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----- S.C.A. NEAR EASTERN CULTURAL MYTHS -----



UPDATED, EXPANDED & CORRECTED, 5 Jan 2005


This is a re-built version of what I used at my first couple Near Eastern clothing survey classes, incorporating info from several different handouts, including on persona development and on choosing a name, so it's rather longer than the original.

The originals are from a long time ago - long in terms of how long I've been in the SCA, which is 6 years - so it's 4 or 5 years old. Many of the sections are based on comments I was hearing on various SCA "Middle Eastern" e-mail lists at the time. Things seem to have changed since them, and more people seem interested in some approach to being more historically accurate - or at least peri-oid.

I need to revise it further to reduce the redundancies and to soften the didactic and polemical tone, but I hope you understand what I mean.

----- Urtatim (err-tah-TEEM)          
the persona formerly known as Anahita





I've heard people with Near Eastern personae in the SCA say that clothing that looks historically accurate is too difficult or too expensive to make, or that expecting people to make historically accurate Near Eastern clothing is elitist, and besides, historically accurate clothing is ugly.

I've heard people who want to enjoy the clothing, food, and music of the Near East but were uncomfortable portraying someone whose religion was different than their own.

I've heard people come up with really bizarre "persona stories" to explain why they are a pale-skinned and light haired Near Easterner.

Well, folks, it doesn't have to be that way...



----- INDEX -----

-= A CLARIFICATION =-
-= CULTURAL MYTHS =-
  1. All Muslims Are Arabs
  2. All Near Easterners Are Muslim
  3. All Near Easterners Speak Arabic
  4. The Near East Is an Eternally Hot Desert All Year
  5. Muslims Are Forbidden to Show Humans in Art, So There's No Art Showing People
  6. Turkish Is the Same as Ottoman
  7. Middle Eastern Means Ottoman/Turkish
-= CLOTHING MYTHS =-
  1. Being Asked To Wear Period Garb Is Elitist
  2. Period Garb Is Too Difficult To Make
  3. Period Garb Is Too Ugly
  4. Period Garb Is Too Expensive To Make
  5. "Tribal Style" is as Good as Period Clothing
  6. Near Eastern Clothing Has Hardly Changed in Thousands of Years
  1. All Women Wear Poofy Harem Pants
  2. Ghawazee Coats Are Period
  3. Tassel Belts are Period
  4. Cholis are Middle Eastern
  5. Middle Eastern Dancers Exposed Their Skin
  6. Middle Eastern Women Wear Lots of Coins...
  7. Middle Eastern Women Wear Cross-Stitch Covered Tunics
  8. All Women Hid Their Faces Behind a Veil
  9. All Men and Some Women Wear Turbans
  10. All Men Wear Keffiyas With Agals

  11. I'm a Nomad / Trader / Raider, So I Can Wear a Mixture of Any Stuff I Like from a Variety of Cultures
-= A FEW COMMENTS =-
  1. So, What *IS* Period?
  2. AD VS. AH: Confusing Christian & Muslim Dates
  3. A Final Note





-= A Clarification =-




I SAY "NEAR EAST", YOU SAY "MIDDLE EAST"

Why do I say "Near East"?

WHAT IS THE MIDDLE EAST?
The "Middle East" covers the Levant (Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Israel-Palestine), Anatolia (Asian Turkey), Iraq (Mesopotamia), and Iran (Persia). But it doesn't encompass many of the areas in which people in the SCA "play".

SOUTHWEST ASIA!
The Middle East is a concise geographic region also known as Southwest Asia.

WHAT IT'S NOT
But "Middle East" does NOT include North Africa (Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco), al-Andalus (Moorish Spain), the European parts of the Ottoman Empire (including Istanbul), and various Mediterranean islands which have been part of the Muslim/Arab world (such as Sicily).

NEAR EAST!
"Near East", on the other hand, is not a concise geographic region, but a more general cultural area, which includes both the "Middle East" and the excluded areas I mentioned in Europe and North Africa.

Note that most of Afghanistan was actually part of the Persian Empire within the time period covered by the SCA.

SOUTH ASIA
Note also that India and Pakistan are NOT part of the Middle or Near East. They are part of a region called South Asia. They or parts of them may be in Dar al-Islam, but that term does not equal the Near or Middle East. After all, Dar al-Islam includes Indonesia, the archipelago in Southeast Asia not far from the Philippines, which is hardly in the Middle East.

