The headdress is revered in the Arab world as an evolving symbol of culture and identity. In a special portfolio, Vogue celebrates the most spectacular styles, from Morocco to the Gulf.
Since the beginning of time, civilization has embraced the headdress as an adornment; one born out of the human need for protection from the elements of nature. Head covers became an instinctive addition to man, a shield against the harsh environment. However, with time, distinctions in headdress emerged through manufacturing, incorporating a myriad meanings and serving various purposes. They becahatme key pieces in demonstrating cultural, religious, social, and political symbolism, often taking into consideration the wearer’s taste and style. It evolved to become the epitome of ornamental pieces, used as a declaration of identity.
The keffiyeh is one of the most recognizable types of head covers in the world. It is worn by people of the Arabian Peninsula, the Levant, and parts of North Africa. Known by various names such as ghutra or shemagh in the Gulf region, it is referred to as keffiyeh/kuffieh by countries in the Levant such as Jordan, Palestine, Syria, and Lebanon. Meanwhile, in Oman, it is referred to as masar and is made from fine wool with embroidery, which can be neatly tied on the head or worn over a kuma (traditional hand-embroidered cap). The keffiyeh is fashioned from a square scarf and is usually made of cotton. Its main purpose is to protect the wearer from dust, sunburn, and sand; it is fixed on the head by a cord, called the agal or shatfah as known in Syria.
The earliest evidence of a turban-like garment is from ancient Mesopotamia (Iraq), in a royal sculpture dating about 2350BC. Dubai-based Palestinian designer Zaid Farouki elaborates: “The kuffieh was traditionally worn as a head cover in Bedouin and agricultural societies; its name originates from Al Kufa in Iraq, which literally translates to ‘From Kufa.’ It wasn’t only exclusive to Palestinians but to the region as a whole.” The keffiyeh was predominantly worn in plain black or white in rural areas of Lebanon, while the patterned black and white or red and white are more dominantly seen in Palestine. Farouki adds, “The black and white is more prevalent and became institutionalized because of the figures that have worn it and who were photographed in it. The net represents the fishing line, the Mediterranean coast, the leaves represent the olive branch, the agricultural land, and the solid lines represent the trade routes, the travels, and how everything leads to Her (the motherland).”
Contrary to Western notions that Saudi women only donned black veils, women in Saudi Arabia, specifically in the South, wore a headcover called the beram that oozed perfume and evoked the olfactory system. Saudi professor Laila Saleh Al Bassam, emphasizes, “The beram is a rectangular piece of heavy black cotton cloth and embroidered on one of the corners. It is folded in two layers, forming a square. Folded from both ends and rolled from the top, a pillow with stuffed roses is inserted; which helps in positioning it above the head, giving the desired smell and shape. The angle in the lower back is the one that contains the embroidery, resulting in a triangular and geometric-shaped headpiece.”
Another unique headdress from the Mediterranean coast is the lebeddeh, which dates to the ancient Phoenician natives of Lebanon. Lebanese anthropologist Fady Mozaya explains that the style is backed by archaeological findings as dating to the second millennium BC. The lebbedeh is conical in shape and made of felted wool. It was mainly worn in rural areas, and at times uniquely wrapped with a plain black keffiyeh and fixed with agal cords. “The agal was traditionally created for a purpose, used by men and women alike as it opens to two circles. It was used with one end to tie the horse, donkey, or camel that they’re riding, and the other end to a pole. When they are on the move, they fold it up and put it on their head,” says Farouki.
Meanwhile, the tantour was a unique conical headdress for women, in the shape of a horn with a veil hanging from the top, worn by Druze and Maronite women of Lebanon. It was made in either etched gold or silver and could be as high as one meter, dictated by the prestige and wealth of the family. Traditionally, it was worn by women on their wedding day, gifted by their husbands as a symbol of honor. Nineteenth-century Lebanese princesses wore the tantour in gold, encrusted with jewels and pearls. David Urquhart, a Scottish diplomat, writer, and politician, had published a book on Lebanon in 1860 and gave a first-hand account on the tantour, upon his encounter with a bridal procession in the Chouf region, saying, “What a wonderful custom this appendage, fixed on the head on the wedding day, remaining there till death, in sleep, in sickness, in labor of the household toil in the field, there it sits, knotted and secured, as a bowsprit to the bow of a ship.” Married women never took the tantour off their heads, and even placed wooden resting planks underneath it when sleeping. The tantour, however, decreased in popularity after the Great Famine of 1845 due to its high cost, and it was later banned by Christian clerics.
