Fear and clothing in Egypt

World A quixotic resolution at the bottom of Cairo's legislative docket would make the galabiyya the national dress. Maria Golia traces the Egyptian history of who wears what, and why.

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A quixotic resolution at the bottom of Cairo's legislative docket would make the galabiyya the national dress. Maria Golia traces the Egyptian history of who wears what, and why. When Egypt's People's Assembly is in session, the majority of its 454 members wear suits. But at least a third opt for the galabiyya, the same floor-length gown with bell-shaped sleeves worn by the voting males of their rural constituencies. This makes them anomalies among Egypt's urban males. Many such men have at least one galabiyya in their wardrobes, and might even wear it around the house. You wouldn't know it, though, from walking around Cairo or Alexandria, where the garment is distinctly out of vogue.

For most urban Egyptians, the galabiyya - long the unofficial uniform of Egypt's fellahin (farmers) - is inseparable from connotations of poverty and backwardness. On city streets, the gown is mostly seen on building guardians and dispossessed farmers. And, like beards, the galabiyya is increasingly associated with fundamentalism, especially when worn in the ungainly shin-length Salafist fashion. Galabiyya-wearing citizens are refused entry to the city's opera house (where ties and jackets are de rigueur) and likewise unappreciated in upscale officers' clubs and five-star hotels - this despite the fact that Gulf Arab visitors are welcome everywhere in the national dress of their choice.

This February, Mostafa El-Gendy, a 48-year-old member of the People's Assembly, introduced a resolution calling for the galabiyya's instatement as the national costume. He argued that singling out Egypt's traditional dress for discrimination not only smacks of self-loathing, but is also unconstitutional. He does not want to make the galabiyya obligatory, only to guarantee those who wear it the same degree of respect afforded men in suits. "If both galabiyyas and suits are appropriate for members of Parliament," he said, "then the same should go for the man in the street."

El-Gendy, a prominent tourism investor, won his assembly seat in 2005 on an independent ticket, a rare feat given how few aspiring politicians dare decline affiliation with the ruling National Democratic Party. "Why," he asked when I visited him in September, "should we hide from our rural origins?" Moreover, in a galabiyya, "you can't tell a George from a Mohammed" - ie a Coptic Christian from a Muslim - "or a rich man from a poor one".

Egypt has a long history of clothing-related controversies, all of which reflect shifts in how Egyptians see themselves and wish to be seen by others. Recent consternation over the veil is but one example. Egyptian feminists (Muslim and Copt) cast off their veils in the 1920s, saying "we refuse to be confined to the harem". In the last two decades, women have cited similar arguments to support their decisions to put the veil back on, giving them greater freedom of movement in a male-dominated society that still wishes they would stay home. Egypt is constantly renegotiating the boundaries of tradition - often, when practices change, it can be difficult to remember their underlying causes.

Indeed, it wasn't long ago that the galabiyya was acceptable costume for both country folk and members of the up-and-coming urban middle class. Its golden days were the 1950s and 1960s, when Gamal Abdel Nasser's policies attempted to empower workers and fellahin and close the abysmal gap between rich and poor. Nasser played to the rural masses, Egypt's largest voting constituency, by boosting their image and self-confidence. Sturdy-looking, galabiyya-wearing fellahin were celebrated on postage stamps and nationally-distributed magazine covers. Traditionally-clad men performed their gracefully martial stick dance on the Opera House stage.

In those days, the galabiyya symbolised the people's victory over elitist villains who had enforced the class divide in the name of nationalism. In the 1930s, Egypt's Parliament made the galabiyya the uniform for state-run provincial schools, not as a nod towards tradition, but out of fear that education might inspire the fellahin to rise above their station and even wear western-style clothes like the tarboosh (fez). On the streets of 1940s Alexandria, the galabiyya was viewed as a blemish marring the cosmopolitan countenance the city's upper-class (many of European and Levantine origin) wished to present. The garment and those who wore it were incongruous with a sought-after lifestyle that had little to do with Egypt; it shattered cherished illusions of modernity and well-being, ideas Egyptians have consistently conflated with being somewhere else.

