Wear it like Messi: meet the football fans making the most of Qatari culture

Argentina's bisht wearing captain Lionel Messi holds up the World Cup
Argentina's bisht wearing captain Lionel Messi holds up the World Cup   -   Copyright  Natacha Pisarenko/The AP
By Chaitra Arjunpuri

Where Lionel Messi treads other try to follow. His wearing of the traditional Arab bisht, however, was a step too far some who felt it sullied the greatest moment in his footballing career.

That sentiment hasn't been shared by thousands of football fans who have remained in Qatar beyond the World Cup final. 

Many have stayed put because of flight schedules while others have chosen to spend more time in the country. Whatever the reason, there's been no shortage of foreigners getting up close and personal with Qatari culture. 

Last weekend I met a  group of four men in striped blue and white Arab clothes, the colour of their country’s national football shirt, with matching blue head scarves, walking in the Souq Waqif area. 

Onlookers stopped to take selfies with them. 

Behind them were another group clad in Croatia-themed clothes. Again people moved towards them to take their pictures. 

Dozens of fans have followed suit, soaking themselves in Arab culture during the FIFA World Cup 2022.

The long-sleeved, ankle-length Arab robes known as ‘thobes’ caught the attention of foreign fans attending the World Cup. They donned them with a ‘ghutra’, the traditional Arabic head scarf, also known as ‘shemagh’ or ‘keffiyeh’, and the small woven ring, ‘igal’.

In fact, La’eeb, the World Cup 2022 mascot, symbolises the traditional ghutra and igal of the Gulf region. The mascot can be seen almost everywhere in the country in the form of posters, stickers, paintings, filters, and screensavers.

"La'eeb is a fun and mischievous character who comes from the mascot-verse, a parallel world where all tournament mascots live," notes FIFA. "La'eeb can be a figment of your imagination. He is whoever a football fan wants him to be," it adds.

Thobes and ghutras in 32 colours

The narrow pathways of Souq Waqif, the traditional market in the capital city, bustle with vendors retailing headscarves. 

They are widely available in the team colours of all the 32 nations playing in the tournament. The traders press and tuck them neatly, carefully fitting the scarf to the buyer’s head. Some do it in the cobra style, as worn by Qatari men, while others wrap it around the head like a turban.

The price of a white thobe ranges between QAR 80 (€21) and QAR 120 (€31) depending on its quality. 

“Thobes are in demand now. Foreign fans want them in their team colour. If they are made from cotton they cost more,” said Mohamed, a vendor.

The headscarves traditionally come in different colours and have a significant meaning associated with them. For instance, a white ghutra symbolises purity, a red and white checkered ghutra indicates patriotism, while a black and white ghutra represents freedom.

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A shop in Souq Waqif displaying traditional Arabic knee-length thobes and ghutras in the colours of different teams@Chaitra Arjunpuri/Chaitra Arjunpuri

Visitors from England, the United States, Canada, Japan, South Korea, Argentina, Brazil, and others have cheered on their national teams while donning Arab styles of clothing. While men have been parading in remodeled versions of traditional Arab thobes and headdresses, some women have been wearing hijabs.

“I wanted to try the local culture by wearing the traditional dress. It is nice to try new things in a new country,” says Carlos, a fan from Brazil, wearing a headdress with yellow, green, and blue with a matching green igal. 

“People, especially locals, are amused by my look. Many of them often stop me to take a selfie,” he adds.

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Brazil fans wearing La’eeb ghutra celebrating in front of Lusail Stadium in Lusail@Chaitra Arjunpuri/Chaitra Arjunpuri

"It’s an amazing gesture"

The nationals have welcomed fans with open arms to try their traditional dress in their preferred color and style. 

“It’s nice to see my culture adopted by them. They are wearing our traditional clothes and they’ll take our culture back home. Even if it’s for a week or two, it’s nice to see them in thobes. I like it,” says Abdullah Alkurbi.

Qatari citizens have been happy seeing how international fans are impressed with the Arab culture. They feel fans wearing the national dress is quite endearing. 

