Thursday, April 16, 2009

Reflections on the keffiyeh

“Not just an anti-war scarf”

Western media over the last several years has misappropriated the keffiyeh, resulting in the checkered “scarves” in all sorts of colors being spotted everywhere from New York Fashion Week to your local university campus. The newest hipsters are sporting a military-chic look that Urban Outfitters tried to capitalize on in Spring of 2007, by selling what they advertised as “anti-war scarves.”

How is it that this “thing” gets from off the face or head of a freedom fighter in Palestine and then make its way to the U.S. and onto the neck of the newest generation of trendy hipsters? And, is this process of appropriating another’s culture for fashion problematic because it further stirs up anti-Semitism or Islam-o-phobia?

Yes, the keffiyeh was a trendy in the 80’s for a bit, but the first place I remember seeing the keffiyeh making a comeback as a fashion trend was on the 2007 Balenciaga catwalk. Spanish fashion house Balenciaga exhibited several different styles of a scarf worn around the necks of his models, and all them harkened back to the checkered patterns of the Palestinian keffiyeh, and since then the keffiyeh has become so popular that one can find them on,, and even urban outfitters before they pulled their “anti-war” scarf.

Meghan McCain, John and Cindy McCain’s daughter, even Lauren Bush, niece of President Bush, Ricky Martin and a host of other celebrities have been photographed wearing a proper keffiyeh , and all of this celebrity news just made me curious to how this piece of fabric has come to represent fashion, terrorism, anti-Semitism and Palestinian solidarity.

One important clarification to make with the keffiyeh and all the colors they are made in is that the black and white keffiyeh is associated with Fatah and the red and white with Hamas. The Hamas, which is the Islamic Resistance Movement, is a radical political party and organization which is notorious for its violence and is recognized as a terrorist organization by many countries, but not often recognized for the many social programs that the Hamas has created on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Alternatively, while the Fatah is not officially categorized as a terrorist organization by any government, there is a long history of political tension due to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Fatah is the Palestinian National Liberal Movement and is the largest faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization. Yasir Arafat, president of the Palestinian National Authority, was one of the founding fathers of the Fatah movement that was formed in 1954, and supporters of Arafat and Palestinian nationalism and resistance identified themselves by wearing a black and white checkered keffiyeh.

After Balenciaga’s 2007 fashion show, the next time I saw the keffiyeh in the mainstream media was when Kanye West premiered his new music video, Homecoming, in which he wears a keffiyeh for nearly the entire video. After that, checkered scarves were seen on everyone everywhere. TV personalities wore the, celebrities wore them, activists dug out their old ones, Arab-American students bragged that their keffiyeh was actually from the Middle East and not from Urban Outfitters, and hipsters clung to their new fashion accessory in 90 degree weather so tightly that it caused a few raised eyebrows .

Dunkin Donuts pulled an ad in May that featured TV chef, Rachel Ray who was wearing a black and white checkered scarf. The ad apparently was scandalous to the conservative right wing media blogger, Michelle Malkin, called the scarf that Ray wore, “jihadi chic.” Malkin blogged that “the keffiyeh…is the traditional scarf of Arab men that has come to symbolize murderous Palestinian jihad.”

Amahl Bishara, an anthropology lecturer at the University of Chicago who specializes in media matters relating to the Middle East, said in an interview with MSNBC, that complaints about the scarf’s use in the ad demonstrate misunderstandings of Arab culture and the multiple meanings that symbols can take on depending on someone’s perspective.

Bishara says: “I think that a right-wing blogger making an association between a keffiyeh and terrorism is just an example of how so much of the complexity of Arab culture has been reduced to a very narrow vision of the Arab world on the part of some people in the U.S.”

In a Feb. 11th 2007 New York Times article, Where Some See Fashion, Others See Politics, journalist, Kibum Kim, wrote that older generation of Arabs still wear the keffiyeh as u-til-i-tarian headwear, but the younger generation in the Middle East may wear it expressly to show support of the Palestinian cause, and it is also used by militants to disguise their faces.

The stigma that the keffiyeh is linked to a violence or terrorism is “a result of how they have been portrayed in the mass media,” says University of Minnesota student Dan Garon, who identifies as a Zionist Jew.

Ricky Martin has been photographed wearing a red and white keffiyeh, and rumor has it that his scarf was embroidered with the words, “Jerusalem is ours.”

Garon says: “I don’t have anything against the garment itself, but if you are trying to wear something that symbolizes death to Israel, then I have a problem with that.”He said that “Jews don’t really care what you wear as long as you don’t have a bomb in it.”

Although Balshe recognizes that while some freedom fighters may wear a keffiyeh when they commit acts of violence, she does not wear it for that reason. “As a Palestinian, “Balshe says, “When I wear a keffiyeh it doesn’t mean that I want destruction to Israel, I wear it to honor my heritage.”

At times, the keffiyeh seems to be just another accessory in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But, as an outsider, I’m not sure there is much I can say considering that I’m not there in Palestine or Israel fighting for my survival or beliefs, but rather, I am across the sea in my room and somewhat sheltered life, but I still recognize that this item is personal and very political for me because I am an Indian-American, Arab-American journalism student, and I have Jewish and Arab friends and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a big source of tension. I support Palestine, but am in no way anti-Israel. After doing all this research and talking with people I have decided that it’s not someone’s fault if she doesn’t know the history of the garment she has around her neck, but once she is educated, she should make the decision on whether or not she supports Palestine – and if she doesn’t, then she shouldn’t wear a keffiyeh.

In reflection, I understand that the keffiyeh symbolizes different ideals, emotions, hopes and fears to different people, and I guess I don’t see this scarf as symbol of terrorism. I mean, think about who says that it is a symbol of radical Islamic terrorists, and what it means that entire group of people gets branded with the label terrorist or another group - freedom fighter. Who really can say that one group is militant or rebel while the other is a soldier or peace keeper, not me, and probably not you.

When I began thinking about the keffiyeh, I tried to just focus on the keffiyeh has a thing, but in talking with Palestinians and Jews, I quickly realized that it would be impossible and unfair to separate this “thing” from its history – both in the creation of Israel and in the fight (literally) for a Palestinian state.

No matter who is dying, blood is being spilled for some reason or belief. The keffiyeh is part of a larger picture and we cannot forget that as it is on a fashion runway here in America, some are wearing it in Palestine as they fight for what they believe in…many of whom end up paying the ultimate price for their freedom – their lives.


  1. Your "freedom fighters," when they blow up our buses, are our "terrorists"

  2. So, police, when they raid homes without warrants and commit acts of brutality - are they terrorists?