The Shemagh: The heart of Saudi men’s fashion

Ask anyone wearing one and they’ll tell you the Shemagh’s original function was to shade one’s head from the sun but this unassuming square of fabric has since gone on to become a striking fashion statement that took the world by storm. Of course, we are referring here to the Keffiyeh.

December 13, 2013
The Shemagh: The heart of Saudi men’s fashion
The Shemagh: The heart of Saudi men’s fashion

Mohammed Alshoaiby

Saudi Gazette

Ask anyone wearing one and they’ll tell you the Shemagh’s original function was to shade one’s head from the sun but this unassuming square of fabric has since gone on to become a striking fashion statement that took the world by storm. Of course, we are referring here to the Keffiyeh.

Though slightly different, the Keffiyeh went from a symbol of solidarity to a trend that took off across the globe. Sold everywhere from H&M to Armani, a Keffiyeh draped around the shoulders was the dominant Autumn and Winter look for both sexes worldwide. And with the Middle East becoming increasingly more globalized, particularly in bustling Gulf metropolises like Jeddah, Dubai, Doha, and Riyadh, the world is turning its attention to another kind of Arabia, one the Shemagh represents in its princely elegance.

The Shemagh is worn throughout the Arab world, and varies slightly by region. For example, the Shemaghs worn by Saudis, Kuwaitis, Emiratis and Qataris are almost identical in every way, whereas those worn in Yemen, Oman, Iraq, Jordan, and Palestine are usually woven with heavier threads and might even be made of different materials.

In the Gulf, the primary types of headgear are the Shemagh and the Ghotra, the latter is made of mild, white cotton, and is usually smooth in texture. The Shemagh is also made of cotton, but has a distinctive pattern woven on the cloth, and can come in many different colors, but in the Gulf, the most common are red and white. The pattern itself is said to have originated in Mesopotamien-era Arabia as a representation of fishing nets, or types of crop.

As Saudi culture grew more affluent and the economy became more globalized, Shemagh designers turned to England to develop an industry and give their product a foreign flavor. The result was a more refined version of the traditional Shemagh into the one we see today. Luxury brands now bevel their products with silver and platinum, some brands pride themselves on their trademark red hue, while others boast functionality with better friction when wearing an Egal.

Taking Saudi culture into consideration, the thobe and the Shemagh are necessary items in the Saudi man’s wardrobe and are a required uniform when visiting government buildings. In colloquial terms, the Shemagh has become a symbol of manhood, particularly among teenagers who have to wait until they graduate from highschool to wear an Egal with their Shemaghs and pull off different looks. These “looks” are known in Saudi dialect as “Tashkheesa”. The word is difficult to translate into English, but it has the same connotations as “suit-up” but with different ways of wearing the suit. To apply the Tashkheesa mentality to something like a suit, it would mean the decision one would take when choosing which knot to use when tying a tie or how to match with a handkerchief and so on – turning something so uniform, into something personal. The choice of a Tashkheesa varies greatly depending on material, occasion, accompanying clothes, and even the wearer’s mood.

The first choice in wearing a Shemagh comes down to whether or not to wear an Egal with it. Wearing an Egal is the most commonly accepted way of wearing a Shemagh in modern Saudi Arabia. It is widely speculated that the Egal was originally reminiscent of a crown, and accepted as such by the people of in what is now the Kingdom. During that time, common folk wore the Shemagh without an Egal, while the Egal remained a highly exclusive item for Sheikhs and tribe leaders. Nowadays this has translated into a sense of humility in those who are devowed followers of Sunnah to wear the Shemagh sans Egal. However, that story may, for all we know, be false, as the fabled fabric’s history is shrouded in its tightly-knit fibers.

With an Egal, the Shemagh becomes more stationary and allows for personalization – which happens to be another possible translation for the word Tashkheesa. Some represent youthfulness, others represent masculinity, while others are dependent on the occasion and the mood of the wearer. Evidently, the Shemagh has become a symbol of the Saudi man, with so much more to it than meets the eyes. It has cemented itself as a pillar of high fashion in Saudi Arabia, while at the same time finding its way into all walks of Saudi life.

Three essential Shemagh styles:


Back in 2009, Saudi journalist and Twitter personality Ahmed Al-Omran, wrote a post on his blog “Saudi Jeans” titled “How to Wear a Ghotra.” As the title suggests, Al-Omran explains, step-by-step, to the reader how the Shemagh (or Ghotra) are worn and what styles to consider. Here at Saudi Gazette, we’ve shortlisted three of the most essential styles fit for any occasion.

1. Sager (Hawk)

Al-Omran’s site refers to this one as “Eagle,” and while both these birds of prey have donated their namesake to this style, it is their majesty and elegance that both birds share that represent this style. Take one end and throw it over the opposite shoulder, then take the other end and throw it over the same shoulder (e.g. throw the right end over left shoulder, and the left end over left shoulder). Simple and effective, this style is suitable at formal occasions and common at social gatherings. Keep in mind though, this style can be quite stuffy during the summer.

2. The Butterfly

Though the name may be effeminate, the names of these Tashkheesas are never decided upon nor coined, but a few message boards do refer to it as such. This is another simple style: take the left end and throw it behind your back, then take the right end and guide it behind your back and over your left shoulder. Fluff the sides up, allowing the face to sit well framed and bring the top slightly down. When done right, this can be an edgy and youthful look but still suitable for all types of functions. It can also be the best in terms of mobility, with a simple trick like taking the front end and tucking it between your thobe buttons.

3. Bint Al-Bakkar (“Daughter of Bakkar”)

No one’s really sure who Bint Al-Bakkar is, or if she ever existed, or what the story behind the naming of this Tashkheesa is. Some have debated in the past that this Tashkheesa should not be worn with an Egal but it has become very common with the youth to take the other side of that debate. The result was a glaring fashion statement that is both bold and striking. Bint Al-Bakkar is a complex style, it involves taking both ends and giving them a twist before folding them over the head and letting the ends dangle down. With a red Shemagh, this style creates a beautiful contrast when the usually hidden white bevels shine in the forefront over the head. This might be the most difficult to pull off but with practice one can achieve a look of princely charm.

December 13, 2013
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