Found In the USA: Yours, Mine and Ours

Photo credit:

The last time I wore habesha kemis was on November 25, 2013, from approximately 4:00am to 9:00pm. But that’s nothing. My real record was the time before that. I wore one for over twenty-four hours from 6:00pm on August 3, 2011 until around 8:00am on August 4, 2011. That’s allowing for time spent sleeping with it on. Even without though, I clocked in at an impressive eight hours or so. The times before that were on November 13, 2010 and on July 29, 2007, for a few hours each.

All those times are for outside the house by the way, in public. In case you were already tsk tsk-ing me. Not that I have a habit of wearing habesha kemis around the house. So, on second thought, go ahead and tsk tsk.

I am, however, proud to say that all those times fall under the “real moment” category. Explanation: I divide all hk wearing occasions into three categories – “exotic moment”, “real moment” and “integrated moment”. “Real moment”, as it implies, is for occasions where there is a real reason, implicitly understood by all present, for wearing hk, for occasions where the hk itself is not the occasion. 2013 was christening-related, 2011 was wedding-related and 2007 was passing-related. I’m hesitant to count 2010 because that hk was technically not an hk. Worn to a fundraiser, it was a long shoulderless shimmering silver evening gown with matching shawl made out of hk material. It falls somewhere between the three categories, or needs its own category. Suggestions are welcome.

Not counting “exotic moments” (when hk’s are worn for cultural shows most often committed at university and college “cultural days”, in which I participated plenty during the early days of the Ethiopian Students Association at York) and not counting “integrated moments” (when scarves and shawls made out of thicker hk material are worn on occasion of the freezing winter wind), if you stop any habesha girl on the street and ask her when the last time she wore hk was, she wouldn’t be too hard pressed to give you statistics as specific as mine. Don’t bother asking the guys. They exempted themselves from wearing head-to-toe traditional anything on any occasion eons ago.

Disclaimer: I’m talking the style of habesha kemis which nobody wears anymore by the way, not the funky
Photo credit: Outfitters/weavers of Ethiopia & Eritrea

(and sometimes horrific) new designs that have been getting churned out ever since we started trickling West. I’m talking the style of habesha kemis that Urban Outfitters recently landed in hot water for trying to bring back into fashion, passing it off as ‘Vintage ’90 Linen Dress’. Most of the protest centres around the fact that this was the kind of dress “our mothers” wore. Exactly. I feel UO’s pain somewhat. Hey, I too was under the impression that vintage…uh, retro was in, and I’m as fashion-illiterate as it gets. Case in point: I owned almost a dozen of exactly those kinds of hk’s until not very long ago, when I donated them to the foreign half of a mixed-wedding party that needed something traditional and didn’t know the difference anyway between what was hot and not in Ethio fashion. No harm no foul.

That’s what this imaginary habesha girl who you’ve stopped on the street (yes, she’s still politely standing there in case you have any more questions) would tell you. The last time she wore that kind of hk, if ever, was to something church-related and/or some kind of extended family ritual that in itself has become an “exotic moment” through a process of diaspora culture folding back in on itself. And, if she feels like sharing further, she’d tell you that, as soon as it was over, she slid out of the hk and into something “club” for the after-party at a place like Flirt in Addis, Love in D.C., or Tryst in Toronto. You know, all the same thing. By “as soon as”, she doesn’t mean once she got back home. She means in the basement of the church or bathroom of the house where everyone went to eat after the ritual, if not in the car on the way over, or backstage. The objective, at all times, is to minimize not only the locations where the hk is worn but also the duration. When it comes to hk, suddenly we’re all homeless and any semi-private corner becomes a good enough change room.

Against such a history, the one time I did wear hk outside the designated zones, to Flirt in Addis, stands out as a precious memory of a time when I wore hk and still felt sexy. It was probably just my imagination, of course. Likely Johnny Walker had more to do with it. Because when I found myself in that same hk at a Safeway in the US (unplanned detour on the way to church), I felt horrendously dumpy.

Habesha kemis or hager libs is, hands down, the best physical representation of diaspora inner conflict. Despite my utter neglect of hk during 99.99% of my daily life, despite the fact that I never wear it or I have very specific terms and conditions about where/when/for how long I’ll wear it, my snap reaction when I got an email notice from asking me to sign a petition against Urban Outfitters (which claims the dress as “Found in the USA”), clicked on the link and saw the picture, was: MINE! I signed the petition instantly and even shared it on Facebook. MINE! MINE! MINE! Like those seagulls in Finding Nemo. For the few minutes of my clicking and posting frenzy, I was behind the reclamation campaign all the way, no matter how long it took. Let’s set the record straight and show UO motherlovers who they been messing with!

