For many Israelis, Europeans and North Americans, the keffiyeh has come to represent terrorism. It brings to mind home-made cave videos; Pashtun men holding Kalishnakovs, their threats to the West muffled by black-and-white checkered cloths covering their faces and necks. Knowing the implications of wearing a keffiyeh, many Muslims choose to do so anyway, to show that that not all Muslims are suicide bombers-in-training. They mean it to be seen as a symbol of Islamic solidarity.
The keffiyeh has represented the Palestinian fight for self-determination since the 1960s. It was made popular in the media by the late Yasser Arafat, the Chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, President of the Palestinian National Authority, and leader of the Fatah political party. He was rarely ever photographed without it.
In 1967, after the Six-Day-War, Israel occupied the West Bank and the Gaza Strip; heavily Palestinian-populated regions of Egypt and Jordan. The state of Israel subsequently banned the Palestinian flag, and anybody caught waving it could be arrested. So, the keffiyeh became even more iconic as it attempted to fill the important social role that the national flag could not.
After the tragic death of Aqsa Pervez (allegedly killed by her father for refusing to cover her head), wearing a hijab became a kind of joke. People believed most girls only wore the garment because their parents forced them. The keffiyeh then became an alternative way to show that we were not ashamed of Islam. I wore the keffiyeh with my hijab when I went to school; and I wrapped it around my neck so many times I looked like a little bandit with a backpack. There was no room for misinterpretation: it showed confidence, and it demanded respect.
That is… until the keffiyeh became "cool". Suddenly, everyone was wearing it: white kids, black kids, hip-hoppers, punks, gays, Jews, Christians… everyone. When I saw it on sale at H&M one day (in purple, hot pink, neon yellow and blue), I was shocked. Some time ago, somebody stopped me on the streetcar to ask me where I got my keffiyeh. “Saudi Arabia,” I said proudly. His eyes widened: “oh my god, they sell it in the Middle East too?”
I urge everyone to take a look at the video link I’ve attached. It’s a video by French journalist and filmmaker Benoit Faiveley, for Monocle magazine. It’s a heartbreaking piece about Yasser Mohammed Jood Hirbawi, a 76 year-old Palestinian businessman and the owner of the last keffiyeh factory in Palestine; located in Hebron, West Bank.
During the first intifada (a popular uprising against the Israeli occupation in the late 1980s), Hirbawi used to make and sell about 1,000 keffiyehs a day. He would fill orders for the entire West Bank and the Gaza strip. Even Israelis who were against the occupation would buy keffiyehs from him. And now, partly because of the military checkpoints in Israel, Hirbawi is having trouble selling abroad. But, what’s even worse is that he is being outsold abroad and in Palestine by Chinese makers of the keffiyeh.
There is something so wrong about this. The wearers of keffiyehs, like us, are actually supporting Chinese exporters… not the Palestinians.
What an epic fail.
And certainly, nations all over the world have, at some point, felt the burn of globalization, and have sought to protect their precious sectors. Canada was a major player in the "United Nations UNESCO Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions". It entered into force in 2007, and enabled countries to enact measures that protect industries unique to their nations. This is especially important for us Canadians, bombarded with media content from the south.
The Americans too enacted the Berry & Kissel Amendments, which compels the Department of Defense and Homeland Security to use American materials, metals and textiles wherever possible. This protects jobs in the United States during a recession but it is also an issue of pride: American soldiers ought to be wearing domestically produced uniforms.
Hirbawi and other such business people are at a disadvantage here. Their biggest problem is probably the simple reality that people rarely dress, act or buy consciously/ethically /patriotically, unless they are legally compelled to do so. Not being a real and recognized state, they lack the means to enforce this in any significant way.
The film closes with black and white shots of Hirbawi’s machines whirring away in his factory. “The Palestinians should wear their own symbols”, Hirbawi says stubbornly, like a senior lecturing his wayward children. The sad fact is that the factory may not outlive its owner. And, in the meantime, the keffiyeh will become little more than an outdated Western fashion accessory. A symbol becomes a trend, and then the trend becomes a joke.
I am struck by the fact that we are constantly flooded by news of this monolithic identity we call the “Middle East.” And perhaps we have become totally desensitized, for we are mostly unaffected by the political and economic goings on.
But these small glimpses into the everyday lives of the common people… they can be the most tragic stories of all.