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That brimless hat signified style Fez: In such countries as Morocco, Turkey, Syria and Egypt, the tarbush has had a colorful political past, favored by king and commoner and then banned by governments. Only two makers remain in Cairo.

CAIRO, EGYPT — CAIRO, Egypt -- In a dusty storefront on the Street of the Tentmakers, Muhammad al Tarabishi unsnaps the locks on a worn leather hatbox. He lifts the cover to reveal a flat-topped cone of maroon felt. The tarbush, or fez, worn by his grandfather who opened this shop a century ago, is more than an heirloom.

It is a relic of a bygone age, a cultural icon with a colorful political past. Once favored by pashas and policemen, this brimless hat with the black silk tassel commanded respect for its wearer. From Morocco to Turkey, Syria to Egypt, it signified style.

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Then, the politicians got involved. The tarbush symbolized oppression; it became a mark of an "uncivilized" man. Outlawed in Turkey and later Egypt, the tarbush lost out to the brimmed hat. And the fez makers lost most of their clientele.

But Tarabishi, whose last name means tarbush maker, kept the family business. The shop remains one of only two fez makers in this teeming city.

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Wedged between an Egyptian sweet shop and a dry goods store on one of the serpentine streets in Cairo's marketplace, the store bears the name of Tarabishi's father in cursive Arabic script above the door, Haj Ahmed Muhammad Ahmed. A portrait of his grandfather hangs over the small desk where Tarabishi sits.

"When you put a tarbush on your head, it means you respect yourself and others," says Tarabishi, a modest man with a small mustache.

The origin of the fez is disputed. One historian, Jeremy Seal, says the hat originated in Turkey where the Sultan Mahmoud II sought to replace the cloth turban with a modern headpiece. The fez bore no brim to enable good Muslims to press their heads to the ground in prayer, according to Seal's "A Fez of the Heart," a history of the hat.

Others say the hat got its name from the city in Morocco from which the red-berry dye originates.

Robert Sole, author of a novel entitled "Le Tarbouche," distinguishes between the tarbush (its English name) and the fez. He says the tarbush arrived in Egypt in the 10th century.

Regardless of its origins, the tarbush once was favored by king and countryman alike. In Cairo's heyday as the cultural center of the Arab world, the king of Morocco's father paid gold for his tarbush at the Tarabishi family shop. Military officers, clerics, Egyptian gentlemen, even young school boys, also wore the tarbush. The well-dressed gentleman would keep one tarbush on a stand beside the front door of his home and six others in his bedroom, says Tarabishi.

The deep maroon color signified a nobleman. The softer red was worn by the common man, says Tarabishi. Police donned a black version, accented with a red stripe down the front.

Egyptians wore the fez three decades after the father of modern-day Turkey, Kemal Ataturk, outlawed them in 1925. Sporting a crisp Panama hat, Ataturk declared that his countrymen would wear civilized garb, including "a cover with a brim for our heads." The ban ignited riots in some areas of Turkey. Several Turks were hanged for refusing to shelve the fez, according "The Fez of the Heart."

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In Egypt, men continued to wear the fez until 1958, when it was banned by Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, the leader of the revolution against the monarchy. At the time, Tarabishis had 26 branches.

Most Americans know the fez only as the cap of Shriners on parade. But in the Middle East today, the tarbush adorns the brows of sheiks and religious students. Tarabishi's shop caters mostly to this clientele, which hail from al-Azhar, the oldest Islamic university in Cairo. Film studios also have ordered fezzes from the store.

The customers and occasions for the fez may have changed, but Tarabishi's two fez makers craft the hats as his father and grandfather did.

A hulking brass, kerosene-fired oven sits in the doorway to the shop. The oven heats the brass molds from which the maroon felt takes its shape. The molds come in 160 sizes, small enough to fit the head of a 2-year-old.

The felt is pressed and then glued to a straw base covered in silk. A leather band is hand-sewn inside the rim of the hat. Tarabishi says the hat comes in six different styles. The Ottoman version is short and conical; the Egyptian more cylindrical; the Moroccan is shorter than the rest; and the Azar, the style worn by religious clerics, has a crease on top and is worn with a white scarf wrapped around it.

Ahmed Abd el Rheman sits beside Tarabishi's desk, waiting for the tarbush he has ordered to be finished. It usually takes an hour and a half to make a hat.

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Rheman, 25, has brought his own material to the shop. He has ordered an Azar for his father who is a sheik. The hat costs 15 Egyptian pounds, about $5.

"This material lasts not less than six to 10 years," explains Tarabishi, showing Rheman's hat to a visitor. "You can wash it and turn it inside out."

Tarabishi learned the craft of tarbush-making beside his father. As a young boy, he visited the shop most Fridays and helped serve customers.

The shop seems stuck in time. The glass cases are clouded with dust. Two signs from the days of Tarabishi's father explain the cost of doing business: "CASH MONEY" and "FIXED PRICE."

The foot pedal on the old Singer sewing machine has been replaced with a small motor, but its cast-iron body is the same.

"I keep everything old here," says Tarabishi, showing off his grandfather's tarbush and its hand-made leather hatbox. "You see the difference in the straw."

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Tarabishi, 40, a mechanical engineer, says the shop sells 10 to 15 hats a month. The business earns enough to pay his two employees. Many people ask to work in the shop, he says. But he has refused them because "there is no future" in the business.

An Islamic politician in Egypt tried a couple years ago to make the fez the national hat of Egypt. Ahmed al-Sabani, who sports a fez, wanted to put the issue before the Egyptian voters. It never happened.

The family business won't last beyond Tarabishi.

"I cannot sell this shop," says Tarabishi. "I just close it. I will keep it until I'm fed up or I'm too tired. Maybe another 10 years."

And then, there will be only one tarbush-maker in Cairo.

Pub Date: 5/21/97


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