On the other hand, married women of Palestine wore the ornamental shatweh headpiece, also known as the Bethlehem headdress. It was predominantly worn in the Palestinian villages of Bethlehem, Beit Jala, and Beit Sahur in the early 1900s by women on their wedding day. “Women’s headwear in the region is a sea of details. The headwear represents the town, city she’s from, her religion, her economic status as well, and it was a bank for the family as all the coins on her headgear were silver or gold depending on the family’s wealth,” says Farouki. The shatweh headdress was tarboosh-like and cylindrical in shape, usually covered with red broadcloth. The sides would be embroidered with satin stitch and couched with gold thread with rows of coins attached to the front, given by the groom as dowry. The shatweh was worn by brides with the traditional malak dress, known as the royal dress, due to its regal-like appearance with the rich and colorful Palestinian embroidery. Like the Lebanese tantour, the shatweh was held in place with a chin chain (iznak), embellished with several coins and tokens, which were attached by a hook to the ear flaps on each side. A silver disc (qurs) with a stamped pattern and pendant coins were usually attached to the crown.
With the advent of the Ottoman empire in 1299, there was a decline in the traditional Arab headdress, in favor of the red tarboosh, also known as fez, which took over the entire Levant, Egypt, and North Africa. The tarboosh is a close-fitting, flat-topped, brimless hat shaped like a truncated cone, with a black tassel hanging from the top. The origins of it are disputed, but it was the Turks that spread its popularity; yet, its name is derived from the Moroccan city of Fez, which was known as the source of the crimson berry once used to dye the felt. Moroccan designer Smail Akdim offers, “In Morocco, the fez is a national symbol, most importantly worn by the country’s office and administration; however, since the 1980s, it has waned in popularity. For women it was popular to wear necklace-like accessories around the forehead referred to as the ‘thread of the soul’ and for weddings, Moroccan women wore heirloom crowns.”
In Lebanon during the French mandate (1920s-1940s), the tarboosh became a political statement and a symbol of affiliation with supporters of independence from France. It was then worn as a fashion statement until the 1960s. Meanwhile, in Tunisia, the national headdress is the tarboosh-inspired chechia. It is made in vermilion red and is much lower and softer than the Turkish fez. The chechia is also worn in Libya, but in black.
After the fall of the Ottoman empire and the waning popularity of the Turkish fez, the keffiyeh continued to thrive. One of the most beautiful and striking turbans of the East, is the blue turban worn by the Tuareg people of Morocco. It is made from white cotton and dyed with a vivid natural blue powder. Akdim notes, “The Sahrawi blue turban is a very important accessory for the inhabitants of the Moroccan Sahara. The cotton is dyed with Nila powder, a 100% mineral derived from natural rocks. It has many benefits on the skin and creates a screen against sunburn and heat.”
Another eye-catching and picturesque headdress of Morocco is the chechiya. Worn by men and women that inhabit the mountainous region of the north, it is made of handwoven doum palm leaves, adorned with colorful pom poms and embroideries. The chechia is wide brimmed with a cone-shaped crown and embroidered with colorful yarns around the crown and brim. It played an important role as part of women’s dowry and is a significant accessory at parties and festivities. Since it is made of natural wicker, the chechiya is the perfect headdress for protecting the wearer from the sun and the heat; at the same time, it allows the head to breathe.
Despite the disappearance of traditional headdresses in most countries in the East, the turban has not completely vanished from the life of Arabs or Levantines today, and it is still worn by people of the Arabian Peninsula, the Tuareg of Morocco, and Omanis. The keffiyeh, shemagh, or ghutra have survived the tides of time and are still prevalent, adorned with pride daily as a declaration of identity and cultural heritage. They keep true to the adage that turbans are the crowns of Arabs. “Today, the keffiyeh has a significant role in Palestinian society and represents a call for decolonization, a symbol of resistance,” says Farouki. Akdim adds, “The new Moroccan generation is currently inspired by our cultural heritage and is developing creations with a Moroccan touch, as a reference to our rich culture and claiming our identity.” Al Bassam concludes, “The progress of nations can be measured by the extent to which they preserve their heritage and traditional arts; keeping true to identity, while achieving harmony with the ways of living in developed societies.”
Originally published in the July/August 2023 issue of Vogue Arabia
Style: Ahmed Rashwan
Fashion director: Amine Jreissati
Hair and makeup: Julia Rada
Style assistant: Poucy El Shahawy
Producer: Sam Allison
Talent: Yasmine Sima