CENTRAL ASIA
Note further that places now called Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, etc. were formerly called Trans-Oxania, and are also not part of the Middle or Near East. They are part of a region called Central Asia.






-= Near Eastern Cultural Myths =-





MYTH 1: ALL MUSLIMS ARE ARABS

There are people of many different ethnic groups who have embraced Islam: various groups from Sub-Saharan Africa, the Berbers/Amazight of al-Maghrib, Slavs in the Balkans, Egyptians who are rather mixed ethnically since the days of the Pharaohs, people of a wide range of ethnic background in the Levant through which armies have been tromping since a couple millennia BCE, Turkic people of Central Asian origin who often have grey or green eyes and clearly brown hair, the Asiatic Mongols who invaded Persia and eventually Europe, and Indonesians, who live in the fourth most populous country on the planet with the largest Muslim population, are Malay and whose language is related to Hawaiian.

'abd al-Rahman I (734-788), the first ruler of al-Andalus was the only member of the Umayyads to survive the assassinations of the Abbasids - all his siblings and relative were killed. He fled from Damascus to North Africa, and in the mid-8th century became the ruler of al-Andalus. He had red hair. His descendent, 'abd al-Rahman III (891-961) who declared himself Caliph of al-Andalus, was known for his light red hair and blue eyes.

The Ottoman sultans often took Christian wives from Eastern Europe and from points south and east. Some of the wives were blond. And at least one Ottoman sultan was blond, Selim II, son of Suleyman, who had all his brothers murdered.

So if you're a 6 foot tall blond there's no reason you can't take a Near Eastern persona, without a strange and elaborate "persona story". And besides, in the SCA, your physical appearance really has nothing to do with your choice of persona.


MYTH 2: ALL NEAR EASTERNERS ARE MUSLIM

First, not all Arabs are Muslim. There are Christian Arabs, too. After all, Christianity began in the Middle East. In fact, there are some very specifically Middle Eastern forms of Christianity, such as the Maronites of Lebanon and the Nestorians of Iraq, who even had churches in China. And there are even Jewish Arabs.

Other ethnic groups in the Near East include other religions. There are Jews throughout the Near East, there are Zoroastrians in Persia, and, as one moves closer to Central Asia, Buddhists. There are other religious practices in this vast region, as well. And there are indigenous forms of animism and shamanism whose practices are mixed into local forms of Islam.

So if you want a Near Eastern persona but are uncomfortable about being Islamic, you can be from any of a number of religions.


MYTH 3: ALL NEAR EASTERNERS SPEAK ARABIC

AUGMENTED

As I have mentioned, not all Near Easterners are Arabs. The Near East extends from the Atlantic Ocean coast of al-Maghrib in North Africa (where the indigenous Berbers / Amazight of North Africa speak related languages collectively called Tamzight) to al-Andalus in Spain, through Egypt, to Eastern Europe (where Slavic languages are spoken). In Southwest Asia some people still speak Aramaic in eastern Syria and Iraq, and the Persians speak Farsi, an Indo-European language related to most European languages. And on to the edges of Central Asia where a variety of non-Arabic languages are spoken, for example, Turks of any sort, who originate in Central Asia, don't speak Arabic, they speak any of a number of Turkic languages.

An educated Muslim needs to know Arabic to learn the Qur'an, but Arabic may well not be a language he (or she) speaks. And in some regions a multitude of languges are spoken. For example, in the Ottoman Empire, Turkish was the language for politics, Persian was the language for the arts, Arabic for religion, and wherever one lived, one spoke the local language, although most people rarely know more than their native tongue.

And, fortunately, in the SCA we are not expected to speak the language of our personae :-)


MYTH 4: THE NEAR EAST IS AN ETERNALLY HOT DESERT ALL YEAR

Desert... the endless desert... hot, dry, full of exotic nomads on camels... stop... rewind...

The Near East extends from the Atlantic Ocean almost to the Himalayas. It can't possibly be one long endless desert with one eternal weather all year round.

Are there deserts in the Near East? Yes, but there is also rich farmland, humid tropical coastlines, high mountains, grassy steppes. The region of North Africa that includes Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco, was the breadbasket of the Roman Empire. Clearly not all arid desert.

