The Zay Initiative focuses on advancing the preservation of cultural heritage through the collection, documentation, and digital archiving of Arab historical attire as well as the stories behind the collectors, makers, and garments themselves. The core of the collection is based on UAE traditional dresses, yet The Zay Initiative aims to collect key examples of dress and adornment from across the Arab world, with the ultimate goal of representing the cultural heritage of all Arab countries. The collection includes examples of dress acquired from the simplest of rural families to the ruling class, from Yemen, Morocco, Kuwait, Iraq, Syria, Palestine, Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, and others! 

There is no one universally and globally accepted definition for the parameters of what is and is not included in the ‘Arab world,’ and so, there are no hard set of rules for what The Zay Initiative can include in the collection. What is ‘Arab’ can be thought of as anything that is related to the people and the states united by the Arabic language. These parameters go beyond religion, beyond politics, beyond resources. 

Map of the Arab World

Map of the Arab World. Source: Wikimedia Commons


Lost in Translation

And while these parameters are defined by the use of the Arabic language, this in itself raises challenges, as Arabic is a language of local dialects that may differ from country to country and even from village to village! Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) is used by the government and in school textbooks in most of the countries of the Arab world, but it is not spoken as the everyday language of the common people. Each country has their own spoken dialect known as ammayya, or darija, meaning ‘everyday colloquial language.’ The colloquial dialects have cognates from Modern Standard Arabic, but they also borrow significantly from the language of the indigenous people or the historical colonial occupier, for example, Tamazight (Berber) and French, respectively. The colloquial dialects are often not mutually understood between speakers from various Arab countries. This is why Modern Standard Arabic is used as the lingua franca, but it is not the language of the people.  

Another obstacle to representing a Pan-Arab collection that is accessible to the larger world and academic community is the use of English as our own lingua franca. Much of the research conducted for the English side of The Zay Initiative’s website and archive is conducted in English. As the lead researcher, I am able to read the Arabic script and understand the language to a point, but I am not at a level that I can conduct academic research on a topic, and my ammayya is stronger than my MSA. Most English language publications, even if they are translations of Arabic work, do not write Arabic words in the original script or use standardised transliterations, thus it is often difficult to understand exactly what the original word is. Moreover, some things get lost in translation or are completely misunderstood by one anthropologist or researcher, and then the confusion grows from there as that core research gets cited and the misunderstandings become ‘fact.’  

Sometimes these (mis)understandings become part of the research themselves. In the seminal word Costumes of Morocco, by Jean Besancenot, which was first published in French in 1942 and based on fieldwork conducted between 1934 and 1939, a publisher’s note is included on the use of names for the garments and costumes. 

The orthographic forms of the Maghrebi Arabic and Berber words in the text have been preserved exactly as printed in the original French editions. They represent the impressions made on the ear of the author and noted down by him at the time of his investigations and as such constitute an important record. Their value to the scholar would be largely lost if they were to be ‘corrected’ in the light of more recent studies of the North African dialects or of their etymologies in the Classical language. (1990, p. 8) 


Costumes of Morocco

Costumes of Morocco by Jean Besancenot. Source: Amazon


Four Key Challenges

Even if the original research is done by an ‘insider,’ every researcher, writer, or translator has their own cultural bias. It is important to keep in mind our own cultural biases when reading about an item, as well as asking questions such as what cultures or biases does the writer, translator, or researcher come from.  

At The Zay Initiative, we aim to be as inclusive as possible and have contributors and team members from around the world. Yet we also must aim to be consistent in our translations and transliterations. For the sake of clarity, ironically, we are often unable to include all possible options of spellings or definitions. It is also important to keep in mind that the collection is based on the initial UAE core collection, and thus may often contain a slight UAE-centric bias. 

In my research, I have identified four key challenges:

  1. Variations in how an Arabic word is transliterated into English script 
  2. Variations in how the same word is pronounced in different Arabic dialects. 
  3. Instances where the same Arabic word is used to represent different types of garments. 
  4. Instances where the same type of garment is represented by different Arabic words. 

