Category: Fashion With No Borders

With so much talk lately about the rioting and unrest in the Middle East and North Africa – myself doing some of this talking – it occurred to me that something was missing from the discussion: what the impact of the fashion world had on this turbulent area. I know what you’re thinking: sounds a little out of place in the serious shroud that usually accompanies political and social upheaval – kind of like that dirty blue blanket Charlie Brown‘s pal Linus is always clutching. But in truth, it’s a cultural element that can arguably be one of the most telling of its surroundings, and should be rightly explored as a contributor in reshaping this troubled region. After all, without fashion wouldn’t we just be sporting our birthday suits and fig leaves?

The Arab Spring‘s springboard (pardon the pun, I just had to) originated in Tunisia; so when the 3rd annual Tunis Fashion Week was scheduled to take place, to the surprise of many – and to play into my use of the cliché – the show actually did go on. Even in the midst of democratic protests and tons of governmental red tape, it was a chance for designers, consumers and admirers to celebrate their culture’s rich history in textiles and reinvigorate its next chapter, as the Arab Spring seemed to be doing for the people.

It was a risky move; because as the uprisings were [and still are] reshaping the political and social landscape of the Mid-East and Africa, the fashion world is struggling to tell its own story: one of reclamation and resurgence.

It might seem like colorful garments and shiny accessories would be the furthest thing from anyone’s mind during such a time of distress [unless you count fashion therapy as a legitimate treatment, which I personally do]. But it does stand to reason that this particular art form has uniquely weaved itself into the very fabric of the culture; enveloping its people both figuratively and literally with an identity that undeniably distinguishes itself from the rest of the world.  And in times like these, a unifying identity is a necessity. Not unlike the oversized team jerseys, #1 foam fingers or cheese-wedge hats that magically unite thousands of total strangers in American sports arenas. Ok, maybe just a little different.

The Artsy Side:

The Tunis Fashion Week was an opportunity to honor a society that’s been creatively restrained for much of its history. At the dawn of the Arab Spring, an era of expressive personal suppression – mostly from religious fundamentalists – was showing signs of coming to an end, and the Fashion World was vying for its turn to rediscover itself. Designers came correct; presenting innovative ways to intermarry modernity with a traditional streak tying back to the roots of the people. ABCB, a line by Amine Bendriouich, a Berlin-based Moroccan designer, referenced the religious element in its inception, providing commentary on the conservative essence that had so far reigned all of Tunisia. Fares Cherait, Salah Barka and Baligh Mecky were among many budding designers that graced the runway with frocks that spoke to a newfound artistry. It is this artistry that’s promising to emerge full-force: as an opportunity for self-expression and women’s empowerment to take hold within the generally suppressed culture. The freshness is catching on, not just with the young progressives, but with older generations that are surfacing from the traditional shadows and – slowly but surely – embracing a more liberated face of change. The real miracle is how fashion isn’t just surviving, but somehow actually flourishing in Tunisia (and other Middle Eastern areas); owing much to the onset of luxury lines’ accessibility to the average consumer. To many people in the region, the sophistication of brand names and fine apparel has become more about the sheer pleasure of donning such refined garments rather than just a mere symbol of status. “Feeling like a million bucks” is not just something Westerners could say anymore.

Through some kind of social osmosis, the people’s hope appears to have seeped into the psyche of fashion designers, whose general sentiment is that of optimism. Dina Said, 30, considers herself one of the first designers to present a fully Egyptian-made ready-to-wear line at London Fashion Week. In an interview with Egyptian blogger Nadine Sabry, Said says, “In the forties and fifties, fashion used to come out of here. It was a center of high fashion, with beautiful things being made here. I hope we get back to a time like that.” And it certainly seems like the Arab Spring has awakened that yearning: the “Ana Masry” (“I am Egyptian”) movement has already spawn bracelets, t-shirts and a plethora of various apparel and paraphernalia calling on people to unite under their Egyptian nationality – buying Egyptian products and clothing while they were at it. We in the US call that a two-fer.

