There are quite a few frequently asked questions on the origin, significance and utility of the Saudi men’s national headdress called Ghutrah. Is it worn to keep away the heat from the scorching desert sun? Is there any connection between the black color of Eqal, the headband which holds the Ghutrah, and the black Abhaya worn by Saudi women? Has the Ghutrah evolved in style and presentation over the years?
These and many other questions about the Ghutrah, I felt, warranted some background explanation on this national headdress of Saudi men, particularly after the many responses I got for an earlier article I wrote titled “A young American girl and Saudi Abhaya.”
Not many may be aware that the present day favorite in the Kingdom — red and white-checkered Ghutrah — has its roots in far away London. It arrived in Saudi Arabia only a few decades ago. Many Saudi men also wear white Ghutrah, which is worn with Takeyah (also called Kufyah), worn on the head underneath the Ghutrah, and the black Eqal. The Ghutrah is a squared cloth folded into a triangle.
In olden days, even before the advent of Islam, covering the head in old Arabia was part of a man’s routine. Many believe that the heat had something to do with the headdress. The first known pictures of Arabia showed men wearing a piece of cloth with different colors with a band holding it on top of their heads. There were no stylish white or red and white-checkered Ghutrah then. But photographs taken about 50 years ago show men wearing white Ghutrah. I never saw my father or any one from his generation wearing the checkered red and white Ghutrah. In other words, the red and white Ghutrah was not introduced till about 50 years ago.
As for Eqal, white was the common color but it came in different styles. There are not many old photos of Saudi men wearing black headband. At that time, any rope-like contraption which could hold the Ghutrah was good enough. A picture of British Colonel T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) in 1917 showed him wearing a folded squared piece of cloth as Ghutrah and two thick layers of headband. This style was the most common among many of the tribal leaders.
And for decades, British soldiers wore Guthrah in the desert countries which were part of the British Empire. Historians say that because of the utility of the new British material, many people in the Arab World took to the British style, and they gave it different shapes. It was worn in Iraq, Syria and Jordan and later Palestinians too began wearing it. As time passed, fewer people in these countries wore Ghutrah, but it continued to be the national headdress in the Arabian Gulf countries.
Saudi Arabia saw the introduction of two kinds of Ghutrah — the white one and the red and white-checkered version. Prior to this, a greenish colored Ghutrah was popular among many people and was worn by the old Saudi army and police.
Ironically, at first, the white Ghutrah was not made in any Middle Eastern country. I, however, remember some merchants referring to it as “Swissri” which means from Switzerland. And it was also “Stofel,” which I believe, was a reference to the company that made it. This brand was the most popular till the 1970s. The red and white-checkered Ghutrah was not a fashion statement then among Saudi men. And to this day, I wonder what is the connection between a country like Switzerland and the Saudi Headdress?
As I said earlier, the red and white checkered Ghutrah came from London. When people got stylish, the headband that holds the Ghutrah became black, which is still the most popular, nay the only color, seen in Saudi Arabia. Surprisingly, many people are still puzzled as to why the red and white-checkered Ghutrah became popular in Saudi Arabia. Many in Palestine wear the black and white checkered Ghutrah. And to be frank, I am glad we chose the white and the red and white Ghutrahs. So, the Saudi national headdress was designed in the United Kingdom and Switzerland.
Even now, the Saudi headdress is still the same shape and worn the same way as when it was introduced, but, the fabric and material are getting more stylish and comes in different designs. Just like the Saudi women’s Abayah, today’s Ghutrah fabric and the different designs come from well-known international brands such as Dunhill and Gucci.
It is, however, important to note that even in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Countries, the Ghutrah is worn in different ways and styles which can be spotted even by foreigners. For example, it is very easy for many who are exposed to different styles of Ghutrah to say which part of the Kingdom people came from just by looking at the way the Ghutrah is worn. Also, it is easy for many who have lived in the Gulf for a long time to differentiate between a Saudi, Qatari, Bahraini, Kuwaiti, Omani or an Emirati by the way they were the headdress. While Saudis prefer the red and white Ghutrah, men from other Gulf countries wear the white Ghutrah. As for Omanis and many from the UAE, they wear it in a turban style using variety of colors. But, at the end of the day, it was the British and the Swiss who gave us the modern day Ghutrah design.
• This article is exclusive to Arab News.