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  • Writer's pictureHeath Cox

The Last Tarboosh (Fez) Maker in Cairo

Updated: Jul 9, 2021

The Kasbah of Cairo

Sharia Al-Muizz li-Din Allah al-Fatimi Street, or simply Al Muizz street, is one of the oldest streets in Cairo. It runs from the city's famous Khan el-Khalili market in the north toward Bab Zuwayla (Zuwayla Gate) in the south. Historically, it was a main artery through with much of he ancient city's business was conducted. Due to its economic prominence, several monuments, mosques and other important buildings rose through the ages along this path as city and national leaders sought to leave their enduring market on Egypt's capital. Mosques such as the 10th century Mosue of al-Hakim, the 14th century Mosque and madrassa complex of Sultan Barquq, the Sultan Al-Ghouri complex, the 15th century Hammam (bath house) of Sultan Inal, and the mosque of Sultan al-Mu'ayyad are just some of the impressive examples of Islamic architecture that dot this part of the city.

Cramped shops and shadowy markets fill the gaps between the grand buildings. There, sellers offer everything from produce to jewelry. Side streets branch off in every direction hiding more shops, sheesh cafes and tea houses. It is a swirl of colors, aromas, dust and noise.

Each day thousands of sandals kick up dirt as their wearers hunt for bargains on plumbing supplies or browse racks of inexpensive clothes. Small trucks spewing dark exhaust squeeze around potholes and people to make their deliveries, and quick moving motor bikes scatter unhurried shoppers out of the way. Bright colors of tapestries, plastic kitchenware, spices and fresh fruits stand out against a beige background of dust and aging stone.

Vendors working out of small restaurants or rickety food carts exchange Egyptian pounds for nourishment. Meals such as fuul and tameya, a quintesential Egyptian dish, are popular, but the scents of grilled meats, kooshari and sweet potatoes also fill the air. Aromas change quickly from block to block. Passers-by, for example, may notice a tinge of mildew as they pass an old bath houses. On the next street the smells of cooking oil announce the presence of fresh cut street fried potato chips, The sweet smell of sheesha smoke wafts its way out of side street cafes and the unpleasant smell of donkey dung is. unfortunately, hard to escape.

Amidst the colors and aromas of this area sometimes referred to as the Kasbah of Cairo, nearly halfway between the Khan-al-Khalili and the Al-Fakahany Mosque, sits a shop that is both unassuming and hard to miss. Glass cases that book end the shop's entrance display small pyramids of red cylindrical brimless hats. Their shape and deep red color are unmistakable. They are known in most of the former Ottoman territories as a tarboosh. In much of the rest of the world that hat is commonly called a fez.

On any given day, Nasser Abdel-Basset, who inherited the shop from his father, can been seen working with forms, felt, and thread producing more of these famous hats by hand. Mr. Abdel-Basset and his son, who is learning the trade, are the last fez makers in Cairo.

The Tarboosh (Fez)

The origin of the tarboosh is uncertain. Some sources claim that the hat originated in Greece or in other parts of the Balkans. Other materials point to the city of Fez, Morocco as the originator. In the 980s A.D. war between the Egyptians and rulers of Bagdad prevented many Muslims from making the annual Hajj to Mecca. As an alternative, pilgrims west of the Nile were directed to Fez. The influx of visitors to the Moroccan city were introduced to the new style brimless hat. Subsequently, the pilgrims brought the fashion with them back to their homelands.

Regardless of the origin, like with any trend, the tarboosh waxed and waned in popularity over the centuries. A major upturn in the head gear's demand started in 1826 when Sultan Mahmud II began modernizing the Ottoman military. The brimless hat was paired with western style uniforms for the sultan's troops. Three years later turbans were banned and civil servants were instructed to wear plain tarbooshes. That move was seen as part of a larger tilt toward modernization and egalitarianism. The hat replaced more traditional symbols of status. At around the same period in Egypt, government buildings barred from entry anyone not wearing a tarboosh and schools mandated that all male students must wear the head piece. Religious leaders, at that time, were prohibited from wearing it.

Throughout the hat's rise to fame, the city of Fez had long held a near monopoly on production due to its control of the dye used in creating its deep red color. Eventually, as demand increased beyond the Moroccan city's capacity, production shifted east, most notably to Istanbul. By the turn of the twentieth century, the invention of low-cost synthetic dyes offered other centers of manufacturing a chance to compete. The Austro-Hungarian town of Strakonice, in modern day Czech Republic, emerged as a major center of tarboosh production. Following the Austro-Hungarian Empire's annexation of Bosnia & herzegovina in 1908, however, the Ottoman population boycotted everything Austrian. Know in history as the "Fez Boycott" the red hat had suddenly become a symbol of the enemy. Although the tarboosh survived the year long boycott, it's reputation was greatly diminished.

Through its life-time, the adoration of the tarboosh swung in broad arcs. Sultan Mahmod II, as highlighted above, used it as an emblem of modernity. One hundred years later Mustafa Kamel Attaturk considered the hat a relic of past doctrines. So, he banned the tarboosh during his campaigns to bring Turkey into the "modern age." Although it is most often observed as a symbol of Islam, the hat has also been worn by Christians and Jews. Hollywood has used the head covering through the decades. Sometimes the hat is used on screen to simply set a character in a specific time and place. Regrettably in other instances, the tarboosh has been used to foster unflattering stereotypes. .

Keeping Tradition Alive

Regardless of its shifting popularity, the tarboosh is a classic hat that deserves induction to the hat hall of fame. In slightly varying styles, it is still worn as common head wear among some populations of northern Africa. In fact, a squat style of the brimless hat continues to be made in several small shops in the souks of Tunis. Some Moroccans can also be seen wearing the hat and not just for tourists.

In Egypt, the tarboosh was the default head covering for men from the reign of Muhammed Ali in the early 19th century until the country's revolution in 1952. Although demand has fallen from the days when his little shop was full of young men crafting hats, Nasser Abdel-Basset and his son keep the classic tarboosh alive in Egypt. In addition to supplying local clerics, who now wear the tarboosh wrapped at the bottom with a white cloth as part of their religious attire, the shop sees revenue from tourists and from exports to other Muslim countries including Tunisia and Morocco.

Map Created by the Arab League - Used under a Creative Commons License


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