This cultural travel illustration is inspired by my trips to old souks and handcraft hubs across several countries in the Levant, North Africa, and the Mediterranean. Traditional Middle East and North Africa footwear is a serious obsession of mine. In this spirit, this illustrated post is an ode to MENA Region’s intricately-handmade footwear.
Posted on: August 3, 2017 | Last Update: March 31, 2021
Truth is, I used to be seriously obsessed with organic-looking leather sandals and slippers that are handcrafted and often untanned. Although this is a footwear fetish known to many women the world over, mine was about the humbler, more down-to-earth variety. I’m actually rarely (if ever) into heels or modern footwear that look too frilly or pretentious. I guess it’s the nomad in me!
This footwear obsession led me to reserve at least one afternoon during my trips to Casablanca, Cairo, Damascus, and Istanbul, to the sole purpose of buying a pair of handmade leather sandals or Balghas (North African closed-toed leather slippers). This was my special “me time” ritual during those travels as I looked forward to my footwear adventures as if they were the sole purpose of the trip (no pun intended).
For this episode of Illustrated Travel Stories, I depended on my love for footwear and on research. At first, I didn’t even look for reference photos or articles. However, I learnt a great deal from researching museums and websites specialising in shoes (did you know there was a shoe museum in Canada?). For the most part, the slippers, wooden clogs and sandals illustrated here are pretty much etched in my memory. There are also a couple of footwear items that I found through research over the internet and which look absolutely mesmerising.
I’ve seen this closed toed and pointed slipper ever since I was a kid, simply because my ancestors are originally Moroccan. I had my first pair of Sharbil slippers when I visited Casablanca a few years ago. Sharbil is the female version of Balgha. They come in a variety of colours and embellishments. Some are tasselled, while others have Moroccan motifs etched into the leather, and there are those that are just plain. I truly regret not getting more of these beautiful Babouches while on my trips to Morocco and Algeria. One lesson I’ve learnt is not to wash them during wintertime, as they tend to rot if they stay moist for a long time. As mentioned earlier, the souks in Morocco offer four kinds of slippers: The feminine Sharbil, the masculine Balgha, super-embellished Sharbils worn by brides on their wedding day, and bright and colourful Amazigh slippers with pompoms and beautiful traditional embellishments.
Moroccan Men’s Balgha
The men’s artisanal Moroccan Balgha comes in larger sizes than the women’s Sharbil. The Sharbil seems to have a wider sole, while the men’s Balgha is a bit dramatically longer and pointier. These flat slippers are made from leather and are part of the traditional dress of the Maghreb region in North Africa. Balgha (also pronounced as Balga, Belgha, or Belga) is worn by men of all social classes, both in urban and rural areas. They are priced reasonably in souks dotting Morocco and are now-a-days considered as a cultural icon that trademarks the Moroccan home-grown aesthetic and style.
The Egyptian version of the Balgha is a closed-toed flat slipper that comes to a round-ish point. It’s usually made from soft leather and looks to me like the grandparent of the modern “ballerina.” The one in this illustration is super comfy and, dare I say, trendy. I bought two Egyptian Balghas from downtown Cairo a few years ago. One was red and the other black. The black one was an instant hit with my friends and acquaintances. I wore it with denim pants and everyone who saw it asked me if I had an extra pair to spare! Unlike the Moroccan version, these are mostly unisex and both feminine and masculine sizes come in pretty much similar cuts and shapes. I did some research about them the other day and discovered these Egyptian slippers can be found in museums like The Met, especially since the ones on display hail back to the 19th century. The slippers in this artwork are made with brown leather and look absolutely fabulous.
Moroccan Amazigh Balgha from Tafraout
The Berber-Amazigh inhabitants of Tafrout (or Tafroute) are known for their colourful, pompom-studded slippers and their distinguished designs. Tafraout is a town in the Tiznit Province, part of the Souss-Massa region in Morocco. This town is home to some of the most exciting handcrafted Balghas I’ve ever seen. Made with traditional vegetable-based leather tanning, these Berber slippers are unmistakably African with their triangular motifs and hand-stitching techniques. They sport a wide array of colours and designs made for men, women, and children. Most importantly, they can be worn as shoes or as slippers – thanks to their longer than usual “heel tab.” The tab can simply be tucked inside the shoes if the wearer wishes to turn them into slippers.
The Tuareg Sandals look a lot like traditional flip-flops found in the Senegal. They come in a variety of bright or earthy colours and are made with animal skins and hides. To be honest, I’ve never seen one in person, but scouring the internet I came across them the other day and was really intrigued by the way they looked. They have a wide sole with stitched top straps, lending them a distinct look. I hope one day I will get the chance to visit the beloved tribe of the Tuareg and maybe get my hands on a colourful pair!
Found mostly in Arabian Gulf states like Saudi Arabia and the UAE, Shibshibs or Shibshebs have made their way to surrounding markets in Jordan, Lebanon and the Levant. A traditional Shibshib is handmade from leather exclusively for men. In other words, there are no female versions of these loop-toed slippers. Generally, men in the Arabian Gulf wear them with white Thobes (traditional male dresses) and a head cover that corresponds with their culture, called a Kaffiyeh or Keffiyeh, Ghotra, Shemagh or Shmagh (often secured by an ‘iqal). To be honest with you, I’m not a huge fan of Shibshib flip-flops. Maybe because I’ve seen them being worn by patriarchal figures who came across as arrogant and cruel. But I’ve seen other nice men wearing them. Maybe it’s time to forgive the Shibshib!