“I can see that fans are adoring our traditional clothing and enjoy our local food,” says Abdulla AlMesleh.

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A vendor sells headscarves in different colours in Souq Waqif, the traditional market in central Doha@Chaitra Arjunpuri/Chaitra Arjunpuri

The hijab, the traditional headscarf, also became a trendy World Cup wear among non-Muslim female visitors. Various videos online show international fans wearing colorful headscarves. 

The headscarf is often depicted in Western media as a symbol of illiteracy, ignorance, and backwardness, and it remains to be seen whether fans wearing it will change this notion.

For now, Qatari women are happy that other women are trying their clothing. 

“Non-Muslim fans wearing hijab is an amazing gesture. It is a very different and positive thing,” says Aljazi Altlenzab.

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A fan from Thailand helps her husband to wear the headscarf in Souq Waqif@Chaitra Arjunpuri/Chaitra Arjunpuri

"Respect the local culture"

The query regarding what to wear while in Qatar had created concern for female fans even long before the World Cup kicked off. Different fan groups on social media had advised visitors from wearing shorts and revealing clothes.

The Qatar tourism website had advised the visitors “to show respect for the local culture by avoiding excessively revealing clothes in public”, and recommended both men and women “to ensure their shoulders and knees are covered.”

“At first, it was portrayed as like you could not walk around sleeveless if you had tattoos and stuff like that. And it's nothing like that here,” says Ronaldo, a fan from North London.

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A vendor sells a headscarf to a fan in Souq Waqif, the traditional market in central Doha@Chaitra Arjunpuri/Chaitra Arjunpuri

A mix of tradition and modernity

There’s more to this peninsula than meets the eye, from swanky malls to pristine beaches to distinctive dunes.

“We saw Lusail Marina and Lusail City and were surprised. It is very beautiful, very modern,” says Gonzalo Olivares, a fan from Argentina.

While some like Pearl Island's colourful buildings and vibrant surroundings, others are smitten by the old feel of Souq Waqif. 

“I would really like to go to the Pearl again. It’s nice. It felt like you were in Venice. And the Souq is cool. Also, it’s kind of travelling in time a little bit. You can kind of see both ends of the spectrum, modern Qatar and the older Qatar,” says Rodrigo, who travelled all the way from Brazil to witness his third World Cup.

There are a few fans who haven’t had enough time to soak themselves in places other than stadiums. But most of them have not missed Souq Waqif, the traditional market in central Doha.

“I don’t think we’ve done much, but games. But, everyone’s very focused now, saying wherever you go you’ll be watching a game and you’ll have different fans there as well,” says Martin, who flew down from Sydney, Australia, and managed to watch 20 matches in 15 days.

Arab cuisine

Hundreds of fans packed into Lebanese, Persian, Yemeni, Egyptian, and Moroccan restaurants to taste Arabic food in the city. 

“We tried so many amazing Lebanese dishes and things like that. The cuisine was incredible and surprising. I want to continue to explore more and more Armenian and other types of cuisine within the region,” added Rodrigo.

Echoing her joy in being able to visit Qatar to witness the World Cup, Sophia from Brasilia praised the diversity she has been seeing during her stay in Qatar.

“The people here are very kind. I really enjoy Arabic bread with hummus and baba ghanoush. I will take some baklava back home for my family and friends,” Sophia adds.

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Fans in traditional Arabic thobes and ghutra in Msheireb Downtown Doha@Chaitra Arjunpuri/Chaitra Arjunpuri

Impressed by the development

Several fans say they have great respect for the Arab culture and have found love and respect in the peninsula. They are surprised to see the development in such a short span of time. 

“It’s really impressive that they were able to build this in such a short amount of time. We could take some lessons like this back home to try to, invest a little bit in infrastructure and make things a little bit easier for things back at home,” feels Rodrigo.

Many fans came with an open mind and are happy about their visit. 

“I didn't really take what the media had to say about the place. I'm very happy with the experience so far. I haven't heard anything bad from any of the fans either,” says Martin.