The Sudanese Tagiya
The Sudanese Skullcap / Prayer Cap
Above, the vibrant green and red tagiya favoured by some Sufi orders and worn here by a dhikr (zikr) celebrant at Hamed El-Nil, Omdurman. For more on Sudanese Sufism, see The Eternal Dance, A Thousand Prayers Sudanese Moments
Setting the Scene
From Personal to Imported
Mother of Horns
It’s All in the Turban
Setting the Scene
“The elegance that is hidden in the waist cord and skullcap”; a refrain applied to the dapperly dressed. Even though these things are hidden from view, great care is taken in their detail by those who like to dress impeccably. My thanks to Muna Zaki for this saying.
This week I draw on accounts from Regional Folk Costumes of the Sudan (2017), by the late artist, educator and expert in Sudanese dress, Griselda El Tayib, to offer a photographic tribute to the Sudanese tagiya or skullcap. This modest garment provides practical protection in searing heat or winter cold and forms the indispensable anchor – “embroidered to give texture and bite” – for any turban. For many, the plain white tagiya is a key element in what has emerged as northern Sudanese national dress, itself an iteration of regional dress, and defined by El Tayib as “white jallabiya, tagiya, white turban, plain markub (Sudanese shoes) and white, brown or grey abaya”.
Delicately discreet or exuberantly patterned, the tagiya can express not just piety, but joyful individualism and regional pride. Subverted by youngsters to be worn at jaunty angles (see below), or designed to rest loosely in Rastafarian colors over dreadlocks, it can also provide the one vivid splash of colour to the otherwise understated and modest male attire favoured by most northern Sudanese.
Delicately embroidered tagiya of another zikr worshipper, Hamed El-Nil, Omdurman. Wearing the tagiya is often seen as an essential expression of Sudanese Muslim identity, sanctioned by both ancient Islamic tradition and Sudan’s modern religious/nationalist role models: “He was very squarely built, light brown in colour with flashing eyes and a wonderful smile. He was dressed very simply in a patch coat, cotton drawers and a straw skullcap round which was wrapped a turban of locally-made cotton cloth.”
(Reminiscences of the Sudan Mahdi, Sheikh Mohammed Ahmed by his personal servant Mohammed El Mekki Ghuleib, who is still living in Sudan, by J.A.Reid, Journal of the Royal African Society, Oxford University Press, 1936)
This post is also a fond tribute to a Darfuri tagiya maker I was privileged to meet in Khartoum last May. This trouble-worn yet exquisitely graceful young woman – I’ll call her Salma – is just one of many who support their families by making and selling skullcaps from makeshift cardboard box stalls dotted around the Soug Al-Arabi. Salma is an internal refugee, who, like so many other Darfuris, is eking out a living in the capital. Tragically, she also has to cope daily with the recent loss of her only son, who drowned while trying to emigrate to Europe.
Sadly, the covid pandemic, coupled with Sudan’s ongoing economic crisis, has made earning a living even more precarious for craftswomen like Salma.
There are many more, personal stories from tagiya craftswomen in Khartoum as well as a broader Muslim world perspective on tagiya design in Jenny Gustafsson‘s evocative and finely illustrated A Vanishing Craft: Khartoum’s Handmade Skullcaps
Describing Hawa at work, Gustafsson writes “In her lap is a half-finished hat made from black yarn and a thread that disappears into a plastic bag by her feet. She holds a crochet hook in one hand and the thread wound around the first finger of her other. With ease, she adds stitch after stitch to a concentric circle, which eventually will grow to perfectly fit the size of a head.” Hawa explains that “I learned this craft as a girl. I can’t remember exactly when, but I was young. We all learned from our grandmothers and mothers at the time,” A Vanishing Craft: Khartoum’s Handmade Skullcaps
All photos in this week’s blog were taken by me and you are very welcome to use them for educational purposes. Above, handmade and imported tagiya for sale in Khartoum.
Young men, wearing their tagiyas with style, bringing to mind Griselda El Tayib’s account of teenagers wearing theirs “at a rakish angle forward over one eye”, as in the words of a popular song; “The brazen city type, wearing his tagiya lopsided” (Riverain Male Costume, Adolescence, Regional Folk Costumes of the Sudan, p.114)
Apart from the rupture Mahdist ideology brought in its wake, “Sudanese costume changes have always been moving in a certain cyclic pattern of movement from conservative to modern, ascetic to worldly, baladi (local) to European and regional to national.” Griselda El Tayib
From Personal to Imported
“The hidden displays are in the tikka* and tagiya.”
Griselda El Tayib reminds us in the saying above that the Sudanese tagiya was and still is for many a deeply personal garment, tenderly handmade by a wife, daughter or intriguingly, “as a gift from some lady whose sentimental connection with the wearer is hidden”, as the tagiya itself is hidden when a turban is wound around it (Regional Folk Costumes of the Sudan, p104). Indeed a quick check of Youtube will still yield numerous “How to crochet or embroider a tagiya” videos.