Designer: Salah Barka

Designer: Baligh Mecky

Designer: Fares Cherait



The Not-So-Artsy Side:

Of course with the pros, there must be the cons. The appearance of celebrated artistic freedom is being countered by the [continued] persecution of designers that go against the grain in some of the stricter nations. This past November, 70 fashion designers were arrested in Iran for organizing shows. In Saudi Arabia, where the king just recently permitted women to vote, they still face restrictions on what they can wear, and when. What’s more, as the suppressed people are chanting for reform and liberation, the capitalist mantra that so many have been programmed to resist as infidelian methodology (just made that up), is vibrantly emerging. Despite the Anti-West ideology that the extreme Islamic right clutches onto, gigantic super malls are sprouting up among the societal discord. Chains of clothing stores and hoards of international companies are profiting from this dynamic anarchy. The Chalhoub Group, partners with brands like Fendi, Chanel and Saks Fifth Avenue, is just one of many luxury brands’ marketer that plans to expand past its 115 stores in the UAE. Expected to grow 10% next year, the Middle East’s luxury fashion industry – an estimated $5.7 billion in 2010 – is predicted to double in some Mid-East markets over the course of five years. While more of these brands are becoming increasingly attainable by greater numbers of the public, the elite still weilds the power to maintain a class divide; one of the things that the Arab Spring’s original platform strove to breakdown. However, with so many people still out of work, the region’s economy in disorder, and the future of living standards for many uncertain, growth of the fashion industry could very well be a potent injection in the arm of the region. Jobs stemming from the capitalist initiative of America-sized malls and mass produced clothing could possibly help cast a non-oil based surge into the economy.

So as the Middle East and North Africa navigate through the uncertain times ahead, the fashion world seems to be part of this new story-telling; where cultures’ identities are being simultaneously remembered and created – and in both instances, celebrated. A look ahead – with fresh takes on progressive, modern expressions – is being explored by looking back – at tradition, history and heritage; and fashion takes on the critical role it should be honored for: the people’s mirror.


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Coolio and his twiggy braids would be proud. Real proud.

Now there’s a new place being dubbed the “concrete jungle”. And you’ll never guess where it is. Well, you might guess if you actually read the title of this article. So much for surprises. But for those of you who like to implement the whole “skimming-as-reading” method, it’s none other than the next “lil’ America” itself: good ole’ Iraq.

Not where you were thinking? Don’t feel too bad – you’re not alone. It wasn’t quite what I was expecting either, but – as it turns out – the US has left its mark in a big way, and the break dancing youth in Baghdad are living proof. That is, if you consider skull tattoos, body piercings and iPods playing 50-Cent the marks of the American Beast.

As December 31st draws nearer, so does President Obama’s order to withdrawal most of the troop forces stationed in Iraq; and one can’t help but wonder what the last 8 years of US presence has done to bridge the gap between the two cultures. It appears that the impression bestowed upon the nation’s young public is a boisterous mixture of an abundance of camouflage fashion (hot pink fatigues are the top choice for “blending in” to the desert surroundings), misspelled body art (Gangsta = GangStar, as the tattoo artist accidentally adds an “s” to one poor kid’s arm, no doubt forever-tarnishing his street cred), and – let’s not forget – the maniacal ‘Twilight‘ Edward vs. Jacob craze (that I should add, is about 2 installments behind). Is this sounding pretty American yet? It should.

“Punky” is what the Iraqi teens and 20-somethings are calling their newly adopted cultural movement, according to “Lil Czar” Mohammed, a 22-year-old rapper, and part-time teacher at a primary school in Baghdad. Mohammed was interviewed by the Associated Press, and along with other Iraqi young “hustlers” as they are calling themselves, was featured in the November 27th issue of the St. Petersburg Times. His baggy jeans (yes, they are indeed camouflage-print), NY cap (turned backwards of course) and nimbly-shaved head (with a $ etched into it) are all signs o’ the funky-fresh times that now reside in the midst of a country where almost half of the population is under the age of 19, according to former Senior Advisor to the US Embassy in Baghdad, Brett McGurk. And remember that tattoo I mentioned that was misspelled to read “GangStar“? That was Mohammed’s.