Challenges in Transliteration

There is not one single way to transliterate words from the Arabic script to the Roman script used to write English. Vowels cause the largest difficulties since short vowels are not always written out in Arabic, and English does not differentiate between long and short vowels. Some of the Arabic consonants do not have a corresponding English equivalent and are thus spelt in multiple ways. For example, the Arabic letter [qaf / ق] often is a challenge because it does not quite sound like the English [q]. Moreover, English has both the letters [k] and [c] which are often interchangeable and both used to represent [qaf]. One word that is thus transliterated in various ways is qaftan (qafṭān / قفطان) which is a loose, long tunic, robe, or cloak that covers the body, variations of which are worn around the Arab world and beyond. Aside from Qaftan, this word is often spelt as kaftan, caftan, or even Khaftan (which is actually the best transliteration of the original Persian word from which we probably get the Arabic Qaftan. The word entered English through Turkish and French therefore kaftan is a popularly accepted spelling in English). 

At The Zay Initiative, we have recently decided to adopt the LOC ALA transliteration system as it is widely accepted in the international academic world. Since this is a new decision on the part of the Zay Team, there may be some cases on our website or in our archive that do not follow the system. For technical and accessibility reasons, the full diacritics are often left out when writing a blog post or in the body of object descriptions. Moreover, when researching in English and relying on the transliteration of others, it can be difficult to tell how a word should be spelt unless the original Arabic is included (which is rare). 


ZI2021.500913.2 PALESTINE

Traditional Palestinian Thawb with cross-stitching. Source: The Zay Initiative Collection ZI2021.500913.2 PALESTINE


Challenges in pronunciation

As discussed earlier, people in the Arab world speak many colloquial dialects. Not only do they often have completely different words for the same item, if they do happen to use the same word, more often than not, it is pronounced differently. Again, the letter [qaf] is one example of this, for in the UAE dialect it is pronounced like a hard [g], and in the Egyptian dialect it is pronounced like a glottal stop [‘] or not pronounced at all. 

One traditional garment that we have found to be often pronounced is Thawb ( ثوب), the standard Arabic word for ‘fabric’ or ‘garment’ and often used to describe a tunic-like garment worn by men and women in the Arabian Peninsula, Iraq, Iran, and some countries in East and West Africa, or more specifically, a square-shaped Bedouin overgarment worn by women. 

This name for this garment can also be pronounced (and thus transliterated) as ‘Tobe’ in some regions, without the fricative [th]. In our team discussions around the word, we uncovered that the differences in pronunciation can vary between neighbouring villages, but to simplify, in the north of Palestine and Jordan this item is mostly pronounced as [tobe], in the south, and among the Bedouins, the more widespread pronunciation [thob] or [thawb] is usually maintained. In our Zay Collection descriptions we have attempted to represent the various spellings, yet, for the sake of simplicity, we usually default to [thawb].  



Moroccan Caftan with Brocade. Source: The Zay Initiative Collection ZI500569


Same name, different thing 

The challenges of the same item being referred to by different names or different items being referred to by the same name often cause the greatest confusion when conducting research for item descriptions or when trying to write inclusive and succinct definitions. While the challenge arises with many Arabic words for garments, the need for this blog post arose when conducting research on the Qaftan. How should we define this word? What do we include in the definition? And what words do we not include?  

The word qaftan is used to refer to multiple different garments across the Arab world and into the West. Above I chose to quickly define the word as ‘a loose, long tunic, robe, or cloak that covers the body, variations of which are worn around the Arab world and beyond.’ This is a very vague definition, but the world Qaftan has come to represent many different types of garments, and the history of the Qaftan is surrounded by much contention! 

Historians disagreed about the oldest origins of the qaftan, some give credit to India and Persia, while others to the Ottomans. Some assert that it arrived in Morocco at the time of the Islamic conquest around 680 CE, while still others claim that it is Moroccan in origin, and from there spread through Andalusia and beyond. There is evidence that the qaftan was used since antiquity by several ethnic groups in ancient Mesopotamia, originally a long vest-like tunic tied at the waist with long sleeves, typically worn by men. What constitutes a Qaftan today differs between many of the countries that use this word to refer to a local garment. Long-sleeved, short-sleeved, hooded, not hooded, cloak-like, dress-like, worn as an overgarment, worn as an undergarment, heavy, gauzy, embellished, plain, worn at home, worn in public, open in the front, or not. There is not one ‘qaftan’!  

