10 July 2012
Any Rubie who has read The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy understands the importance of the towel. For the benefit of those one or two Rubies unfamiliar with the significance of the towel, I take the liberty of quoting from the text:
"A towel... is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have... you can wrap it around you for warmth as you bound across the cold moons of Jaglan Beta; you can lie on it on the brilliant marble-sanded beaches of Santraginus V, inhaling the heady sea vapours; you can sleep under it beneath the stars which shine so redly on the desert world of Kakrafoon; use it to sail a mini raft down the slow heavy river Moth; wet it for use in hand-to-hand-combat; wrap it round your head to ward off noxious fumes or to avoid the gaze of the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal (a mindbogglingly stupid animal, it assumes that, if you can't see it, it can't see you - daft as a bush, but very ravenous); you can wave your towel in emergencies as a distress signal, and of course dry yourself off with it if it still seems to be clean enough."
By the standards of the "Hitchhiker's Guide", your average Rubie falls into the category of "one Hoopy Frood who knows where his towel is."
The towel is a supremely useful item to have handy; yet there is another which is, if anything, more useful and handier still. It is an ancient garment developed by the Arabs known variously as a shemagh, yashmagh, keffiyeh or any of several other equally exotic regional names. These names all describe the same thing, to wit: a square of relatively thick muslin about 43 inches square, two sides of which are fringed and knotted.
They are nearly anything your imagination can conjure.
I've seen the shemagh worn variously as headgear and a scarf. The Iraqis tend to use them as scarves more often than as headgear. The scarf requires no description. As headgear, they seldom wear their shemaghs "desert ninja" style, or even after the fashion of Yasser Arafat or Rudy Valentino's "Sheik of Araby" caricature. Rather, they sort of bunch and wrap them up in a random way. They look like nothing so much as a slovenly cross between a Yorkshire charwoman's head rag and a Canadian fur-trapper's toque.
The Wikipedia entry from which this photo was taken says this is a "Yemenite Jew
wearing Keffiyeh." Whether he is or isn't a "Yemenite Jew" is anyone's guess, but that's
a shemagh he's wearing. This is also "sort-of" how the Iraqis tend to wear their
shemaghs when they wear them on their heads, though the Iraqis are not nearly so tidy...
Shemagh as Bedouin Headdress, combined with "agal" or head circlet
(T.E. Lawrence, al-Jiddah, Arabia 1917)...
Unlike the silly ceremonial belt-dagger (I own one and, while fearsome in appearance, it's about as much use as a rock-candy teacup), the circlet around the shemagh in the photo above is not mere adornment. Capt. Lawrence's shemagh looks like it's riding so high because he has a wad of wetted cotton on top of his head, covered by the shemagh and held in place by the circlet. Keeps the body quite cool by evaporation – I've tried this downrange and it works surprisingly well. This trick is of no use in humid climates, of course.
Shemagh as scarf – it's also how the Iraqis tend to wear theirs
(hipster, New York City, 2010)...
Shemagh as "desert ninja"- a mode of wear I have never personally observed on an Arab.
(internet dork, posed catalogue photo, date unknown)...
If I had to guess, I'd say the "desert ninja" thing is a fashion copied over from the British military. When Arabs wear a shemagh around their head and face, they tend to wrap it rather more tightly than this loose arrangement. American Soldiers are seldom seen wearing their shemaghs like this.
This article will not go into the various ethnic, tribal and geopolitical contexts in which shemaghs are worn; I'm a Soldier and a land surveyor, not an anthropologist. By way of advice, however, the globe-trotting Rubie would do well to note that, in Arab countries, it is traditionally a male garment and often symbolizes citizenship or religious affiliation.
The preceding blanket statement is, of course, a gross over-generalization. I myself have seen men in Arab countries wearing shemaghs in colors and arrangements which I knew did not connect directly with them. From my own experience Arabs tend to wear what they prefer, for reasons which appear sufficient to them. If there is a penalty for an Arab man wearing the wrong pattern or in the wrong manner, I don't know of it, nor do I know how or even if such a proscription is enforced.
There is one exception. A white shemagh is worn as a mark of distinction by one who has made his Hajj pilgrimage to the Qibla temple in Mecca. Those who have not made the arduous trek and endured the crush of the yearly crowd of faithful will, by custom, not wear a white shemagh.
This openness and elasticity of policy applies only to Arab men, however. For us Westerners, it is a different story; wear it wrong or wear the wrong color/pattern in the Middle East at your own risk. For us kafiri, if we must wear a shemagh, it is far better to have one in a neutral or obviously unaffiliated color; earth tones, for example, or colors like the pinkish-purplish one worn by the hipster above. It is better still to do so only when surrounded by a bunch of other Westerners – preferably horribly beweaponed Westerners. The statement that you can get farther with a kind word and a gun (or several hundred friends with guns) than you can with a kind word is no less true in the Arab world than it is anywhere else.
I've used my shemagh as:
a towel (see introduction),
a place to put rifle parts after I've cleaned them,
a lightweight "throw" blanket in an over-air-conditioned bus or airport terminal,
a scarf as above,
a neck-kerchief (not "desert ninja" fashion),
a cover for my head and face when napping while waiting on a flight-line for a helicopter (keeps sun, sand and insects off),
wrapping my things up similar to a hobo's "bindle,"
a place to set my lunch while I'm eating al fresco,
a dishrag/towel for after the al fresco meal,
a dust mask while on convoy, and
A shemagh as a pillow? Yes, sort of. It might be better to say the shemagh is used in making up an expedient pillow about the size of a sofa throw. It's made of bulky, soft clothing, using the shemagh to wrap everything up in a sort of envelope. The scanned sketches below will explain:
Done right, your pillow will not look like a dough-ball as I've drawn – it will in fact be a
very workmanlike oblong about 14" wide by 10" tall by 6" thick...
This pillow has the advantage over simply sleeping on wadded-up clothing of actually keeping its shape and firmness while you sleep, whereas bundled-up clothing tends to un-bundle and get away from you, forcing you to wake up in the middle of the night to try to rearrange it in the dark. There is none of this with the shemagh pillow. It is every bit as comfortable as a dedicated pillow, and since it's made up of items you're using elsewhere anyway, there is an economy of space.
There are as many uses for a shemagh as there are uses for, well, a 43" square of soft cotton cloth. They are to the current generation of American Soldier what the green cotton triangular bandage – known for ages as a "drive-on rag" – was to that generation of Soldiers for whom the word "jungle" denoted all that was high-speed or clever. Emily and I both have one in our "Just-In-Case" bags, though we both take them out and use them as scarves when the occasion calls for it (hers is of course more fashionable than mine). I'm sure you can think of more uses yourself, and I would love to hear of them.
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