Origin of the Shemagh Desert Scarf

The Arabian desert scarf is known by names. Keffiyeh, gutra (or qutra), shemagh are just a few of the names people have given this versatile piece of cloth. They say “Necessity is the mother of invention”, in the case of the shemagh, it is true. The desert scarf can be traced back to when humans began to travel the desert. The desert is a very harsh place to visit, let alone live. Therefore, people created clothing that fit the needs and lifestyle of living in the desert. The shemagh, tunic top and thobe are some of the byproducts of human civilization which found a way in the desert. As T.E. Lawrence once said, “Bedouin ways were hard even for those brought up to them, and for strangers, terrible: a death in life.” T.E. Lawrence, or Lawrence of Arabia, experienced first hand the struggles of desert dwelling. He knew the harsh realities that Arabs faced; In his books and pictures, you will see him wear the native clothing of Arabs as a necessity to survive in these environments.

Some believe that the modern shemagh originates from the Jewish prayer scarf. While it may be true that Arabs adopted the idea of the scarf from Jewish Arabs, the design and use of the shemagh scarf is very different. The shemagh, as it is today, was a common piece of cloth during the time of the Prophet Muhammad. Therefore, the shemagh is still worn today in respect and appreciation of the centuries old fashion. The scarf has evolved into a fashion and status symbol rather than a practical gear for travel. However, American and British soldiers receive a standard issue desert scarf for tactical use in harsh desert climates. Therefore, there is still a valid reason to own and use a shemagh if you happen to visit or live in Desert regions of the world.

Why Do People Wear Shemagh

As stated previously, the shemagh was invented as necessary means of protection for those who travel through the desert. The shemagh has many many uses because of the simple straightforward design.

Face Mask: The shemagh can be used as a face mask to protect the wearer from heatstroke and sand blasts.

Hobo Sack: It can be used a makeshift sack to carry certain items as necessary.

Sling: It can be a sling for your arm in the invent you injure it and need to immobilize it.

Blanket: Desert nights are often freezing cold, therefore, the shemagh can keep you warm if needed.

Towel: The cloth used in shemagh have a peculiarly quick wicking time, that means you can use it to wipe sweat or water and not worry about needing to dry it out.

Sarong: It can be wrapped around the waist like a sarong if some modesty is required.

Heat Gloves: You can use it as a heat sink when dealing with extremely hot items such as a pot or metal tin.

Pillow: The ample cloth and foldability allows you to create a makeshift pillow to lay your head on when you have no bed to rest in.

Filter: In extreme conditions, the shemagh can filter out large sediments and debris from questionable water before you boil. Since it dries quickly, you can quickly use it once it is filtered.

These are just some of uses for your shemagh. The more you wear it, the more uses you will find for it.

Aside from practical use of the shemagh, the scarf has a very deep religious and cultural status. This is especially true in the Arabian peninsula. The shemagh or gutra has a deep and respected heritage for Muslims in Arabia. The shemagh is worn by almost every Imam or Sheikh who studies Islam. This is because Muslims believe that the shemagh was also worn by Prophet Muhammad during his time. Although the material and quality of the cloth may have changed since then, the leaders of Islamic faith still adorn this cloth with a kufi, thobe and egal to complete the dignified outfit of a knowledgeable man of Islam. This kind of symbolism can also be witnessed in the Jewish faith, where a rabi will wear a shawl or scarf as prescribed by the Jewish principals.

It is not uncommon to see political leaders in Arabia wear a shemagh as well. In fact, almost every image of the monarchs of Arabia are seen wearing the same black shroud, white thobe, white kufi, red shemagh and egal. This has become the attire of the dignified as it symbolizes modesty, piety and humility. Although the attire does not necessarily cause the wearer to have these noble qualities, it adds a level of respect and admiration similar to the suit and tie in western culture. It is also common to see more than one style of shemagh in the Middle East. Each country has its own iconic colors or wrapping style which sets it apart from the the other country. For example, Palestinian scarves are culturally black and white with green and red accents to resemble the flag. The Omani shemagh is similar to the Saudi shemagh, however, Omani shemagh is wrapped like a turban, whereas, Saudis simply drape it over their whole body and wear it like a hoodie. It is interesting to see all the ways people wear the scarf. There is no rule or limit to where and how you want to wear a shemagh. See for yourself how useful they are.

1 thought on “Origin of the Shemagh Desert Scarf”

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