Is it endlessly hot? No way. There are ski resorts in modern Lebanon, year round snow capped mountains in the Atlas range in Morocco. Istanbul is in Europe and has cold, damp, and sometimes even snowy winters. Persia has a range of climates from humid tropical coast to cold windswept steppes and snowy mountains.

So, is this the ideal clothing for hot climates? As ideal as it is for cold climates. It is as suitable for humid regions as arid, because there are people living in humid regions wearing this clothing on the tropical coastline of the Southern Arabian Peninsula, and parts of southern coastal Iraq.


MYTH 5: MUSLIMS ARE FORBIDDEN TO SHOW HUMANS IN ART

The Qur'an prohibits Muslims from depicting the human form in art... Well, in certain situations... Artists generally follow the ban in religious texts, such as illuminated Qur'ans, where all the art is abstract and decorative.

But despite what some people may say about there being a ban on the depiction of living beings in Muslim art, there is an enormous body of figurative art surviving from many time periods covered by the SCA, and many different regions, starting from near the beginning of Islam, in the 2nd quarter of the 7th century CE up until the end of SCA period in 1600 - that's close to 1,000 years of figurative art in Muslim cultures. While some people held very restrictive views and would sometime become powerful enough to deface or even destroy art, most of the time art in Muslim countries flourished and the human form, and their clothing, is clearly shown,

There's art from Syria and the Levant, from Iraq, from Muslim Egypt, from Iran. There's a lesser amount surviving from al-Andalus and al-Maghrib, not because they didn't make art, but because so much was destroyed by both invading Maghribi Muslims and by Christian Spaniards. And there's art from the Ottoman Empire - there are many many men, but women were rarely depicted in their art - at least Europeans painted some Ottoman women. There are even illustrated stories of the life of Muhammand, although Muhammad's face is usually not shown, being covered by a golden veil.

If Muslims could not depict people in art, how can i own so many books on Arab, Persian, and Ottoman art?


MYTH 6: TURKISH = OTTOMAN

"Turkish" to us modern folks usually means "from the modern country of Turkey", which didn't come into being until the early 20th century!

But it also refers to a language and cultural group which extends all the way to modern-day China, where the Uighur ("wee-ger") people still live in their homeland. And within the time period covered by the SCA there were a number of significant Turkish cultures, for example the Seljuks in the Levant and Persia, the Ayyubids in Egypt, and the Mamluks in Egypt and the Levant.

So there are actually many kinds of Turks.

Yet it seems to me that most of the time when people in the SCA say "Turkish" they really mean "Ottoman". The Ottoman Principality was started in 1350 in Anatolia, where the Seljuks of Rum had been. They didn't become the Ottoman Empire until 1444. And they didn't conquer Constantinople until 1453. In fact the Seljuks were a significant power longer than the Ottomans were within SCA-period.

So I urge people to just say "Ottoman", if that is what they actually mean. It's not much harder than the vague and non-specific "Turkish".


MYTH 7: MIDDLE EASTERN = OTTOMAN TURKISH

Some people seem to think that "Middle Eastern" is equivalent to "Ottoman Turkish", which they often just say as "Turkish" (see Myth 6). The Ottoman Empire is late period, basically comprising the last 150 years of the over 1,000 years the SCA covers. And many of the garments I see are actually 19th and 20th century, not 16th century or earlier.

It is true that eventually much of the geographic area of the Middle East became part Ottoman Empire. But this didn't happen until into the 16th century, and the people in each place continued to wear the same clothing they had been before the Ottoman conquest. It took a long time for people to adopt Ottoman garb - people tend to keep to their ethnic and regional clothing. And in some places this wasn't done until the late 19th century, and sometimes never.

While Asian Turkey is in the Middle East, the Middle East encompasses a wide range of ethnic and cultural groups, beyond the Ottoman Turks.



BACK TO TOP



-= Near Eastern Clothing Myths =-




MYTH 8: BEING ASKED TO WEAR PERIOD GARB IS ELITIST

This is something I heard on some e-mail lists. As an educational organization, the SCA exists as a place to explore the historical. I don't expect everyone to be interested in extensive clothing research. But Corpora does state that participants are expected to make some attempt at pre-1601 clothing.

So it is not unreasonable to expect folks to try to look as if they come from some time before 1601 when that is one of the stated goals of the organization. People with Near Eastern persona are not exempt - and there's plenty of information about what people wore.