The word qaftan, or caftan or kaftan, entered the American-English lexicon in the 1960s, most likely not directly from Arab countries, but rather from France. What is known as a qaftan in the West is largely an interpretation of the Moroccan qaftan, which gained international popularity when the country was a major stop on the ‘hippie trail.’ 


Talitha and Paul Getty in Marrakesh in the 1960s

Talitha and Paul Getty in Marrakesh in the 1960s. Source: Pinterest


Same thing, different name 

To continue with our use of the Qaftan example from above, during research it became clear that the garments that may be called qaftans, can also be referred to by many different names (again, this can be said for many items, but we are focusing on one example here). 

In Historical Development of the Caftan Constume, a dissertation by Mufida Abdlnor Kassir (1978), the issue of the many different definitions of Qaftan in literature is explored. In the paper, alternative terms for Qaftan (as well as terms for garments that are often confused for the Qaftan) are presented, such as: kamis, djubbeh, djellaba, idfiyna, Izar, Aba, Abayah, kiba, zuboun, sadrya, kidra, burnous, daria, sutra, tunic, robe, Yelek, Istanbuliandari, karnis, kinbaz, zubon, saya, farasia, gandura, kandura, Jubbah (spellings as represented in the text). 

As Kassir explains, meanings change over time. Some of these terms had more specific meanings during certain periods in history or in certain regions.  They may have been interchangeable or referred to very different types of garments. Many of the alternative terms arose from confusion by outsiders, as some of the words listed actually refer to garments traditionally worn along with the qaftan, either over or under. 

Similar issues arise around the words Thawb, and Kandurah, and both can be mistakenly called a qaftan or dishdashah, dira’ah, etc. In her book, Embroidery from the Arab World, Gillian Vogelsang-Eastwood (2010), also presents various alternative terms that can either describe a Thawb or be confused with a Thawb. She lists: Aba, abaya, abuthail, Bisht, Burnus, dishdasha, durra’a, jalabiya, jallaba, kaftan, mishla, qaba, Qumbaz, hidim, shawal, takshita (spellings as represented in text). Indeed, the Wikipedia article on Thawb includes an entire chart of alternate words! 

In my own personal experience living in Egypt, neither ‘qaftan’ nor ‘thawb’ are commonly used in recent years, instead, galabeya (with a hard [g] instead of a [j] or [dj]) is the most common word. Galabeya is used to describe the traditional garment worn by men, as well as the garment worn by women both inside the house or in public. Abaya is another common word, usually reserved to describe the black silky garments worn by women or the embellished garments worn for special occasions.  In different social circles, different words may have been used, but these are the two I most commonly heard, in both Arabic and English. 



Overgarment-tunic known as Thawb Kandurah. Source: The Zay Initiative Collection ZI500826UAE


A call for your input 

At The Zay Initiative, we strive to represent diverse cultural heritages through our Pan-Arabic collection, we further aim for accuracy and respect. Yet we will often be unable to properly represent every single possible spelling, pronunciation, or alternative word in each of our item descriptions or dictionary entries. We ask for your understanding in this matter. But even more importantly, we ask for your input!

Dear readers, we would love to hear from you regarding how your family or country refers to a specific garment. Since these were our three most commonly challenging words, we would love feedback on your understanding of one of these words, or any of the words mentioned in this post: 

qafṭān / قفطان 

Thawb / ثوب  

kandūrah / كندورة 

Contact Jackie Barber at [email protected]

Referenced texts 

Besancenot, Jean (1990). Costumes of Morocco. Edisud, Aix-en-Provence.  

Kassir, Mufida Abdlnor (1978). Historical Development of the Caftan Constume. Oklahoma State University.  

Vogelsang-Eastwood, Gillian (2010). Embroidery from the Arab World. Primavera Press, Leiden.