So it looks as though after all those years of observing US soldiers patrolling in their country, Iraqis are clinging to the machismo stylings of what they’ve come to consider “American”, including a pension for Ed Hardy-like hoodies, hip-hop & rap tracks and English slangy speech. Throw in Rollerblading stunts through hectic town traffic and heated breakdancing competitions in the parks, and you’ve got a virtual Little Brooklyn.

And even better, they’ve become rappers themselves; many of them incorporating lyrics that speak to their war-torn upbringing and hope for a better future. The “Iraq Rap” page on Facebook has almost 1500 fans.

Granted, none of this is sitting quite right with the parents and elders of these young Iraqis, but much like their American counterparts, the youth aren’t really letting that bother them.

According to Fawzia A. al-Attia, a sociologist at Baghdad University: “Teenagers, especially in poor areas where parents are of humble origin and humble education, started to adopt the negative aspects of the American society because they think that by imitating the Americans, they obtain a higher status in society.”

Al-Attia also claims that due to the unexpectedness of the young people’s openness, the country’s adults are not familiar with any sort of real strategy in which to handle the youth’s new-found rebellious voice. The rejection of school uniforms, forbidden love relationships and disrespect for elders has Iraqi parents, teachers and officials at a loss for control – and understanding – of this vital part of their society.

But oftentimes with the expression of something new, comes the edginess of defiance.

Another example of a feisty youth: tattoos and piercings. The tattoo industry is surprisingly booming now in Iraq; mostly due to young customers requesting coffins, skulls, snakes and dragons on various parts of their bodies – attempting to mimic the designs that they observed on US soldiers’. Even young women are donning butterflies and flowers on their shoulders as symbols of their adopted pro-Western philosophies. To boot, the tattoo parlors themselves now openly display advertisements of half-naked models on their storefronts baring examples of the body art available within. I can almost picture the jaws of the conservative older Muslim Iraqis as they scrap the floor in disgust and awe. The thought that’s no doubt running through their heads = “What the…?”. Ironically, it’s what a lot of American parents are also thinking about their own children. [ We’re not so different now, are we? ]

And as for the young ladies of Iraqi, they’re apparently taking ‘hijab-chic’ to a whole new level, rocking tighter tops, form-fitting jeans and accessorizing with the all-too-popular American-girl must-have: a small dog in an oversized purse. (Paris Hilton, your influence is far more reaching than could have ever been imagined.)

Still, under the reign of Saddam Hussein (remember him?), where satellite television, the internet and cell phones were strictly monitored – and in many cases banned outright – these same young people were denied the exposure of such western cultural nuances, so it’s no wonder that the bottleneck buildup of defiance burst out to this inevitable result. Unfortunately, other more positive aspects of the American culture are not nearly as present within Iraq’s younger demographic.

High school student Maytham Karim is interested in learning English. Sadly, the only English he presently knows are the “F-words” and all related derivatives. (And as we habitual cursers know, there are quite a lot of ’em). For these kids, most lessons in English end up coming from American music, specifically rap, which in most instances employs the more ‘colorful’ parts of our language, to say the least. Nonetheless, at most schools the lists to get into English classes are hefty with eager students and can be a months-long wait. The desire to be “more like Americans” is what fuels these young Iraqis to take what they see and hear in movies, music and online and translate it into a form of insurrection from their conservative, restrictive surroundings; which – let’s face it – isn’t such a bad thing.

Sound familiar? (wink, wink fellow Americans)

The take-away: American influence has seeped into the youth of a country whose next generation is still grappling with its identity. As much as the need for more positive aspects of US life is necessary to balance their understanding of what it is to be American, Young Iraq is still making a sort of headway into a new and unexplored frontier for their next step: life without US occupation. Here’s wishing them luck.

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About A Betch. LOVE this site…the culmination of all that’s betchin’ – a decidedly unique take on an aspect of Western culture that challenges cultural and societal boundaries. Plus, it’s just freakin cool.

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