"Many people were shocked that I was developing the thobe, which is considered the national costume. I was accused of trying to destroy our culture, of promoting homosexuality and of trying to make men resemble women," he said.
He returned to Saudi Arabia in 1990 and opened a small boutique on a quiet side street in Jiddah. The religious police, or mutawa, raided his shop half a dozen times, accusing him of violating a ban on the mingling of unrelated men and women. His fashion design magazines were confiscated or torn up in airport customs, and the mannequins he tried to import were destroyed or thrown out because of a religious ban on statues.
Bishri's break came when then Crown Prince Abdullah called him in 1997 to ask about his designs. Bishri explained that he was not tampering with a white robe that had been worn with Saudis since time immemorial. Like many other things in the Middle East, a relatively new phenomenon, the white thobe, had become in the period of a few decades something that people jealously guarded as established and timeless tradition. Bishri educated Abdullah, who became one of his customers, creating a breakthrough for Bishri.
Bishri said Abdullah asked him why there was a storm of criticism about his work. "I showed him the book and the coats worn by his father. I explained that the forbidding white we wear now was not part of our tradition but something new to society, something that dated back only three or four decades."
In the 1960s, he said, the kingdom's new oil wealth resulted in a more modern country and a less harsh lifestyle. White robes, which reflect heat, became more practical and easier to keep clean, he said.
"When people started wearing the thobe, everybody was convinced it was part of our culture. But our fathers did not always dress like that," Bishri said. "I was looking for how we dressed in the past because I knew we had no material and no clothes industry here, only what we imported."
I think this story, like others, shows that much of the unthinking conservatism in the region is not created by some innate and long-standing ascetic tradition, but comes more from a modern phenomenon of jealousy, bigotry, and cultural siege that is often driven by an ignorance of one's own history and traditions. A great deal of the "tradition," "custom," and "religious practice" pushed by the radicals are actually new inventions or bid'a, which in itself is considered haram by them. But they operate by one set of rules and expect everyone else to operate by another. To me, people like Bishri and other peaceful mavericks are the true heroes of the region, whose story needs to be spread