‘Like a Heat Hug From an Angel’

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For a handful of cultures around the world, including the Arab world, these different blankets not only offer an incredibly warm, soft hug, but also a great sense of belonging.

Subhi Taha wanted to say special thanks last week for what he called the “only reason” he did not suffer from frostbite during the devastating and deadly winter storm that recently left millions of people without heat in Texas, where he lives . “That thing is this blanket,” Taha said on TikTok, pointing behind her to an ornate bedspread in hunter green and pink with large flowers printed on it.

These blankets are “literally lifesavers,” said Taha, who calls himself “just the average Muslim American” on his YouTube channel, which has around 250,000 followers. “Even when our heating was down and literally blowing cold air,” he said, “this blanket was so effective at insulating that I got hot underneath. I woke up hot! “

If you’ve ever wrapped yourself in those absurdly soft, addicting, warm, heavily ornate blankets, you will never forget the feeling. They may not have a generally accepted name (some call them “floral blankets,” “mink blankets,” “ethnic blankets” or, as Taha put it, “immigrant blankets”), but they are not just any blankets.

For a handful of cultures around the world, including the Arab world, it’s a direct connection that conveys a sense of belonging even from afar. Their often large-format patterns, which take place in a color spectrum, conjure up visions of thick, color-intensive Persian carpets that line family houses from wall to wall, or of colorful fabrics that blow in open-air markets (a knowing wink in between those who get it).

Their warmth – they’re mostly made from a hypersoft polyester fabric called minky, which is mostly used for baby products – can only be matched by their distinct looks and softness for many of those who love them.

“I think they are beautiful objects,” Farah Al Qasimi, a Lebanese Emirati artist from New York, recently told me. She has about 10 blankets and is always open to collecting more. Stretched over her bed is one reminiscent of watercolor flowers – the ceiling is splattered with pink, blue, and green; It’s topped with matching (but not too matching) pillow cases. There is a pile of them in her studio, which forms a so-called “ceiling nest” in which you and your dog can immerse themselves.

“When I sit on one, I feel like I’m falling into a mystical garden,” she said. “It’s like a warm hug from an angel.”

Although her mother has a more American sensitivity to decor, she said, her extended family always had these blankets with pillows on the floor in so-called more traditional living rooms.

Lana Kesbeh, 30, a Palestinian-American woman who lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, recently married and brought two blankets to add to her Egyptian husband’s collection. Her father has about half a dozen in his house, and her mother has a couple too. Kesbeh takes them on road trips and picnics and rolls into them on winter evenings for cozy movie nights. They go perfectly, she said, with Netflix and a warm cup of sahlab (a thick, sweet, hot drink from the Middle East that kesbeh summarized as “creamy delicacy”).

She remembered a Palestinian shopkeeper in Houston, where she grew up and ran a wholesale blanket business. Her family bought “like a dozen” from him, she said.

Al Qasimi’s collection is a mix of those she bought while visiting the United Arab Emirates and those she bought closer to her home in Ridgewood, Queens. “There are so many stores in and around New York selling them,” she said, making it clear that she was referring to stores on the outskirts, which are more dense in the Queens neighborhoods of Jackson Heights and Ridgewood and Bay Ridge in Brooklyn. They typically cost around $ 30 to $ 50. And while dollar stores sometimes sell cheaper versions, embossed king-size sets can go over $ 200. “You wouldn’t really find them in a Manhattan store,” she said.

Ranya Marrakchi, 25, who lives in Howard County, Md., Recently picked up the favorite of her seven blankets on a trip to Morocco, which is where she is from. Whenever she wants more, she has an in: her uncle makes it in Tangier. He’s sending them to different countries in Africa and some places in Europe. Most of the time, however, he sells them to shopkeepers in Morocco.

While these blankets are made across the Middle East in factories like Uncle of Marrakchi and by large traders like Santamora in Egypt, they are more commonly made in China and Korea and exported around the world.

“I really see them as some kind of Chinese export that happened to get into Hispanic, Arab and Russian homes,” said Al Qasimi. “It’s like this strange cultural relic that surpasses geography in so many ways.”

After Taha posted his TikTok, which was liked about 170,000 times, he was surprised when ceiling fans from all over the world responded. “I didn’t know this was a widespread, global thing,” he said in a later post. “I’m half Palestinian and half Filipino, and at least in Palestine I know that they are everywhere.”

Part of the adventure that seems to be woven into these blankets besides the vibrant fibers is that they have been given as gifts for decades to honor the greatest occasions in life, like weddings, goodbyes, or to celebrate a new baby .

Brides are given a few of these blankets to take to their new homes, said Karima Elkeurti, 52, of Tiffin, Iowa, whose family in Algeria has at least two or three in each home. When she came to the United States in 1995, she realized how much she missed her. When her husband returned for a visit a few years later, she made sure her sister sent him home with one. He returned with an earth-colored blanket printed with a thick rope-like border. She keeps it on her bed during the cold months. “It’s been in my house since then,” she said. “You are very, very special.”

Salma Jabri, 25, lives in Palatinate, Illinois. Her father and brother received blankets as gifts about 12 years ago when they were doing the hajj, the pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca that Muslims are supposed to make at least once in their lives. Jabri’s parents moved from Syria to the United States in the late 1980s. The blankets are now kept at home, folded in the linen cupboard and used by the whole family.

Perhaps unexpectedly for items that seem like tokens from centuries past, not only have these blankets popped up on social media sites like Taha’s, but they have also been hooked on like crazy with people from the many regions they are loved in over the past few years Reminder called – Mexico, China, Korea, South Asia and Russia as well as the Middle East and North Africa – with your personal stamp.

One of the most popular is an image of Homer Simpson dozing under you – the image has been routinely altered to show some of the ceiling’s most iconic patterns, such as large flowers or monochromatic tigers and zebras. The overlaid message is often: “Arab households in winter are like.” In numerous other countries the word “Spanish”, “Slavic”, “Asian” or more generally “ethnic” takes the place of “Arabic”. And sometimes fans go online to lovingly poke fun at the ostentatious nature of the blankets: “They may be ugly, but they’re still elite. Comfort level 10000000000 “, it says in a tweet.

The more familiar you become with the look of these covers, the more you will see allusions to them in fashion and art.

Balenciaga sells a bag with a pattern derived from the classic floral design of the blankets. The description reads “Inspiration for the printing of the floral ceiling”. In the Washington Post last year, Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Salwan Georges used one of these blankets as the backdrop for a story about Iraqi siblings in Michigan whose parents died of Covid-19. And they have appeared in one way or another in Al Qasimi’s creations. “I’ll use the older ones I have,” she said. “I will use them for sewing projects. I made dolls out of the material. “

When Kesbeh recently watched the Middle Eastern television show “Awlad Adam” (“Children of Adam”) on Netflix, he noticed that these blankets were used in a scene that takes place in the dormitories of a prison. “Everyone had one of these blankets on their bed!” She said. “I knew they were ubiquitous in the Arab world, but I didn’t think they would have them in a fictional prison.”

Despite the increasing profile of these blankets in the digital space, they are not readily available online for those looking to purchase one. “What is really amazing about them is trying to find them on Amazon,” said Al Qasimi. “They don’t really exist on the internet. They’re kind of like one of those things that just need to be bought in person. “

Eslah Attar and Tala Safie have contributed to the research.

Surfacing is a column exploring the intersection of art and life and was produced by Alicia DeSantis, Jolie Ruben, Tala Safie, and Josephine Sedgwick.

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