My mother wasn’t done. “A non-white thobe communicates to your Pakistani friends that you are undergoing a mid-life crisis. All will be forgiven.”
The thobe was sprawled on the bed, as if waiting for its mannequin. Two madas Gulfie sandals were guarding the thobe from my father, who regarded the long white garment suspiciously. “Should I put the headpiece on too?” he asked my mother.
“Ghutra,” she replied. “If you plan to wear it, know the name.”
Baba scratched his cheek, walked around the bed and contemplated the thobe from a different angle. “Ghutra,” he repeated.
My mother raised the thobe in front of her and remarked how it was the same material as a shalwar-kameez, only longer, all the way to the ankles, and without slits at the sides. Baba backed away and scowled, as if her touching the thobe meant that now he’d have to wear it no matter what.
Haleem wore it, why couldn’t he, my father asked. It was a daily question. Haleem was our neighbor and, formerly, a Pakistani citizen. He dressed in the thobe because he’d married a Saudi woman, and through her, acquired citizenship. For a Pakistani such as Baba to undergo a sudden fashion metamorphosis after working in Saudi Arabia for fifteen years would draw attention. But in a matter of months, he was up for his first promotion from Associate to Full Professor of Chemical Engineering at the King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals. Could a change to the local dress seal the deal?
To be clear, many South Asians in Saudi Arabia wore the thobe to work. But they were fruit vendors and minor merchants dealing in carpets, picture frames, and the like. Never professors, who opted for Western clothing. Except Haleem; but he was viewed by the Pakistani community in Dhahran as an opportunist.
It was a risk. What if word got around among his Pakistani friends and colleagues? If unsuccessful, the undertaking would become stuff of legend. But Baba wanted news of the fashion switch to circulate elsewhere: through Saudi circles. The Dean of the Chemical Engineering Department and the Rector of the university — both of whom were Saudis — would opine when it came to the promotion, as would the government, but no one knew how much weight each review or recommendation carried. Baba admitted to my mother that it was safest to put on this show so that report of his behavior could reach even the remotest corridors of power.
He had the Dean’s vote in the bag. A humble man, the Dean often summoned my father into his office for no reason but to gallop into conversation about his childhood. Reeking of alcohol obtained via U.S. Consulate connections, he liked to tell Baba how during the Eid, such was their poverty that his Bedouin relatives huddled around a single egg and cut it into eight portions. Now he and his two sons drove matching Mercedes; they were so spoiled that it embarrassed him that the university had tainted its standards by admitting them on account of his position. One day when the oil dried up, he and his now-rich relatives would return to the nomadic life of the desert, while airplanes crossing from other countries mocked them from above. What was unique about the Dean was that he was the only Saudi Baba knew who felt guilty about his obscene wealth. My father guessed he might initially laugh at his change in dress, but ultimately lament that had he possessed an ounce of Baba’s ambition, he would’ve hit religious instruction hard, and risen in the clerical ranks.
Head of the university, the Rector lived two streets from us, in a much bigger house. Daily, he walked the neighborhood in the evening. Baba made it a point to accidentally bump into him from time to time and exchange pleasantries. He planned to do the same in the coming weeks, except this time wearing a thobe.
As for the Saudi government, Baba’s hope was for the Dean and Rector to spread the word about his fashion awakening.
A few days passed. Baba hung the pressed thobe on the master bathroom door. The Gulfie sandals migrated with the garment and temporarily functioned as bathroom slippers. Baba believed he couldn’t slip and take a tumble in the thobe, but those sandals might pose a problem when walking through the university. What better way to train than to wear them from time to time on a wet floor? After a few rounds of practice, he decided the sandals were too precious to subject to the bathroom. “They resemble exotic fish,” he said. True, there was the loop for the big toe which looked like an animal’s eye, and that majestic sweep of leather which covered the other toes, resembling the colorful scale of a fish you might find in the Red Sea. This wasn’t the first time he’d marveled at the aesthetic design of the slippers. Every time we’d go to one of those working class shops with sandals hung on the wall—the type of marketplace where South Asian merchants wore thobes—he’d comment on the sandals’ resemblance to exotic fish. To me, they looked like dappled armadillo carcasses hanging in a butcher shop. In any case, he was finally wearing the colorful fish, and too good for the bathroom, he nonetheless needed practice walking in them, so they became house sandals.
