(Photo by Simio Sapiens via his Flickr page).
What I love about these three portraits, not only in their individual beauty and composition but as a set, is how they put to shame the suggestion that the keffieh, old eminence of Arab headgears, can so stupidly be reduced to a symbol of militancy or “terrorism” or Palestinian “jihadism.” But it has again and again.
“Many in the Jewish community, in particular,” the Times reported in 2007, “object to people wearing the scarf as a fashion statement. ‘Because there are people who wear the kaffiyeh as a sign of solidarity with Palestinians, some people view it as an endorsement of terrorism,’ said Mik Moore, chairman of the board of directors for the Jewish Student Press Service, an independent nonprofit organization.” (My About colleague Linda Lowen fills you in at her Women’s Issues site on the Keffieh’s latest lynchers).
The keffieh is as old as the sands of Sudan and Saudi Arabia, as varied and popular in its uses from the Fertile Crescent to the Maghreb, as dear to Bedouins as Birkenstocks are to Vermonters, and as adaptable and beloved by Westerners, who can fit the keffieh to their climes rather than let their bigotries project juvenile assumptions on the checkered cloth. It was so ubiquitous in the 19th century—in the Arab Peninsula, in Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Iraq, Palestine and Jordan—that British and French colonists took to wearing it for its comforts and distinctive look, just as students in coldish France and England, who couldn’t care less about its political threads, these days wear it for its warmth and fashionable malleability (like the girl below, photographed on a train in France by 21-year-old photographer Cédric Desrousseaux).
And do we not remember Sean Connery’s Henry Jones Sr. character, in a nod to Lawrence of Arabia’s fashion sense, wearing a keffieh toward the end of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade?
So when hysterically reactionary bloggers who, born the day before yesterday, associate the keffieh uniquely (and fearfully) with Palestinian militants, and manage to make enough noise to force a company to stop airing commercials featuring a keffieh, one has to wonder: what, exactly, is the objection? The association with “terrorism”? Not so. Palestinians rebelling against Israeli occupation aren’t “terrorists” anymore than Minutemen rebelling against King George’s redcoats. And suicide bombers targeting civilians, who can legitimately and unequivocally be called terrorists, didn’t make a habit of wearing keffiehs (it drew the attention of Israeli forces hip on profiling).
“Terrorism” and Palestinian militancy are a convenient excuse for a more unseemly, unspoken objection—the much more ordinary objection to Arabs and Arab culture as acceptably desirable by American consumers. Making symbols of Arab culture desirable and acceptable to mainstream consumers makes it immediately more difficult to vilify Arabs and, by obvious extension, Palestinians, Shiites, Sunnis (or whatever fills the blanks of reigning American prejudice). And vilifying Arabs is one of the last overtly permissible prejudices in American culture these days, because it more easily justifies the country’s immense and mounting investment in blood, guts, steel and dollars at Arabs’ expense (in Iraq primarily, in the greater Arab and south Asian region where the American military is deployed generally).
Let me not, of course, paint American prejudices with too broad a brush. In this case I don't think the prejudice extends much broader than the narrow, and narrow-minded, circle represented by the likes of a few noisy, malkintent reactionary bloggers who happen to wield disproportionate influence with overly susceptible advertisers. I note an unscientific but still convincing poll by the Chicago Tribune that with 7,000 participants as of this writing, found just 8% of respondents declaring themselves "offended" by the keffieh, and 92% not.
For all its famous wraps around the late PLO chairman Yasser Arafat’s head, the keffieh isn’t primarily a symbol of Palestinian militancy. It is, as it has always been, primarily a symbol of the Arab heartland, as human and humanizing a cloth as the smile on that Cairo man’s face at the top of this blog post. The last thing reactionaries want is humanized Arabs.
Update: You can hear me discuss this story with Jamie Tarabay on the May 29 edition of NPR's All Things Considered.
And then there's the point Jillian York makes with simple eloquence.
Continuity and Adaptability: Even tourists to Arab lands quickly discover what Arabs have known since the dawn of history: the keffieh is supremely comfortable headgear in sunny countries. (Photo by wiochmen via his Flickr page).