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The Keffieh and the Arab Heartland

By May 28, 2008

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Smiling keffieh man in Cairo

(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).

girl with a keffieh on a train

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.

Smiling keffieh man in Cairo

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).


May 29, 2008 at 2:01 am
(1) Kathy says:

A lovely essay, Pierre… and a comment about that tourist in the ruins.

When in Lower Egypt and touring ruins, an Egyptian hustler will quickly take your scarf and fashion it into a proper headpiece, unless you protest! It happened to me… ;-)

May 29, 2008 at 6:36 am
(2) Pierre says:

That’s something you don’t see every day with people wearing their berets oddly in the New York subway! So Kathy, when do we get to see those pictures of you in a keffieh?

May 29, 2008 at 12:36 pm
(3) Thomas Mc says:

I sent Dunkin’ Donuts an email yesterday telling them that they had lost a customer. I refuse to give my money to anyone who would pander to a xenophobe like Malkin.

May 29, 2008 at 12:50 pm
(4) Pierre says:

That’s the most effective response TMc. Makes them think twice about their next cave-in, especially when the majority of people, as I just noted in the Chicago Tribune poll-addendum to the blog post, think more fair- and open-mindedly as you do, rather than as the malkintents do.

May 30, 2008 at 8:01 am
(5) William says:

We have absolutely lost our minds in this country. That a company would pull an ad due to the hysterical objections of a few right wing nut jobs does not speak well to the health of our country. Like the previous commenter, I also have sent Dunkin Donuts an e-mail from another lost customer. In it I stated that none of us have the right to never be offended, and that I will not support a company which caves to racism and bigotry.

May 30, 2008 at 11:58 am
(6) Bill from Saginaw says:

As Michele Malkin phrased it “Fashion statements may seem insignificant, but when they lead to the mainstreaming of violence – intentionally or not – they matter. Ignorance is no longer an excuse. In post 9/11 America, vigilence must never go out of style.”

Well, ignorance may no longer be an excuse, but it certainly is thriving as a cottage industry in the world of right wing punditry.

As to the first part of Ms. Malkin’s rationale for anti-scarf cultural bigotry, keep her premise in mind the next time you’re walking through the mall or people watching in other public places.

What subliminal message does the widespread popularity of military camouflague as a contemporary American fashion statement convey?

Bill from Saginaw

May 30, 2008 at 12:07 pm
(7) Pierre says:

Once again, as I’ve had so many occasions to be these few years, I’m reminded of Martin Amis’s observation that in the United States, “being inoffensive, and being offended, are now the twin addictions of the culture.”

May 31, 2008 at 4:49 pm
(8) Zainab Ashkar says:

Pierre you said exactly what I was thinking all this time yet i get so worked up the words never come out correctly!!

I’m a first-generation American, born from Palestinian refugees who came to this country looking for a more peaceful life. I’m continuing our tradition, I’m about to be the proud parent of twins. My husband is as well Palestinian, straight from the wonderful city of Tul Karem, one of the most well-known cities in Palestine, and he loves the US with all his heart, none of us would ever dare to hurt anyone here in the name of our home nation. It hurts so much to see this wonderfully versatile garment being vilified in such a way, it’s really very useful in so many climates, breathable yet cozy…and soft…in fact I’m getting 2 to wrap my babies in as blankets. They protect from sun overexposure(I use mine to protect myself because my doctor said stay out of the sun), yet they keep the baby nice and cool in the summer, in the winter they keep you warm yet not sweaty. Thye’re perfect for any climate, and I recommend every new mother wrap her baby in one.

Once I venture out in public people will ask, and I will pitch to them how useful this garment is and then I am sure this will soon catch on, and if it did, the sales of keffiehs in the United States would skyrocket. Their utility and versatility is undeniable.

I’ll never stop wearing my keffieh, neither will my children, no matter what those neo-conservative maniacs spew from their pieholes. Wear ‘en with pride!

May 31, 2008 at 8:23 pm
(9) Sophia says:

I loved this essay Pierre. Sorry for not visiting often lately.

July 14, 2008 at 4:55 pm
(10) Jillian C. York says:

First of all, thanks for the link. I was a little disappointed that my new keffiyeh is from Korea, but what are you going to do?

As for my opinion toward the garment itself, as you can see, I wear it proudly. Yes, I wear mine in support of Palestine, but I know many who wear it for fashion only. It’s comfortable, versatile, beautiful, and goes with most colors! Mine is huge and can be worn as a scarf or spread into a shawl in my cold office.

I too have written to Dunkin’ Donuts. Good call.

July 16, 2008 at 2:31 pm
(11) Jillian C. York says:

Dunkin’ Donuts responded! I will post their reply on my blog this evening.

November 29, 2008 at 8:21 pm
(12) Feldwebel Wolfenstool says:

I’m gettin’ one. It’s -20 F. here. I hate what toques do to my hair.

December 6, 2008 at 1:17 pm
(13) Pamela says:

Thank you all for sharing similar thoughts to mine… I have been wearing the keffiyeh for a long time… I remember people giving me wrong looks whenever I rode in the NYC subway, now is so ironic that the keffiyeh is a global fashion garment… I get all kinds of ignorant comments from people, and all I do is laugh… because ignorance is a bliss, people should do their research first and should stop assuming that the keffiyeh is associated with terrorism and violence… it si a cultural, historical, and traditional symbol for the people in the middle east and some parts of north africa… seriously… it feels like prejudist and sterotyping groups will never end… thanks once again… I wear my poshu / keffiyeh nice and proud… got a collection… lol

September 20, 2010 at 6:14 am
(14) Rachel says:

I went to Egypt once & thought it was one of the most beautiful places I have ever been too. I would love to return.

January 20, 2011 at 10:41 am
(15) KuffiyaClothing says:

I believe using the kuffiya to creatively create something new to show your solidarity for palestine is perfectly fine as long as you know the long standing history and struggle behind it :)

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