Bisht, please: The crown gowning of Messi and the West's utter contempt for Arab custom

Messi and the Bisht saga
7 min read
29 December, 2022
Lionel Messi's crowning moment, winning the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar, was immediately soured by Western ignorance over the bisht. The highest symbol of Arab respect and achievement, the garment was unsurprisingly derided by Western commentators.

Lionel Messi’s finest moment in his football career was solidified last Sunday after Argentina’s World Cup victory when the Emir of Qatar robed him in a $2,000 black bisht that he had personally commissioned as a gift for the Argentinian player.

Many have been speculating that this was Messi’s final World Cup, and as a gesture of honour and celebration, the Emir gowned him in a traditional Arab garment that has a rich cultural history rooted in respect, glory, and love.

However, what was meant to be an incredibly special moment and a symbol of the Emir’s respect and admiration for Messi has been overshadowed by Western media’s racist reactions, reaffirming the shared feeling among people in the Arab world that Western news outlets’ coverage of the World Cup has had Orientalist undertones, and that European journalists have turned anything and everything into a damning headline.

"Today, the bisht has become a prestigious symbol that holds status when worn. Regalia for the important and celebrant, clothing for rulers, judges, scholars and the elites"

More than one Western news outlet accused Qatar of intentionally covering Messi’s football shirt with the bisht, while others said Qatar had stolen Messi’s moment of glory and exploited him.

A famous Israeli newspaper compared the bisht to a piece of lingerie with erotic and pornographic connotations, on the basis of it being sheer, showing complete ignorance as the more transparent a bisht is, the finer, more prestigious, and more expensive it is. Sheer bishts are usually reserved for royalty.

These reactions are not just racist – they show complete illiteracy of Arab culture, history, heritage, and journalistic incompetence.

“The negative Western (mainly European) reaction to this ritual has one key feature in common: an absolute refusal to understand anything about the symbol or the ritual,” says Dr. Sarah Eltantawi, Associate Professor of Theology (Modern Islam) at Fordham University in New York.

“The outcry is over the sheer audacity of the leaders of Qatar to bestow a symbol of their culture on anyone at any time. What this says to me is something very stark: these European commentators reject the very concept of Arab culture itself.

Arabs are not supposed to have a culture, or an identity because then they would have a perspective, a voice, political and social claims. They are only to be vassals and conduits for Europeans to make money and maintain dominance.”

Shaima Sherif has lived in Qatar for most of her life and is the Managing Director of Embrace Doha, a cultural initiative specialising in teaching non-Qataris about the country’s culture and heritage.

Speaking to The New Arab, she explains the origins of the bisht. “Since early times, the bisht has been an essential item to the natives of the Arabian Peninsula. It has been around as long as the Arab world has existed. The word ‘bisht’ comes from the Semitic word that means nobility and dignity.”

“As in the past, today, the bisht has become a prestigious symbol that holds status when worn. Regalia for the important and celebrant, clothing for rulers, judges, scholars and the elites. In the West, the essence of the bisht can be found in the graduation gowns worn and perhaps could be the inspiration behind JK Rowling's Hogwarts attire.”

For those familiar with Arab tradition, Messi wearing the bisht symbolised his ascension as a footballing great [Getty Images]
For those familiar with Arab tradition, Messi adorning the bisht symbolised his ascension to footballing greatness [Getty Images]

Historians claim that the modern-day graduation gown has its origins in the bishts worn by Muslim scholars at the world’s first universities.

The first university in Europe was opened in the year 841 in Salerno, Italy, by Muslims, and others soon opened in other European areas under Islamic rule, such as Granada and Seville. Non-Muslim students who studied at these universities imitated their Muslim counterparts by wearing bisht-like robes as a signifier of having studied at one of these universities.

If you dig even deeper into history, you will discover that this open, ankle-length cloak dates back as far as the 5th century B.C. Made from sheep’s wool or camel hair in black, grey, white or brown, Arab Bedouins would wear the bisht during the winter months to stay warm (the desert gets very cold at night).

