|Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
15 - 21 March 2001
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A Diwan of contemporary life (381)
It might seem a detail -- what to wear on your head. To all but the fashion-conscious, headgear would come as an afterthought. But different types of head-dress -- be it the tarboosh, the turban, the beret or the trilby -- made a difference in Egypt in the early 1920's. A debate over headgear involved arguments based on political, cultural and socio-economic connotations. The tarboosh in particular, as Dr Yunan Labib Rizk writes, had its supporters and detractors; both sides were given ample room in Al-Ahram to voice their views. The debate subsided until 1952 when the revolution that overthrew the monarchy tolled the knell of the tarboosh.
Demise of the red headgear
In November 1925 Al-Hilal reported that Mustafa Kamal -- later to be proclaimed Ataturk, the father of the Turkish nation -- had taken a great leap forward by replacing his tarboosh with a trilby. The Egyptian magazine said the news stunned newspaper readers in the Arab east where reaction ranged from praise to censure. The president of the Turkish Republic told reporters that if his countrymen want to enter the ranks of civilised nations, they must dress and act as civilised people. Above all, "They must remove from their heads the tarboosh, that oriental relic that will always remind them that they are oriental people."
Sheikh Mohamed Abduh
Al-Hilal itself commended the action which, it held, was in keeping with history's great reformers who rarely neglected the importance of their attire. After all, clothes, it argued, have an important effect on the mentality, temperament and bearing of the wearer. "This is a fact that we all know and see every day. That is why kings have attire that sets them apart them from the rest of the people. The same applies to clergymen and soldiers. Were clothes devoid of impact these classes would not have taken the trouble to distinguish themselves from others by donning special uniforms."
At the time of the article, the editor-in-chief of Al-Hilal was the Egyptian reformer Salama Moussa, clearly a champion of the Western-style hat. Supporting his view was Mahmoud Azmi, editor-in-chief of Al-Siyasa, who appealed to Egyptians to emulate the Turks, although he favoured the beret over the trilby. In the opposing camp stood a host of conservative figures, most notably the famous writer Mustafa Lutfi El-Manfaluti. Not surprisingly, too, Al-Azhar joined the fray on the side of traditional garb, issuing a fatwa (religious opinion) prohibiting the European hat, or the burnaita, as it was termed.
Before delving further into the ensuing debate, it is important to note that by the turn of the 20th century a large segment of the population had already undergone a major shift in attire: from the turban to the tarboosh and from the galabiya and quftan to the Western-style suit. The transition had its roots in the emergence of the modern state, affecting first military uniforms, perhaps due to the influence of European advisers, then extending to the institutions of modern education which furnished the pool for civil servants and the impetus for the rise of the effendi class, distinguished by the suit and the tarboosh.
Perhaps few are aware that the great national leader, Saad Zaghlul, had worn the turban and quftan until 1880 when he began working with Sheikh Mohamed Abduh on the publication of Al-Waqa'i Al-Misriya, a monthly government gazette, at which point he donned Western dress and became known as Saad Effendi instead of Sheikh Saad.
It is also interesting to read what the Egyptian press printed on the two styles of headgear under debate. The tarboosh, we learn from Al-Hilal, derived its name from the 17th century sarboush, "a large, tall, crown-shaped cap, not girded by a turban, which was worn by princes and ministers." The account continues, "In 1826, the Ottoman Sultan Mahmoud II annihilated the janissaries, restructured the army and made the tarboosh the official military headgear. Mohamed Ali of Egypt followed suit and ordered Egyptian soldiers to wear the tarboosh like the Turks. Originally it was polygonal and had a Moroccan tassel suspended from the crown, thus resembling the tarboosh worn by the Arabs who settled in western Egypt. It then developed into the shape we know today."