These are the less embellished version of the Nalin bath clogs originating in Turkey. Incidentally, the everyday Qubqab Hammam clogs (also known as Kub-kobs) – popular in Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan – are understated and come with a top leather strap and mostly has no embellishments. Their soles, and front and back “heels,” are made from light-coloured wood. The handcrafted Damascene Qubqab was traditionally made with wood from the walnut tree (Joze in Arabic), peach tree (Mishmesh or Mishmosh), willow (Safsaf), or beech (Zaan). I also just remembered how I’ve seen village men in Lebanon wearing these clogs as outdoor shoes with their traditional Shirwal or Sirwal pants (which Western fashion houses like to call Harem pants). Traditionally in Syria and Lebanon, men wore these clogs outdoor during wintertime to navigate muddy streets, while women wore them indoors since they were deemed comfortable and light weight. Now-a-days in Syria and Jordan, these basic clogs are used in low-income public and private toilets known as Hammam Arabi (Arabic lavatory), popular for not having a seated bidet. To prevent men’s and women’s pants or dresses from touching the toilet’s wet floor, these clogs are elevated enough to avoid all contact with the dampness underneath. These wooden clogs also make a funny, hollow sound as you walk in them. They are in fact the staple “soundtrack” for 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.
Some believe the Turkish Nalin is the grandparent of the modern “high-heel.” Historically, the Nalin was worn by Turkish brides on their pre-wedding Hammam (bath) visit. Carved from a single piece of wood, Nalin clogs have a high wooden sole elevated by two front and back “heels” (or plates) to protect the feet from getting wet while walking across the damp floors of Turkish baths. The base of this exquisite wooden clog was often embellished with precious metals like silver and gold, or inlaid with mother-of-pearl shell. The strap on the top was made of leather or fabric like cotton and silk, also adorned with jewels and intricate embroidery. Nalin clogs were part of a woman’s dowry and often came with a matching Turkish bath bowl, especially if the Nalin was silver-plated for the wedding of a wealthy bride. In fact, the height of the Nalin plates and the quality of the embellishments was in fact determined by the social status of the wearer.
The word Khuff is an extremely old word in the Arabic language, mostly referring to footwear that is made from leather. It also means the hoof of the camel (Khuff el Jamal). I have no idea what the ancient Khuff looked like, as it may have been a pair of sandals for all I know. But the ones I am including in this illustration are for indoor use and are made from really soft leather all around. The ones I’ve seen look like short boots and come with a modern twist, a side zipper. Those are very, very rare. In fact, the ones I have on me were actually a gift from Cyprus, and I’m not sure where to get them from. They’re worn indoors during wintertime and both women and men can wear them. Some even wear them as socks underneath their outdoor boots.
The Turkish Slippers with their upturned toe appeared in 1500 BC around the time of the Hittites, an ancient Anatolian people who formed an empire between 1600-1180 BC. That’s more than 3,500 years ago! Anatolia, by the way, makes up the majority of modern-day Turkey. According to Harvard University’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, during the 12th century, the fashion of the extending and curling shoe toe “reached amazing lengths in western Asia in the Ottoman Empire – especially among men.” The longest known Turkish Slipper, the Museum says, “measures some 30 inches from heel to toe.” I remember thinking those slippers were Chinese in origin. The reason is, all of the emperors in my illustrated Lady Bird children’s books wore those curled-toe shoes as part of their attire. Only recently did I discover that these unusual slippers were in fact originally Turkish! Interestingly, this shoe style was later adopted as a fashion statement in Europe. The Peabody Museum says, “Contact with the Middle East during the Crusades brought the fashion of pointed toes to Europe, but they didn’t reach extreme lengths until the 14th century, when they were known as Poulaines or Crakowes.” In both the East and across Europe, the length of the toe “was a measure of the wearer’s status.” In this illustration, the vintage slippers you see have a short curling toe and are adorned with small beads and embroidered mirror cabochons.
Old Footwear Illustration
I created the footwear illustration you see here in August 2017. As time went by, I felt less and less connected to it, especially that my illustration style and craftsmanship have drastically improved over the past few years. I like the idea of incorporating the collage and the patterns in this illustration. However, since the footwear was created digitally (and these days I’m not so keen on digital illustration), I made sure to draw up new artwork with pen-and-ink on paper, my preferred drawing medium. Therefore, in March 2021, I posted the new Middle Eastern and North African footwear illustration you see at the beginning of this blog post and throughout. Thankfully, I feel the new illustrations represent me more truly than this old drawing.
I hope you’ve enjoyed today’s cultural travel illustration. On my agenda, I have similar illustrations in the pipeline, so stay tuned for more!
Middle Eastern and North African footwear illustration, cultural travel illustration, style and fashion illustration, & lifestyle illustration by illustrator and artist Yaansoon