In Cairo, Egypt, a short walk from the historic Bab Zuwayla city gate, is Cairo’s last remaining tarboosh artisan shop. Tarboosh is the word Egyptians use for what people in North America might call a fez. This shop in the Khan al-Khalili market makes high-quality woolen tarbooshes by hand, in the traditional way. I visited it on April 23, 2018.
The tarboosh was fashionable among Egyptian men during the era of the Ottoman Empire. Although the Ottoman Empire itself fell in 1920, the Ottoman viceroy in Egypt declared himself king and continued to rule until Egypt’s revolution in 1952. Since 1952, the tarbooshes have declined in popularity, but the shop continues to generate enough business to continue making them. They export them to many other Muslim countries such as Morocco and Tunisia.
The hand-operated tools are used to shape the tarbooshes. Not only does the shop sell the hats, it also reshapes hats which have been crushed or rumpled through wear.
The photo below shows how the hats are shaped. The shop is equipped with several different sizes of brass molds. These molds come in pairs, with one being slightly larger than the other. First the artisan stretches a tarboosh over the smaller mold in the pair, as he is doing in the photo below. Then he presses over it the heated larger mold, so that the woolen fabric is held between the two.
The photo below shows the interior of a tarboosh. The red felt outer layer is made of wool. Inside it, the stiffening layer is made from palm. A lining around the inner edge protects the head from the scratchy texture of the palm.
Our guide had grown up as a boy near this shop. He told us that he always liked to run past the shop and use his fist to crush the tarbooshes that were on display. One day, the shop owner caught him, and recognized him, and complained to his father. His father was very angry, and beat him for it. However, the next day the mischievous boy did it again!
Today, he laughs as he tells the story. I don’t think he’s sorry at all!
About My Egypt Travels
For several of my trips to Egypt, I have traveled with Sahra Kent, through her Journey Through Egypt program. The tarboosh shop is one of the places I have discovered through traveling with her. I highly recommend the Journey Through Egypt program to anyone who is interested in a cultural perspective of Egypt.
Cairo offers an opportunity for visitors to see Egypt’s remaining vestiges of an East African practice known as a zar ritual. It is no longer legal in Egypt to conduct zar rituals; however, it is still possible to see performances of the music used for them.
About the Zar Ritual
A zar is a spirit which is believed to inhabit people, especially women. When the woman’s life is in balance, she and the spirit can coexist in peace. However, sometimes the woman begins to suffer stress, become irritable, or fall ill. In those cases, in order for her to recover, it may be necessary to appease the zar spirit. The purpose of a zar ritual is to perform that appeasement.
In a traditional zar ritual in Egypt, a woman would surround herself with other women who are a meaningful part of her life: sisters, cousins, friends, etc. They would sacrifice a chicken, and engage a band of musicians capable of performing the specialty music required for the ritual.
According to tradition, there are many different zar spirits which can inhabit a person. Each such spirit responds to a different song and rhythm. The musicians would perform several different songs, aiming to find the music required to appease the particular spirit that has inhabited the woman. As the music progresses, the participants are drawn into a state of ecstatic dance.
The Mazaher Ensemble
The Mazaher ensemble are among the final zar practitioners in Egypt. Although the law no longer allows them to conduct full zar ceremonies, it is possible to hear them perform concerts of the music that accompanies the ceremonies. I have seen them perform several times at the Makan Theater in Cairo. It is a captivating show, and I always enjoy seeing it again whenever I return to Egypt.
The lead singer, standing in front, is Rayyisah Madiha, often known as Umm Sameh (“mother of Sameh”).
The show has varied a bit from one time I’ve seen it to another. The primary segment consists of Cairo zar music, with vocals by Umm Sameh, accompanied by the other women on drums. Another segment I have seen every time is described as a Nubian zar, which features different music and instruments in order to reach the different regional spirits associated with southern Egypt and Sudan.
Other details of the show have varied from one year to the next. For example, when I saw the show in 2016, Sameh performed a solo of Sufi music, but other times when I’ve seen the show he did not do so.
Nubia is the region spanning southern Egypt and the Sudan. The Nubian zar uses different instruments from those used for the Cairo-based zar, and the spirits it targets are different.
The tamboura, a type of lyre, is shown in the photo above. It is particularly typical of Nubian music; not only for Nubian zar rituals, but also for secular folk music.
For the Nubian section of the show, one of the musicians picks up the tamboura to play it, as shown by the man seated in the back, wearing the white gallabiya. The belt that the two other men strap around their hips is known as a mangour.
The mangour is a percussion instrument constructed from attaching many small goat hooves to a backing of fabric or leather. The men shake their hips in a rhythmic fashion, causing the goat hooves to strike each other, producing a rattling sound.
In the photo below, the men are not only shaking their hips to make noise with the mangour, they are also using handheld rattles.
Posing with the Star
When I saw the show in 2016, Madiha graciously agreed to pose for a photo with me after it was over. It can be difficult to get a photo with her, because of how many people swarm her after the show seeking photos as I did!
About the Makan Theater
The Makan Theater, which hosts the Mazaher Ensemble’s zar music shows, is at 1 Saad Zaghloul St. El Dawaween 11461 Cairo. Their telephone number is +202 2792 0878, and email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. In addition to presenting the Mazaher Ensemble shows, they have also offered other shows of traditional Egyptian music, including Sufi music, Nubian, and more.