Tarboosh-manufacturing was one of the new industries Mohamed Ali introduced in Egypt and it is not surprising that the status and growing popularity this cap would acquire towards the end of the 19th century would draw the attention of Egypt's early generations of modern industrialists. Indeed, around the time of the controversy between European and oriental headgear, a prominent Egyptian entrepreneur founded a large tarboosh-manufacturing plant in Qaha in which he recruited a large staff of foreign employees. As with fashion everywhere, the tarboosh styles varied, as did their make and quality. It may come as a surprise to some that the most prized tarbooshes were those imported from Austria.
Western headgear also went through many stages. Medieval Europeans crowned their heads with a tall fez-like piece that at one point looked like a cone. With the beginning of the Renaissance, hats began to shrink in size but developed brims, ultimately evolving into the various hats in fashion in the 1920s, one style of which was the trilby donned by Ataturk.
It should be added that although Salama Moussa advocated removing the tarboosh, he did not necessarily suggest replacing it by the European hat. Modern medicine, he said, counsels us to wear as little clothing as is morally permissible in order to expose as much as possible of the body to the beneficial rays of the sun. He adds, "Some hold -- and there is much to suggest that they are correct -- that headgear of any sort causes baldness because it blocks the circulation of the vessels that feed the scalp, bringing permanent death to the follicles despite the assorted hair products commercially advertised. We find proof of this in the fact that peasants and workers who wear nothing on their heads, or at most a light skullcap, do not go bald, unlike the wealthier classes with their huge turbans, their tarbooshes and their hats, which constrict the head." However, Moussa counselled, if headgear must be worn, then it should be the Western-style brimmed hat because the tarboosh provides neither shade nor protection from the rain. Not, it appears, that many Egyptians were at risk of the disadvantages of the tarboosh, for according to Moussa, out of the 14 million inhabitants of the country at the time, only one million were tarboosh wearers.
For several months after the controversy broke out, Al-Ahram chose to remain on the sidelines, as was its custom on religiously charged issues. When it did enter the fray, it did so obliquely, opening its pages to the opinions of people of both pro- and anti-tarboosh sympathies.
What prompted this approach was the reception for a visiting delegation of Turkish youth, hosted by the executive committee of the Egyptian Students Organisation in Shepheard's Hotel on 2 March 1926. Speeches were delivered, the Turkish guests cheered to the long life of Saad Zaghlul and the Egyptians responded with a cheer for Mustafa Kamal. The occasion may well have passed in memory had an Al-Ahram correspondent not drawn attention to the difference between the two delegations' headgear, rekindling the battle over the tarboosh.
The opening salvo in the new melee was fired by the Wafdist head of the Students Organisation who, in a letter to Al-Ahram, charged that the advocates of discarding the tarboosh "wanted to anger Muslims in the Arab east and west." To renounce the tarboosh was unpatriotic, a sign of forsaking the nationalist cause, as embodied in Saad Zaghlul who, the writer reminded his adversaries, still wore it.
Not all students were like-minded and many resented having their patriotism called into question. The first to respond to the letter of the Wafdist student leader was Awadallah Hana Gharabawi, "Bachelor's degree undergraduate," as he signed himself, suggesting he was in the final year of law school. The advocates of the tarboosh were speaking only for themselves, he wrote. "They furnish no proof to support their point of view and rely solely on the spirit of nationalism that would die were the tarboosh to vanish."
Gharabawi insisted that the advocates of discarding the tarboosh were no less patriotic than the chairman of the executive committee of the Students Organisation and that the tarboosh had never been a patriotic symbol.
Perhaps more important than Gharabawi's letter was the statement issued by a "Specialised Committee." Although the authors failed to specify what their specialty was, their letter made it apparent that they were a group of students dedicated to promoting the European hat. They also declared they would dissolve their committee once it achieved its aim. They would have a long wait.
At the same time, the committee members insisted that their promotion of the hat was "not evil." On the contrary, "the benefits of the idea in terms of health and the economy convinced us of its soundness and inspired us to take up this appeal without shame for there is nothing in it to be ashamed of." They added, "We were encouraged in this by the fact that it is not inconsistent with either religion or propriety."
