The Middle East’s Secret Religion

“It doesn’t matter if it is DKNY, the bag itself is beautiful.”

The comment sprung on me like an ambush of sorts, with the fragile veiling of a back-handed compliment. I’d rather buy a beautiful vintage street bag from Sunday Bazaar than an ugly one from Valentino, I silently responded in my head. To some, I am acutely aware, this is an oxymoron, as the possibility of anything Valentino even bordering on unattractive is impossible. I think what perhaps astonished me even more was the realisation that DKNY is considered a turn-up-your-nose-at, looked-down-upon brand to some folks in the desert!

We’ve been in the Middle East for less than a year but one of our first impressions, confirming the illusory nature of this region, has lasted: the lopsided emphasis that people place on materialism and designer labels. Rigid judgments are formed about people based on the luxury items they do or do not have, discussions bordering on intellectual discourse are held on the merits of various brands at social and workplace events. Few people balk from asking delicate questions along the lines of “How much did you buy it for?” I have suffered hosting and attending gatherings where there has been no other topic of conversation whatsoever.

When we lived in Pakistan, we’d often bemoan the “plastic” and “unreal” nature of the Middle East, and everyone would nod in disdainful unison. What is ironic is that we have precisely the same conversations in our Doha living room and everyone still nods, (we do too), sometimes even more vehemently than in Pakistan, all the while secretly battling the guilt of having succumbed to the syndrome at some level ourselves!

Is it because this region offers little other than malls, retail therapy and exaggerated sumptuousness? Is it that there are no obvious taxes so we happily pay the invisible ones? Is it because our purchasing power increases when we are no longer earning in Pakistani rupees? Is it because buying designer labels help us fit into a particular social echelon more effortlessly? Is it because these brands aren’t available back home? Or is it because, at some level, our identities are becoming linked in an inextricable way to the brands we sport?

I was at a Dior shop recently, tempted to make my first purchase, when a very adroit salesman said to me, “At the end of the day, this is an emotional purchase. When you are feeling low and you hold your Dior bag, believe me it will make you feel that much happier.” He smiled, thinking he’d closed a sale with that spiel, but it had the opposite effect on me. His words made me pause and think: does my happiness now hinge on a Dior bag? If I am feeling depressed, will my Dior bag lift my spirits? Yes? No? Maybe? But how? Whilst I would undoubtedly enjoy donning the bag, I secretly wished that there was a scientific way to measure exactly how elated or even contented this well-designed object would actually make me.

This fixation on material superiority in a competitive landscape extends even to something as simple as parents dressing up their children, never mind how quickly kids outgrow their clothes. A friend of mine said to me recently that her niece is not allowed to wear anything other than Ralph Lauren. From Polo dresses to Polo shoes to even tiny Polo headbands and socks, her wardrobe boasts no other label. And while the mother’s obsession with Ralph Lauren may seem innocuous enough, how will the child’s unformed psyche assimilate this single-minded focus on a brand? What will it teach her about the world as she grows up? There lies a world, albeit a more unpredictable one, beyond luxury labels, which we must let children explore and discover for themselves, particularly during their formative years.

And then there is the minefield of name dropping and discussions of real v. knockoff possessions. Do you think her Chanel clutch is real? Is that an authentic Louis Vuitton travel bag or is the logo slightly misplaced? Are those Gucci shoes from the outlet centre or did you buy them at full price? That Prada purchase is probably a copy that she picked up on her recent trip to Bangkok? The list of conjectures and speculations seems unending, our disparaging gaze unwavering.

To be fair and perfectly honest, many of us have an inordinate attachment to designer labels. Here where we live, if you met in the street, a lot of people would (as a reflex) scan the logos visible on you and based on the level of prestige they indicate, instantaneously judge the type of person that you are. I recently wore a dress from Debenhams at my husband’s birthday party and received several compliments for it. The immediate question that followed was “Where is it from?” And I could tell that the moment I revealed its origins (which weren’t exactly from the discount rack mind you!), the spellbinding beauty of the dress suddenly evaporated from many people’s eyes. It wasn’t an Alexander McQueen or a Stella McCartney. Not even a Versace or Armani. Oh dear.

If you can afford it and genuinely like what you see, why not sport any brand you like? There’s a problem, though, when in the quest to copy-paste celebrity style piece for piece, we forget how flattering or not that designer wear looks on us! Amidst the frenzy to own any and everything that has a luxury label, even if that means mortgaging one’s house, we perhaps forget our own personal style and what looks good on us as individuals.

With our limited-edition Rolexes, subtly chic designer wallets and top-of-the-range luxury shoes (no matter how uncomfortable they are!), we often bask complacently in the knowledge of what we think we are spelling out through these brands: urbane, creative, affluent and hence desirable. Ironically and unknowingly, they often scream out: unoriginal, desperate and derivative. Here’s a good question to ask yourself when drumming your fingers on the payment counter before making that final decision: “Would I buy this if it were not designer?”

Whilst being someone who grew up not caring about wearing mismatched socks would have placed me on one side of the label lust coin, being completely blinded by the label and lost without these props is the other. My father used to say to us when we were growing up, “You should marry for the right reasons and not because the neighbour is getting betrothed.” Extending his analogy and at the risk of sounding like a “heads I win, tails you lose” trick, if I go back and buy that Dior bag (which I hope I do someday), I sincerely hope I do it because I love it enough to shell out $4500 for it, and not to evoke envy, or to fit in or create a perception about my financial status.



Saba Karim has studied anthropology at the University of Oxford. This article was previously published at the Huffington Post.

Photo Credit: relux.

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