MYTH 9: MAKING PERIOD GARB IS TOO DIFFICULT

I've looked at art from al-Andalus, al-Maghrib, Islamic Sicily, Medieval Egypt, the Levant, Persia, and the Ottoman Empire from pre-600 to 1600 and even later. The basic garments everywhere are simple-to-make T-tunics (or coat-like garments built like the T-tunics that open up the front in some regions) with relatively narrow-ankled pants.

The basic forms are quite simple and generally are very efficient in their use of fabric.


MYTH 10: PERIOD GARB IS TOO UGLY

It seems to me that many people in the SCA want to wear clothing that to them looks elegant, beautiful, even sexy. The typical Near Eastern loose tunic just doesn't seem to fit this desired image. It isn't fitted to the body to show off one's shapely parts; it covers the wearer from wrist to wrist and usually from neck to ankle. And one's legs are always covered by sirwal (the plural is sarawil), pants relatively narrow at the ankle and wide at the waist, not out-of-period, so-called "harem pants", with wide gathered ankles. There can be elegance in simplicity: for example, Persian women's clothing before 1500.

Also, attitudes towards what is attractive are different in various times and cultures. Beautiful and sexy are achieved by more than flesh exposure. Other aspects that contribute to beauty are how one walks, stands, talks (both voice modulation and the content of one's speech), holds one's face, uses one's hands, etc. Flesh exposure just was not a part of Near Eastern cultures within SCA time period.

If you want to show off your figure, select Persian or Ottoman clothing.

Ultimately, if you don't like actual historic Near Eastern clothing, why be Near Eastern in the SCA? Why not find a culture whose clothing you like?


MYTH 11: MAKING PERIOD GARB IS TOO EXPENSIVE

I've heard some people comment on the expense of making more-or-less historically accurate Near Eastern garments. Certainly robes of silk satin, silk brocade, and silk velvet are beyond the wallets of most folks.

But more-or-less historically accurate Near Eastern garments can be much less expensive. Linen for undergarments and comfortable over-garments can be found on-line for $5 per yard or less. So you can probably make an ankle-length tunic and sirwal for under $25. And some sources sell dupioni silk for under $10 a yard, so while it isn't cheap, it isn't as bad as it could be; after all many quality cotton prints cost $8 or $9 a yard. Yeah, dupioni isn't really "period", but we have to make some compromises, and I think it's a reasonable one.


MYTH 12: "TRIBAL STYLE" = PERIOD

Some people seem to think that "tribal style" costumes are "good enough" for the SCA.

But what is now called Tribal Style began more or less in the 1970s with Jamila Salimpour's dance troupe Bal Anat, so it is clearly not pre-17th century. Tribal-style outfits can be lovely and interesting, mixing costume and jewelry bits from cultures from North Africa to Central and South Asia, even Southeast Asia. But they are not historically accurate for the SCA, not even close, heck, they aren't historically accurate for the modern Near East either.

And as far as expense goes, Tribal style can entail a great deal of expense and handwork, if one wants the coins and beadwork, real foreign fabrics, imported belts, etc., so it isn't a money saver, compared to more historically accurate clothing.

So Tribal Style = late 20th century to early 21st century. That's pretty far from the 16th century.


MYTH 13: NEAR EASTERN CLOTHING HAS HARDLY CHANGED IN THOUSANDS OF YEARS

CORRECTED: QUOTE MARKED & EXPANDED

ibn Jelal of Lochac reminded me of the "slow change rule" myth. How could i have forgotten?!?!? He wrote:

"It usually runs along the lines of "clothing in the Middle-East changed really slowly", and is typically used for the justification for using 18th - 19th century folk costume as documentation for period clothing. It's also been used locally for justifying Gawazee coats. My favourite way of exploding the slow change myth is 14th Century Persia, with the very marked change in style with the arrival of the Ilkhans."

I, Urtatim, would also point out Ottoman women's clothing as an example of obvious change: in the 16th and 17th centuries, accessories like hats and the garment fabric patterns themselves allow one to date a painting to at least the quarter of the century it's from.

And if one does some research, one will discover that there were changing fashions in sleeve sizes and shapes in Egypt and the Levant, not to mention fabric patterns, jewelry, and accessories.