The Wafdist student leader was not convinced of the committee's intentions. The advocates of that sacrilege, the burnaita, as he branded the headwear, sought to "encourage discord and animosity." The specialised committee members responded that the student leader had not addressed "the conclusive arguments and the irrefutable evidence" they had furnished but had instead heaped upon them "every form of abuse and sarcasm, a most undeserved response to our innocent appeal." The committee then exhorted students of every level of education to turn up at their schools on March 13 wearing the hat instead of the tarboosh.
The student leader, who was named Hassan Yassin, soon found support from a very important quarter. On 11 March, Al-Ahram readers opened their papers to the headline: "The tarboosh and the burnaita:" The article was in the form of a letter addressed to Yassin by Prince Omar Touson who expressed his admiration for his "precious advice on the hat, with regard to which some simpletons have sought to emulate the Kemalists, whether by placing it on their heads, making themselves the butt of jokes among their people or by writing to newspapers to express their preference for the hat over the tarboosh. This is our national dress and the emblem for which we are known among nations."
Touson's declaration encouraged others to speak out in support of Yassin. In an open letter to the Executive Committee, published in Al-Ahram, a Dar Al-Ulum student sought to furnish a more reasoned rebuttal to the proponents of the hat. He had no objection to wearing the hat, he said, but could not understand its benefits. "We would like to emulate the Turks, which is all very fine and to which we have no objection, but on the condition that this neither effects matters appropriate to our circumstances or touches upon our religion. What is important is to employ the wisdom that brought them positive results, not to emulate in trivialities and folly."
The student pointed out that when the Turks decided to don the hat, they also established a domestic industry for manufacturing it, thereby promoting their national economy and preventing "the money of the Turkish people going to foreign hands." He then asks, "Do you want us to imitate them in wearing the hat but not in their determination not to squander the money of the nation abroad?" He chastised the so-called Specialised Committee for having set 13 March as the date for students to wear hats without having indicated where they may be purchased. Clearly the committee members had not given any consideration to how this revolution in attire was to benefit Egyptian merchants, industry and labour.
Another student, Mahmoud Abdel-Salam of the Higher Teachers Institute, did not abide by diplomatic niceties as he launched into a full-scale onslaught against the proponents of the hat. "Have you thought of how your movement might undermine your sense of national identity and purpose? Have you ascertained that foreigners who wear the hat will welcome your competition with them in matters of dress and your association with them in matters of national identity?" Abdel-Salam did not think so. "They (foreigners) are angry with you and will not take kindly to your actions."
The young writer also stressed practical economic considerations. Advocates of the European hat had claimed that it was cheaper than the tarboosh. However, Abdel-Salam had ascertained that the tarboosh in the long run was less costly than the hat. It costs only one piastre to have a tarboosh cleaned, but a foreigner he spoke to told him that it cost 15 piastres to have a hat cleaned and that "if the process has to be repeated, the hat may no longer be fit for wearing."
After publishing Prince Touson's letter, Al-Ahram could no longer restrict its pages to the views of students alone. When the door opened to more viewpoints it found that most of the older contributors favoured jettisoning the tarboosh. One of them, Mohamed El-Bardisi, observed that the idea did not even originate in Turkey. In 1917, he said, Salim Sirkis wrote to "a hundred notables and intellectuals" asking them what they thought about replacing the tarboosh with the hat. Thus, "the idea arose first in Egypt more than 10 years ago and then moved to Turkey when it was revived, sweeping away all that was old."
El-Bardisi also took the occasion to remind his readers that it was not that long ago that the students of Dar Al-Ulum had replaced the turban with the tarboosh. He further pointed out that the sheikhs who adopted the tarboosh in their student days were now concerned with preserving, above all, their mark of distinction, whereas "the laws of evolution dictate that the government should oppose their will, not persist in soothing their egos."
