You all know that I’m extremely fascinated by the traditional attire of the worlds Muslim communities and here is another style that I want to share. Actually while it’s a “style”…its far from being homogeneous and makes its appearance in some rather unlikely places and is spread out through a wide swath of the world. I’m talking about the using of a long wide piece of material as ones overgarment. Its the traditional attire from Muslim communities in West Africa, through the Saharah, over to East Africa, throughout the Arabian Gulf (historically in the Eastern Provinces), skipping over to the southern part of Iran and then over again to India where it makes its appearance as the much known Saree.
Wow…such an incredible cloth with such a fascinating history.
Because the societies in which this form of covering is worn is so diverse I really do not know all the names in which this simple form of attire goes by…from Melepha and Melhafa to Thobe (top in slang) to Saree and beyond.
I’m not entirely sure how each culture wears the cloth. I reckon you must take one edge and tie it as a skirt and then use the other bit wrapped up and around the upper body. I’ve seen Mauritanian women wearing it over jeans or a petticoat for example here in my city.
Saharawi women in Western Africa…
Western volunteers in Melepha!
Women in Mauritania..
The urban Sudanese women have made their version, called thobe (aka top in slang) quite high fashion full of embroidery, bling and dripping with embellishments. I remember sometimes staying up late watching the fashion shows on Sudanese TV while we were in Saudi and I was always struck by how gorgeous they looked in their “top” and how many coordinated a perfectly matching Al-Ameera style tube scarf to their top
ohh la la! Very chic.
Interestingly enough this style makes its appearance in Southern Iran amongst the Bandari population along coast. I had thought that the printed attire the women wore was just a house-style chador wrapped around the head and body like say a Pakistani dupatta, but I’m wrong. While maybe some towns do, do that…I have since found that some areas just use a long, wide rectangle of cloth and wrap it in a manner which is strikingly similar to how Sudanese or Mauritanian women do! But, instead of wearing it over a skirt they wear a knee length tunic over very snug fitting, and often embroidered pants and then ofcourse sandles or heels. When we were in Shiraz this past time in Iran we saw a LOT of Bandari Iranians both around the city of Shiraz and ar Perspolis and being incredibly curious that I am, I paid a lot of attention to the women in this attire and even asked a friendly looking lady about it-while we were in the prayer area of a masjid in Shiraz. LOL…yes, I’m cheeky. She showed me that she wraps one edge around the waist as kind of like a loose skirt (with the pants showing) and then drapes the rest over the upper body and head, tucking it in to cover the hair. They look incredibly elegant in it. They call it chador too, but its obviously a different style. Its just a huge rectangle, like the Thobe, Melhafa or Melepha…not rounded like what most people consider a chador.
Given the extreme potpourri of ethnicities and cultures that have melded together to form the people of Southern Iran, I would assume that historical trade, slavery and intermarriage played a role in the transfer of this form of attire to Iran.
Interesting huh…I left out Indian sarees cuz I think we’ve all seen those. I hedge a bet that throughout history the easiest means of covering oneself was simply to wrap a large rectangle of fabric around ones body and voila…your cover and good to go!
One thing I wanted to mention is that in the Eastern part of Saudi, along the Gulf coast the traditional attire of women before the advent of the Bedu inspired abaya was what was called a “ridaah” (I’m not entirely sure of the name, but several women told me this was the name of the garment-it means shawl though in Arabic) and it was just a huge rectangle, wrapped around the body. They said its basically gone and only very old women in some of the island villages off the coast of Qatif still wear it. I believe I have seen it once, I was at the Qatif Thursday morning suq and I saw these very elderly women sitting on the ground, with big baskets of dates and other produce infront of them and several of them had on what looked like a large piece of printed material wrapped around their heads and bodies and not abayaat, they also worn the traditional and in Saudi basically gone, gold “birqa” mask thats more common to UAE nowadays. I assume they wear wearing this now basically defunct traditional ridaah.