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On Sunday, 3 May 2020, Willem Vogelsang wrote:

When travelling with my wife (and our two boys) along both sides of the Persian Gulf, some twenty years ago, we saw for the first time women wearing the somewhat iconic battulah face masks (also known, somewhat disrespectfully, as Zorro-masks, or bikini masks). We saw them in particular in Bandar Abbas, Iran, but also in Oman, on the opposite side of the Gulf. We collected some of these items for the TRC Collection, and we used them for the book Covering the Moon: An Introduction to Middle Eastern Face Veils (Leuven: Peeters 2008).

Battulah face mask from southern Iran, late 20th century (TRC 2001.0014).Battulah face mask from southern Iran, late 20th century (TRC 2001.0014).

We learnt that comparable face masks (locally called barakoa) used to be worn by women on the island of Zanzibar, along the East African coast, when in the nineteenth century the island was administered by rulers from Oman.

Recently we discovered that the same mask was being worn by a female slave from the Persian Gulf who had been taken to Jalalabad, in eastern Afghanistan, apparently together with a male slave from Muskat (Oman). The observation was made by a British officer who in 1879 was deployed in and around the town of Jalalabad during the Second Anglo-Afghan War (1878-1880). He was shown some "African" slaves in the house of a local sayyid (descendant of Mohammad). Whether the two slaves were African in origin and had adopted, or had been forced to adopt Persian Gulf attire while staying there before being taken to Afghanistan, remains unknown.

Zanzibar under Omani rule in the nineteenth century was the main hub for slave trade in this part of the world, in thw western part of the Indian Ocean, and Africans may well have been taken via Zanzibar and Oman to Afghanistan. The slave trade on Zanzibar was officially stopped, under British pressure, in 1876. Slavery, it may be added, was only abolished in Oman in 1970.

Battulah face mask for an (Arab) urban woman from southern Iran, late 20th century (TRC 2001.0022).Battulah face mask for an (Arab) urban woman from southern Iran, late 20th century (TRC 2001.0022).

Battulah face mask for an Arab or Baluch woman from southern Iran, late 20th century (TRC 2001.0039).Battulah face mask for an Arab or Baluch woman from southern Iran, late 20th century (TRC 2001.0039).

Africans were often seen in Afghanistan and beyond, either as slaves or descendants of slaves. A separate quarter of the Kabul Bala Hissar (fortress) was named after the "Habbashes", which was the common name for people from the Horn of Africa (Habesha, compare the name of Abyssinia). One of them, said to be the leader of the Habbashes in Kabul, accompanied the British adventurer Charles Masson who in the 1830s travelled to Bamiyan, in central Afghanistan. Named Kamber, he was said to be of "Abyssinian" origin. Abyssinian slaves were highly priced in Muslim lands, including India, where they were known as Habshis.

What is intriguing is that the woman slave in Jalalabad was shown to a British officer without her wearing the customary Afghan face covering, but was allowed to wear the battulah, which merely covers a small part of the face. Whatever the reasons, this story is another example of how textiles and garments illustrate important, and sometimes dramatic episodes in history, in this case the Arab slave trade in and beyond the Indian Ocean up to the latter part of the nineteenth century. 

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