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Traditional Saudi Madas

Madan Sharqi is Arabic for sandal from the east, which is a traditional sandal typically worn by Saudi men in all Saudi areas. This kind of sandal is usually worn year-round, anytime and anywhere. It is commonly worn by anyone, from royalty to wealthy businessmen to ordinary people of different ages and status.
The Madas Sharqi is known by this name for it was first made and worn in the middle and eastern areas of the Kingdom. It is made of camel or cow leather with a big oversized ring that wraps around the large toe and another leather that wraps around the foot from the other fingers and third leather that wraps the whole foot from the top. Its design is close to a flip-flop but different from the leather and designs.
It is usually hand embroidered in colorful threads that represents each region.
Abu Naif, the owner of a specialized Madas shop in Al Zal old market in Riyadh, has been in this business since he was 12 when his father was standing where he is standing now.
“My father and his friends used to make Madas for a living. You will always see them sitting on the floor and sewing new sandals for their next sell,” he said. “I was taught how to sew and stitch the sandals when I was very young, now I have employees to do that and I fear this tradition will fade away because we are not making good money out of it,” he added.
Abu Naif also displays madas in famous fashion brands leather to attract younger costumers.
“Brands like Gucci, LV and Burberry is what the younger generation likes so we started contacting people in China to buy the leather and sometimes canvas fabrics to create the same madas sandal but with different materials hoping to spice it up for them,” he said. “Youth now are slowly drifting away from this traditional costumes and don’t want to wear it unless they have to, so we have constantly come up with different styles and materials to attract them to our shops. We are not very proud of this because we want them to buy the real deal and not fake brands.”
Madas Sharqi now is made with imported leather from Asia with low prices and made by foreign workers in local factories.
“Only the expensive ones are made by hand and this is usually ordered by royalty and wealthy men. Other than that we sell it to ordinary men for prices from SR 50 to around SR500 depending on the leather and embroideries,” said Abu Naif. “The antenna sandals are another style of a madas. The antenna is a small leather post that goes between the first and second toes instead of the leather toe ring in the more common sandal. It is made from camel leather and the sole is covered with layers of soft leather to provide a comfortable padding,” he added.
This style is called the Antal Madas, which is also famous now for it is very comfortable for everyday wear.
“There is another name for Madas Sharqi, which is Zubairi, you will find this name famous in the GCC area because it started in Iraq and it is named after the Zubara tribe, who long ago migrated to what is now Iraq,” he said. “This particular madas is expensive because it has to be handmade from the finest camel leather and the embroidery is a little different and unique from other madas.”
As a Saudi craftsman and sandalmaker, Abu Naif says there are many obstacles he faces him everyday in his job.
“Sandals made in Qassim, one of the most rugged and traditional regions of the Kingdom north of Riyadh, are considered the best; and their reputation is reflected in their costs.
Children’s madas takes more time and effort to craft, according to Abu Naif.
“It is completely different from making adult sandals because they come in completely different shapes and sizes and the adult madas is one or two sizes different,” he said. “Many grandfathers and expats like buying madas for children as a gift for the young ones but I personally like to make it because I get to be creative with colors and textures and give attention to small beadings and embroideries.”
Abu Naif and other madas tailors are worried this job is fading for most Saudi youth are looking to work behind desks and not in basic traditional art crafts.
“If you looked closely, you will find many foreigners are making the sandals instead of Saudis and now factories are producing them in Pakistan and India,” he said. “I really worry that one day, we will not find authentic Madas Sharqi with only internationally factory made supply and our youth will not want to buy it anymore.”
Ten years ago, the Madas Sharqi was worn by men only, but thanks to local fashion designers such as Nawal Maimani it is now for women too, women wear it flashy colors and with small heels. You can see many stylish Saudi and expats with their casual clothing that is comfortable and it reflects their tradition.
Even international designers have gotten into the business that was once the sole domain of humble cobblers working in the alleyway shops of Old Arabia. Saudi sandals made in Italy from fine leather can cost upward of SR3,000.

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