The people of much of the Near East were urban and had a well developed sense of style and fashion. Clothing, its embellishment, and accessories reflected this and altered considerably over the course of time covered by the SCA.



MYTH 14: ALL WOMEN WEAR POOFY HAREM PANTS

Women in the SCA commonly wear big full pants with vast wide ankles gathered by drawstrings or elastic. Yet, these are not historically accurate for women anywhere in the Near East within SCA time frame. While they are a "Middle Eastern" stereotype, they are out of period.

Shalvar (also written salwar) as worn in the Persian and Ottoman Empires in SCA-period are narrow at the ankles and wide at the top.

Sirwal (plural: sarawil) are worn in Arabic cultures. They are similar to pyjama bottoms having legs that are the same width from waist to ankle, but not excessively wide, and with a commodious gusset for comfort and movement.

No poofy pants. Maybe i should make a bumper sticker...


MYTH 15: A GHAWAZEE COAT IS PERIOD GARB

EXPANDED

People often don't even know how to spell this word. I've seen "ghawazee" - most common; "ghawazi" - an accurate spelling variation; and more rarely, "ghawazy". And inaccurately: gawazee, gawzee, gawhazee, gahwazee, gawahzee. I understand, it's an unfamiliar and foreign word and easy to spell (and pronounce) wrong. Note that "gh" is pronounced rather like the French "r" sound and the word has three syllables, although the first can be rather short. Most easily, you could say: gah-WAH-zee (where the "h" indicates a particular pronunciation of the "a" and is not pronounced.)

But however you spell it, there was, in fact, no such thing as a "Ghawazee coat". Not within SCA-period. Not out of SCA period anywhere in the Ottoman Empire. Not out of SCA period anywhere in the "the Middle East".

(The genuine Ghawazee dancers are not the issue here - but most of what is known of them is 20th and 19th century)

Not until the "Tribal Dance" movement of the 1970s.

The so-called "Ghawazee coat" is actually an Ottoman entari worn by female ethnic Ghawzi dancers in mid-19th century Egypt. And the 19th century entari is significantly different from that of the 15th and 16th centuries in many ways.

The Ghawazi people migrated from South Asia through Persia to Egypt, but there's no clear information on where they were in SCA-period or if they wore any coat-like garments - which they may have done in Persia. If they were in Egypt within SCA period, they would either be wearing their own traditional clothing or Egyptian clothing. There is clear information that Ottoman garments were not adopted by other cultural groups within the Ottoman Empire until outside the SCA-period.

When some Middle Eastern dancers in the US saw the pictures of the Ghawazi dancers in 19th c. Egypt, they liked what they saw. Without enough historical knowledge, they tried to re-create what they saw, or to re-invent it. Many of these were not even accurate for the 19th c.

Around the same time Middle Eastern dancers in the SCA started sharing this modern adaptation of a 19th century Ottoman garment. Not realizing what it was, they also took the name "Ghawazee coat" and spread the mis-contructed garment.

Now we know where it came from, what it is, and that it is NOT period. But we also know about period garments.

So proudly wear an Ottoman entari, not a "Ghawazee coat". For an SCA-period based pattern, see Persian coat patterns by Rashid or Roxane and fit them more snugly in the torso by taking in the side seams. There's no center back seam in the actual garments, nor are there darts or tucks - garments made like this are fine for 21st century dancers, but are not even close to SCA period construction.


MYTH 16: TASSEL BELTS ARE PERIOD

EXPANDED & CORRECTED

Tassel belts look great and do a nice job of accentuating movement on modern Near Eastern dancers. But to the best of my knowledge, tassel belts on dancers is a late 20th century phenomenon at which time some woman saw all those great tasselled decorations for camels and horses and decided to incorporate them into a dance costume. I have no problem with them on 21st century dancers. But they don't belong in the SCA- they're 400 years too late.

A few years ago someone taught a class at Pennsic about how tassel belts were period Persian. Dozens of people came back spreading the word. The teacher had used a photograph of a piece of art showing two musicians wearing what appear to be tassel belts. She had dated it to within SCA period, and if i recall correctly, claim it was Persian.