The sandals were getting exercise, but the thobe continued to hang on different walls of the master bedroom. White to begin with, it started to spook us. It didn’t help matters that Baba refused to try it on, even in private. One day, while both of us were staring at it for no reason, he said to me that he had to do this so I wouldn’t have to. I understood what he meant.
The Saudi boys called me Hindi. Since many of the migrant laborers in Saudi Arabia were from South India, the message was that we were no better than them. The other accusation was that we weren’t authentic Muslims, and might even be idolaters, which for Pakistanis — who already overcompensated when it came to religion and visited Makkah more than Arabs — was especially damning.
Though I lived with Saudis in the university housing compound, I had little contact with them. I knew as much about the private realm of their cultural world as I did about Thermodynamics, Desalination, and Heat Transfer (there was no Google in the eighties) — classes Baba taught at the university. My friends were from all over the world, but not Saudi Arabia. Saudi nationals weren’t allowed to enroll in the American school we attended. Our families didn’t mix.
The closest interaction I had with locals was on our weekly shopping bus which drove faculty kids from university housing to the one mall in Dhahran. It was ironic for us South Asian expats, who had nevertheless learned our American history well that, while riding to the mall, we were relegated to the front of the bus. The Saudi boys occupied the back. And weekly, trotting to the hip sector of the bus, at least one of them threw a menacing look my way, and called me Hindi. My Pakistani friends and I never asked them why they called us that. We had an idea. Since many of the migrant laborers in Saudi Arabia were from South India, the message was that we were no better than them. The other accusation was that we weren’t authentic Muslims, and might even be idolaters, which for Pakistanis — who already overcompensated when it came to religion and visited Makkah more than Arabs — was especially damning.
If only the Saudis had viewed me as a budding American. Westerners they feared. At home, I was indoctrinated to American culture. Simon and Garfunkel wafted through our house on weekends. Daily, Baba came home from work, stationed himself on the couch, lit up a cigar and watched episodes of The Golden Girls, Columbo and The Cosby Show, sometimes flicking his ash on a copy of Time magazine. This, he’d tell us, is what people did in America after a long day at work. Sundays, the two of us watched three-month old football games televised by one of the local English language channels. It wasn’t until I went to the United States to attend high school that I realized all the TV I’d been watching in Saudi Arabia was months and sometimes years behind the premiere date. Our weekly treat was a dinner at Hardee’s, one of the few American fast food chains in Dhahran.
Where Baba earned a scholarship in his twenties to study in the United States, I was being groomed for an earlier emigration. Prior to angling for this promotion, it had been his wish for me to earn a full ride to an East Coast boarding school. The oil company where many of his friends worked covered almost the entire cost of overseas education for their employees’ children. But Baba didn’t work for an oil company. An Associate Professor for one of the national universities, Baba’s position made us firmly upper middle class. Since most Saudis and expats lived in similar houses, a better gauge of wealth was the car you drove, and also whether you walked the few meters from your door to toss your trash in the main dumpster, or hired a servant to do it. We had someone come in to do the dishes daily, but couldn’t afford a full-time maid. The trash was my job. In the five minutes it took to walk across our lush green grass of imported topsoil, the Saudi humidity gnawed at my skin and burned my neck.
To avoid further education in Pakistan, Bahrain, or a local Arabic school masquerading as a British English-medium institution, I had to win a scholarship to a boarding school. Baba’s running joke with me was that if I did get some type of financial aid, not only would he make up the rest of the tuition but furnish me with a bride. A Saudi student in one of his classes had once shared with him that his own father had promised him a second wife if he earned straight “As” in all of his courses. Baba deliberately gave him a “B” that semester even though, according him, the boy had probably done enough in class to embark on another honeymoon. I secured the scholarship (though I politely declined Baba’s jesting invitation to enter into an arranged marriage). Receiving the news first from my school counselor, my father rushed home. As he approached the long street with manicured hedges and overflowing bougainvillea that emptied into our house, he savagely honked our car’s horn in celebration. The only other time Baba had honked like that was when Benazir Bhutto first became Prime Minister, marking the return of democracy to Pakistan.
The promotion date was only a few weeks away and the thobe still hung mournfully in the master bedroom. A new plan was under consideration. What if Baba drove to the university in western clothes, but changed into the thobe before class and office hours? Because hardly any Saudis worked late, he could exit the university campus with the same outfit from the morning. Any gossip session with the Dean or run-in with the Rector required the thobe, but Baba calculated that he could strategically avoid his Pakistani colleagues if he timed his outfit changes just right.
