This cultural travel illustration is inspired by my trips to old souks and handcraft hubs across ten countries in the Middle East and North Africa (the MENA region). The truth is, I used to be seriously obsessed with organic looking leather sandals that are handmade and often untanned. Although this too is a footwear fetish many women the world over are known for, mine was about the humbler, more down to earth variety.
This obsession led me to reserve at least one afternoon during my trips to Casablanca, Cairo, Damascus, and Istanbul, with the sole purpose of buying a pair of handmade leather sandals or Balghas (North African closed toed leather slippers) as that was my special me-time ritual for really enjoying the summer.
For this episode of Illustrated Travel Stories, I didn’t do any research. I didn’t even look for reference photos or articles. The slippers, clogs and sandals illustrated here are pretty much etched in my memory. That’s how much I am mesmerised by them!
Let’s start with my favourite one, then!
I’ve seen this closed toed, pointed slipper ever since I was a kid, simply because my ancestors are originally Moroccan, and we still have relatives who live there. I had my first pair of Balgha slippers when I visited Casablanca a few years ago. Those come in a variety of colours and embellishments; some are tasselled, while others are etched or plain. I truly regret not getting more of those.
One lesson I learnt is not to wash them during wintertime, as they tend to rot if they stay moist for a long time. The souk offers three kinds of Balgha slippers: Feminine, masculine, and super-embellished ones worn by brides on their wedding day.
The Egyptian version of the Balgha is a round-toed slipper, which is also heel-less. This one is super comfy and, dare I say, trendy. I bought two Egyptian Balghas from downtown Cairo a few years ago, one was red, the other black. The black one was an instant hit. I wore it with a pair of jeans and everyone who saw it asked me if I had an extra pair to spare! Unlike the Moroccan version, these are pretty much unisex and both feminine and masculine sizes come in pretty much similar cuts and shapes.
An open toed slipper with a strap is called a Sundal, which pretty much means sandals. The “S” is pronounced differently as it has a heavier sound. In the Middle East and North Africa, it corresponds with the 14th letter of the Arabic alphabet, “Saad,” and not the “Seen” that usually corresponds with the Latin “S.” I have seen, and of course bought, Sundals from the old souks in Istanbul and Damascus. I’ve seen them in Jerusalem, but I’m not sure these handmade leather ones are found in North Africa. At least, I haven’t seen them there. Nor in Lebanon, come to think of it.
These are pretty much similar looking for both female and male varieties, with the difference in sizes.
Found mostly in Arabian Gulf states, like Saudi Arabia and the UAE, Shibshebs have made their way to surrounding markets in Jordan, Lebanon and the Levant. A traditional Shibshib is handmade from leather exclusively for men. There are no female versions of these one-toed slippers. Men in the Arabian Gulf area wear them with white Thobes (traditional male dresses) and a head cover that corresponds with their culture, called a Ghotra or Shemagh/Shmagh.
I’m not a fan of the Shibsheb; maybe because it reminds me of the patriarchal figures I have fought against all my life for my independence. Luckily, my husband doesn’t have one of those!
These flip-flops look a lot like the Japanese Geta slipper, only they don’t have a wooden sole. These rubber or plastic flip-flops became popular in the 90s and I think they’re imported. But I thought I’d include them here in my cultural travel illustration because they’re so popular for everyday wear among working-class families, and you can see them in almost every traditional souk in the Middle East. Some even make them from untanned leather. They’re called Zannouba in Jordan, but I’m not sure what other countries call them.
The same design is available in all sizes for men, women and children.
The word Khuff is an extremely old word in the Arabic language, and it refers to footwear that is made from leather. I have no idea what the ancient Khuff looked like, as it may have been a pair of sandals. But the ones I am including in this illustration are for indoor use and are made from really soft leather all around. They look like boots and come with a modern twist, a side zipper. Those are very, very rare. In fact, the ones I have were a gift, and I’m not sure where to get them from.
They’re worn indoors during wintertime and both women and men wear them. Some even wear them as socks underneath their outdoor boots.
There is a more embellished version of these bathroom wooden clogs in Turkey, where they have originated. But the ones most popular in Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan are understated ones that come with a top leather strap. Their soles and front and back heels are made from light-coloured wood. I also just remembered that village men in Lebanon still wear those as outdoor shoes with their traditional Shirwal pants (which Western fashion houses like to call Harem pants).
In Syria and Jordan, they’re used in public and private toilets that are referred to as Hammam Arabi as they don’t have a seated bidet. To prevent men’s and women’s pants or dresses from being soiled after going into the toilet, these clogs are elevated enough to avoid any contact with the floor.
These clogs also make a funny sound as you walk in them. They are in fact the staple “sound” of one of the Arab region’s most loved vintage TV characters, “Ghawwar el Toshi,” a famous Syrian on-screen vandal who rose to fame in the 70s.
I’m not sure when and how these vintage female versions of the wooden clog surfaced in the Levant. But I’ve seen them in a couple of old souks and they often come with a kitschy top strap with busy colours, and some times with golden beads and colourful cabochons. Young girls like to wear them and they seem to be popular among young women in weddings and other popular celebrations in working class neighbourhoods.
The Khulkhal or Kholkhal is a piece of jewellery worn around the ankle. Some have an extension that extends over the foot and embellishes the toes. Just like in India, brides used to wear these anklets in their traditional weddings, and they often embellished a hennaed foot. Khalakheel (plural for Khulkhal) are still popular in rural areas across the MENA region, but I think they started to become extinct in urban societies by the end of the 90s.
Those are also worn in pairs, and in Egypt working-class and rural women like to wear them on one foot. Generally-speaking, the stereotype is that the main purpose for wearing them is to radiate a seductive vibe towards the opposite sex. I have heard my grandmother say that newly-wedded young women used to wear them under their long robes in the olden days.
I hope you liked today’s cultural travel illustration. On my agenda, I have similar illustrations in the pipeline, so stay tuned for more!
Cultural travel illustration & lifestyle illustration by illustrator and artist Yaansoon