Actually the art is a low relief carved on stone from Zinjirli, a site in what is now Syria. It dates to the 8th century... BCE. There's a photo, illus. 356, on page 304 of The Art and Architecture of the Ancient Orient by Henri Frankfort, a volume in the Pelican History of Art series. The relief depicts two entertainers, one bearded male, the other beardless, but probably also male. They are playing what appear to be hand drums - the type often called frame drums. Because of the stylization of the art, it's hard to tell if they are meant to be standing side by side or if the beardless one is actually standing on the shoulders of the bearded one. Around their waists are wide belts and hanging from these belts may well be tassels. While i have seen no official start date for the SCA, the consensual time is "the Fall of Rome" - which is either the late 5th or mid-6th century CE, depending on which "Fall" you prefer. This art is from 1400 years before that. It is highly unlikely that female dancers within SCA-period were wearing similar tassel belts fourteen centuries later.

Now, in 16th centurty Istanbul, male dancers wore a little item that would serve well to accentuate hip movement. It's a very mini-skirt, very full, and quite gathered, which is worn over the male dancer's legally required outfit of: entari tucked into a long full gathered skirt with this mini-skirt on top.

Female dancers adopted this outfit by the mid-17th century. So while it may be out-of-period for female dancers, it did exist in the 16th century, and even the mid-17th century is a lot closer to SCA period than either the late 20th century CE or the 8th century BCE is...


MYTH 17: A CHOLI IS PERIOD MIDDLE-EASTERN GARB

Near Eastern women did not wear anything like a choli, bra-top, or mini-vest in the Near East within SCA time frame. No exposed midriff.

The choli is Indian. And some forms of the choli were worn at some times in SCA-period India. So if you wear one, you are obviously portraying a woman from South Asia, not from the Near East, since India is NOT in the Near or Middle East.

Also, a choli does not belong with poofy harem pants (which are out of period anyway). A South Asian woman would wear a choli with a full skirt and leg-hugging pants, or with a sari or a dhoti, but not with poofy 19th century Ottoman harem pants.

So if you are Near Eastern, no choli. If you want to wear a choli, make a period South Asian outfit.


MYTH 18: MIDDLE EASTERN DANCERS EXPOSED THEIR SKIN

Nope. No flesh exposure. No belly showing. No bust showing. No legs showing through slits in a tunic or pants. Exposed flesh - other than hands, feet, face, and neck - is very inappropriate for anywhere in the Near East. Muslim women are enjoined by the Qur'an to be modest, and cover their hair and chests. Jewish women were also modest in public. And in Near Eastern cultures, Christian women were modest, too. Even in the home, a woman wore a long-sleeved tunic and pants, which, while sometimes quite sheer, covered them from wrist to wrist and from neck to ankles. Indian women might have more flesh exposure, depending on what ethnic group they were from, what religion they followed, and where and when they lived, but they aren't Near or Middle Eastern.


MYTH 19: MIDDLE EASTERN WOMEN WEAR LOTS OF COINS...
...all over hats, headdresses, bras, belts, etc.

Not likely. And so far I've found very little evidence for this practice in period. While coins were common in urban centers, there was so much political and economic disruption that they were not the primary source of trade, especially among the semi-nomadic Bedouin. I have seen a few items of jewelry made with coins: gold coins set in bezels, not drilled and suspended by jump-rings. I have seen decorative dangly shapes made by jewelers, and it is possible that these were replaced by coins in the 19th century.


MYTH 20: MIDDLE EASTERN WOMEN WORE CROSS-STITCH COVERED GARMENTS

The most commonly known cross-stitch covered garments are lovely Palestinian women's thobes. These date from the 19th and 20th centuries. On most of these garments, the embroidery is specifically carefully-counted equal-armed cross-stitch. This type of cross stitch was not common in SCA period, and rarely shows up in surviving Near Eastern embroidery - and when it does, it's usually a single line of stitches, not covering acres of cloth.

One surviving SCA-period tunic front has a range of stitches, including brick stitch, openwork, pattern darning, stem stitch, and chain stitch. But no cross stitch. Other surviving tunics are adorned only with pattern darning. Others have complex designs in chain stitch. Most of these are easy to do.

Why not learn how to do them and decorate your tunic with period embroidery.


MYTH 21: ALL WOMEN HID THEIR FACES BEHIND VEILS

The word "veil" can be very misleading in the Near Eastern context. To me, a veil is a cloth that covers the head, and, in most of SCA period, European women wore such veils, too. To me, a special face covering is not a veil, especially since they are made rather differently from head cloths and there is such a range of different types.

