If Barack Obama went to Sigd, the main Ethiopian Jewish religious festival held every year in Jerusalem to celebrate Israel & the Torah, he would fit right in. He shares many of the same distinctive and beautiful East African features due to his father’s Kenyan heritage. Indeed, if Obama went to Sigd wearing the same East African garb that he wore in the photograph the Drudge Report released on February 25, he might be mistaken by the crowds at Sigd for a Kessim – an Ethiopian Jewish rabbi.
Traditionally in East Africa, men of all confessional backgrounds have been fond of wrapping lots and lots of white cloth around their heads and bodies. For one, it’s really hot there, especially in the summer months. Beyond that, in these cultures and others around the world, flowing white clothing symbolizes dignity, modesty, and humility. So, Ethiopian Jewish rabbis, Orthodox Christian priests in Eritrea and nomadic Muslims in Darfur all wear white cloth on their heads and bodies.
That is why the release of the photograph of Barack Obama in a white head-wrap and dress marks another non-issue episode in the political silly season we call the 2008 Presidential campaign (no, I’m not plagiarising Obama’s words – “silly season” is a well-known cliche). At best, whoever passed the photo onto Drudge sought to embarass Obama with an awkward (to American eyeballs) “hey-I-wore-something-like-that-for-Halloween-once” costume to diminish his stature. At worst, the photo’s release was intended as a form of political psy-ops: to stoke latent reservoirs of xenophobia and racism by producing an image that casts the candidate as foreign or alien and somehow makes his less-inspiring opposition more electable.
If the intent of the photograph’s release was to appeal to the baser instincts of voters, it has failed given Obama’s thickening teflon and burgeoning popularity. Unfortunately, we will see many more attempts ahead to frame the candidate of hope in terms that speak to middle America’s deepest racial, religious, and cultural fears. It doesn’t seem to matter that Obama’s honorific garb in the photograph is common to Christians, Jews, and Muslims in East Africa. That the dress and culture of African Jews and Christians seems to also be fair game for mockery. That we could fill albums and albums with pictures of presidents and first ladies wearing clothing given to them on their travels that may appear strange or silly to us.
Yet holding these pictures up as objects of ridicule reinforces American arrogance and ignorance at a time when we should be inculcating humility and a respect for human dignity. Perhaps we should all, as Americans, embrace East African garb – it may provide us with the sorely-needed humility, modesty, and dignity we need desperately to heal us as a nation.
Partial to both fried okra and tofu, Mas’ood Cajee has enjoyed living in red and blue states alike. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.