Perspectives

It later came to have an Islamic significance too – it is narrated that when the Prophet Muhammed returned to Makkah following its conquest by the Muslims, the poet Ka’ab came to him and informed him he wanted to recite a poem praising him.

The poem, through the use of metaphors, was instead one that conveyed Ka’ab’s fears following the conquest. As a symbol of reassurance, the Prophet Muhammed placed his own cloak on Ka’ab’s shoulders, signifying respect and safety.

The poem became known as a burdah or cloak, and for centuries after that, Arab poets wrote poems praising the Prophet Muhammed known as burdahs.

In the decades following the Prophet Muhammed’s death, Muslim soldiers would also be cloaked in bishts in a similar way that soldiers today are decorated with medals, as a symbol of glory and honour.

In modern times, bishts continue to be worn in the Arab world as garments of celebration and honour. Grooms wear the bisht on their wedding day, tribal elders wear the bisht during Eid and formal occasions, and the bisht is also worn by rulers and dignitaries in Gulf countries.

The West’s claims that the bisht hid Messi’s shirt and its fetishization by comparing it to lingerie, point to historic Orientalist discourse of viewing Arab and Muslim garments through the lens of eroticism, seclusion, and the act of covering up. Such discourse is not limited to the bisht.

We see this happening with other Arab and Islamic garments, such as the hijab, niqab, thobe, shemaagh, and dishdaasha.

For Arabs and Muslims, these are cherished cultural garments with positive symbolism which European colonialists of the past and European politicians and journalists of today have painted with a negative brush.

"Garments rooted in the Middle East, such as abayas and thobes, are often used as shorthand symbols of terrorism, extremism, barbarianism, or at the very least ‘otherness’"

Take the niqab, which comes in various styles under different names across North Africa and South West Asia.

In the Arabian Peninsula women would wear the batoola or burga’, which is made from a gold paper-like material that covers most of the face except the eyes, bottom lip and chin, while in Algeria it was a white silk or wool headcover with a triangular embroidered face veil across the nose called the haïk.

In pre-Shah Persia, women wore a long white face veil over their chador that covered the entire face called ruband, made from hand-woven cotton embroidered with straight silk stitches.

Ignoring the Western media's reaction, interest and demand in the bisht has since skyrocketed throughout the world [Getty Images]
Ignoring Western media reaction, global interest and demand in the bisht has since skyrocketed [Getty Images]

The face veil (as worn by women) dates before Islam; it was a signifier of marital status and high social standing in Ancient Roman and Greek societies that found its way into the Middle East as those empires conquered the region.

Face veils were adopted by Jewish and Christian women, and then later on by Muslim women who wanted to observe the Prophet Muhammed’s wives’ tradition of covering their faces.

The niqab has historical, cultural, and religious significance, symbolizing status, modesty, piety, and in the case of female elders, wisdom. But such positive attributes were ignored by French and British colonialists who looked to the niqab as a symbol of “backwardness” and carried out public unveiling ceremonies in Algeria and Egypt, claiming to “liberate” women.

In addition, they often fetishized the niqab via photographs and paintings of naked or scantily clad North African women wearing face veils. In modern times, the niqab has become a political battleground for European politicians who declare that it is a symbol of fundamentalist Islam and a barrier to Muslim women assimilating into European society.   

“Garments rooted in the Middle East, such as abayas and thobes, are often used as shorthand symbols of terrorism, extremism, barbarianism, or at the very least ‘otherness’,” explains Hafsa Lodi, long-time Dubai resident, journalist, fashion expert, and author of Modesty: A Fashion Paradox. “In my book, I write about how Arab garments such as the abaya – and by extension the bisht – are often misunderstood to be religious when they are in fact cultural garments.”

“Robing Messi in one of these is like a luau being draped over the neck of a winner had the World Cup taken place in Hawaii, and I’m sure no Western media would take offence at that."

Yousra Samir Imran is a British Egyptian writer and author who is based in Yorkshire. She is the author of Hijab and Red Lipstick, published by Hashtag Press.

Follow her on Twitter: @UNDERYOURABAYA