There was no universal face covering and no universal names for face coverings in SCA-period Muslim cultures. In fact, the Qur'an actually does not require women to cover their faces, only to be modest, as men are enjoined as well, and to cover their hair and their chests.

It is important to bear in mind that there are a number of different kinds of face coverings. And they have specific names in different times, places, and languages. Additionally, the same item might have different names in different cultures or times. And finally, the same name could be used for very different facial coverings in different times or places.

And not all women wore a mask-like covering over their faces. Rural or nomadic women were, in fact, the least likely to cover their faces with a separate item when they were engaged in farming or herding. On the other hand, women from urban harems were much more likely to cover their faces in some way when out in public. Yet, in some times and places, such as some eras in al-Andalus, many women went out in public without covering their faces at all.

The big "body bag" worn by women in modern Afghanistan (the chadour, sometimes called a "burka") was not common in period. It may have been used in some times and places, such as the Eastern Persian Empire, but it is a very regional item of limited use.

The burka, burqa, or burga, is most often, a mask-like item, not a veil. It was most common in some - but not all - parts of the Arabian Peninsula. A long rectangle of cloth covers the face from just below the eyes to the chin or to the sternum. It is attached to a head band by short supporting strips at the nose and each temple. It was not the most common form of female modesty throughout Dar al-Islam. Some examples of this have been found in 14th century Quseir al-Qadim, an Egyptian Red Sea port.

The litham is a rectangle of cloth that covers the face from the bridge of the nose to below the chin, and in width extends only to the ears. It is anchored by pins or ties, and is often of sheer cloth. During the reign of the Almohads in al-Andalus - from the 12th century to the early 13th - it was worn *only* by Almohad men - not by women, not by other men.

ibn Jelal of Lochac pointed out that some Maghribi men wore the Tagelmoust, the headwrap worn by Tuareg men of N. Africa. A part of the way that turban is tied is that it leaves the face covered, as if they were wearing a litham. It wasn't actually a proper litham veil, even though they were referred to as "al-mulaththamun". This was the litham of the Almohad men, and not a separate face covering.

And sometimes to cover the face, a woman wore a square of cloth folded diagonally covering from the bridge of the nose to below the chin, and with the folded corners tied behind the head - yup, like a cowboy bandit's bandana.

Some sort of mask which covered the eye area, but left the lower face exposed, was worn in other places. For example, in Persia, women wore a stiff rectangular mask that covered the eye area from temple to temple woven of black horsehair - these can be seen pushed up on women's foreheads in some paintings.

It was more common in many places for a woman to wear a rectangle of cloth over her head, and in situations that required more modesty, she held it closed with one hand at the chin so it covered her lower face, and possibly one eye.

So if you want to wear a facial covering, it is very useful to try to find the appropriate style for the time, place, and ethnic group of your persona or your garb.


MYTH 22: ALL MEN AND SOME WOMEN WORE TURBANS

There is a tendency for us modern Americans to call every head covering made of a narrow strip of cloth wound around the head a turban. But turbans were actually quite specific types of head wraps worn chiefly by royalty and religious figures of a certain status. Men wore many different head wraps that were not turbans. And not all men wore head wraps. The Qur'an enjoins all Muslims to be modest and cover their heads, men and women alike, and often men just wore a cap of some sort.

Sure, women may sometimes have worn turbans, but generally they did not. Whether they wore a head wrap of some sort would depend on their culture. Often they did not. They might wear a cap much like a man's or just a cloth draped over their head and shoulders with their hair drawn back in braids.

Women absolutely did not wear turbans in the Ottoman Empire within SCA-period. Clothing was closely regulated by laws which were enforced. And in al-Maghrib or al-Andalus turbans, even on men, were not common, although there are some traditional male head wraps.

Not all Near Easterners, not even all men, wore turbans. Don't let the turban become a cliché. Wear an appropriate head wrap, but only wear a turban if you are an important Imam or the Caliph, Sultan, or Shah.


MYTH 23: ALL MEN WORE KEFFIYAS WITH AGALS

There is no evidence for the styles used now - for the keffiya or head cloth with bright color patterns on a white cloth which is typical of the Levant and Saudi Arabia, nor the big thick black agal - the head band - which is typical of 20th century Saudi Arabia. I have seen some evidence for men wearing a plain white head cloth with a simple narrow filet, but not the colorful head cloths with the elaborate agals.

