Wood Shoes: Karkab

by Salma Yassin


What I saw at the Bata Shoe Museum was a valuable collection of shoes from all over the world, used by people of various status, for different reasons, occasions, seasons, and stages of life. Each part of the museum invites me to come again. One visit is not enough. The part that contains wood shoes takes me back to Sudan and to my childhood, which is where I started to give this kind of shoe a lot of attention.

There were three types of wood shoe according to age and life condition. Young, unmarried women were supposed to wear flat sandals. Old women often wore them too. The most expressive and fully decorated shoes were for the pride of married women. They made them look high and light like birds, and gave walking a sexy air. This is why they used them only at home and inside the yards of their home. Most ladies also decorated their feet with henna, or saturated the skin with perfumed treatments.

This type of shoe is called karkab because of the noise it makes when you walk. In Egypt, it’s called gabgab for the same reason and because it looks like an arch, which is gabura in Arabic. In Egypt, ladies use them outside, not only at home.

The karkab has two high parts underneath, one at the front and the other at the back. It is made of teak wood (which mingles brown and yellow), from ebony (which is black) or from mahogany (a dark, reddish brown). This type of wood is suitable for the humid climate and it lasts a long time. The makers decorate the karkab according to the wearer’s age and condition. The wooden part is manufactured by a special person. Each one has his own design to craft it. Silver, copper and ivory are used to decorate the wooden parts, and the decoration is fixed in a very nice way – that is why people kept their old karkab and had them repaired.

My mom had some. She wore them with henna and other local Sudanese body decorations. One day, I accompanied my grandmother to the shoe fixer. I wanted to learn more about the karkab. This man did not make them but he fixed them according to the wearer’s feet to make them more healthy. He would make the karkab lower and give the result in a reasonable time. Old ladies used the lower karkab, some of them with a cover for the foot.

As a child, I always wanted a pair. I did not know the art behind the karkab but I loved the attractive show it made. After the visit to the shoemaker, I tried to convince my grandma to order me a small pair but she took me instead to her wooden trunk in the storeroom and showed me two different pairs of karkab, telling me that they were kept for me for when I would be a married lady. They were lovely but I was not happy. I wasn’t thinking how to walk in them but how to obtain them. I told my family that I needed the karkab for the festival of Eid. I was in a hurry to use them. Now I laugh at myself!

When I was ten years old, I insisted on having a pair of light gabgab brought from Egypt. The upper part was light-coloured leather with pictures of ancient Egyptians and Nilotic plants. My dad was against the idea because of the sound the gabgab made. And I was not in the right category or stage of life. At last he agreed and I wore them in the yard only.

Now people who used to have shoes of this type still keep them and use them when there is a chance. But for everyday use, they have mostly changed to shoes made by Dr. Scholl. Those who inherited karkab sometimes have a rubber layer added underneath. They use them most of the time except when they go outside or when they travel.