DOHA, Qatar — Jean Marc Berger left his home in Geneva to follow Switzerland’s adventures in the World Cup with perhaps the most neutral piece of headgear in existence. His protection against the blazing Gulf sun would extend no further than a red cap emblazoned with a white cross, a homage to the Swiss flag.
By the time he arrived at Stadium 974 for his country’s second game, though, the cap was long gone. In its place, Berger, 52, had adopted a ghutra, the traditional head scarf worn by men across the Arabian Peninsula. His was red and white, a nod to his homeland. Holding it in place was an agal, the tightly bound black band around which the scarf is carefully folded.
It had never occurred to Berger, before arriving in Qatar, that he would wear one. He had worried that doing so might be seen as offensive by his hosts, assumed that it might be seen as making light of Qatari culture, feared that it would transgress local sensitivities. “I did not think it would be possible,” he said.
He did not, as it turns out, have any cause for concern. Ghutras in the distinctive colors of the 32 teams in the tournament have emerged as this World Cup’s must-have accessory among the hundreds of thousands of visitors who have arrived in Qatar to follow their teams. They are for sale in stalls in Souq Waqif, the rebuilt market in downtown Doha, and in immaculate stores in upscale malls. They are even stocked in some supermarkets.
The truly dedicated can even go one step further, pairing the head scarf with a colored thobe, the flowing tunic that Arabian men mostly wear in white but which, it turns out, also comes in a lurid yellow and green (Brazil), fetching sky blue stripes (Argentina) and even the red, white and blue of the United States.
“They are selling well,” said Ali, one of five founders of a pop-up store selling colored ghutras and thobes at locations in the city. “We are a little bit surprised by how well. All of the American countries — the United States, Canada, Brazil, Argentina — have showed up spectacularly.”
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A little bit too spectacularly, in one case. The first group of fans to arrive in the city en masse came from Ecuador, Qatar’s opponent in the opening game. Ali and his partners were not expecting them to appear in such numbers. “We only ordered 500 Ecuadorean ghutras,” he said. “We underestimated how many of them there would be.” They sold out a few days into the tournament. “Don’t worry,” he said, quickly. “We have thousands of the others.”
Ali — who did not want to give his family name so as not to take credit away from his partners — said the idea to sell ghutras in national colors was inspired by a desire to brand the tournament with something distinctively Arabian.
“In South Africa in 2010, we all heard the vuvuzela,” he said, referring to the constantly droning horn that still haunts the dreams of anyone who heard it. “We did not want to have a ‘normal’ World Cup, like the ones in Germany or Russia, that all looked the same. We wanted something that made this one Arabian.”
Though he is Qatari, Ali admitted that he was concerned that the idea of playing with traditional national dress — and selling it to foreigners for 99 rials apiece (about $25) — might be considered “unacceptable” by more conservative citizens. The thobe, the ghutra and the agal, after all, carry connotations in Arab eyes that those from elsewhere may not realize, or respect.
There are subtle differences in how the headgear is attached to the head that indicate where the wearer is from, said Hawas Alayed, one of the many thousands of fans who have crossed the border from Saudi Arabia to support their team.
“Look, he is from Qatar,” he said, pointing to a man whose nationality could be discerned by the two lengths of cord running down his back from his agal. The looks in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates are ever so slightly different, he said.
Alayed said he was not concerned that those who have only recently adopted the ghutra are wearing them incorrectly, he said. Instead, he suggested that seeing fans embrace Gulf culture should be a source of pride.
Anecdotally, that has been the reaction from the vast majority of locals. “It’s not a problem,” said Ahmed al-Balooshi, a Qatari walking through Souq Waqif with two friends, all three of them wearing immaculate white thobes. “We have invited everyone here, and this is part of our culture. Also it is a very practical thing to wear when it’s hot.”
Khalid al-Khabi, an employee of Qatar National Bank, insisted he was not offended to see foreigners wandering past in traditional dress. “I have worn a thobe since I was a child,” he said. “You are wearing my culture.” He has not bought a colored version as yet, he said, but if he were to do so, he would choose Morocco.
Berger, the Swiss fan, has been surprised by how indulgent Qataris — and others from across North Africa and the Middle East — have been when it comes to foreigners adopting and appropriating local customs and clothing, something that is generally seen as disrespectful in Europe and North America.
There has been only one hairy moment. One morning, a Qatari man came charging toward Berger and a friend who has accompanied him on the journey to the World Cup. Berger’s immediate reaction was one of anxiety. Perhaps he had been wearing his ghutra wrong. Perhaps the fact he was wearing one at all had been read as an insult.
“He saw my friend and told him to stop,” Berger said, thrusting his right arm out in front of him. The man beckoned them over. “Then he restyled and reorganized my friend’s scarf,” he said.