Steeped in ritual and significance The qarqush, Yemen’s traditional headdress

Published on 4 July 2013 in Culture
Amal Al-Yarisi (writer), Amal Al-Yarisi (photographer)

Amal Al-Yarisi


Amal Al-Yarisi

In rural areas the qarqush is still worn, in Sana’a, its an increasingly rare sight.

In rural areas the qarqush is still worn, in Sana’a, its an increasingly rare sight.

“I remember when all the girls in Old Sana’a would put a qarqush on their heads,” Amat Al-Razaq Jahaf, the head of the Sana’ani Heritage House, recalls.

That was decades ago, though. Today, she says, it’s only a handful of girls in Yemen’s dwindling Jewish community that don the traditional Yemeni headdress.

Qarqush is a kind of head covering that made out of colored fabric—usually cotton or satin—and decorated with silver, coral and shells. The garment has ancient, perhaps pre-Islamic roots.

In the past, a young woman would wear the qarqush everywhere—both inside and outside the home—and only remove the headdress on the night of her marriage.

Um Mohammed, a housewife from Sana’a, wore the headware when she was a young woman.

Her mother was adamant; Um Mohammed should always wear the qarqush. She didn’t mind her mother’s insistence, though because Um Mohammed always thought that it made her more beautiful.

It wasn’t just aesthetically attractive, it also served a social purpose—it let young suitors know who was married and who was looking for a husband.

“Now, we can’t distinguish the married girls from the unmarried ones,” Um Mohammed says. “Everyone puts on the same clothes outside and inside the house.”

The wearing—and the final removal—of the qurqush were highly ritualized and symbolic.

When the girl was taken to her husband’s house for the first time—accompanied by trilling cries of joy —the qarqush is taken off and replaced with a scarf.   

One won’t see the qurqush on the street, but at the Sana’ani Hertiage House, a collection of the headdresses is on display.

There was never just one design. Each region of the country would have its own distinct take on the qurqush, Jahaf explains.

Some are short, and others are long. Girls in nomadic areas such as Marib and Al Jawf used to put on long, flowing qarqush. Girls in Sana’a and other mountainous areas preferred shorter models.

The qarqush worn by Yemeni Jews girl is distinguished by its coral and silver embroidery.  

“Only the Jewish girls in Yemen—and the ones who left for Israel—sill put the qarqush on. The Yemeni Jews are proud of their tradition.”

Even if more modern styles may be pushing out the old Yemeni tradition, Jahaf says that it won’t disappear so easily. Traditions, she says, are persistent.

Today, Yemeni brides celebrate for days leading up to their wedding, during which they will don a white wedding dress.

One of these celebration days, Jahaf says, might be dedicated to the qarqush. The headdress may have lost some of its symbolic significance, but Jahaf says, women will still wear it.

“It makes them more beautiful,” she says.