How a Family is Keeping an Almost-Forgotten Part of Cairo’s Rich Heritage Alive

How a Family is Keeping an Almost-Forgotten Part of Cairo’s Rich Heritage Alive
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Muhammad El-Baset trimming a customer’s Fezze in his shop in Cairo, Egypt. Photo: Lerato Mogoatlhe, bird story agency

Muhammad El-Baset jumps up from his chair to meet a customer who has walked into his shop. They exchange a few words before Mohammed takes the man’s fez, the flat-topped, conical red hat that was once ubiquitous in Egypt, North Africa, and the Middle East.

Even though the fez gets its name from the Moroccan city of Fez, home to a crimson-coloured berry used to create the dye that gives fezzes their vivid red colour, the hat has been a part of Cairo’s identity and culture for generations. El-Baset is determined to keep it that way.

“This is not just my livelihood and the story of my family; it is a source of pride for me. It has made me the man I am—hardworking and invested in keeping Cairo’s rich heritage alive for future generations,” he explained.

Inspecting the man’s tarboosh, as fezzes are called in Egypt, he trims its edges, then passes the hat to his brother Badr while turning his attention to a moulding machine, a one-plate gas stove, and some levers.

A customer has come in to collect a hat, while another five customers are waiting to get their hats stretched, trimmed, stitched, and steamed back into shape. The brothers work diligently and silently. Every stitch and cut must be precise.

“Nothing can be out of place. A good-quality fez should last a lifetime,” Muhammad said.

Muhammad El-Baset helping a customer put on his Fezze at the shop in Cairo, Egypt. Photo: Lerato Mogoatlhe, bird story agency

The hats cost between US$7 and US$20, depending on the quality of the felt used. The brothers sell between 50 and 70 fezzes per month. It takes 30 minutes to create a new hat.

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Selling jalabiyas, long-fitting robes worn across North Africa, supplements their income.

The men of the El-Baset family—Muhammad, Badr, and their father Nasser—are not just milliners. They are custodians of oral tradition and local history.

Cairo, home to the pyramids of Giza, some of Africa’s oldest and most magnificent mosques, and Al Azhar University, which opened in 970 CE and is still operational, is one of Africa’s most storied cities. You can enjoy coffee at a 1797-established cafe, dine at a restaurant that influenced Naguib Mahfouz, Egypt’s first recipient of the Nobel Prize for literature, shop at the 14th-century Khan el Khalili market, and stroll down Al Moez, one of Cairo’s oldest streets brimming with UNESCO World Heritage sites.

Fezzes on display in The El-Baset family’s shop in Cairo, Egypt. Photo: Lerato Mogoatlhe, bird story agency

Cairo, known as the city of a thousand minarets, is also a city of thousands of stories. Even the brother’s shop location in Old Cairo’s al-Ghoureya street is a connection to the city’s past.

General Mohammed Ali Pasha of the Ottoman Empire introduced Fezzes to Egypt when he became the country’s ruler in 1805. His grandson, Khedive Abbas I, made them the headgear of the day, worn by military officials, the political elite, religious leaders, and scholars at Al Azhar University.

At the height of their popularity, there were 2,000 fez shops supporting families like the El-Basets. It was common for up to 500 fezzes to be sold daily. Even French designer Coco Chanel was a fan and famously bought 2,000 hats.

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They fell out of style in 1952, when President Gamal Abdel Nasser banned them. He considered them a symbol of the Ottoman Empire’s colonial ruling class.

However, Muhammad and his family are determined to keep the tradition alive. His father operated the shop for more than 40 years after inheriting it from him. Every interior wall is a tribute to the store’s iconic status, with any surface not occupied by newspaper and magazine articles about Nasser and the shop pasted over by pictures of Nasser with some of his clients and their business cards.

Bamboo moulds are stacked next to and under tables and shelves, as well as rows and rows of ready-made fezzes.

Muhammad has been going to the store since he was six years old, initially coming almost every day after school to watch his father work.

Muhammad El-Baset helping a customer put on his Fezze at the shop in Cairo, Egypt. Photo: Lerato Mogoatlhe, bird story agency

From the initial step of measuring a client’s head to the final step of adding tassels to complete the hat, the process remains the same. After taking measurements, bamboo is woven into the structure of the hat, then stretched into shape using copper moulds.

There is always water on hand to spray the bamboo.

“This makes it easier to work with,” Muhammad explained.

The hat gets a silk lining once it is in a conical shape. Meanwhile, the felt is pulled and steamed into shape, then smeared with glue before it’s bound to the bamboo. Silk tassels are added as the final touch.

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There are three types of fezzes at Nasser Fez: the azharaa, which is named after and worn by religious leaders at Al Azhar University and mosque; the qari; and the effendi.

Today, the majority of those wearing fezzes are imams and students from Al Azhar, a short distance from the Nasser Fes.

The rest of society stopped wearing them after President Gamal Abdel Nasser banned them in the 1950s, and although they are coming back into style, it is cheaper to buy the mass-produced souvenirs imported from Asia that are sold to tourists or worn by waiters in restaurants at Khan el Khalili market to create an authentic Egyptian aesthetic.

The reputation of the brothers and their shop simply keeps growing.

“People say this (making fezzes) is dying, but I don’t think so. People come from different parts of the world to meet our family and see our work,” Mohammad said.

He makes sure all visitors leave with several hats.

bird story agency

Story Credit: Lerato Mogoatlhe for Bird Story Agency

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