In Iraq, you don’t know a man if you don’t know his headband -- the seemingly ordinary rope, usually knit from wool, that is steeped in folklore.
If the country is divided along religious lines, the agal is a reminder of the intangible tribalism that Iraqis share: a cultural thread present from Baghdad north to Mosul and south to Basra.
Here, as in the rest of the Arab world where agals are worn, the color, thickness, material, intricacy of design and number of layers -- one band around the head or four, for instance -- reveal one’s region and class.
Most are black and woven from camel hair, but there are brown ones and white ones as well, with varying degrees of silkiness or coarseness depending on the material used to weave them, and how tightly they are weaved.
There are agal designs worn by gulf emirs, Saudi kings and tribal sheiks that an ordinary man dare not wear, as unattainable as a $10,000 Versace suit or a pair of Jimmy Choos.
Rarely, for instance, will you see anyone but a tribal sheik or king wearing a white one or one with multiple layers. Iraq’s first King Faisal favored this elaborate look. He wore an agal created with reeds woven tightly together into four bands, which were then bound to create a crown-like headpiece.
Like the people who wear the agal and for whom it is a crucial part of daily dress -- everyone from rural farmers to Arab kings -- the headband’s history is intriguing for its mix of tragedy and toughness. Some say it evolved from the collapse of Islamic rule in Andalusia. One version says the caliph ordered men to wear black headbands in mourning. Another says that distraught women tore their hair out and hurled it at men to show their rage at the men’s inability to protect Islam. The men then wrapped the locks of black hair around their heads in shame and sorrow.
In the most practical version, Bedouins carried the black bands on their heads in case ropes were needed to secure their camels.
If an agal is knocked off a man’s head, it can ignite a war among tribes. If a relative is killed, family members will remove their headbands until they take revenge. If a woman has an affair, the men in her clan will not wear the agal until they have killed her and in their minds restored honor. Sometimes, a father will beat a mischievous child with his agal rather than a belt.
When a tribal leader dies, the relative who succeeds him is anointed with the late man’s agal to mark the transition. To grieve, men place their agals on their eyebrows like a flag at half-staff. When a boy turns 18, his tribe crowns him with an agal as a rite of passage.
At times, the agal takes on political significance. In the western province of Anbar, some sheiks argue that as long as American troops remain in Iraq, they should not wear the agal. Once the troops leave and their dignity has been restored, they say, they can again wear the blackened cord.
“The agal still represents pride and dignity for those who wear it. When the agal falls down, it means those values fall,” said Abbas abu Adil, 42, who sells the head gear at his men’s apparel shop in Basra.
In Nasiriya, agals are a quarter-inch thick; in Diwaniya, they are thinner. In Mosul, experts say, they are woven from soft and shiny goat hair, and in western Iraq, Bedouins prefer headbands made from camel hair.
Most agals in Iraq are handmade, while in other gulf countries, people prefer machine-made headbands.
The fashions in Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar have inspired the agal designs in southern Iraq; wearers in northern and western Iraq take inspiration from styles in Saudi Arabia.
In the Shiite holy city of Najaf, aged men sit in stalls around the shrine of Imam Ali, the Islamic sect’s revered figure, patiently weaving wool into agals. An entrance to the district has been named after them, dubbed the Gate of the Agals.
Mohammed Abdul Ridha, 54, sat in his open-air stall and bragged that the agal is referenced by the Muslim prophet Muhammad in his book of sayings, called the hadith.
Surrounded by spools of thread, he said, “The agal is part of a man’s personality.”
Sattar Jabbar, 45, of Basra became emotional talking about the rope. Without his agal, he confessed, he feels naked. “Once, I went to Amman -- I didn’t wear my agal. I discovered that I was different. I felt that I even lost some of my self-confidence while talking to the people,” Jabbar said.
Back home, if someone knocks on his door, Jabbar has his children greet them. “Nobody should see me without my agal,” he said.
Although agals are a symbol of tradition, wearers are convinced they suffer discrimination in cities at the hands of urban sophisticates who view agal wearers as country bumpkins.
Nouri abu Ali, a 48-year-old teacher in Basra, still bristles over how Baghdad’s city slickers thumbed their noses at him before the fall of Saddam Hussein. The aspiring novelist struggled for years to publish a book, convinced the Ministry of Culture under Hussein refused to see its merits because he dressed in tribal wear.
Finally a ministry advisor secured its publication after he accused the employees there of discrimination. “I told them the problem is that I wear the agal! I am coming from Basra to follow up my novel, and always find a negative reply!” he said, still visibly miffed.
“In the big cities like Baghdad, those who are wearing agal are considered not educated.”
Sheik Kareem Khafaji, a tribal leader in Basra, admonished people who make snap judgments about tribal clothing. “Not all of those wearing neckties are educated,” he said.