To Learn More About Zar
There is a series of three music CD’s that I recommend if you’d like to listen to these musicians in your home. Each of these CD’s comes with a different informative booklet with detailed information about zar traditions. If you search for them online, you’ll see the artist name listed as Awlad Abou al-Gheit:
Zar: Trance Music for Women
Zar 2: Tumboura
Zar 3: Harim Masri
Also, I recommend the book Trance Dancing with the Jinn: The Ancient Art of Contacting Spirits Through Ecstatic Dance by Yasmin Henkesh. Yasmin is a meticulous researcher whom I respect highly.
About My Egypt Travels
For several of my trips to Egypt, I have traveled with Sahra Kent, through her Journey Through Egypt program. The Makan Theater is one of the places I have discovered through traveling with her. I highly recommend the Journey Through Egypt program to anyone who is interested in a cultural perspective of Egypt.
As part of IBM’s Corporate Service Corps, we try to arrange at least one “community service” activity. Our local facilitator, Tidiane Gueye, offered us a couple of options, and we decided to do BOTH. The first one that we did was a visit to L’Empire des Enfants.
About L’Empire des Enfants
L’Empire des Enfants is a rehabilitation and transition center in Dakar, Senegal for boys ages 6-14 who have been street children. The primary goal is to reunite these children with their parents, while providing them with a safe place to live until that can happen. There are various reasons these boys end up on the streets. The most common is that a devious adult visits a village and persuades the parents to send their child to the big city of Dakar with him. Sometimes the promise is that the child will be taken to a madrasa (Quranic school) to be educated, other times the promise is that the child will be taught a trade and become wealthy in the big city. Either way, these are lies. Once the child arrives in Dakar, he is sent out on the streets to beg for money. If he fails to bring in enough on a given day, he is beaten.
L’Empire des Enfants accepts children who come to their door 24×7. If the child is a boy in the age groups that L’Empire is equipped to work with, they’ll take him in. If it’s a girl, or if it’s a boy outside their age ranges, they do what they can to find help for the child elsewhere.
At first when children arrive at L’Empire des Enfants, they are suspicious of the adults because of the bad treatment they have already received from adults in their young lives. For that reason, the boys who already live at L’Empire take charge of teaching the newcomers how things work there and how to fit in. By mentoring newcomers, the boys learn how to take on leadership roles, and how to guide other people.
When a child arrives at L’Empire, he receives food, clothing, and shelter. There are certain rules, such as “you must attend the classes”. The boys learn these rules from their peers, and their peers are the ones who urge them to comply.
The boys are taught to read and write (if they don’t already know how). They also attend classes in life skills such as Tae Kwon Do. The aim is to teach them to take care of themselves, so that when they return to their families they can help make a living and help take care of the rest of the family.
Often, boys who come to L’Empire are unwilling at first to provide information about who their parents are, or where they come from. The adults who manage the facility realize that it can take time to build trust, and they exercise the necessary patience. Eventually, when a child is willing to open up, they’ll work with him to learn who his family is. They try to discern through the interviews whether returning to the family would be a safe thing for the boy to do. They won’t knowingly send him back to a situation where he’d be abused.
About 90% of the boys are eventually reunited with their families. Very few of those return to the streets or to L’Empire des Enfants. If they do return, L’Empire recognizes that it may have missed something important about their home situation in the interview process, and will allow them to stay.
L’Empire can accommodate up to 60 boys. The day we visited, there were about 30. It changes from day to day. They hope to build a new, larger facility in the not-so-distant future that will allow them to help more children, including girls.
About Our Visit
The primary purpose of our visit was to provide the boys with exposure to foreigners. There were 14 of us representing 7 different countries – Brazil, Mexico, India, Japan, China, the U.S., and Canada. My colleague Gopal from India brought his guitar, and my colleague Marcel from Brazil brought his soccer ball.
Tidiane timed our visit to have us arrive in the afternoon at the time the children were praying, so we could see them do that. Afterward, it was time to eat, and we were served supper after the children received theirs. We ate the same thing as the children, and it was a nutritious meal. While the children ate, the director gave us a talk about the facility and the work they do there.
After that, it was time for us to interact with the children. Our Brazilian team members, Mauricio and Marcel, organized a soccer game.
After that, Gopal played some Bollywood songs that involved yodeling – I had no idea that there was an Indian artist who yodeled! While he played, some members of our group got the children started dancing. There was much laughter and smiles all around. We had an opportunity to tour the place and see the classrooms.
After a couple of hours, it was time for us to head out. Those who wished to donate funds to the operation gave them to Tidiane, who consolidated all the donations and give the lump sum to L’Empire’s director.
I was glad to see the work that L’Empire was doing to offer boys hope for a better life, and I hope they’ll achieve their dream of building a new, bigger place that can help more children.
The Mosque of Divinity is a beautiful structure located in Dakar, Senegal. Its members personally built it, entirely on a volunteer work. No money was paid to anybody involved in constructing it. All work was done by hand, without the help of cranes or other construction equipment. The project took 5 1/2 years to complete, from Spring of 1992 to October of 1997.
We visited it because Tidiane Gueye, our local contact for our stay in Senegal, was a member of the mosque and wanted to share this part of his life with us. It was a landmark near our hotel, which we drove past every day, and it was great to learn something of the history, as well as feel the personal connection to it.
The day I visited this mosque, October 7, the congregation was gearing up to celebrate the 20th anniversary of completing construction. The women had set up a fire with a cooking kettle to cook the meal they intended to serve for the celebration.
Behind the Mosque of Divinity is a beach that lies on the Atlantic Ocean. There are fishing boats parked along this beach, that people take out on the water to fish.
This beach is also a place where young people enjoy playing football (soccer).
I felt so inspired, visiting the Mosque of Divinity, because it clearly was a place created from the love that the members of the community feel for not only their faith, but also their relationship with each other.