Middle Eastern countries are often stereotyped or even recognized by their particular head dresses, but Americans often cannot distinguish one from the other or call them by name.    Men of the Middle East wear a variety of head coverings that Americans call such things turbans, caps, hats, and scarves.  Women of the Middle East also wear head coverings which Americans attempt to describe as  veils, scarves, hats, and (the word most commonly misused) burquas.  While these descriptions are partially true and correct, there remains more distinction to be understood in regards to the head coverings of the Middle East.


                Though not all men of the Middle East sport head coverings, many do.  When performing salat (prayer), it is commendable for the man to be dressed in a head covering.  Head coverings in the Middle East also serve as indicators or wealth, status, position, lineage, or ethnicity, as well as signifying that a person has made hajj.  Head coverings provide practical benefits as well, such as heat protection.  Proper names of the head coverings often vary by country or region.  Let’s start with a brief survey of the types of coverings worn by Middle Eastern men.  Most common are the taqiyah, fez, kufiya, and imama.

Perhaps the most common thing for a man to wear on his head in the Middle East is the taqiyah.  American’s often refer to this knit cap as a “Muslim prayer cap.”  Store owners in the United States, often sell the cap by the name of kufi.   These short round caps come in an assortment of colors and serve to the rest of the world as a sign of adherence to Islam.  By now, you’re thinking, “I haven’t seen that many of these.”  That’s probably because taqiyah is also worn under the kufiya (scarf) or imama (turban); in both such cases, the caps would always be white.  Taqiyah fit closely to the head like a “skullcap” or like an upside-down bowl with a flat bottom.

Similar to the taqiyah is the fez, also known as the tarbush, which most Americans relate to the Shriner hat often seen being worn by men in golf carts at local parades. (Something always told you these looked Arab, right?)Fez are constructed of felt , shaped like a bucket or cup, and usually have a tassel coming from the center of the top.  These whimsical hats might have had their origin in the city of Fez in Morocco.  Gnaouan men in Morocco swirl the tassel of the fez in circles in the air while entertaining with trancelike music and dance.  Like the taqiyah, the fez can be found underneath the kufiya or imama.

Kufiya, known by many other names such as mashadahi and cemedani, claim the recognition as the most common of all traditional headdresses of the Middle East.  Kufiya are typically square, woven,  and checkered cloths.  Men secure the kufiya to their head by wrapping a braid of camel hair called an agal around it.  Kufiya identify their wearer with their country of origin.  Color and pattern share importance in signifying if the wearer has completed hajj; for instance, Jordan’s kufiya is red and white while Kuwait’s kufiya is white altogether.    Kufiya evoke a strong sense of national pride and are even the national symbol of Palestine.

Great stereotypical pictures come together with the these first few head coverings, but Americans are most sure to associate the Middle Eastern gentlemen with the turban or imama.   History relates that Muhammed wore a  turban of either white or black color.  Devout Muslims who seek to imitate the prophet in all things, including  his dress, sport the imama to indicate that they are of the same line as the prophet.  Imama are enormous in size compared to the other coverings.  In order to garb himself in this article of clothing, the man takes great care to wrap and wind the imama in just the right fashion according to customs of his region.  Don’t be confused: Turbans come in all colors and patterns and are worn by several groups outside of Islam as well (i.e. the Sheiks).  Sometimes imamas serve a more practical purpose and are used to carry important items (wrapped into the turbans while still on the head) or removed to tie a bundle of parcels or to provide a place to sit.  What a great idea – you can carry a snack in your imama and when you’re ready to eat, you have a picnic blanket too!


                Women in the Middle East wear head coverings even more consistently than men.  Styles and varieties of ladies’ coverings vary greatly as fashion and tradition struggle in the Arab nations.  Depending on the specific country, religion, laws, and personal preference, the type of head covering (or if a woman wears one at all) differs from one extreme to the other.   Common categories of head coverings are the hijab, niqab, and burqa.  Uninformed American’s often refer to these types of head coverings as “the veil,” or group them all together as burqa.

Hijab is closely related to a scarf that is designed to wrap around the head in such a fashion that the hair is not seen and only the face is revealed.  Young women begin to wear the hijab at or about the  time of puberty; mothers often guide the young lady to make the choice herself as a sort of rite of passage in both Islam and their society.  Hijab doesn’t cover the face, but should also be certain close any gaps that would revealed the neck of the lady.  Beautifully designed styles, as well as plain matte black are both seen in the majority of countries.  Masses of Middle Eastern women outfit themselves with the hijab as a matter of modesty and identity with their culture as opposed to the cause of oppression.

Niqab in itself is not a head or hair covering, but instead a face covering.  Niqab can either be worn as a separate piece of fabric in various forms or as a fly-like piece of fabric attached to a hijab.  Both of these forms stretch across the nose and either tuck or pin into the opposite side.  Additionally, niqab can be sown into a hijab to form a sort of window for the eyes and a drape over the nose and mouth.  Want a visual?  Think belly dancer, but not translucent.  When eating, ladies who choose to wear niqab must either remove it if appropriate, or reach their hand to their mouths from the bottom side of the niqab.  A lady’s eyes are still visible when she wears the niqab.

Burqas, however, are completely different. When wearing a burqa, the view is completely restricted from the outside in.   Burqa serve as a headcovering, but is actually a one-piece outfit that starts at the top of the head, has a mesh screen at the face, and reaches to the feet of the woman.  The lady who wears the burqa can see out just fine.  Countries that are the most radical in Islam require that the women wear this outfit.  U.S. citizens often believe that any Muslim dress that covers the head face is a burqa but that belief is simply incorrect.

Now it’s time to step out with a bit of effort and a little curiosity.  Next time you run into an Arab, start out with a friendly greeting of “Salam alaikum.”  Who knows?  Maybe you’ll make a friend.  And don’t forget to politely inquire, “What’s that on your head?”


About The 5 Minute Arab

Join me in my journey of learning to speak Arabic and studying the Arab culture while still living in the United States.

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