RIYADH: As the nation moves into the winter season, many Saudis have begun packing away the sundresses and shorts and reaching for their sweaters and thermals. But one of the most highly coveted articles of winter clothing is the traditional Bedouin farwa.
Farwas are believed to have originated from Syria and Levant where Bedouins would wear them during the cold winter months.
The long, sweeping, fur-lined overcoat has now established a firm foothold in countries all over the Gulf.
It is a staple in many Saudi households, particularly in the northern and central regions where the biting desert cold can reach surprisingly low temperatures.
Farwas range in material from cheaper offerings, lined with synthetic fur with a protective cloth overlay of linen, velvet, or cotton, to pricier options, such as those made with real fur or hand-dyed sheep’s wool, which can set you back more than $250.
Ahmad Alsharif, a resident of Turaif in the northern province, told Arab News that, living in a town where the average winter temperature can be as low as -5C, he considers a farwa an essential household item.
“During winter, people in the cities wear farwas both at home and when going out. For the Bedouins who live outside of the city, the farwa is even more of a necessity, given how cold it gets in the desert,” he said.
Alsharif said that a real fur farwa can be considered a luxury item or a statement piece among residents in the north. “They make very popular gifts for friends and loved ones,” he said. One of the most favored types, and the most expensive due to its soft touch and light weight, is the karakul, made from the fur of fetal lambs, commonly known as broadtail, or of new newborn lambs. Similar but cheaper is the “Persian” farwa, which is less dense.
Other types include the Iraqi farwa or “Mosuliya Iraqia,” a native of northern Iraq and one of the more expensive types that could reach up to over $1,000. Similarly, the hand embroidered Syrian farwa could reach up to $400 and can take up to 2 weeks to be designed and made.
Faisal Althunayan, a college student from Riyadh, said that getting to show off his collection of farwas was his favorite part of the winter season.
“My friends and I are avid campers; in the winter, we go for a kashta (traditional Saudi camping trip) almost every weekend. Sitting around the fire, grilling burgers and kebabs on an open flame, and huddled up against the cold while bundled up in our furs is my idea of heaven on earth,” he said.
Althunayan says that due to the relative shortness of the winter season in Saudi Arabia, every second of cold is one that he appreciates.
“Our winters aren’t long, so we take advantage of them when we can. And despite what most people think, desert cold is actually some of the worst you can experience because the cold is very dry. Hits you right in the bone. A farwa is really helpful during those moments,” he said.
Though the farwa’s purpose remained the same, the styles have become more versatile as more city dwellers have taken to them and designers are adding their personal touch using leather, fabrics and ornaments for their designs.
The traditional-looking farwa, which is usually a nondescript black or brown with minimal decoration, is turned into stunning, modernized pieces for both men and women to flaunt.
Bright colors, delicate trims and decorations, and even shorter, jacket-like farwas have all found their way into mainstream culture.
Hana Abu Said, a Saudi abaya designer, said that farwas were one of her favorite things to design.
“There’s so much you can do with them. The challenge lies in making sure the article is functional as well as beautiful. It has to do what a farwa is supposed to do first and foremost — keep you warm. As long as the purpose is achieved, it can look however you want it to look,” she said.
“Some women choose to wear a farwa instead of an abaya during the winter. And sometimes, with the excess fur, I can trim winter abayas for those times when the weather is cool, but not yet cold enough for a full-on farwa.”