It took a lot less time for me to reflect, to realize that in the grand scheme of things – censorship, misrepresentation, corruption, labor exploitation, forced sterilization famine, human rights, women’s oppression, foreign adoption, etc. – this was nothing. Worse, I couldn’t remember the last time – if ever – that I’d gotten so revved up about any of those causes. Causes which have websites in their own right, where I could go and click on stuff and share it on Facebook to my heart’s content and feel that I’d participated in the struggle, that I’d been a force of change. Instead, I get my non-hk-wearing self in a twist over an hk. Isn’t this exactly the kind of need to claim something, some long-forgotten piece of cloth or strip of land for which no one has any real use, that gets people into wars?

While we’re at it then, why not have somebody get in touch with the Egyptologists? Surely I’m not the only one who has noticed that those gauzy see-through robes (and drawers full of thick white slips in habesha moms’ closets the world over will testify to just how see-through habesha kemis are) with woven trim worn by ancient Egyptian maidens in all those paintings look a hell of a lot like habesha kemis.

And somebody better let the Indians know that the lentil thing they’ve been passing off as dal has been alecha misir wot all along.

And who’s going to get on the phone to that K’naan guy already?

And somebody please rescue the kidnapped habesha weavers slaving away somewhere in Southeast Asia, churning out designs suspiciously similar to tibeb.

Next to my own hypocrisy and the ugly truth of global power dynamics, the most useful lesson I got from the “Urban Outfitters moment” (there’s the fourth category!) was that hk is called zuriya in Tigrignya.

Returning to my indignation, then. When, the other day, the Eurasian guy at my work whipped out his kwanta firfir and started scooping spoonfuls of it into his mouth, I guess I should have said MINE! I’ll bet anything he had no idea what it was called and couldn’t care less either. It was food he liked, sold cheaply in his neighborhood and he had some left over from his dinner the night before. End of discussion. Never mind that he was so hungry that he hadn’t even bothered to sit down to eat. Never mind that he was already late to an event. What I should have done (after screaming “MINE!”) was eased him into a chair, pried the spoon out of his trembling hand, taken the food to the kitchen upstairs, transferred it from the Styrofoam container into a dish, warmed it in the microwave, brought it back downstairs, schooled him on how to eat by hand, explained about teff, kibe, berbere, dried siga and about how the salad Ethiopian food is often served with, being a totally Western assimilation, has nothing to do with kwanta firfir, made sure he learned to say kwanta firfir properly, then allowed him to enjoy his meal. Well no, he’d be so late he wouldn’t have time to eat anymore. Which means it really would have become MINE! Right, that would have won one over for the team. Even for a guy who had taken special care to learn how to say “Rebka”, it would have been pushing it to say the least. Instead, I expressed my jealousy at his delicious-looking late lunch and went on my way. It was five o’clock after all and I don’t do overtime.

Like him, when I save my Indian or Thai or Chinese leftovers for lunch the next day, am I excited because I have lunch for the next day or am I excited because I have a “special” lunch for the next day? Based on my relationship with lunches, I’m just happy to have lunch for the next day. Simply, it’s food, and thanks the lord for that! And, at some point a dress too can become, simply, a dress. No qualification, no hyphenation. Isn’t that the kind of acceptance we all long for? To not have to constantly explain? Yet when we get it, we cry foul. But think about it, old-school hk’s would be hot again! You could wear one to class or work even when it’s not “cultural day”!

I think the problem is that habesha cultural products, such as dresses and people (which, like all cultural products, are a result of continuous assimilation and appropriation, starting from egg swallowing up sperm) are at that funny stage of becoming mainstream, and us haesha folks haven’t found our comfort level with it. From injera (or langanalgalan – no backlash against the Simpsons over that), to adopted kids to megachain coffee to supermodels to teff in health-food recipes to prepared foods in supermarkets, we get jumpy first and rational later. When for so long you’ve had to footnote yourself, it takes some adjustment to just exist. The sense of responsibility it comes with isn’t always fun either. Before, it was about introducing people to what they didn’t know existed. Now, it’s deciding whether or not to let people know that the thing they’ve decided to incorporate into their lives has a name and a background info kit. Now that the hk is being sold as just a dress, the onus is on any habesha person who sees someone wearing it to educate the wearer, to be an on-call minister/ministress of culture with ourselves as the supervisor. Am I a bad habesha if I don’t let her know? If I just let her, and the dress she bought with her own money, be?

