Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Why I Wear the Keffiyeh

This morning I boarded a flight from the DC/Metro area to Atlanta. 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.

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 United States. 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).

The only truly negative reaction I’ve received from wearing the keffiyeh came soon after I returned from Egypt 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 Israel’s War on Gaza. 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.”

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 Florence 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 Rome’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.

I was waiting for a bus in Rome 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 Palestine, 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. 

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 Cairo – down a narrow alley across from the Mosque dedicated to the Prophet’s daughter; I didn't tell him I'm a vegetarian).

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 Palestine? 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.

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 Gaza 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.


  1. I would imagine the fact that keffiyehs now come in a ridiculous amount of colors and are worn by pretty much half the teenage population makes it hard for people to see it as very much of anything political or threatening at the moment.

  2. what about those of us who recognise the shemagh as a more practical, more comfortable version of a scarf?

    i own a few of them, all "neutral" colours, to avoid political questioning when walking to the shops! my favourite being in the colours of my football team!

    i do occasionally encounter a self righteous, faux politisized student type who seems to think you should ever wear one to advertise your political views!

    im part Egyptian, but even if i wasn't, we should all be allowed to wear a functional piece of clothing! arabs wear jeans ffs! why? probably for functionality & fashion!

  3. Dear Anonymous #1: To some extent you are right - many young people have no idea the keffiyeh ever had any meaning other than a colorful scarf.

    Dear Anonymous #2: I completely understand your point and I agree with you. I have various colored scarves as well, and I love them. As the title of the post reads, this is only MY opinion, and reasonings behind why I wear the black & white scarf. It's not meant to reflect anyone else. :)

  4. Daniel Melnick - UCSBApril 7, 2011 at 10:23 PM

    I'm a pro-Israel, pro-Palestinian activist. In the past, I've wanted to wear keffiyot (the israeli feminine plural), but felt uncomfortable about the associated political message I might be perceived to be making. I really like your take on the Keffiyeh and the role it should play. The fact that terrorists have expropriated what should be a purely cultural and (non-violently) political symbol should not be allowed to ruin that symbol. Kudos on a good article, and an even better outlook

  5. Thanks :)
    In an unreasonable world, reason is priceless.

  6. Well, I'm posting my comment at a later date here, but I just ordered one of these scarves because I simply liked the pattern and thought a blue and white one would go good with jeans! The history of them had me curious and after reading so much negativism about the black and white ones, I'm somewhat glad I picked the blue. I understand since my purchase that the colored ones are mainly made for tourists. However, I also learned that there aren't many made anymore in Palestine and mine apparently was made in India. So, I'm probably hurting the Palestine economy in one sense, but not intentionally. I thought these were primarily utility or desert scarves and if the American soldiers wear them, why should I feel intimidated by wearing one? It's unfortunate that functional clothing has to have a political label attached to it by some. Not to imply I'm knocking those who wear these scarves for a political statement of solidarity, but I'm just a person who likes scarves and find this pattern interesting to look at. It will be interesting to see if anyone comments my wearing it. Hopefully by now, it's a passe issue.

  7. It is unfair that people, ESPECIALLY Americans assume that if you wear these you are a "terrorist" and this is coming from an American. I don't have any Arabic at all in me but I do have Arabic friends and they say that they are afraid to go out. I am Italian - American but I am not pro-Italian, I am Anti-American because it is an injustice that you guys are stereotyped as "terrorists" just because of 9/11. What a shame!

  8. I applaud you for being proud of heritage no matter what heritage it is. Good for you!

  9. That's great, I'm pro-Palestinian too and wear the black and white Palestinian keffiyeh proudly here in London, UK. Sadly too many people are brainwashed by the media so they'll call it a "terrorist scarf" when it's not. But there's something that bothers me about your post..."in a Starbucks"??? I hope you know that Starbucks is Zionist just like others e.g. M&S, Nestle, Coca-cola...search it up please.

  10. I have a black and white keffiyeh, which I wear as a functional scalf and a sign of solidarity with the Palestinian struggle, but I also have a black and red number which I picked up in a charity shop. Is there any political connotation of the red-and-black that I should be aware of?

  11. Since I had recently begun feeling a little annoyed at seeing the scarf worn by non-Muslims, I decided to look into the matter. I'm glad I did because I see the keffiyah in a more positive way. I've seen the scarf and it's pattern worn by American servicemen and wondered why they would choose the patterned scarf; this article was an education into understanding for me. Thank you, it makes a difference.

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