Muslim Hat In Eclipse

March 22, 1995|By New York Times News Service

FEZ, Morocco -- In the Middle East it still matters what you wear on your head. The Sudanese have floppy turbans, the Palestinians red and black checkered kaffiyehs and the Saudis the white ghutra.

But the maroon, brimless fez, once the epitome of Old World courtesy and taste, has become, for most Muslims, politically incorrect.

"It's a hat of the oppressors," said Abdel Jouad, 26. "This is why no one wears it anymore."

Only the Moroccan royal court has resisted the Muslim world's onslaught against the fez. King Hassan II is the only Arab leader to wear it. And Cabinet ministers, the royal guard and the palace staff all sport the fez, although the staff members wear a floppy, conical-shaped fez that denotes their status.

No socially ambitious Moroccan man, hoping for an invitation to one of the king's dozen lavish palaces, would dare show up bareheaded at the gate. "In Morocco the fez was seen as a form of protest against the French occupation," said Chakib Laroussi, the director of the Ministry of Information. "To put on a fez was to make a statement that one was a nationalist. The fez has, for generations, been a symbol of the royal palace and part of our national dress."

The origins of the fez, which Moroccans call the tarboosh, are disputed.

The design may have come from ancient Greece or the Balkans. It gained wide acceptance in the early 19th century when the Ottoman rulers, who never actually controlled Morocco, moved to modernize traditional costumes. The brimless hat did not get in the way of a Muslim's daily prayers and was cleaner, and less cumbersome, than the folds of cloth wound into a turban.

The name fez is believed to come from this city, which once produced the dye, made from crimson berries, to color the hat.

But the fez fell on hard times after World War I with the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire. Ataturk outlawed the fez in 1925 as part of his drive to turn Turkey into a modern, Westernized state.

Men who wore the hat were imprisoned. The military officers who overthrew the monarchies in Iraq, Egypt and Libya condemned the fez as a royalist symbol. And changes in Western fashions left the chic in the Muslim world, like the chic in Europe, bareheaded.

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