Don't let a modern keffiyya mar an otherwise plausibly period outfit. If you want a cloth over your head, you can't go wrong with plain white linen or cotton and a simple agal, not a big thick one with gold. More often men wore a wide variety of caps with or without various head wraps.


MYTH 24: I'M A NOMAD / TRADER / RAIDER, SO I CAN WEAR A MIXTURE OF ANY STUFF I LIKE FROM A VARIETY OF CULTURES

The idea of wearing a melange of garments from many times and places is very modern. There's no evidence to suggest that mixing and matching was generally done in the Near East within SCA-period.

People were proud of their ethnic or cultural origins. And clothing identified people at a glance with their culture and ethnic group.

People might occasionally wear an accessory from a different place if they liked it, a piece of jewelry or a sash, for example, with the clothing of their own culture. Or they would buy luxury fabric from a culture well-known for their luxury fabrics, but make their own traditional garments from the cloth.

Other culture's clothing was not interesting or exotic. It was strange and alien. Remember, it took people in some parts of the Levant over 400 years before they began to wear Ottoman clothing, and this region had been a part of the Ottoman Empire since the early 16th century.

When people travelled they wore their own traditional clothing. They might wear the clothing of another group, if they'd lost all their clothing in a disaster of some sort. But otherwise they'd stick to their own garments.

Many important trade cities had neighborhoods in which people from the same home culture lived. And these enclaves of foreigners continued to wear their traditional clothing, not a mix of their clothing and the clothing of their adopted home.

Tribal nomads would be especially unlikely to wear foreign garments.

When Muslim armies were organized, there were no uniforms. Soldiers wore the armor and accoutrements of their place of origin. They did not wear the armor or clothing of the place in which they found themselves. In fact, they were expected to wear the clothing and armor of their home, no matter where they were.

It is possible that some unusual foreigners wore local clothing if they became consultants to a royal court, but even then not always.

The idea of wearing an outfit put together of garments from a multitude of ethnic groups and cultures is quite new. It can be especially associated with hippies of the late 1960s and early 1970s. And in the Middle Eastern dance world with the California dance troupe Bal Anat, founded by Jamila Shalimpour, and who performed at the big, original, mother of all Renaissance Fairs in the 1970s - Jamila is pretty much the instigator of "American Tribal Style". I was fortunate to see them then, back when the Renaissance Pleasure Faire also included Flamenco dancers...

Finally, if one puts together a costume made of garments and accessories from a variety of times and places, even if each individual piece is historically accurate, the final ensemble is not.



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-= A Few Comments =-





SO, WHAT *IS* PERIOD?

If we accept that we are interested in "period" clothing, what does that mean in terms of clothing in the SCA?

It means wearing a set of garments that more-or-less all come from one single time and one single place and one single culture prior to 1601. The best way to figure out what a period outfit is like is to look at period art, and to figure out what colors and patterns the fabric should have, look at textiles in museum collections.

I have a modest collection of links to websites with information on clothing for both general Near Eastern and specific cultures.


AD VS. AH

Dates in history books can confuse the unfamiliar. You need to ascertain whether the book you're reading is using AD (Anno Domini, i.e., Christian dating system) or AH (Anno Hejira, i.e., Muslim dating system). Just as AD 1 is theoretically the year in which Christ was born, AH 1 is the year that the word of God was revealed to Muhammad. AH dates start at 622 AD... My friend Giles wrote:
"I often see people triumphantly produce documentation that ghawazee coats/gyspy vests/turkish delight/rifles with bayonets are period, and then I have to gently point out what that "AH" after the date means."


A FINAL NOTE

Personally, i'm quite fond of the eclectic look of "Tribal style" clothing and dance, but it's not SCA-period. However, if that's all you have and you are new to the SCA, and you really want to wear it, well, go ahead. The Corporate documents of the SCA say participants should wear a "reasonable attempt" at pre-17th century clothing. But there really are no "costume police". So wear what you like, just don't try to pass it off as historically accurate. If someone asks you, say, "I know it's not period but..." - a.) "i like it."; b.) "it's all i have at the moment."

There's always time for more research. If you can make a "Tribal style" costume, you can make a more historical outfit.



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Page created 25 June 2005
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