Before his father died, he made a promise to carry on the family business started by his grandfather over a hundred years ago. The business of the family is the fez, or as it’s called in Egypt, the tarbouche. Buried deep within Cairo’s frenetic, market alleys just off the famous Khan al-Khalili bazaar, the small Al-Tarbishi storefront factory continues to handcraft the iconic tarbouche. While attitudes in Egypt towards the tarbouche have changed dramatically in the past couple hundred years, time stands still in the Al-Tarbishi factory, the last remaining fez maker in Cairo and indeed all of Egypt.
The tarbouche is the familiar-looking, truncated cone hat made of red felt that is topped with a black tassel. Its origins are somewhat of a mystery but its rise to prominence started during the Ottoman Empire in 1826, when the sultan Mahmud II decreed that all males should wear the hat. At that time, the tarbouche symbolized Ottoman modernity and the brimless hat was perfect for Muslims when they pressed their forehead to the ground for daily prayers. In 19th century Egypt, Muhammad Ali Pasha mandated the tarbouche as required headgear for Egyptian males. During the 19th and early 20th centuries, most men in Morocco, Egypt, Turkey and Syria proudly wore a fez or tarbouche.
Its decline began in 1925 in Turkey, when Mustafa Kemal Attaturk outlawed the fez in his successful efforts to make Turkey a more modern and secular country. Egypt followed suit in the post-revolution 1950’s. “Before the 1952 revolution the tarbouche business was much bigger,” says Mohammed. Indeed, hardly anyone wears the tarbouche in Egypt these days and the al-Tarbishi business is a fraction of what it was prior to the 1952 Egyptian revolution. Mohammed’s principal livelihood is as an engineering consultant, but he continues to keep the factory going and he looks in on it a few days a week. He apprenticed in the shop while in school and university from the time he was 15 to the time he was 27. While his grandfather started the business and he and his father have carried it on, the future is uncertain. “My son doesn’t want to continue the business. When I retire…,” and he leaves off with a shrug and rueful smile.
Mohammed walks over and displays the raw materials, which are now all made in Egypt, but during the business’ heyday were imported: felt for the outer surface of the cap (previously from Austria and Czechoslovakia), woven straw for the interior padding (previously from Greece), leather for the interior headband (previously from Belgium) and silk for the black tassel (previously from Lebanon).
He continues over to the waga, the large tarbouche press that takes up almost a quarter of his dusty thirty-five by fifteen foot storefront factory. The waga looks like an oversized brass stovetop upon which rest three large hand-tightened presses. Each press has a large handle on top that hand-cranks pressure downward onto the forms – which in turn resemble two upside-down, brass pails that nest on top on one another. With heads coming in all sizes, the factory needs to keep quite a few sizes of brass molds on hand. One of his workers, Ramadan, works at the waga heating the molds that shape both the inner straw padding and outer felt surface of the hat. The inner form is hollow and Ramadan heats it on the waga’s stovetop. “The mold is heated to 90 degrees (Celsius) and there is no thermometer on the waga,” says Mohammed. As he says this, Ramadan gauges the heat by licking his fingers and briefly touching the waga. He does this a couple times until he is satisfied that he’s got the right temperature. “If the temperature is more than 90 degrees,” says Mohammed, “the felt will burn. He knows what he’s doing; he’s been doing it for 40 years.” Once the inner straw and outer felt are formed they are allowed to cool and are sewn together with the antiquated Singer sewing machine next to the waga. The waga is so old that the manufacturer died 50 years ago, leaving Mohammed and his staff to improvise repairs on the ancient machine. The waga sits on a track so that the press can be partially rolled outside when it gets too hot.
“It takes about three hours to make one tarbouche,” offers Mohammed. “If I sell one hat to a tourist it will cost one hundred Egyptian pounds (about $18) but these days we only sell a couple per month. Before the revolution we sold many, many times that amount each month,” he says. With demand for the tarbouche down to a trickle, it is only orders for similar-looking religious caps from nearby Cairo schools that keep the business afloat. “There are a few workshops that sell to tourists in Cairo, but we are the last factory.” When Mohammed al-Tarbishi retires, a long Egyptian tradition may retire with him.
You can buy a tarbouche from Mr. al-Tarbishi at his storefront factory on 36 Alghoria Street, which runs between Khan al-Khalili bazaar and the Bab Zuweila citadel.