Susan Al Shahri

Salalah Summer: The Thobe Before the Rains

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As we survive one of the worst heat waves Salalah has witnessed in the past few years, I am grateful for many things in life.

I’m grateful for airconditioners that work.

I am grateful for a demanding office job that keeps me at work until after 5pm when the heat is slightly more bearable and I am able to walk to my car without turning into a puddle in the parking lot.

I am grateful for iced tea, sunglasses and cool showers.

Most of all though, I’m grateful for my thobe budhail.

If you’re not familiar with the term, you’re probably new to Oman. Thobe budhail translates into ‘Father of the Tail’. Exclusive to the South of Oman, it is basically a loose-fitting square colourful garment with holes for the hands and head. The back of the dress is about a foot longer than the front and it comes with a big matching rectangular headscarf, commonly referred to as a losee or leeso.

There are many folktales attempting to explain the tail at the back of the dress. One common tale tells the story of a man who fell in love with a woman and she refused to marry him. He traced her footsteps to know where she lived and put a curse on her. To protect other girls, a tail was added to the dresses to erase their footsteps.

Another myth has it that a king used to sprinkle magic powder on the ground and any woman whose feet touched the powder would fall madly in love with him. To protect themselves, Dhofari women would use their tail to sweep the powder away. Many Dhofaris tend to agree that a few generations ago the thobe budhail sported a leather tail to erase women’s footsteps in the sand when they were out herding their animals.

Regardless of how it all started, the tradition of the thobe budhail is still going strong in Dhofar. Every single female over the age of about 12 wears the thobe budhail at home at all times. That goes pretty much without exception. Even babies wear them occasionally! They are available in every type of material imaginable from delicate silk to denim. Day-today thobes are cotton and come in a thousand different prints from delicate flower prints to wild African designs.

Some even have designer brand names illegally printed all over them. Recently, I saw someone wearing a thobe that had ‘Blackberry’ written all over it. I’ve also seen Prada, Louis Vuitton and Versace. Day-to-day thobes cost about RO3 each and are worn by all females; rich and poor, young and old. My wardrobe at home hosts about 40 of them.

For special occasions, women may don thobes made of slightly more expensive material. Wedding thobes are usually made of velvet and have a million little crystals sewn onto them. These can cost up to RO500. Since women in Dhofar are very much into fashion, the thobe budhail business is always thriving. There is an entire section of Salalah’s main stretch – Al Salaam Street – dedicated to thobe budhail shops. It is lined with about 40 or 50 shops selling different prints.

A colleague of mine who used to own one of the shops on that stretch told me that during the weeks before Eid, he would sell up to 500 thobes a day in his tiny shop. The only argument against this popular garment is that it’s not very practical, especially for active women. I’ve almost mastered the art of skilfully hitching it up while doing housework, but it can be a nuisance sometimes. Wearing them can also enhance weight gain in my opinion because it conceals pretty much everything. You also need to replace them regularly because their lifespan is short. I’m not a big fan of shopping, so I usually buy five to ten at a time.

As far as I’m concerned, the advantages of wearing them completely outweigh the disadvantages. They’re beautiful. The way they flow is extremely elegant and feminine. They’re comfortable. They’re affordable. In extreme situations, they act as a mobile dressing room. They’re great gifts. Last but not least, they’re perfect for hot weather. Did I already mention that I’m not a fan of heat waves? Monsoon in Dhofar is 17 days away!

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This article first appeared in Muscat Daily 

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