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Photo: My Uniform''s Cooler Than Yours-Hamid Karzai walks with the commander of all U.S. ground troops in Afghanistan, Commanding General F.L. "Buster" Hagenbeck.
The spoils of war are as rich as ever, only now they are reaped by global trendsetters and fashion designers instead of pillaging armies. Each new month of fighting in Afghanistan adds another layer of mystique to the mysterious East, it seems.
Renowned as the first to capture the fashion zeitgeist, Gucci creative director Tom Ford called Afghanistan''s interim leader Hamid Karzai "the chicest man on the planet today" in January. On a trip to New York and Washington that month, the Pushtun had appeared on television almost daily wearing his emblematic lambskin cap, roomy trousers and rich emerald ceremonial cloak. "Charismatic Karzai leads with a new look," blared CNN, as reporters oohed and ahhed over his chiseled features, regal bearing and daring combination of flowing Afghan robes and finely tailored Italian suits.
Fashion writers researched the tribal origins of Karzai''s lustrous, hand-woven silks, while style mavens coined phrases like "Karzai look" and "Kabul chic." The Afghan ruler got more coverage for his dress than his diplomacy-a focus that may say more about us than him. Though his flawless English and education abroad were duly noted, newspapers like the Washington Post emphasized Karzai''s "steamy intellectualism," comparing his sex appeal to that of actors Ben Kingsley and Sean Connery.
Amidst the waves of adulation, no one seemed to notice this irony: while American fashionistas admired Karzai''s threads, U.S.-led bombers pummeled the new media darling''s country to smithereens.
In the Middle Ages, armies celebrated victories by mounting the heads of their enemies on sticks and parading them through the streets for all to see. Was Western media''s parading of Karzai''s clothes a more refined, updated version of the same triumphalism?
The obsession with Karzai''s outfits may have been an attempt to lighten up after September 11 and find something positive-however superficial-about Afghanistan. Video clips of the dashing diplomat were a refreshing change from depressing images of weary Afghan fighters and civilians in desert-soiled rags. Moreover, the spotlight on Karzai as fashion hero put a Hollywood spin on the war against terrorism. The drama already had its ''bad guy''-Osama bin Laden-but it lacked a ''good guy'' until Karzai appeared on scene. Could there be a better foil to a turbaned enemy hiding in a cave than a well-groomed, quasi-royal statesman who speaks half a dozen languages and has spent a good deal of time in the U.S.?
Mainstream media tailored Karzai into a hero for his fashion sense, not his politics, making him look less like a marionette for American interests. This is no conspiracy, but a continuation of the West''s long tradition of subjugating the Middle East through symbols, diminishing its complexities. Palestinian writer Edward Said describes Orientalism, in his book of the same name, as a fascination with exoticism, a romantic reduction with control as the aim.
That said, few reporters realize that Karzai''s flamboyant attire is as extraordinary in Afghanistan as it is in the West. Faced with the challenge of unifying various ethnic factions, Karzai has pulled together clothing from different regions of his country in one ensemble: his robe, or chapan, is worn by Uzbek and Turkman tribesmen in the north, his loose cotton trousers and long tunic represent the south, and the lambskin hat is typical of urban Kabul-call it coalition by costume. Underneath tribal robes he often wears a black, single-breasted suit-the uniform of a world leader-thus reconciling East and West.
Before he became leader, Karzai appeared only in the Western clothing typical of Muslim dignitaries. As interim leader, Karzai is shaping cultural symbols while he still can-before Afghanistan''s National Grand Council meets in June to decide whether he will remain in office. Like the decision-makers who appointed him, Karzai is no stranger to Western values or the power of soundbites and video clips. On April 10 he held a press conference at the ruins of the giant Buddha destroyed by the Taliban last year. It is noteworthy that at a time of widespread poverty, monetary collapse and civil strife in his country, Karzai promised to rebuild an ancient cultural monument whose destruction had sparked a far bigger outcry in the West than in the Middle East. Heritage for export, the new image-based politics of cultural symbolism.
Perceived by many Afghans as a leader installed by Western powers, Karzai himself may have been fashioned for export. His dignified manner and headline-grabbing attire have certainly drawn attention to the beauty and history of Afghan traditions, creating the image of a noble country worthy of financial and political support. Has Karzai supplied the West with tribal treasures through his sartorial style, in return for good PR? Not necessarily, but his relationship with the news media is charged with mutual seduction.
At the same time, the fashion world''s appropriation of Karzai as style icon smacks of commercial opportunism. Gucci''s Ford called Karzai''s look "very elegant and very proud"-right after a series of equally elegant men wearing Ford''s long cloaks and flowing trousers had sauntered down the runways. Ford said the Afghan ruler embodied the spirit of his new collection. Truth be known, Ford had designed his dapper men''s wear months before Karzai made his international debut, previously stating they were inspired by 1930s Hollywood leading men. In Karzai, Ford evidently found a promotional star brighter than Humphrey Bogart or Clark Gable. Fashion goes geo-political, parading Middle East spoils down couturier runways, distracting from the bombers on those other runways.
A gala of stars has embraced Middle East mystique this spring, from Alicia Keyes''s Egyptian-style eye makeup and veil-like embroidered Christian Dior outfit at the Grammies, to Halle Berri''s show-stopping Oscar dress with a sheer embroidered top and russet taffeta skirt, designed by Lebanese-born Elie Saab and already available as $300 knockoffs in malls throughout North America.
Who knows, the demand for emerald dreamcoats could create a new export market for Afghanistan-an alternative form of foreign aid. Trendsetters have previously exploited empires in decline: Mao jackets were hugely popular in the West following China''s Red Revolution, and the Stalinist military look was all the rage after the fall of the Soviet Union. Designers have learned to appropriate the distinct cultural symbols of closed societies before global capital erases regional markers. (Hey, no intellectual-property rights to deal with.)
North Americans are shifting from vilification to fascination as they explore images of Islamic cultures. In the sea of sameness defined by Nike, Hollywood and formulaic pop, we long for mystery, even when it scares us. Maybe because it scares us.