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Aba

A woollen aba decorated down the front with metal thread embroidery. The aba (bisht) comes from Basra, Iraq (1950s). A woollen aba decorated down the front with metal thread embroidery. The aba (bisht) comes from Basra, Iraq (1950s). TRC 1998.0313b.

An Aba is a traditional, and generally a sleeveless, flowing cloak worn by men and women throughout the Arab world and neighbouring countries. When worn by women it may be draped over the head (for example, in Iraq) or worn from the shoulders (in Jordan). Men normally wear it draped over the shoulders.

The garment is also known as an abaya or bisht. There is no strict consistency how these terms are used. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, for instance, the term abaya is often used when describing the version worn by women, while the terms aba and bisht are normally associated with the men’s version. In the Gulf region, many people use the term bisht for both a lightweight garment worn by men in the hot summer months and a heavier garment used in the colder winter (the term aba is often regarded as being Iraqi).

In the Eastern Mediterranean the word aba tends to be used for the light-weight summer version for men, while bisht is used for heavier and stiffer, winter forms or the elaborately woven versions worn by men on very special occasions.

Generally, the light-weight summer version is made from silk or cotton, and more frequently a synthetic material. They are normally black, brown, cream or white. The heavy weight winter version is usually made of wool (sheep or camel) and tends to be black or brown. There are also special garments of this type that are made from silk in various colours and often incorporate gold or silver metal thread. During the twentieth century many of these elaborate garments were produced in Syria and Iraq.

In Saudi Arabia, some shepherds wear a woollen version called a bida, which is embroidered in red and orange wool along the shoulders, neck and front openings.

The garments, whether called an aba, abaya, bida or bisht, are normally made from two lengths of cloth sewn horizontally together and then folded in two, to create the front and back panels. Two splits are made in the upper section of the garment to create the arm holes. A feature of this garment is the embroidery around the neck opening, front opening, shoulders and seam lines. In addition, there are usually two long tassels ending in fringes hanging from the ends of the bands down the front opening. The men's version for men generally only has a narrow width of embroidery, while that for women may have much more decoration.

Source: VOGELSANG-EASTWOOD, Gillian (2016). 'Abas and bishts,' in: Gillian Vogelsang-Eastwood (ed.), Encyclopedia of Embroidery from the Arab World, London: Bloomsbury Academic, pp. 313-315.

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Last modified on Tuesday, 14 March 2017 21:51