Whether it be a type of scarf, head wrap or hat, communities use the way they dress to let others know who they are.
The rise of western jeans - but with an Arabic flair
Fashion has always been a way for people and nations to show off their distinctive identity. Whether it be cultural, with a certain type of scarf, embroidery, or the way a pair of trousers are cut, or religious with a head wrap or hat, communities have used the way they dress to let others know who they are. To those of us who have lived and travelled in the Middle East and North Africa, it's very clear that Arab peoples are much more diverse than the rest of the world realises.
Food habits, marriage traditions, dialect and, of course, dress are all very different. In the Gulf, the khandoura is essential to every man's wardrobe, with most locals still wearing it day to day. In Yemen, the belt with dagger and a blazer over a dishdasha is the signature look. In Lebanon, Syria and the Palestine Territories, the embroidered black galabeya for women is the norm. And, in all countries, the way the kaffiyeh, or chequered scarf, is wrapped around the head signifies a particular community or culture, as does its colour, red or black.
Outside the Gulf, traditional dress is usually only worn in the city on holidays or special occasions, such as national dress days at school or for weddings. Traditional dress has been relegated to the villages while the urban population adopts western styles. Jeans and T-shirts and suits and ties are now the norm in Cairo. In Egypt, people don't even get married in national dress any more - brides will wear a white gown and the groom, a dinner jacket.
Women who wear hijab have adapted the western style to make it fit their modest code - looser skirts, button-down shirts, western designer head scarves. Sometimes men will wear a galabeya around the house, changing into western-style clothes when they go out. In Egypt, even the habit of putting on galabeya to relax in at home has almost died out. In über class-conscious Egyptian society, clothing becomes even more important as a marker of one's rank in society. The quality of clothing is the important thing. While everyone might be wearing jeans, the upper-class trousers will carry a brand label. This then becomes a status symbol, showing you can afford a wardrobe that comes from the fashion houses of Europe or the United States.
Mustafa el-Guindy, an Egyptian member of parliament, wants to bring back the national dress of Egypt. He is hoping parliament will pass a law he has initiated making the galabeya the national dress of Egypt. He wears a galabeya to parliament and laments the day that it became a symbol for everything old-fashioned and ignorant. He wants to prevent the galabeya from going the way of the fez, worn by men during the reign of the Ottomans and now only sold in kitschy bazaars for tourists to play dress up.
And he may have touched a nerve. Today, there is a resurgence of interest in traditional styles among young Arabs trying to find their place in a globalised and increasingly westernised world. Young Egyptian designers are trying to reclaim their heritage by using Arab design in their clothing. Some will use the shape and curves of Arabic lettering in their western style pullovers or skirts. Pure Egyptian cotton is being used a lot, cut in a western manner but embroidered in the style the designers' ancestors would have chosen.
Azza Fahmy, the jewellery designer, uses Arabic lettering and expressions carved into silver and stones to adorn her designs, making them uniquely Egyptian. In shops such as al Khatoun in old Cairo, designers sell long tunics cut to western styles, but using Egyptian inspiration. The shop sells curtains and cushions and home accessories all emblazoned with Arabic lettering and verses of poetry. The galabeya may manage not to make a comeback, but younger Egyptians are very much in touch with their roots. And the pride that they feel in their country and its traditions can be seen by the heritage they wear on their sleeve.
Hadeel al Shalchi is a writer for the Associated Press, based in Cairo