Urban Outfitters (and me).
Urban Outfitters (and me).

It’s like when you (ok, me) get mistaken for a West Indian, an Indian, an African-American, an African-Canadian, a Sudanese, hell even a Mauritanian, and let it slide. Because some days you’re just not in the mood. It could even be another obviously habesha person stopping you on the street, and You’re. Just. Not. In. The. Mood. I would be lying if I said I didn’t let that happen from time to time. One day, within an hour of having the “Where are you from?” question (asked with that break-your-tongue accent that means the asker already knows the answer) and conversation, I got asked the same thing again. For a completely generic reason I happened to be in a stinky mood, stinky like rotten eggs, so I pulled a Judas, in a singsong Trini accent no less, and said “Nah, mi get that all de time tho.” He didn’t believe me. Admittedly my accent was rusty. So he hovered. Watching me for signs, whatever those are. But when I sauntered past him, went up to the counter and – employing my rarely-used clear audible voice – asked whether they sold vegetarian recipe books for slow cookers, he sped out of the bookstore like the red-blooded kitfo and kurt and tibs loving man I’d sized him up to be. My loss, I know. That’s ok. It’s Toronto after all. A few blocks in any direction and he’ll find a gal having a habesha day, ready to give the secret handshake. For me, it was just a day, and I was just a person, wearing just a coat and pants and shoes and a top and so on.

I look forward to a just-a-day day when I will actually feel like wearing habesha kemis because it has become, once again, just a dress. I say “once again” because that’s how it used to be. One morning in 1992, less than half a year into my new life abroad, I wore a habesha kemis to school without a second thought. I can’t remember whether I got asked any questions about it. I only have a fuzzy recollection of my mother making me put on a turtleneck underneath because it was winter and I refused change into something more weather-appropriate. What can I say, I was twelve. With the passage of time that hk and all others that came after it, got relegated to special-occasion limited-hours duty only. But no matter how long it’s gone for, hk always finds its way back into my life, the “UO moment” being the latest such example.

Growing up, I remember how washing habesha kemis, by hand or machine, was a science. You had to turn it inside out just so, use the gentle cycle just so, take it out just so, hang it up just so and, most crucial, iron it at exactly just this temperature. It’s a good thing hk’s don’t come with care instruction labels because it would take up a ribbon of fabric as long as the dress itself. And whose version of the instructions would it be? Let’s not even go there. For the record, Urban Outfitters says “hand wash”, but not “only”. Either way, I doubt it will make a difference. Once, I had no choice but to stick my hk in a washing machine, on a regular cycle, using regular detergent (I think, the label was in a language I didn’t understand) and hung the dress up to dry by the shoulders (by the bye, speaking of shoulders, somebody better get in touch with the people behind the Harlem Shake…) Nothing happened to the dress. I wasn’t exactly trying to destroy it, but I was emotionally prepared for whatever consequences came with washing it so “carelessly”. The dress continues to be in operation. It performed fine last time I wore it in 2013. I have high hopes for it, as I do for the hk as a whole. It’s big now. It’s all grown up and it’s time we let it out into the world. It will always know the way home.

Yes, resilient is not even the word, give credit where it’s due.

9 thoughts on “Found In the USA: Yours, Mine and Ours

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  3. I just rediscovered this essay/article. I still really love the dissection of the feeling. But also I actually have a practical question: how do you wash hager libs? Mine was a family that believed in not touching it too much or just spot treatment so I never new how to handle it. But I once just randomly put an “old” HL into the machine and ironed just the tilet and it was fine. But now I’ve bought 2 new ones from a designer I like and have no idea how to take care of it. I literally don’t even know how to hand wash it. Ok, other than that I’d love to hear more of your thoughts/experiences w/ HL cause I’m forever obsessed with them and I totally have the same “theory” the weaving came from Egypt and I really wanna learn more about them but I have no idea how to find information about them.


    1. Hi Il. Thanks for your comment. I really don’t have a special method of washing hager libs. Like you, I would probably just stick it in the machine (on gentle setting I guess) and hope for the best. So far I’ve not had disasters, but then again, I haven’t needed to wash one since about two years (yes, that long since I’ve worn one…). It seems like you are much more devoted to hager libs than I ever was. Maybe check with the designer as to proper care of the garment. Actually, this blog post is the most read of all my posts, so I think your interest in hager libs is shared by many out there. Hopefully one day I will do some actual research and be able to write something substantial about it. Until then, enjoy your new hager libs(es?)


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