Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Fez, Tarboush, Kaffiya -- Why the Arabs of Palestine Flipped their Ottoman Lids in the 1930s

Most of the men at this 1920 Jerusalem demonstration in favor of the Damascus-
led Arab nationalist movement wore fezzes/tarboushes on their heads.
Few wore the kaffiya which was worn by farmers, Bedouins and peasants.
Were you visitor number 600,000?

The American Colony photographers were fascinated by Arab headgear and took a series of pictures on the subject.  Why?

As the accompanying 1920 picture of an Arab demonstration shows, most of the Arab men were wearing fezzes (tarboush) or turbans.  Only a few were wearing the cloth kaffiya and agal (the cord on top).
Note the Jewish fez-wearers in
the center-left of this picture of
worshippers at the Western Wall
on Yom Kippur (circa 1900)


The kaffiya was a practical headgear to protect its wearer from the sun, wind and cold. 

But, according to one researcher, the kaffiya "marked its wearer as a man of low status.  This head covering distinguished the fallah from the effendi, the educated middle- or upper-class man of the town who demonstrated his social preeminence by donning the fez. The reforming Ottoman government first introduced the fez in the 1830 as a replacement for the turban...."  (Memories of Revolt: The 1936-1939 Rebellion and the Palestinian National Past, by Ted Swedenburg.)

Sephardic Jews also wore fezzes, as evidenced by pictures of Jews praying at the Western Wall.

"Change to national head covering"
Discarded fezzes (in circle) atop a
bus stop pole in Jerusalem (1938)
"Rajai el Husseini in kaffiya and
agal" (1938)
What changed?

Memories of Revolt by Ted Swedenburg explains that in the early 20th century, "Arab nationalists in Damascus initiated a campaign to distinguish themselves from the fez-garbed 'Ottoman' Turks by donning the 'Arab' headscarf (kaffiya).  [In Palestine] up to the 1930s, the kaffiya generally still signified social inferiority (and rural backwardness), while the fez signaled superiority (and urbane sophistication)."

"National head covering... City
Christian girls with newly adopted veil"

In the 1936-1939 Arab revolt in Palestine, "the official political leaders of the struggle for independence came from the urban upper and middle classes," Swedenburg wrote. "The armed rebel bands that began to operate in the highlands... were composed almost exclusively of peasants.  These guerrilla fighters took on the kaffiya as their insignia.  Wrapped close around their heads, kaffiyat provided anonymity to fighters... disguised their identities from spies, and helped them elude capture by the British."

To complete his survey of Jerusalem
headgear, the photographer included
"Polish Jews with another headgear,"
the fur-trimmed shtreimel. (1938)
"On August 26, 1938, when the revolt was reaching its apogee... the rebel leadership commanded all Palestinian Arab townsmen to discard the tarboush and don the kaffiya... British officials were amazed how the new fashion spread across the country with 'lightening rapidity.'"
"City Moslem ladies with faces covered
as usual" (1938)

The abandonment of the fez was not accepted by all of Palestine's Arabs, and leading clans such as the Nashashibi family, refused to change and were met with antagonism, according to Memories.

The Arab revolt was led by the Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin el Husseini. The history of the headgear during the revolt also explains the adoption of the iconic kaffiya later by Haj Amin's cousin, Yasir Arafat.

Click on the photos to enlarge.
Click on the captions to see the originals. 
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