Understanding turbans: Don't link them to terrorism

America is not a country where the majority of people wrap their skulls in cloth before heading out of the house. Perhaps that explains the current confusion over turbans.

In many regions of the globe, swaddling the head in fabric is simply a natural response to the scorching heat and dust. Scholars believe it was an ancient people living under a merciless sun who first invented the turban.

But in the wake of recent terrorist attacks, the turban, originally a practical idea for protection, has become a symbol many Americans associate with terrorists.

In SeaTac last week, a man was charged with attacking a turban-wearing Sikh cab driver, calling him a "butcher terrorist." In Seattle, a man was arrested after he allegedly tried to choke a Sikh, telling him, "You have no right to attack our country." In Arizona, a man shot a Sikh gas-station owner to death, later explaining to authorities: "I'm a patriot."

Hundreds of other assaults on Sikhs have been reported across the country, a trend that strikes many as bizarrely misguided.

Yes, Sikhs wear turbans. But they have no connection to the Islamic extremists now wanted by the U.S.

Rather, Sikhs are members of the world's fifth-largest religion, which traces its roots to northern India and espouses egalitarianism.

President Bush describes the new American enemy as shadowy and hard to find, which may explain why some Americans are grasping for a way to identify terrorists. But equating the ancient headgear with terrorism shows how little is known about turbans.

Lesson No. 1: All turbans are not the same. Fabric headwraps and headcoverings are common in a wide swath of the world, from North Africa across the Middle East and into Central Asia. At times, turbans have even been found on the heads of fashion-conscious Europeans and atop the craniums of American pop-culture icons.

Like other types of clothing, the turban means different things depending on who is wearing it and how it is worn. To see every turban-wearer as a terrorist is like assuming every person who wears shoes is a criminal.

Describing a turban

A turban is a very long and narrow piece of cloth — 12 feet is not an unusual length — made of cotton, silk or synthetics. It is wound around the head and held on by its own tension, gravity or a chin strap.

The English word turban is believed to have come from the Persian word dulband — a word which is also thought to be the etymological predecessor of "tulip" and of the Spanish word for hammerhead shark, torbandalo.

Though no one knows exactly when and where the turban originated, carvings left by the Assyrians, who lived 3,000 years ago in the area that is now Iraq, show turbans on the heads of kings.

That means that before there was Islam, or even Christianity, there were turbans.

It also means that by 1000 B.C.E., the turban had evolved from a strictly utilitarian piece of clothing into something used to connote nobility and power.

The turban is like other pieces of fashion in this way, said Brannon Wheeler, associate professor of Islamic studies at the University of Washington.

Just as shoes evolved from a practical foot covering into an item of clothing that reveals a person's class and origins, so turbans evolved from a simple head covering into something that identifies people along cultural, religious, political and social lines.

Those seem to be distinctions many are unaware of. John Cooksey, a Republican congressman from Louisiana, recently offered this suggestion for weeding out terrorists: "If I see someone come in and he's got a diaper on his head and a fanbelt wrapped around the diaper on his head, that guy needs to be pulled over and checked."

Cooksey later apologized, saying he was referring only to Osama bin Laden, but clearly the way he described the offending headgear shows a lack of turban savvy. In the picture of bin Laden posted on the FBI's Most Wanted list, the fugitive Saudi millionaire is wearing a white cloth turban wrapped in a circular, spiraling fashion.

This is not the type of headcovering that requires what Cooksey called a "fan belt" — a thick black cord known to people in the Middle East as an ekal. The ekal is used to hold on a kaffiyeh, the patterned headcovering made famous by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

Kaffiyehs are worn by men in Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Arab Persian Gulf states. They are rectangular pieces of cloth folded diagonally and draped over the head. And technically, they're not even turbans.

Links to hostage crisis

The American tendency to link turbans with terrorism may stem from the Iran hostage crisis, with its images of Ayatollah Khomeni and his black turban. But in most of the Muslim world, the wearing of a turban symbolizes simply religious or political power.

Many Muslim spiritual leaders wear a white turban wrapped around a spherical or conical hat known as a kalansuwa. But, cautioned UW history professor Frank Conlon, "Not all Muslims wear turbans, and not all people who wear turbans are Muslim."

In the past, emperors and leaders have worn grand turbans with feathers and jewels added as flourishes. Today, in rural regions from North Africa to India, poor farmers and nomadic people of various religions cover their heads with simple turbans, the colors and styles of which sometimes identify them as members of a particular tribe or community.

And turbans have uses beyond the obvious. In Morocco, old men have been known to store money in the folds of their turbans. In the desert, turbans are wrapped around the face and used as a protective gauze to keep blowing sand out of the eyes. Before there were police and handcuffs, legend has it that turbans were used to tie up captured enemies.

These days, in more cosmopolitan and urban areas of the Middle East, the turban is a bit out of vogue, seen as a relic of the past by young people clamoring for the styles of the West.

At the same time, in the U.S., the turban has been embraced among some African Americans, who see it as an Afrocentric fashion. Soul singer Erykah Badu, for example, has often worn a towering turban.

Not a good indicator

The irony of the American focus on turbans in the wake of the terrorist attacks is that, at least in this country, turbans are a very poor predictor of a person's involvement in terrorist violence.

"Needless to say," said Ellis Goldberg, head of the Middle East studies center at the UW, "none of [the hijackers] was wearing any type of turban."

Eli Sanders: 206-748-5815 or esanders@seattletimes.com.

Understanding turbans

Like other types of clothing, the turban means different things depending on who is wearing it and how it is worn. Times artist Paul Schmid illustrates several varieties.