The shoe was on the other foot in the 19th century, when western visitors were so willing to immerse themselves in Egypt they adopted local dress. British scholars and artists like Sir Gardner Wilkinson, Edward Lane and Robert Hay could never pass for Egyptian, so rather than the cloth-belted shirt-dresses worn by average citizens, they chose the sumptuous layered robes of Egypt's Turkish ruling class. An 1824 traveller named Henry Westcar observed that in his London-tailored suit "every ragged Arab that passed would run against [you] and the soldiers make you get out of their way". But "when I was a Turk... the Arabs stood as I passed and saluted me". Then, as now, the fashions of the powerful were a passport to respect.

Egyptian headwear has been similarly blown about by the winds of politics. It used to be that Muslims advertised their faith with turbans, which were considered nearly sacred. The wealthy reserved special chairs for them to rest upon at night. In The Manners and Customs of Modern Egyptians, Edward Lane relates the story of a religious scholar thrown from his donkey on a bustling Cairo street. His turban tumbled to the filth-strewn ground. "Lift up the crown of Islam!" cried the passers-by, to which the bruised and neglected scholar retorted: "Lift up the sheikh of Islam!" In 1862, when the Ottoman Sultan Mahmoud II abolished the turban for all but the clergy, there were riots throughout the empire. Appearing in his new tarboosh, Mahmoud II was stoned by a mob and labelled a heretic by at least one enraged dervish.

For the people, the turban was a badge of pride; for the sultan it was just old-fashioned. The dervish was promptly executed, as no doubt were others who questioned the ruler's taste. Within a few short decades, the tarboosh was a standard item of national dress not only in Turkey but also in Egypt, where it was adopted by upwardly-mobile civil servants who also wore western-style suits. All went well for the fez until Mustafa Kemal Ataturk traded his tarboosh for a fedora. He suggested his people do the same, since "that oriental relic [the tarboosh] will always remind them that they are oriental people". In the ensuing controversy, at least two Arabic newspapers championed western headgear, but nationalist and religious forces mostly rallied to the tarboosh's cause. Al-Azhar issued a fatwa against western hats of all kinds.

But the "oriental", as Ataturk had noticed, was becoming gauche. In the 1940s, the Allied troops that filled Cairo and Alexandria loved to play "the "tarboosh game": whoever knocked the most off Egyptian heads in 20 minutes won. King Farouk, a chubby young prankster, amused himself during working luncheons by toppling his elderly staff members' tarbooshes with well-aimed cucumbers and tomatoes (this was not from any ideological commitment so much as boredom). In 1952, the Free Officers' Revolution settled matters: almost overnight, tarbooshes were out, military caps were in.

The new state needed farmers and workers on its side if it was going to build the Aswan High Dam and achieve its goals of self-sufficient agriculture and industry - hence the above-mentioned golden age of the galabiyya. The negative attitudes now attached to the farmer's gown reflect the failures of that era's ambition. Free education and guaranteed jobs have resulted in a hypertrophied bureaucracy and a school system so overcrowded and under-equipped that students would be better off staying home. Land reform was a bust as well: by the 1980s only 15 per cent of Egypt's land had been redistributed; by then, industrialisation was the state's priority. Today's fellahin surely rank among the most powerless and destitute of Egypt's citizenry, their land lost to corruption and fraud, their water diverted to industrial and tourism development.

No wonder El-Gendy's defence of the galabiyya fell on deaf ears. "The less said about that the better," the businessman Sherif Saad told a BBC reporter. "Shouldn't he direct his energies elsewhere?" wondered the upper-crust interior designer Amr Khalil. "No one cares about these things," noted the photographer Armand Arzouni. Nor was the man on the Cairene street enthused: he probably prefers jeans. El-Gendy told me that even his teenage daughter has expressed embarrassment regarding his "abnormal" outfit; when he chose a galabiyya for a recent TV interview, she demanded he change into a suit.

The relevant parliamentary committee duly placed El-Gendy's recommendation at the bottom of a long docket. It is unlikely to be voted upon anytime soon, especially with the 2011 elections approaching. "No one can afford to speak out against the galabiyya," El-Gendy explains, "because too many voters wear one. But no one has the courage to defend it either." Not even the fellahin are flocking to El-Gendy's side to lobby for desperately needed reforms and rights. The only "galabiyya parties" around here are those organised for tourists, who dress up "like locals" with clothes from the Khan al Khalili market - souvenirs of a country intent on forgetting a past it barely remembers.

Maria Golia the author of Cairo: City of Sand and the forthcoming Photography and Egypt, is a longtime resident of Cairo.