King Abdullah & the Old Skool Dookie Chain

 Really, you shouldn't have: President Obama takes off the gold chain given to him by Saudi King Abdullah.

President Obama receives the King Abdul Aziz Order of Merit during his trip to Saudi Arabia.


I adore Robin Givhan. In a recent Washington Post article entitled “Here’s Your Gift, Mr. President,”  she analyzed the complex potential for meaning and perception of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia’s presentation of the  King Abdul Aziz Order of Merit necklace, to President Obama. The ornate necklace is said to be one of Saudi Arabia’s greatest honors. Givhan astutely deconstructs the many potentials for meaning of such a gift, but it is her description of the honor as a “theatrically large necklace [which] called to mind something that would have been favored by a rap star. The medallion hung from a series of gold links that honest to goodness looked just like a dookie chain.” Robin Givhan used the phrase dookie chain! Oh my….and this took me right back to the ’80s.  

She goes on to say, “It could have been something championed by the aesthetically challenged Flavor Flav, and who would have thought his name could ever be mentioned in the same paragraph as Obama’s?”

I love Robin Givhan. Adore her analysis. So it pains me to say this: but I disagree. Certainly, I think her analysis of how Barack Obama wearing such an opulent necklace might be perceived or spun, and how race and a serious recession, could impact that perception, is astute and accurate. I disagree, however, with the aesthetic assessment of the necklace, which I find quite elegant, stunning, and well, beautiful. Yes, it does look out of place with President Obama’s somber suit and general style, but it’s also a great foray into what another culture deems an honor. And I bet you George Bush didn’t receive his with nearly as much grace, gravitas, or sense of being uncomfortable. In fact, he looks jovial and downright friendly to me…

George Bush receiving the Order of Aziz

The necklace to me, in its exquisite craftsmanship (is that filigree Egyptian gold – well beyond our 24K stuff?) seems suitable to the honor it is bestowing. If Obama looks uncomfortable, perhaps, its because he doesn’t want the current political dance between Saudi Arabia and the (oil dependent) U.S. to continue as it has in the last 20 years. Perhaps this is an instance when aesthetic choice speaks to a larger geo-political orientation?  It’s sort of like taking a gift from a person you’re dating, who you know you’re “just not that into,” and who you think may get confused and real possessive if you start accepting their expensive gifts (fly over permissions, use of military base, armed forces support, oil)…After all, Obama described the U.S. relationship with Saudia Arabia as “strategic.” In a 2006 Congressional Research Service report, the complex relationship between Saudi Arabia and the U.S. is discussed – with no mention of fabulous neck wear.

President Obama wearing the Order of Aziz


December 3, 2000: Russian dancer, choreographer, and actor Mikhail Baryshnikov enters the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC for the Kennedy Center Honors. He is often called the world's greatest living male ballet dancer. [AP/Wide World Photo]

Russian dancer, choreographer, and actor Mikhail Baryshnikov wearing his Kennedy Center Honor

American honors seem to be shy of true luxury or opulence, such as the Kennedy Center Honors which Givhan references. They lack the gravitas (or the price tag, I am sure) of the Aziz Order of Merit, which seems to suggest to me, that U.S. culture, might not really know how to give a gift with the needed meaning, elegance, and opulence called for when you’re truly honoring someone. We tend it seems, to give quick thrills or easily constructed gifts (unless its an Oscar, Emmy or Grammy- further proof of our worship of celebrity) rather than gifts that could be considered heirlooms.


That said, Givhan is right, that the image will trigger a great deal for many. I disagree, however, with the idea that it’s a dookie chain – in all my time in the ’80s, I never saw such a great looking, well-crafted dookie chain. And certainly, the sartorially challenged Flavor Flav, never rocked such a nice chain. Ever. The Aziz Order of Merit is an honor – and it harkens to a tradition that is outside of our Western understandings and preferences for what kinds of gifts one should receive. In many cultures, throughout the world, necklaces represent protection, societal standing, and various other honors. It is Western culture, particularly the culture of the U.S. which bars men from ornamentation – suggesting instead that somber plainness is the only domain for masculine style choices.  I’d like to believe that though President Obama may have been uncomfortable, wary even of the very perceptions and connections which Robin Givhan outlined in her article to MC Commander in Chief, that he was somber, because he respected and understood both the weight of the honor he was receiving and its political meanings.
A Black American, multiracial man, is being honored with an order of Merit in another country, by a King – in a ceremonial way, that harkens back to ancient traditions of gift giving and essentially recognizes him as HNIC, Commander in Chief, and world leader: and that is amazing and fierce, dookie-esque chain or not. It just can’t be denied, President Barack Obama is a brilliant, accomplished, elegant, eloquent leader – and he has swagger for days.
To compare him, and the necklace of Aziz to Flavor Flav is grossly inaccurate. There is, in no universe, any comparison. Now if King Abdullah had busted out with some gold brass rings or gold fronts for Obama’s teeth there would have been some issues…. Even though I disagree, I still got a tickle out of Robin Givhan using the phrase “dookie chain.” I guess Robin was just keeping it real.

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