What's up with Muammar Qaddafi's hats?

What's up with Muammar Qaddafi's hats?

What's up with Muammar Qaddafi's hats?

Answers to your questions about the news.
April 20 2011 5:57 PM

Qaddafi's Hat

What's up with the Libyan dictator's headgear?

Qaddafi. Click image to expand.
Muammar Qaddafi

The tumult in Libya has treated news hounds to countless images of leader Muammar Qaddafi, many of which show him wearing a round black hat pulled most of the way down his forehead. Is that kind of hat popular among Libyans?

Yes. Qaddafi's hat is a traditional Libyan variant of the North African fez called a checheya. The more familiar, red, tassel-topped look is common in Tunisia and Egypt, where it's called a tarboosh. The checheya is shorter, and never includes the tassel. It's worn low, touching or almost touching the top of the head. The version that Qaddafi has been photographed with during the recent conflict is the heavy, woolen type designed for winter. During the hotter months, many Libyans switch over to a lighter cotton model.

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While Qaddafi is famous for wearing outlandish ensembles—Time magazine published an amusing pictorial—the outfits are part of his message. For the first decade of his rule, which began in 1969, he rarely wore the checheya. He preferred to emphasize his military credentials, and sported full dress uniform at formal events, including a MacArthur-style cap.

Once his power was better established, Qaddafi pushed the notion that he was separate from and above the military and political establishment. Rather than referring to himself as colonel or president, he insisted on al-qa'id al'mu'allim, or "leader and guide." During this era, bedouin robes and the checheya became more regular features of his wardrobe, adding a populist touch. (Not one to fall into a fashion rut, Qaddafi still goes military on occasion.)

When he's feeling pan-African, Qaddafi adopts a West African look. The mustard-colored robes he wore to the 2009 summit of the African Union, for example, are his take on the grand boubou. His hat looks more like a West African kufi than the checheya. While the outfit isn't entirely alien to North Africa, it's very rare to see a modern Libyan man in a boubou. This aesthetic is part of Qaddafi's campaign to build a continent-wide base of power among African leaders; he styles himself as the African king of kings.

Leaders in the Muslim world have long recognized the symbolic power of the fez. According to travel writer Jeremy Seal's book, A Fez of the Heart: Travels around Turkey in Search of a Hat, the Western-influenced Ottoman sultan Mahmud II decreed in the 1820s that most of his subjects replace the traditional Turkish turban with the fez. While the Ottomans initially resisted, the fez eventually became ubiquitous. Over the following century, the meaning of the hat flipped: In 1925, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, president of the new Republic of Turkey, banned the red chapeau for being uncivilized. (Ataturk himself was partial to the Panama hat.) More than 800 violators were arrested, and 57 executed.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Ali Abdullatif Ahmida of the University of New England and Abubaker Saad of Western Connecticut State University.

Brian Palmer covers science and medicine for Slate.