We were in the living room, discussing fashion pros and cons, but Baba kept glancing at the master bedroom nervously.
“Go to it,” my mother said. “The thobe is lonely.”
Baba let out a constipated laugh.
“What about variety?” my mother asked. “The thobes can be brown or blue, the sandals maroon. You opted for a white thobe and boring black sandals.”
Baba reminded her that there seemed to be some interesting silver needlework on the scales of the sandals. Besides, he just wanted to make a statement of intent. The designation of Full Professor was as good as tenure; the thobe would act as a conduit to demonstrate to the university that he intended to stay until retirement. Getting too flashy might send mixed signals.
My mother wasn’t done. “A non-white thobe communicates to your Pakistani friends that you are undergoing a mid-life crisis. All will be forgiven.”
Baba’s Pakistani colleagues were also PhDs from poor families. They’d worked hard, obtained their doctorates from countries like Japan, Sweden, and Australia and ended up at a moneyed oasis that paid academics way too much. Even if the Pakistani university community as a whole mocked him, surely, as individuals, his friends would understand? The problem was, in Baba’s mind, none of his colleagues had struggled through early life as much as he had. They couldn’t fathom his drive to promotion.
Once when my mother was particularly annoyed with me, she commanded me to wait outside the tenement while she took my sister to the bathroom. She challenged me to prove my worth and race my sister’s feces down the alley and into the bazaar. Certain the excrement would win, she wagered ten rupees. We operated on the honor system.
Every summer, my sister and I had to spend a week in his ancestral home in Gujrat, Pakistan. The neighborhood consisted of Pakistani-style tenements, where rooms were jammed into other rooms, and there was no plumbing. An open-air slab of cement closed off by four wooden planks, one functioning as a door, was used to both bathe and defecate. The refuse emptied into canals on either side of tight alleys that visibly carried the sewage away to the local river. Once when my mother was particularly annoyed with me, she commanded me to wait outside the tenement while she took my sister to the bathroom. She challenged me to prove my worth and race my sister’s feces down the alley and into the bazaar. Certain the excrement would win, she wagered ten rupees. We operated on the honor system.
Summer nights were hot. With no air-conditioning, everyone slept on a small partially open-air bridge that connected two rooms of the house. Bats dangled on the part of the bridge that was covered and we slept looking up at the creatures. My relatives joked that compared to them I was at a distinct disadvantage because I slept with my mouth open, an icy insinuation that it was the only advantage they enjoyed over me in life.
It was in this gnashing mess of a housing scheme that my father grew up, studied sixteen hours a day, and somehow earned a scholarship to obtain Masters and PhD degrees in the United States. The neighborhood produced successful businessmen, but he was the only member of the community to go abroad for higher education.
As soon as we touched down in Gujrat, we’d start hitting all the residences in the tenement. Almost everyone in the neighborhood could be traced as a distant relative. People actively married within the community and rarely moved away. Gossip floated in the air. Everyone was judged. Which was why his Pakistani colleagues’ impending judgment was playing so heavily on Baba’s mind. Away from the homeland, they were the closest thing to relatives that he had.
Though I never visited the ancestral homes of the other Pakistani professors in Dhahran, I still imagined Baba’s to have been the most downtrodden. At community get-togethers, he boasted of Gujrat’s poverty. It became a badge of honor, something competitive.
My father often subjected both my sister and me to the epic of rags-to-upper-middle-class-affluence that he had woven around himself. You could never achieve what I achieved, but the good thing is, you don’t have to, was his stock line. I had been hoping that my scholarship might dampen his narrative. Instead, the business with the thobe started.
The first time Baba tried on the thobe in the bathroom, he didn’t come out for hours. My mother thought he’d maybe slipped on account of those Gulfie sandals which he’d decided to wear in there for one final training. She called out to him, but he kept saying: Not yet, not yet.
When he emerged, Baba looked like exactly what he was: a Pakistani dressed in a thobe for the first time. The ghutra on his head was askew. His stomach created a perfect circular outline on the garment making him appear slightly pregnant. The thobe snatched at his neck and armpits. He wondered why, in such a humid environment, the Arabs didn’t create a garment that was more forgiving, like the loose-fitting shalwar-kameez. Adding to the stomach-tight discomfort, Baba was duck-footed which made his initial catwalk modeling of the outfit awkward. The two-week beard he’d decided to grow last minute for extra credit made the overall appearance oddly costumey.