El Tayib describes the simplest tagiya, preferred by older men and known as “falasiya” (bankruptcy), as “made of two thicknesses of white material stiffened by being stitched all over the surface, nowadays by machine to give it a quilted effect”, which is then “gathered onto a circle”. Older men suffering from baldness, she notes, may still opt for tagiyas “of crocheted, homespun unbleached cotton”.
Among the many other types described as she charts the generational, regional and religious diversity of the Sudanese tagiya, is the popular tagiya al mansaj – “made with bands of intricate embroidery which are carried out on material stretched on a frame called a mansaj. This embroidery is done by counting the threads and the needle is passed from one hand to the other above and below the frame. Afterwards the strips are cut off and joined together by openwork embroidered bands in the same colour, giving the tagiya some ventilation.” The tagiya al mansaj is “totally covered in embroidered thread, sometimes in white but very commonly and typically in an orange colour which matches the man’s tanned markub shoes. Green used to be fashionable but now less – except among the Burhaniya Sufi sect.”
El Tayib also meticulously traces changes over the decades in the tagiya’s provenance, noting the “traditional Sudanese round, handmade tagiya, either white, orange or green, has been replaced at first by imported Gulf-style crocheted ones, and now almost universally by the stiff, cylindrical Pakistani cap actually manufactured in China.” And while the sheer quantity of Chinese-made imported tagiya among the street stalls of Khartoum sometimes seems overwhelming, traditional Sudanese-made tagiya are still being sought out and Darfuri and Kordofani craftswomen have brought their prized skills with them to the capital, together with their signature regional designs: “Today, some of Sudan’s best tagiyas come from the Darfur region, where places like Nyala and Jebel Murra are known for their fine stitching traditions…. Other places with rich crafting traditions are Kordofan, in Sudan’s south, and the eastern regions of Kassala and Gadaref.” A Vanishing Craft: Khartoum’s Handmade Skullcaps
* The tikka is the cord or cotton strip with embroidered tassels used to secure Sudanese baggy “sirwal” trousers at the waist.
Below, crocheted tagiya (centre),tagiya al mansaj (left) and right, tagiya um sharait (mother of stripes); where “bands of material are left plain white” and joined with “openwork bands embroidered in white, orange or green.”
“Haughtiness (or vanity) that is hidden in the waist cord and the skullcap”; there is no pride in what is hidden from people. My thanks to Muna Zaki.
Mother of Horns – Tagiya Um Garnen
Above, found in Abd El-Gadir, north of Khartoum, “On his head he has a particular horned helmet with a six-pointed star on teh front and a crescent as a crest which seems to be a residual form of the ancient crown of Kush”.
The double horned (um garnen) headdress, symbol of royalty and recurring motif in the great medieval Christian frescos of Faras, came to be reinterpreted and transformed under Islamic Sudan, and ultimately adopted by the Funj dynasty as a symbol of its authority and power.
A version of the tagiya um garnen is still worn, El Tayib notes, by “dervishes in parts of Blue Nile Province” in their zikr ceremonies and she provides an illustration of an elderly dervish seen some years ago wearing a tagiya of a deep green broken up by occasional thin bands of red, and consisting of a tall tassel-topped central peak or dome (qubba), flanked by a smaller dome or “horn” on each side.
Left, the elegantly ornate tagiya um garnen of a Mahdist emir, exhibited at the Khalifa’s House, Omdurman, headwear also worn by Funj cavalrymen. Right, a zikr worshipper at Hamed El-Nil wearing a single domed tagiya, known as tagiya al-gubba.
Below, a colonial-era tagiya, displayed at Khartoum’s Ethnographic Museum.
Below, more vivid and joyful versions of the Sudanese tagiya.
It’s All About the Turban
El Tayib observes that while those of or aspiring to ulama (religious authority) status would often wear a turban wrapped around a “stiff, red fez”, legendary Sudanese religious and political rivals, Sayed Abdel Rahman Al-Mahdi and Sayed Ali Al Mighrani adopted the use of the exclusive “stiff embroidered tagiya called meccawiya and only acquirable from the Hijaz”.
Perhaps the most endearing of El Tayib’s many fascinating descriptions of Sudanese turbans is that of the “galawoz”, a favourite of ” young men about town” but considered “vulgar by their elders”, and where the turban cloth is twisted tightly round itself and piled onto the head, creating the screw-like shape which gives the turban its name. Here, she tells us, “the tagiya tends to be squeezed and screwed-up and tips out precariously at the top of this arrangement.
The tartur formal turban, now only “retained by the guards of the People’s Palace and some bank messengers” is a turban kept already assembled before use and requires its own special conical tagiya for the turban to rest upon.
As mentioned above, it is “the texture and bite” of the tagiya that forms a secure anchor for almost all regional and religious versions of the Sudanese turban. Learn more about the turban in this short interview, linked below and subtitled in English, with artist and textile designer, Rashid Diab.
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