What is that felted wool headgear once worn in most countries of the Muslim world? Chechia, fez or tarbouch, its name, shape and color vary from country to country.
Fez or tarbouchs at the top,
chechias at the bottom © Chwaya
Origins and differences between chechia, fez and tarbouch
Its origin is uncertain. Some say it came from Kairouan in Tunisia, others from the city of Shesh (now Tashkent) in Uzbekistan and others from Andalusia. The Turkish fez, meanwhile, would come from Greece. But is there not a common origin?
In Tunisia, the headgear that has become a national symbol is the chechia. It is vermilion red, simple and low, smaller than the Turkish fez or the Syrian and Lebanese tarbouch which goes up and which is decorated with a black tassel. The chechia also exists in other countries such as Libya where it is dyed black.
Today that headgear is on the way out. After its ban by Ataturk in Turkey, its abandonment by Nasser in Egypt, and globalization which means that current generations no longer dress in the traditional way, it is hardly worn on a daily basis. A few elderly people still wear the chechia, but this is becoming increasingly rare.
The chaouachis of Tunis: last makers
There are therefore hardly any makers of artisanal fezs in the Muslim world, except in Tunis where a handful of irresistible makers still exist. They are called chaouachis, a profession exercised by the notables of the medina of Tunis in the souk of chechias (souk el chaouachine).
Photograph of the chachia souk of Tunis at the beginning of the 20th century.
This profession flourished for centuries and the chaouachis belonged to the high social category of Tunis. In 1947, the city of Tunis had 480 chaouachis. Today, only a handful of manufacturers survive. They export 90% of their production to the entire Muslim world and particularly to Libya, African countries and Turkey.
While demand has fallen sharply, the job of chaouachi has not changed and still demands the same requirements. It is a very organized profession and regulated by law. To become a chaouachi master, it is imperative to have been an apprentice for years and then to have the approval of his master as well as the certificate of the chef of the souk el chaouachine. It's a job that requires a lot of know-how and years of experience.
Workshop of a chaouachi in the medina of Tunis - © Chwaya
The making stages
To reach its final state, the chechia follows a long circuit. First of all, women from the south of Tunisia knit very large caps of white wool with wide stitches at home. The hats are then passed from house to house: some women specialize in holes, others in knots and others in embroidery of the "brand" of chaouachi. The chaouachi then assembles the cups two by two, one inside the other and ties them together, then sends them to the Al Battan factory 30 km from Tunis. There is only one factory for all chaouachis. If it were to close, it would mean the disappearance of the traditional headgear. In this factory, large caps of white wool are soaked and massaged in large vats of hot soapy water. This step makes the cups shrink and the stitches disappear.
The caps are then sent dry and hard to the chaouachi which takes care of the carding which will give them a felted appearance. Next comes the dyeing step, followed by shaping around clay cylinders that vary in size depending on whether you want to make a fez or a fez / tarbouch. The color also varies. Fezs destined for Libya and African countries are dyed black.
On the right, the chechias in the initial state: large knitted caps in white wool. On the left, the clay cylinders used to mold the chechia - © Chwaya
Today, the chechia is an artisanal product in great demand among tourists in Tunisia. However, fake industrial chechias at a lower price qualified as "carpets" by the chaouachis, invade the market. At this rate, how long can the chaouachi profession continue?