Hiab Debasai: Eritrean-American; born and raised in the US.
I have almost zero relationship with clothing from my culture. I think it’s because, to some extent, style stems from the media. So the more access your culture has to media, the more representation that style has, and then the more confident you feel wearing those clothes. Because Eritrea is such a small country and very old world — or at least perceived that way because they don’t have a lot representation in the US — it is an isolating experience to wear Eritrean clothes in American society.
In Eritrea there are nine different tribes, and they all come with their own cultures and styles of clothing as well as traditions, languages, and religions. Tigrinya is the tribe my parents are a part of. The Tigrinya tribe wears a very light, almost all-white, full-length, modest dress, called the zuria. You’re supposed to wear it with a netzala, which is a kind of shawl made of white chiffon. Eritrean women, especially the older generation, will wear them constantly, and my mom will use any opportunity around family to pull it out and wear it.
I know that Eritrean style is evolving and changing just like any type of style.
I think that the misconceptions we have here about any type of traditional clothing is that they are fixed and old. And I know that Eritrean style is evolving and changing just like any type of style. I grew up in a place in Michigan where there was no Eritrean community. But my family in Norway has done a really good job of going back to Eritrea and creating a transnational experience. When I go to Norway and go to functions with them I see women wearing zuria-like clothing that is shorter, or sleeveless, and matching it with hair that’s more Western, or not as much jewelry. It’s being developed through younger generations who are part of the diaspora.
The first time I wore a zuria I was 4 or 5. When I chose to wear it during school presentations, like show-and-tell, or for Halloween, I would always be an Eritrean princess. I would feel really cool and special because it’s such an incredible article of clothing. But then I realized people don’t understand it. So, growing up, I just never made the choice to go and be fitted for these types of clothing because it was almost too much of a hassle to explain. You just wear it knowing that you’re going to be asked questions. It’s kind of representative of the way it feels to be a first-generation immigrant. You have your home life, you have your culture, and then you have your American life as well, and sometimes they just don’t intersect as much as you want.