Light-skinned for a Punjabi-Pakistani, Baba’s color approached the fairer Pashtuns of Pakistan’s north. His nose didn’t look like those of men in the Gulf. It seemed too small for the ghutra, and his eyebrows too thick. A lot of Saudi professors wore glasses; Baba didn’t. There was also the distinct absence of suffocating cologne which was a calling card of well-to-do locals.
Baba leant into the counter of my mother’s vanity mirror and dropped his head, lamenting that he was no better than a Baboo, an Indian civil servant who, pre and post-Partition, was a wannabe British aristocrat.
“He was born three years after Partition,” my mother offered. “When we first married, he spent two hours in front of the mirror setting his tie and hair. I thought he was the last Baboo left on Earth.”
“Yes, yes, you are correct,” Baba said. “There was no reason to dress like that after Partition. That was about a deep Pakistani self-hatred. This is about advancement.” I think what annoyed him most was the perfect round outline created by his stomach.
“You don’t want to look more handsome than them,” my mother tried to reassure him. “That isn’t the aim of the exercise, no?”
There was no time, he complained. The promotion process would commence in a matter of weeks. He couldn’t be seen like this, in an outfit more Halloween than university professor.
“A thought just came to me,” my mother said. “Don’t you need more than one? More than one thobe and at least two pairs of sandals? You cannot wear the same set daily to class.”
This threw Baba into a full-blown panic. The garment had been hanging on various doors of the master bedroom for weeks. We’d discussed different colors. He even took it to the drycleaners and brought it back in its solitary plastic covering. Why did it never occur to him that he’d need multiple thobes?
My departure for boarding school coincided with the promotion decision. I also needed special clothes. I’d been admitted to an institution that required its students to be attired in ties and blazers for all classes and meals. I owned just one suit and tie that I’d bought for my middle school prom.
Only twelve, the prospect of leaving home filled me with anxiety. Baba left Gujrat for the United States when he was twenty-three and he had left home a hero. My scholarship to boarding school should have nudged me into family lore, but my father had been a poor orphan who had made it to the United States from the sewers of Gujrat. How could I compete with that? And now the achievement that I thought would bring me recognition was already being swept away by the glow of his looming promotion.
Baba didn’t wear the thobe part-time at the office. It was too much work to change, he said. Plus, he was outed by a Pakistani professor friend on day one. Still, he had a solid three-thobe, three-sandal rotation; the original was discarded because he’d decided it possessed a bad aura. Also, the new ones were looser in the stomach. He’d gone a little crazy and purchased maroon and viper green Gulfie sandals.
Disgusted by Baba’s pandering, our Pakistani friends stopped inviting us to their parties even though the ladies were still friendly with my mother on the side. Neither her religious gatherings nor her time on the phone suffered. My Pakistani friends looked at me funny, but I remained welcome on the cricket pitches. Our society was genteel; parents weren’t made fun of no matter how pathetic their transgressions. Besides, a lot of us were preparing to fan out to different parts of the world for further education — to the United States, Bahrain, Pakistan, the United Kingdom. Now wasn’t the time to be unkind to each other. We were leaving home earlier than our fathers had, but replicating a fated spin cycle of expat life that would drive us further away from Saudi Arabia, and ultimately, Pakistan.
Undeterred, Baba knew his friends would come around once he got the promotion. Their opinions mattered, but something more important happened. Right and left, Saudi professors had begun to kiss his cheeks and performed the awkward nose-touch greeting with him that signaled equal status. During one of his walks, even the Rector made a move on Baba.
“Did the Rector kiss you first?” my mother asked.
Baba was confused.
“Did he kiss you before the others?”
Baba understood. The Rector had given his seal of approval. Soon, my father would be the highest ranking Pakistani professor at the university. To get used to the notion, perhaps, he started wearing thobes at home during TV-time.
I wondered how he’d spin this episode to us after a few years. Would his fashion buffoonery be omitted from the epic? Would the narrative be reduced to all the comical kisses he’d received from the Saudis? More than anything, I wished that I could’ve witnessed the educational conquests of his youth through a time warp. Sure, I had visited Gujrat and witnessed the poverty from which he came, but was there something in his past that gave him an ignominious boost?
A few weeks later, Baba drove into our street, honking triumphantly. When I’d gotten the scholarship, my father had entered the house, a big smile splashed on his face, and hugged me. The only other time he hugged me was on Eid, and on that day it was required. I wondered if I should return the favor. I didn’t.