‘Like a Warm Hug From an Angel’02/26/2021
For a handful of cultures across the globe, the Arab world among them, these distinct blankets deliver not only an impossibly warm, soft hug but a great sense of belonging.
By Maya Salam
Photographs by Farah Al Qasimi For The New York Times
Subhi Taha wanted to give a special thanks last week to what he called the “one and only reason” he didn’t suffer frostbite during the destructive and deadly winter storm that recently left millions without heat in Texas, where he lives. “That thing is this blanket,” Taha said on TikTok, pointing behind him to an ornate hunter green and rose pink bedspread printed with large flowers.
These blankets are “literal lifesavers,” said Taha, who calls himself “just an average Muslim-American” on his YouTube channel, where he has about 250,000 followers. “Even when our heater was down and it was literally blowing cold air,” he said, “this blanket was so effectively insulating, I got hot under it. I woke up hot!”
If you’ve ever wrapped yourself in these absurdly soft, addictively warm, highly embellished blankets, you’ll never unknow the feeling. They may not have a widely agreed-upon name (some call them “flower blankets,” “mink blankets,” “ethnic blankets” or, as Taha put it, “immigrant blankets”), but they’re not just any blankets.
For a handful of cultures around the globe, the Arab world among them, tucking into one is a lineal link that offers a sense of belonging even from a distance. Their often large-scale patterns, which play out in a spectrum of colors, conjure visions of thick, richly hued Persian rugs that line family homes from wall to wall, or of brightly colored fabrics blowing in open-air markets (a knowing wink between those who get it).
Their warmth — they’re most often made of a hypersoft polyester fabric called minky that is largely used for baby products — is rivaled only by their distinct appearance and softness for many of those who adore them.
“I think they’re beautiful objects,” Farah Al Qasimi, a Lebanese Emirati artist based in New York, recently told me. She has about 10 blankets and is always open to collecting more. Stretched across her bed is one that evokes watercolor blooms — the blanket is splashed in pinks, blues, greens; it’s topped with matching (but not too matchy) pillowcases. There’s a pile of them in her studio forming what she called a “blanket nest” for her and her dog to sink into.
“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 sensibility when it comes to décor, she said, her extended family always had these blankets out along with cushions on the floor in what she called more traditional-style sitting rooms.
Lana Kesbeh, 30, a Palestinian-American woman living Charlottesville, Va., recently got married and brought two blankets with her to add to her Egyptian husband’s collection. Her father keeps about half a dozen at his house, and her mother has a couple, too. Kesbeh takes them on road trips and picnics, and she curls into them for cozy movie nights on winter evenings. They go perfectly, she said, with Netflix and a warm mug of sahlab (a thick, sweet Middle Eastern hot drink that Kesbeh summed up as “creamy deliciousness”).
She recalled a Palestinian store owner in Houston, where she grew up, who 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 on visits back to the United Arab Emirates and those she bought closer to her apartment in Ridgewood, Queens. “There are so many stores in and around New York that sell them,” she said, making clear that she is referring to outer-boroughs shops, those found more densely in the Queens neighborhoods of Jackson Heights and Ridgewood, as well as in Bay Ridge in Brooklyn. They generally cost about $30 to $50. And while dollar stores sometimes sell cheaper versions, king-size sets with embossing can be upward of $200. “You wouldn’t really find them in a shop in Manhattan,” she said.
Ranya Marrakchi, 25, who lives in Howard County, Md., picked up the favorite of her seven blankets not long ago on a trip to Morocco, where she’s from. Whenever she wants more, though, she has an in: Her uncle makes them in Tangier. He ships them to different countries in Africa, she said, and to some places in Europe. But mostly, he sells them to store owners in Morocco.
While these blankets are produced across the Middle East in factories like Marrakchi’s uncle’s and by major distributors like Santamora, in Egypt, they’re more often manufactured in China and Korea and exported around the world.
“I really think of them as a sort of Chinese export that just happened to have made their way into Hispanic homes, Arab homes, Russian homes,” Al Quasimi said. “It’s kind of like this weird cultural relic that just surpasses geography in so many ways.”
After Taha posted his TikTok, which has been liked about 170,000 times, he was surprised when blanket fans from around the world responded. “I didn’t realize this is a widespread, global thing,” he said in a subsequent post. “I’m half Palestinian and half Filipino, and I know at least in Palestine, these are everywhere.”
Part of the adventure that seems to be woven into these blankets alongside the vibrant fibers is that for decades, they have been given as gifts to honor life’s biggest occasions, like weddings, send-offs or to celebrate a new baby.
Brides are given a bunch 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 every house. When she came to the United States in 1995, she realized how much she missed them. So 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-toned blanket printed with a thick ropelike border. She keeps it on her bed during cold months. “Since then, it’s been in my home,” she said. “They’re very, very special.”
Salma Jabri, 25, lives in Palatine, Ill. Her father and brother received blankets as gifts about 12 years ago when they did the hajj, the pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca that Muslims are supposed to perform at least once in their lives. Jabri’s parents moved to the United States from Syria in the late 1980s. The blankets are now kept at their home, folded in the linen closet and used by their whole family.
Perhaps unexpectedly for items that seem like tokens of centuries past, these blankets have not only popped up on social media pages like Taha’s, but have also been meme-ified like mad in recent years, with people from the many regions where they’re beloved — Mexico, China, Korea, South Asia and Russia, in addition to the Middle East and North Africa — adding their personal stamp.
One of the most circulated is an image of Homer Simpson snoozing beneath one — the image routinely altered to show some of the blankets’ most familiar patterns, like large flowers or monochromatic tigers and zebras. The overlaid message often reads: “Arab households in winter be like.” In numerous others, the word “Hispanic,” “Slavic,” “Asian” or more generally “ethnic” takes the place of “Arab.” And fans sometimes go online to lovingly poke fun at the blankets’ ostentatious nature: “They may be ugly but they are still elite. Comfort level 10000000000,” one tweet reads.
The more familiar you become with the look of these coverings, the more you’ll recognize nods to them in fashion and art.
Balenciaga sells a bag with a pattern that draws from the blankets’ classic floral design; its description reads “flower blanket’s print inspiration.” In the Washington Post last year, the Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Salwan Georges used one of these blankets as a backdrop for a story about Iraqi siblings in Michigan whose parents died of Covid-19. And they’ve appeared in one way or another in Al Qasimi’s creations. “I’ll use the older ones that I have,” she said. “I’ll repurpose them for sewing projects. I’ve made dolls out of the material.”
While recently watching the Middle Eastern TV show “Awlad Adam” (“Children of Adam”) on Netflix, Kesbeh noticed these blankets were used in a scene that takes place in the sleeping quarters of a prison. “Everyone had one of these blankets on their bed!” she said. “I knew they were ubiquitous in the Arab world but didn’t think they’d have them in a fictional prison, too.”
Despite these blankets’ rising profile in digital realms, for those looking to buy one, they are not readily available online. “What’s really incredible about them is trying to find them on Amazon,” Al Qasimi said. “They don’t really exist on the internet. They’re kind of one of those things that you just have to buy in person.”
Eslah Attar and Tala Safie contributed research.
Surfacing is a column that explores the intersection of art and life, produced by Alicia DeSantis, Jolie Ruben, Tala Safie and Josephine Sedgwick.
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