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Sunday, 16 June 2019

Hussein: A man's outfit says it all

The man with the fez, probably conducting business by the Mosque

Nabil Shawkat, Sunday 5 Aug 2012
Views: 24601
Views: 24601

Al-Hussein (Photo credit: from the AUC Creswell Collection)
The man you see in front of this photo, taken circa 1920 by K.A.C. Creswell or one of his associates, doesn't seem to be intent on making a sartorial statement. He is perhaps just out of visiting the holy shrine of Hussein, on his way to visit relatives in the densely populated area around al-Hussein.

One gets the feeling, however, that he may be connected somewhat to the trade and economic activity in the nearby Moski district, a stronghold for the foreign business community at the time. People dressed like him would be completely at home with the class of attendants and helpers who did business with the country's burgeoning class of foreign entrepreneurs and government clerks.

His garments are a typical mishmash which was becoming common in the 1920s. The locals will trust him because of his familiar gallabiya, or robes. This is not the blue gallabiya that workers, especially in the fields, wear. The whiteness denotes a certain status, a supervisory status or a good job in commerce. The white gallabiya also goes well with his white or off-white shoes.


Egyptians developed their own style of French shoes by the turn of the century, and in the countryside dignitaries and small landowners wore a type of low-cut boots with relatively high heels that remained popular into the 1950s and 1960s.

His fez is of the tall variety popular in Egypt at the time, not the short variety of the previous century, which persisted elsewhere in North Africa. The tall fez, called tarboush, was of a harder and more elaborately tailored than the short version, which the Azhar scholars continued to use under their white turbans.

By the 1910's a curious dualism was appearing in the country, between the motarbashin, or the wearers of tarboush, and the moammamin, or the wearers of emma (turban wrapped around a short red fez). The motarbashin were more westernised, perhaps not even as devout at the moammamin. And the Egyptian educational system was getting split in half to reflect the dichotomy between the oriental past and the westernised future.

The jacket is another reflection of the sartorial dichotomy. There are two ways in which the gentleman in the picture would have acquired this garment. He could have bought it in a used clothes store, of which several would be located in this part of town. Or he would have had it custom made with a tarzi afrangi (Frankish or westernised style tailor), although this doesn't seem to be the case here, as the fit doesn't seem to be that good.

At the time, Egypt was developing a dual system of almost everything. There was a forn baladi and a forn afrangi (local bakery and western bakery), tarzi baladi and tarzi afrangi (local tailor and western tailor), hallaq baladi and hallaq afrangi (local barber and western barber), etc.

Life in Egypt was beginning to become a battle of traditions, sartorial and otherwise. It was this way when this picture was taken, and it remains so to this day.

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