Mohamed Saadi, a visiting Turkish lawyer and journalist who had obviously been in town long enough to follow the exchange of volleys, wrote an article under the headline, "The hat is not a trivial matter." He claimed he would have let the whole affair pass had not Prince Touson branded the Turkish people's decision to abandon the tarboosh as trivial. He wrote that what the prince had dismissed as a Turkish folly was, in fact, a manifestation of "a national revival towards which the Turkish people had made the most precious sacrifices, for the tarboosh stood side by side with the whip as the symbol of oppression and tyranny."
Saadi wrote that Turks originally took the tarboosh from the Greeks who had abandoned it long ago in favour of the hat, something they would never have done had the hat not been more economic. He scoffed at Egyptians who maintained that the tarboosh was their national dress, saying that was impossible because they took it from the Turks. Then, as though he had not been sufficiently provocative, Saadi elaborated upon Mustafa Kamal's opinion on the issue: "Hat-wearing foreigners are the masters of the orient, not Orientals. Such foreigners who have come to live in our part of the world view tarboosh-wearing easterners with contempt -- as one might look down on an animal -- after extorting our money and plundering our legacy." Such disdain, he proclaimed, was aroused by a mode of dress that stood for savagery and barbarity.
As the battle of the tarboosh heated up, it was not surprising that it came under the review by the Oriental League. Although many of its members were from countries that did not wear the tarboosh, it was concerned with aspects of Western cultural encroachment. Thus, in a meeting on 12 April, the league determined that oriental peoples should only emulate those aspects of occidental society that best suit their needs and circumstances. The participants resolved to appoint a committee drawn from its general assembly members "to study all aspects of the matter" by consulting "specialists in medicine, economics, sociology and other fields." Nothing ever transpired about the committee's findings, if any.
Nor was it odd that the issue should begin to draw the attention of the foreign press, the British in particular. The Manchester Guardian observed that Egyptian students were being thwarted in their desire to wear the Western hat by the older generation and even by such figures as Saad Zaghlul "who hold that the tarboosh is an emblem of national customs while the hat is alien and a symbol of foreign domination." The newspaper suggested that the conservatism in Egypt was understandable. Turkey was free in the management of its own affairs and could emulate Europe as much as it liked, whereas Egypt was still forced to remain on guard. After all, it concluded, "the unbridled horse runs faster than the horse held by reins."
The Near East focused on the Al-Azhar fatwa prohibiting the burnaita. The newspaper contended that this fatwa, with its implicit censure of Turkey, had to be seen within the context of Al-Azhar's call to hold a conference on the caliphate in the Egyptian capital. In March 1924, Ankara had abolished the caliphate in Istanbul and the question of appointing a new caliph and locating a new seat for the caliphate was still of considerable concern. The Near East correspondent in Cairo also observed that Islamic authorities were of the opinion that the Egyptian people already possessed the customs and qualities to equip them for progress and development, and that "if they did not possess what is necessary to build the nation, they will not gain it from putting on a hat."
Finally, several months into the debate, Al-Ahram stepped forward with it own opinion. Under the headline, "Between the tarboosh, the turban and the hat: national resurgence, identity and tradition," the newspaper asked whether, indeed, clothes affected morals and behaviour. Its answer was yes. After all, Peter the Great, founder of the Russian Empire, had issued a law containing harsh penalties against beards and very loose clothing, because such appearances impeded movement, stifled activity and diminished zeal.
But the newspaper also argued on the basis of Arab history. Ibn Khaldoun had established the principle that the weak who are ruled by others tend to imitate the strong. The last Ottoman sultan, Abdel-Hamid II, who preceded the first president of the Turkish Republic, was reported to have said, "Those Europeans will not respect us until we imitate them in everything, even dress."
But more important to the newspaper was that some of the sides in the battle between the hat and the tarboosh had gone too far. It appealed to participants to keep a cool head. "We are not of the sort to become alarmed by such an intellectual battle as long as both sides aspire to a noble aim," Al-Ahram wrote, drawing to a close the contest between the tarboosh and the hat on its pages. Still, it was not until the 1952 Revolution that Egyptians consigned the tarboosh to the annals of history.
* The author is a professor of history and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.
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