Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat—Many questions spring to mind when walking through Cairo’s famous historic Al-Hussein district. One passes shopkeepers selling traditional garments or hawking rare Pharoaonic artifacts, as well as perfume shops whose aroma hangs heavily in the Cairene night. Then there is the throng of customers and onlookers, while the voices of local venders ring out across the marketplace announcing prices and offers, drawing the eyes of those who have come to see Cairo’s famous bazaar firsthand. In the midst of all this one might find a lone Azhar cleric walking calmly but purposefully through the marketplace from the nearby Al-Azhar Mosque. His destination: Egypt’s last remaining tarboush factory, which sits unassumingly in the middle of this loud market district.
Inside the shop, one can almost taste Egypt’s long history with the tarboush—or Fez, as it is more commonly known in the West—and there are many different examples of the traditional headgear on display. In the middle of all this, Asharq Al-Awsat finds Mohamed Ibrahim, Egypt’s last professional tarboush maker, in the process of crafting a new hat.
“I inherited the craft of making tarboush from my father who, in turn, inherited it from his father,” says Ibrahim. “This has always been our family business, and we have been based out of this same shop for close to 150 years.”
“I began working here when I was 10 years old and have been here throughout the past 30 years,” he added.
Ibrahim recounts Egypt’s long history with the Tarboush. The hat first gained fame in Turkey, and was the hat of choice throughout the Ottoman Empire. From there, the traditional felt head gear became a staple of Egyptian society and was worn throughout the monarchist era, starting with Mohammed Ali Pasha and ending with King Farouk.
“Many people wore the tarboush during this period—the bigger the tarboush the better, and the length of the tassel was also a status symbol,” Ibrahim said.
There are several types of tarboush, including the effendi model, which is the cylindrical, traditionally red hat sporting a black tassel, and the amama, the turban reserved for Al-Azhar students and graduates, in addition to the Moroccan tarboush known for its short stature and the length of its tassel.
Tarboush making first came to Egypt in 1805, during the era of Mohammed Ali Pasha. The early form of the tarboush was larger and flatter than more modern forms, sporting either a black or white tassel. Different versions of the headgear have been popularized by a succession of Egyptian rulers, and during the Egyptian monarchist era the red tarboush was part of the uniform of the Egyptian civil service and military. But after the 1952 revolution, the tarboush saw a significant decline in popularity, with many viewing it as being outdated and part of the country’s past.
Ibrahim tells Asharq Al-Awsat: “Although the wearing of the tarboush is no longer so popular, and despite the lack of orders for these hats these days due to it being viewed as outmoded and old-fashioned, there is still strong demand for it in some sectors of Egyptian society. This includes Al-Azhar sheikhs and mosque imams, as well as Azhar students. They view the tarboush as conveying a kind of gravitas and part of their professional uniform.”
“We also sometimes find demand from artists and actors who need a tarboush for a role they are playing, and even some café waiters still wear it as well,”
Ibrahim says. “For this reason, I am of the view that the tarboush is still present” in Egyptian society.
The price for an authentic hand-made tarboush ranges from 20 Egyptian pounds (about 3 US dollars) to 250 Egyptian pounds (35 dollars), depending on what material is used. Ibrahim reveals that the most expensive kind of tarboush is made from woolen baize.
Egypt’s last master tarboush craftsman laments the death of his art, saying it is “an art that requires patience and love and skill. Tarboush making requires a lot of effort and time, and it goes through multiple stages of manufacture.”
The history of the tarboush is the history of Egypt. During the Ottoman and monarchist eras, most Egyptian men would have been expected to own at least one tarboush as formal wear. This led to a proliferation of tarboush makers across the country, but particularly in Cairo’s Hussein district. But just as the demand for the traditional hat fell following the 1952 revolution, it has significantly decreased again following the 2011 revolution, particularly in light of the effect that the subsequent political and security unrest has had on Egypt’s vital tourism industry.
Finishing off the tarboush he is making, Ibrahim holds it aloft and shakes his head sadly, saying: “The demand for Tarboush has fallen by 50 percent [since the revolution], and we expect it to fall even more in coming years . . . Recession has hit the tourism industry hard following the revolution, and this has affected us. Foreign tourists from Italy, America, Russia and Arab states would snap up our traditional tarboushes as souvenirs and a way to preserve Egypt’s traditions, while we also had a lot of customers from Palestine and Morocco. Some days we would sell as many as 50 or 60 tarboush, but now there are days when we don’t sell even one.”