a specific history that they represent but because of the fact that they overcame this history. There would be no pride in wearing a kandora if it granted no admiration and was perceived by others as a sign of the backwardness of the country. Since Dubai and the rest of the Emirates rose above their history of fishing and pearl-diving, the kandora now means much more than its formerly utilitarian purpose. Consequently, the clothing does symbolize more than its mere historicity: it is traditional. By claiming it as a tradition, it transforms it from an extended historical practice to a category that conveys a wider array of experience. Traditional, then, is defined not by what has been continued from the past but how a practice has been purposefully reinterpreted in a way that separates it from the past which preceeded the tradition in the first place.

The fact that the
kandora was worn in the past lends itself to the fact that it can be considered traditional but it does not require it to be so. In other words, it is sufficient but not necessary for the kandora to be considered traditional. Consequently, not everything from the past is traditional, and likewise, everything that is traditional is not necessarily from the past. Traditions can be invented based on the past or removed from it altogether--it doesn't matter. What matters, what gives traditions their meaning and symbolic value, is what they symbolize now and how they are given a meaning that is categorically different from a similar practice that would not be deemed traditional. Why is it traditional to wear kandoras but not live in tents or mud huts in the desert? Such a question gets to the heart of the issue of how tradition is classified.

kandora celebrates overcoming and rising above a history where their ancestors had lived in one of the most desolate corners of our globe. Living in tents in the desert or alabaster and mud houses along the coast does not carry the same symbolic appeal as a white kandora. There is no imaginable way to make this housing symbolize the country's wealth and triumph.

Since there seems to be some disjunction between the
kandora's historical function and the more recent symbolic value behind it, the next question becomes, is it the medium (the robe itself) or the message that gives something its traditional value? Is the kandora traditional because it is something worn from the past or is it traditional because of its renewed meaning? If the tradition is defined solely by the medium, then anything from the past would be traditional. If the message is what matters, the transmission has the potential to be devoid of any lived history. Traditions could be invented with no bearings to the past. If this is the case, what is communicated is what matters regardless of a traditions actual history. The kandora, and tradition in general, seems to encompass both the medium and the message. It combines a normative power (its message) with enduring practices from the past (whether this past is historical or imagined).

Both the potency and irony of tradition come from this dichotomy. To an insider, (the Emirati wearing a
kandora), this dress is the a visual of social class and privilege. It separates the local from the majority of the people living in their country, with all the respect and admiration that they are due. For an outsider, when the kandora is claimed as traditional dress, there is a disjuncture between its role in the past and how it is worn today. This disjuncture breaks open the casing surrounding this tradition and its underlying social power lays exposed. Without separating locals from expatriates and tourists, the traditional dress would be meaningless and would not be brought forth into the future. Since the kandora does still serve a purpose, its wear will continue in the UAE's identity and nation-building efforts.