This morning I boarded a flight from the DC/Metro area to
. As I slid into my middle seat, the woman in the window seat looked up. “You’re brave to wear that today,” she said, nodding at the black and white scarf around my neck. I smiled to myself, stowing my backpack under the seat in front of me before responding. I settled into my seat and turned to the woman, who was middle-aged with beautiful dark skin. She wore an olive-colored suede suit, large silvery earrings, and a hand-painted scarf twisted around her head in a very African style. “Believe it or not,” I told her, “I receive many more positive comments from wearing this than I do negative.” Perhaps that’s part of why I wear it, I thought. She smiled. Atlanta
Yasser Arafat made the black and white keffiyeh a symbol of Palestine back in the 1960’s, much as the King of Jordan made the red & white version of the traditional Bedouin scarf a symbol of Jordan. Today, the black and white keffiyeh is strongly associated with
Palestine– the fight for freedom, the oppression of the Gaza strip, the “ Middle East conflict.” To some, the Palestinian keffiyeh represents resistance and solidarity; to others, it represents terrorism and the worst kind of Muslim fundamentalist. The latter view is what caused my seat-mate’s reaction.
A Chilean-German friend who lives and works in Europe and has traveled extensively in the Middle East told me once that he would never dare to wear the keffiyeh in the
. Both friends and strangers have echoed his comment with varying degrees of awe, pride, and trepidation at my “daring.” They expect my display of such a supposedly controversial symbol to attract trouble, or at the very least some sort of derision or negativity. Their expectations aren’t unfounded, yet my experiences over the last year have been exactly the opposite – wearing the keffiyeh brings genuine interest, knowing smiles, and sometimes heartfelt thanks (occasionally discounts and job offers, too). United States
The only truly negative reaction I’ve received from wearing the keffiyeh came soon after I returned from
around this time last year, and it came indirectly. A friend of the family picked me up from the airport one day in early January 2009, during Egypt Israel’s War on . Her parents have worked for the US Department of State for many years and are close friends of my mother’s. Nothing was said that night, but later my mother told me her friend had made a comment about noticing I was wearing a “terrorist scarf.” Gaza
More often, the reactions I receive are inquisitive or appreciative. A man came up to me in a Starbucks once and complimented me on my scarf. He asked where I got it and then said his daughter wore one every day. I was shopping with my mother in
when a shopkeeper asked me where I got my scarf and then if I spoke any Arabic. “Shuwayya,” I said. His Jordanian coworker was thrilled at my little bit of Arabic and proceeded to offer us a discount slightly lower than the “just for you” discount given to most tourists. Vendors in Florence ’s Porta Portese occasionally ask, “enti filistina?” Are you Palestinian? Or I receive nods and smiles from strangers on the street or on buses, the sort of looks I understand and always return. Rome
I was waiting for a bus in
one evening when an older man commented on my scarf. “Are you anti-Israeli?” he asked me. “No,” I told him, trying to form a response in Italian. “No, I’m not anti-Israeli, but I don’t support their war. I have friends in Rome , and I wear this for them.” The man, who seemed to approve of my response, asked where I was from and what I was studying. Palestine
In February I took a shuttle bus from Logan airport to a hotel in downtown Boston. I happened to be wearing my keffiyeh, which started a conversation with the bus driver, who was Egyptian. He and I talked about everything from
Palestine and the keffiyeh to Egyptian politics and cultural differences (he also told me the location of the best shwarma in – down a narrow alley across from the Mosque dedicated to the Prophet’s daughter; I didn't tell him I'm a vegetarian). Cairo
The keffiyeh has become a symbol steeped in misconceptions over the past years. Some of you may recall the Dunkin’ Donuts/ Rachael Ray “scandal” of 2008, when the popular donut shop pulled an online commercial featuring Ray because she wore a black and white scarf resembling the keffiyeh. Right-wing blogger Michelle Malkin discussed the issue in her blog, and on May 28 commented: “Anti-American fashion designers abroad and at home have mainstreamed and adapted the scarves as generic pro-Palestinian jihad or anti-war statements. Yet many folks out there remain completely oblivious to the apparel’s violent symbolism and anti-Israel overtones.” Malkin’s comments reflect the sentiments which many expect I should face.
Yes, keffiyehs are sometimes worn by Arab terrorists and have appeared in videos of hostage-takings, among other things. They are also commonplace at anti-Israeli and pro-Palestinian rallies and marches, and Malkin is right that many of the youngsters who wear different colored scarves patterned after the traditional keffiyehs have no idea what their symbolism is. Yet the keffiyehs are so much more than a symbol of “murderous Palestinian jihad,” as Malkin calls it. If terrorists start wearing Gucci jeans is Gucci suddenly going to become a ‘terrorist’ symbol? What about the fundamentalist Christians who have bombed abortion clinics – will wearing the cross come to symbolize violent Christian fundamentalism?
Perhaps the deeper question is, what does it mean to be a symbol of
? A symbol of Palestine is something much greater, something much deeper than modern Islamic extremism. To represent Palestine is to represent thousands of years of rich history. The keffiyeh ties today to the past, to a deep tradition that is not only Muslim but also Christian and even Jewish. The keffiyeh has come to represent strength and solidarity, and courage in the face of adversity. Yes, the Keffiyeh is in many ways a symbol of Palestine , but this does not make it a proponent of violence or bloodshed. The keffiyeh is a symbol of freedom, of hope, of a people’s fight against repression. Palestine
I wear the keffiyeh not because it’s a great fashion accessory or because it’s totally in style. I wear it to remind myself and those who recognize it that there is still injustice in the world, and also because I know peace is possible. For me, the keffiyeh is also much more personal than that. The keffiyeh represents friendship. I wear the keffiyeh for my friends in
and Ramallah, for my friends all over the Arab world who support the Palestinian struggle, for all those whom I have never or will never meet. For me, the keffiyeh is personal. Gaza