There is no one size fits all blanket definition for the gabi.
One could say that it is a tightly woven cotton spread of a large size, and that when folded several times it still has a surface of at least 2 square meters. It is generally white in color – and the whiter the better – although yellow-brown hues are not unknown, especially in the heartlands where people wear them to work, and green ones seem favored in some parts of Gojjam, especially in Agaw areas.
They can be monochrome but often bear bands of colour, with the edge – or terz – bearing woven designs of gold, silver, and red. The borders carry little tassels that church goers sometimes absentmindedly roll in their fingers, like prayer beads. In plain English, the gabi is a wrap around blanket. But in convoluted and mountainous Ethiopia, the gabi’s simple design offers manifold uses. First and foremost, it is a badge of recognition that covers the whole body, a fashion statement easily accessible to all (the rich old ladies in sparkling white and gilded gold edges, the poor in washed out yellowing linens, all accede to a certain aristocracy once wrapped in a gabi). But the gabi is also:
• A symbol of eternal Ethiopia
• A fashion statement of today’s Ethiopia
• A sign of modesty/wholesomeness
• A cot for a baby
• A pillow
• A raincoat
• A sleeping bag
• A mattress
• A bag
• A hiding place for lovers to meet, a kind of intimate tent
• A shroud for the deceased
• A gladiatorial fighting tool like the net brandished by the fighters of ancient Rome
• A place from where to watch satellite TV on cold nights
• A screen to eat behind (preventing the evil eye from entering your mouth)
I remember once seeing a flock – and from afar they did indeed look like a flock of snow white sheep – of country folk coming back from a funeral near Sekela, Gojjam. Their white shapes stood out in sharp contrast to the green grasses and gave the procession a regal air. On another occasion, on the annual pilgrimage to Itisa Maryam, the faithful slept cocoon like, scattered all around Tekle Haymanot’s birthplace, until the morning when they emerged from their white cocoons like butterflies.
The gabi, well worn, endows its bearer with the grace of a Roman senator. The fall of its folds – once the subject of great debate in Axum and Gondar – tells us of the regional origin of its wearer, their age and political leanings. Today, in Addis Ababa, Nike and fake Hermes shawls are leaving the gabi out in the cold, and the global cultural blanket seems to be descending on the hills of Ethiopia, like some gaudy shroud.
But the gabi fights back, as new designs appear and people seek refuge in its comforting folds – and young church goers wear it above their Levis and tank tops. And so, let me attempt a blanket definition for today’s multipurpose gabi:
“ Gabi, a noun, a manifold wrap that now serves as a cultural comfort blanket.”