Cairo: When Argentine football legend Lionel Messi was draped in a traditional Arab robe, called ‘bisht’, at the football World Cup finals in Doha, it was a gesture of high honour and appreciation. Honour for who he is and what he symbolises in the world of football, appreciation for his wizardry on the field and what he has done for the sport.
But this very act of honour has sparked an international debate on social media over whether it was appropriate.
For Arab proponents, the male attire is a symbol of prestige and respect in the region, a cloak traditionally worn at official ceremonies and on other occasions such as wedding parties or during visits.
For Western critics, seeing Messi draped in the traditional Arab ‘bisht’ at the weekend was ‘inappropriate and even manipulative’.
Qatar has come under attack from the Western media after the successful completion of the football World Cup.
The Western media was sceptical from the beginning about Qatar’s ability to host a global event like the football World Cup, the first in the Arab region. The criticism gained momentum as Qatar proved the critics wrong emphatically.
The bisht offered as a gift by Emir Tamim to Messi is of a high class because it was made of a hand-made fabric known as Al Najifi.
Cultural duelling over bisht
Mixed reactions have evolved into a cultural duel in the media after Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad conferred a transparent black, gold cloak on Messi as the iconic footballer appeared on the podium at Lusail Stadium on Sunday night to be feted after stewarding Argentina to win its first World Cup in 36 years.
The 35-year-old football legend was watched on television screens across the globe lifting the coveted trophy while wearing the bisht.
The scene proved too much for some commentators in the West, though.
“This is a magic moment. It’s a shame in a way they’ve covered up Messi in his Argentina shirt,” said BBC presenter Gary Lineker, after Argentina’s win over France on penalty shootouts following a marathon game that ended in a 3-3 draw.
New York Times journalist Tariq Panja fumed, too. “Something a little strange about Messi being dressed in Bisht,” Panja tweeted.
“Qatar wants this to be its moment as much as it is Messi’s and Argentina’s,” he added.
The criticism was largely seen in the Arab world as a sign of ignorance and even bigotry.
Many Arabs turned to the Internet to defend the Qatari gesture and point out that in the past some football superstars showed off cultural symbols of the host countries.
A commentator, named Wasal Harize, tweeted that Brazil’s football icon Pele wore a Sombrero Mexican hat after winning his third World Cup in 1970. “What are you all mad about?” she rebuked detractors, posting a combo of photos of Pele in the Mexican hat and Messi in the bisht.
“Dear European & American sports journalists. An Emir or head of state making you wear a bisht is a big honour, it’s like he’s symbolically knighting you,” commentator Naser Mestarhi tweeted.
“Educate yourselves on what the bisht is & keep whining cause this moment will remain an iconic moment in sports history,” he added.
The uproar over the bisht-robed Messi has earned the West sharper criticism.
“There are two kinds of bigotry in the West,” Muhammad Jalal chipped in. “A visceral racism that targets people of colour and a ‘sophisticated’ liberalism that masks hatred behind a facade of tolerance. Both come from a misplaced superiority. A belief that European man and his culture are a gift to the world,” he added on Twitter.
Qasim Rashid listed the tradition of winners of sports events gifted local attires and accessories of the host countries and the duplicity of the media. “Pele wears Mexican Sombrero after 1970 World Cup – media is happy. Olympians wear Greek Laurel Wreath at 2004 Olympics – media is happy… Messi wears Arab Bisht after 2022 World Cup – media outraged!” he wrote.
Attention focused on Arab attire
As the controversy continues to sputter, attention has shifted to the bisht-making tradition.
According to experts, the vocation came to Qatar in the 1930s from Ihsa region in the east of neighbouring Saudi Arabia. At the hands of migrating artisans, the craft of bisht-making has spread across the Arabian Gulf and beyond.
The hand-made robe sells for up to 9,000 Qatari riyals per piece depending on the materials used in its manufacture, Saudi-owned television Al Arabiya reported.
It takes 10 days to produce a hand-made bisht.
“The bisht offered as a gift by Emir Tamim to Messi is of a high class because it was made of a hand-made fabric known as Al Najifi,” Saudi bisht-maker Mohammed Al Qatan told Al Arabiya.Net. He put its cost at more than SR6,000.
The Qatari Al Kass television, meanwhile, reported that Oman’s ex-Shura Council member Ahmed Al Berwani had offered 1 million dollars to buy the bisht from Messi.
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Basking in bisht
Shops trading in the cloak in Qatar have seen a brisk business in the past few days, according to Arab media. Argentine fans flocked to buy the bisht after seeing their superstar clad in the robe under the global spotlight at the coronation night.
There are different types of the bisht worn over a thawb or a garment according to the weather conditions.
The winter bisht is made of camel’s hair and wool, while the summer robe is manufactured from transparent, light cloth.
The finest bisht is made from a fabric called Al Najifi. Usually hand-made, the cloak is embroidered with pure gold or silver thread. Its price tag could reach around SR7,000 apiece, depending on its fabric and thread embroidery.
World Cup boom for maker of Arab cloak given to Messi
Doha: Watching Sunday’s World Cup final, Ahmed Al Salem was more emotional than most football fans when Qatar’s Emir placed a black and gold cloak over the shoulders of Argentina’s victorious captain Lionel Messi.
The garment Messi wore as he lifted the football trophy was a $2,200 ‘bisht’, a traditional gown worn by men for weddings, graduations and official events - and it was made by Salem’s family company.
Salem watched Argentina beat France in a cafe near the family’s store in Doha’s Souq Waqif market, having earlier handed two of the delicate handmade cloaks to World Cup officials - one in Messi’s diminutive size and one to fit the taller French captain Hugo Lloris.
“We did not know who they were for and I was stunned,” he told AFP of the moment when the Emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, dressed Messi in the cloak.
Salem recognised his company tag and is now celebrating his own World Cup victory.
The Al Salem store, a longstanding bisht supplier to Qatari royalty, normally sells eight to 10 garments a day.
On Monday, the day after the final, sales shot up to 150, including three copies of the top-of-the-range bisht made famous by Messi, said Salem.
“At one stage there were dozens waiting outside the store”, he said.
“They were nearly all Argentinians,” he added as he watched eight supporters of the new world champions sing their “Muchachos” (mates) anthem and take pictures of themselves while wearing a fragile bisht and carrying a copy of the World Cup trophy.
A stream of fans came into the shop as Salem spoke, and all of them applauded the Emir’s gesture.
“We were all happy when we saw that, it was a gift from one king to another king,” said Mauricio Garcia as he tried on the cloak, but decided the price tag was too high to buy.
Salem and other Arab commentators explained the intention was to “honour” Messi.
It was a “very important moment” for Qatar as it seeks a World Cup publicity boost, said Carole Gomez, a professor of sports sociology at the University of Lausanne, in Switzerland.
“These pictures are widely spread about, conserved and reissued,” she said.
Salem said when World Cup officials went to his store “they wanted the lightest and most transparent fabric”.
“I was surprised because we are in winter, so it seems that the goal was to show the Argentine uniform and not cover it,” he said.
While the bisht is worn in many Gulf countries, Al Salem is the biggest of about five Qatari producers, employing about 60 tailors.
Each bisht takes a week to make and goes through a seven stage completion, with different workers adding different lines of gold braid to the front and arms.
For Messi’s bisht, the gold thread came from Germany and the Najafi cotton fabric was imported from Japan.