Men in tunics

2014-04-13 15:00

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Yasiin Bey – the artist formerly known as Mos Def – has bred a bit of a trend situation. Malibongwe Tyilo also likes to wear a thobe, which is worn by some Muslim men

“How much does that cost in your country?”

Say what now?

He rephrases the question, speaking a little slower, pointing at my ankle-length white tunic: “How?...?much ... does ... that ... cost ... where ... you?... come?...?from?”

I’m at Clarke’s on Bree Street, Cape Town. It’s a popular hang-out for the city’s hipsters, the ones often referred to as the “creative class” by economists and social scientists who like to put people into neat little boxes.

The question comes from a freckle-faced ginger who later informs me he grew up in Wynberg, an upmarket suburb behind the mountain.

The tunic I am wearing is called a thobe, which is worn by some Muslim men. I am not Muslim.

In fact, I don’t care much for religion in general, but I love the comfort and freedom of the thobe. I’ve also always had a bit of dress envy.

I have no desire to cross-dress, but there is something superbly efficient about a one-garment outfit, hence my dress envy. In the thobe I have found that efficiency.

It also hasn’t escaped me there is a bit of a trend situation at play. Rapper Yasiin Bey, formerly known as Mos Def, has pretty much made the thobe-and-blazer-look his standard uniform.

I was reminded of this recently when I rocked up at a dinner dressed in a thobe, sneakers, blazer and a hat. I was the last to arrive and as I stepped in, I saw two other guests dressed – I kid you not – in the same style, the only difference being the brands of hats, sneakers and blazers. Neither of them were Muslim.

I’ve got used to answering questions from friends about why I choose to wear a thobe and other robes, my standard answer, part truth and part joke, is always: “When the going gets fat, the fat get tunics.”

What is making me do a double take about Ginger’s question is the “your country” and “where you come from” bit.

“What do you mean? It’s a f***ing thobe,” I say before asking him where he comes from. Which Cape Town does he live in? The Western Cape has the largest Muslim population in the country. Clarke’s is one block down from Bo-Kaap, a predominantly Muslim area, with mosques, the kind that blast out a call to prayer five times a day.

Admittedly, not all Muslim men wear thobes, but a large number of them in Cape Town do, visibly. How does he not see them as he cycles the city on his single-gear bike? Maybe he sees them and thinks: “I wonder what country all those foreign men in dresses come from. Maybe they’re from Eyerack or Eyeran. Wow man, cool.

Next time I must find out how much those dresses cost in their country. Maybe I can get them to buy me one when they visit their family for the holidays.” He smiles at how progressive he is.

I decide to end the conversation; I’m not in the mood to be agitated or to educate tonight. Clarke’s is getting a little too full for my liking anyway.

So I move up the road to &Union, even closer to Bo-Kaap, separated only by a parking lot. I am waiting at the bar for my overpriced water.

Ms Platinum Blonde Ironic Asymmetrical Haircut checks out my thobe and asks me, without introducing herself: “What’s with the?… this?…” her arms stretch out, hands flapping up and down, fingers pointing, “this … this traditional gear?” I take a deep breath.

“Why are you exoticising my outfit?” I ask. She looks at her friend: “Exoticising? What is exoticising?”

I sigh.

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