One of the reasons why contextualizing Arab fashion is an important and challenging task is because the same article of clothing could have different names in different regions. To add to the mystery, several communities could all use the same word to refer to different objects!
The word “ tarbush ” (tarboosh), for example, can mean different things based on the context. The meanings range from articles of clothing to even dental crowns. In Emirates, “tarbusha” refers to the tassel, or the “farukhah”, which is a triangular-shaped piece of fabric that descends from the neckline of the dishdashah. We will cover the farukhah in the future. In this blog, we are exploring the tarbush which adorned the heads of many Arab men for over a century.
The origins and evolution of the tarbush
The tarbush has gone through so many transformations in look and significance that its origins are today somewhat obscure. While the word itself is a derivative of the Persian words ‘sar’ meaning head and ‘poosh’ meaning cover, some credit the hat to the Greeks. An article in the British press from 1828 about the Arabic-speaking population of Malta at the time mentioned that they “still wear the long red cap or tarbush of their ancestors of the desert.”
The other theory is that it was the Persians who brought a red tasselled cap to Tunisia and Morocco when they came along with the Arabs in the late 600s AD. In Tunisia, the chechia, a shorter and more flexible iteration became popular.
In Morocco, leaders such as Moulay Sharif ibn Ali were recorded sporting the more structured tarbush with an ‘amamahwrapped around the tarbush as early as the 1600s. This would become a popular way of wearing the tarbush as it helped stabilize the ‘amamah. To this day, the ‘Emma Azhareya (the official headwear of Azhar imams) looks similar to a chechia with a wrapped white ‘amamah.
A symbol of modernity
When Mahmud II became the Ottoman Sultan in 1808, he knew he needed to rebrand the Empire. Introducing legal and military reforms was not enough. His look had to show change. By 1826, it was time to ditch the robes and the big turbans and gradually introduce more western dress. And so, the Sultan adopted the Moroccan tarbush, having altered it to be perfectly round and longer.
The name fez emerged in reference to the Moroccan city of Fes where the crimson berry used for the dye was said to have come from. Shortly after, many parts of the Ottoman empire including Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Egypt, and Jordan adopted the headdress. And for about 100 years, the tarbush or fez would rise to the height of its popularity.
A symbol of independence
When Muhammad Ali Pasha mandated the tarbush as part of the military uniform in Egypt in the 1800s, he also brought its production to the country. In his book 1834 ”Egypt and Mohammed Ali; Or, Travels in the Valley of the Nile”, British journalist, James Augustus St. John tells us the following about a tarbush factory in the Nile-side town of Fuwwa that he visited.
“The tarbush manufactory, which enjoys some celebrity in Egypt, is in the hands of Tunisians. It is a large building, well constructed, and is kept neater and cleaner than any of the Pasha’s mills.”
This factory alone could produce 500 tarbushes a day. With the headgear becoming a requirement for civilians, mens’ heads in Egypt’s urban cities were all coloured red. The finest tarbushes however were made in Austria out of premium wool. Austrians had learned the craft as the tarbush was a part of the Bosniak military uniform until the early 1900s.
In 1925, shortly after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the fez was banned in Turkey in favour of the top hat. Several Arab countries however continued to wear the tarbush and it quickly became a sign of independence and national pride. This famously caused a diplomatic crisis in 1932 when Kemal Ataturk demanded that the Egyptian ambassador not wear a tarbush to a banquet on the anniversary of the proclamation of the Turkish Republic, causing Egypt to withdraw the ambassador and sever the relationship.
The making of the tarbush
Before we talk about how it’s made, we need to understand the elements that make the tarbush; a red cylindrical, flat-topped and brimless cap; made of felt and lined in silk, and a black tassel.
James Augustus St. John detailed the process of tarbush making in 1834 as follows: “They make use of the best European wool, which, after being carded, in small slips, is spun by women, and netted into tarbush by little girls. The caps are then taken to the fulling-mill, where they undergo the operation of being cleaned with soap and water, and where they shrink to nearly half their original volume. They are then wrung, put upon blocks to dry, teased and sheared smooth and neat, after which they are dyed to any intensity of shade required.”
After that, they are “finished up with fine shears, brushes” and “marked, and mounted with silk, and put under a press.” Although the machinery has certainly evolved since 1834, the process remains largely unchanged. You can watch how Nasser, a tarbush artisan in Cairo, creates his to this day.
A symbol of personal style
Despite it being a requirement in most countries, men found ways to express and present themselves to the world through the way they wore their tarbushes. Jordanian merchant Sabri El Tabaa’ was known for tilting his tabrush slightly so no one could focus on his height while Crown Prince Mohammed Ali Tewfik seemed to challenge gravity with the way he slanted his tarbush on his head.
A symbol of heritage
It was in the 1950s that fez’s role began to fizzle out from the everyday wardrobe of men as it was either banned or removed as a requirement of dress in most countries.
Today, the tarbush can still be seen on the king of Morocco with the traditional dress at official ceremonies. While some men wear the tarbush as a nostalgic nod to the past, it is mostly produced and sold for novelty purposes and to tourists in most other countries.
- A Fez of the Heart Travels Around Turkey in Search of a Hat, by Jeremy Seal, published 1995
- Egypt and Mohammed Ali Or, Travels in the Valley of the Nile Volume 1, by James Augustus St. John, published 1834
- The Tarbūsh: And The Turco-Egyptian Hat Incident Of 29 October 1932, by Samir Raafat
الأردن تاريخ وأصالة٬ لسمر يونس٬ نشر عام ٢٠٢٢
- الأزياء عند العرب عبر العصور المتعاقبة٬ للدكتور عبد العزيز حميد صالح٬ نشر عام ٢٠١٩
- “Tarboosh”, Encyclopaedia Britannica, accessed February, 2023
To explore more articles of clothing for Arab men, check out our digital archive here.