Arts & Culture

Jalabiya: Egypt’s Iconic Kaftan

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Jalabiya: Egypt’s Iconic Kaftan

Egypt tries to save money on wheat subsidies | Daily Mail ...
Farmer Rida Ibrahim | Photo Credit: Hassan Ammar via Daily Mail

A signature blend of cotton, wool, and culture is embodied in the jalabiya—a gown-like kaftan that has been part and parcel of Egyptianism for the better part of several centuries. Wide sleeves, patterned or patternless, pulling at the ankles: the jalabiya is an iconic, if not inseparable vision of farmer tradition and modesty.

Native to Egypt, and later several countries along the Nile Valley, this loose-fitting, traditional gown is wide-cut at the collar, often featuring sewn-in pockets used to carry raw tobacco, money, and other such small tokens. During the summer, most jalabiya are white-worn or light-colored, their sleeves billowing by virtue of design.

man in gray thobe sitting on green grass during daytime
“Man in gray thobe sitting on green grass during daytime” | Photo Credit: Omar Elsharawy

Despite the staple elements, creativity and innovation have redirected the styling of regular jalabiya for both men and women. Depending on where and when, different elementals seem to manifest: belts and vests, turbans and veils, swift lines and plain whites. Egyptians have created different ways to express their subcultures and personal tastes through what is otherwise a simple garment.

Much like different districts speaking different dialects, Egyptian locales wear their jalabiya with confident, precedent uniqueness. Upper Egypt are perhaps the most iconic wearers of the garment: with colors ranging from beige to blue, Sai’di men style their jalabiya with narrow wool scarves in the winter, and closely wrapped ammama (head turban). On other occasions, they can be seen with a taqiyah – a Muslim skull-cap that comes patterned and colorful.

USAID Feed the Future Egypt Food Security and Agribusiness ...
Photo Credit: Cultivating New Frontiers in Agriculture

Coastal Red Sea villages, however, seek to separate themselves from the farmer identity by re-imagining their jalabiya; they often style it as, or switch it out for a dishdasha—a more close-fitting gown reminiscent of Gulf tradition. This includes Nubia, Beja tribesmen, and some parts of Sudan.

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Bedouin Mohammed Muteer from the Red Sea Mountains near Hurghada. | Photo Credit: Ben Hoffler via Red Sea Mountain Trail
Bedouin guide wearing a traditional costume stands in the ...
Photo Credit: Stuart Forster

Though the southernmost parts of Egypt and Sudan as a whole share a different set of essentials for their jalabiya tradition. Inspired largely by Sudanese dress, this attire is a three-piece make-up: a jibba, a kaftan, and a sederi. The jibba is a patchwork garment most famously worn by Sufi mystics as spiritual dedication, while the kaftan is worn directly under it. The sederi, thought to originate from the Arabic word sedr (chest), is a vest that fits on top of the jibba; while it is not always worn, it is most definitely considered to be part of the styling.

Flickriver: Eric Lafforgue's photos tagged with jalabiya
Sudanese men | Photo Credit: Eric Lafforgue
Flickriver: Eric Lafforgue's photos tagged with jalabiya
Photo Credit: Eric Lafforgue

Today, the jalabiya is part of many Arab communities, exporting itself by virtue of simple comfort and modest beauty. Women will hang sheer veils off their heads, and men will complement a nice, sheep-wool jalabiya with a hand-carved walking cane. It goes to show that, no matter how high or low one goes, Egyptians have an ever-softening heart for this simple pleasure.

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With a heart for radio and an appetite for culture, Mona is a writer and illustrator based in Cairo. At the Erasmus University Rotterdam, she obtained a BSc and MA in Media, Culture, and Society, while actively writing for the faculty magazine. After graduating, Mona was an academic advisor at the American University in Cairo, as well as Managing Director of a small, campus-based advertising firm. Gears shifting, her knack for cultural research took over - enter: Egyptian Streets. Mona’s focus is tapered to issues of identity politics, culture, and social architecture.

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