First Published: 2008-08-29

 
Palestinian Keffiyeh outgrows Mideast conflict
 

Headscarf has become standard garb for anti-war activists globally, chic accessory for urban hipsters.

 

Middle East Online

Can i check if it is made in China?

HEBRON - Anti-war activists and fashionistas have carried the iconic Palestinian keffiyeh across the globe, but in the West Bank producers of the headscarf are struggling to compete with Chinese imports.

The black-and-white checkered scarf - which became an international symbol of the Palestinian struggle when Yasser Arafat first sported it in the 1960s - has since grown into a global phenomenon more and more disconnected from the land and the struggle in which it was born.

The keffiyeh has become standard garb for anti-war activists across the globe and a chic accessory for urban hipsters - a vaguely subversive, vaguely exotic all-weather neck warmer.

But for Yasser al-Hirbawi, the owner of a keffiyeh factory in the southern West Bank town of Hebron, the growing demand has brought increased competition from Chinese manufacturers which are capturing local markets.

"Before they started importing from China we had 15 machines running 20 hours a day. Now we only use four, and we only work eight hours," Hirbawi says above the roar of the looms inside a dark, mostly unused warehouse.

When the 75-year-old started his factory in 1961 the keffiyeh was not yet a political symbol but a normal part of local dress.

"This is our national dress. You don't see them much now in the summer, but in the winter everyone wears them because it keeps the cold out," Hirbawi says, pulling the corner of his loose-hanging keffiyeh across his face.

He wears the scarf with an ankle-length grey robe, a tweed sportscoat, and brown sandals, the standard outfit of Palestinian men of his generation.

But since China's rise in the 1990s, the Israeli-occupied West Bank, like much of the rest of the world, has been flooded with mass-produced goods.

And in the global fervour that followed the outbreak of the 2000 Palestinian uprising foreign manufacturers were much better placed to benefit from the increased demand than merchants like Hirbawi, who does not export.

"Today the customers, especially the foreigners, prefer the imports. God only knows why," he says as he pinches tobacco from an old silver case and rolls a cigarette. "They should buy from us and support the local industry."

Hirbawi, who sells his scarves for less than five dollars (3.5 euros), was not aware that Urban Outfitters, a trendy clothing chain in the United States was, until January 2007, selling keffiyehs there for four times as much.

The young guys prefer to wear hair gel

In a nod to the headscarf's growing popularity with activists the chain had marketed them as "anti-war woven scarves" until it was forced to pull the product and issue a public apology amid complaints from pro-Israel advocates.

In May of this year a similar controversy ensued when the US television chef Rachel Ray wore a checkered scarf that resembled a keffiyeh in a commercial for the Dunkin' Donuts food chain.

The right-wing American columnist Michelle Malkin slammed the ad, accusing it of promoting "jihadi chic" and "hate couture" by ignoring the keffiyeh's "violent symbolism and anti-Israel overtones."

Harbawi chuckles when asked if the keffiyeh is a symbol of terrorism or even the Palestinian armed struggle. "In Italy you see women wearing keffiyehs around their necks. Are those people terrorists?"

In Hebron's Old City merchants hawk multi-coloured keffiyehs, Palestinian flags, Armenian ceramics, and other souvenirs to tourists on their way to the Tomb of the Patriarchs and the Ibrahimi mosque.

The mosque-synagogue complex houses the tombs of the biblical patriarchs Abraham and Isaac and has transformed the millennia-old town into a major flashpoint in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Around 800 radical right-wing Jewish settlers guarded by hundreds of Israeli troops live in the heart of the town of 150,000 Palestinians in a bitter standoff that frequently turns violent.

The Old City has become a popular destination for pro-Palestinian activists and alternative tours aimed at raising awareness of the Israeli occupation, with the merchants of its narrow streets easily mixing commerce and advocacy.

"We sell only local products," Jamal Maraqa, 47, says as he gestures to a stack of pastel-coloured keffiyehs from Hirbawi's factory. "We buy from Hirbawi because he makes all these colours. The foreigners love them."

Maraqa doesn't deny that there are political associations behind the keffiyeh, but he too brushes off the idea they are a symbol of violence.

"It is a symbol of Palestine and of Chairman Arafat, but not of terrorism. (The Israelis) came here and made problems for us, and all we are doing is defending our rights," he says, gesturing at the settlements above his shop.

Wire fencing hangs over the ancient, narrow street like an awning, placed there to catch trash and rocks hurled down at the merchants by the settlers on the second floor. In many places the wire is weighed down with piles of refuse.

Even here most Palestinians, including the politically active, have cast off the traditional keffiyeh in favour of a more modern look.

"The young guys prefer to wear hair gel," Jihad Abu Rumilah, another merchant says.

Across the street Mohammed al-Muatasab crouches outside a shop, his worn, wide-eyed face framed by a black and white keffiyeh. It's a look he perfected before the Israeli-Palestinian conflict ever came into being.

"I am 90 years old and I have been wearing a keffiyeh my entire life," he says. "It's part of my head."

 

Horse-trading begins as Tunisia awaits formation of new government

Jihadists flock to fight on ‘unprecedented scale’

UK court says Libyan Abdul-Hakim Belhaj can sue over rendition

Syria accuses Turkey of ‘flagrant violation of sovereignty’

Global campaign to end female genital mutilation kicks off

US to examine troops exposed to chemicals in Iraq

African Union hits back at Somalia rape claims

New scare in Turkey as ‘suspect packages’ found

‘Insults against Netanyahu’ cause embarrassment to US

Kuwait online activist gets four years in jail for insulting judges

Heavy fighting in South Sudan sparks fears of humanitarian catastrophe

Sweden officially recognises State of Palestine

Egypt jails retired general for damaging national security

Israel closes al-Aqsa mosque to worshipers in rare move

Gaza civil servants receive delayed salaries

After US criticism, Israel vows no concessions to Palestinians

Libya internationally recognised PM opens doors of dialogue with rivals

Huthi rebels seize stronghold of Muslim Brotherhood in central Yemen

Will Nidaa Tounes shun Islamists in Tunisia government formation?

Egypt starts work on buffer zone along border with Gaza

Turkey Sultan unveils new palace: Another break with symbols of secular state

Heavy toll as ‘Islamic State’ fights for control of Syria oil field

Iran President suffers fresh setback with rejection of Science Minister

Nuclear deal or no deal: ‘Red lines’ lay bare internal divisions in Iran

Heavy security in Mogadishu as UN chief meets Somalia president

Fighters from Free Syrian Army leave Turkey to join Kobane battle

Israel denies banning Palestinians sharing buses

Kurd fighters leave northern Iraq base for Syria deployment

Jordan requests UN emergency meeting over Israel settler expansion

Jerusalem Mayor visits Al-Aqsa mosque prompting anger

Tunisia reinforces commitment to democracy with ‘transparent’ elections

Turkey ‘decides’ for Kobane future: No Kurds, no Assad... Only Free Syrian Army!

Bahrain suspends Al-Wefaq weeks before parliamentary elections

Huge game changer in Tunisia: ‘In-credible’ failure of Islamist Ennahda Party

Libya PM in Khartoum for talks with Bashir

PKK hijack truck seizing explosive substance

Saudi lawyers get jail time for offensive tweets

Ennahda concedes defeat in Tunisia parliamentary elections

Syria rebels launch assault on regime-held city of Idlib

Iraq peshmerga wait for Turkey stance to depart for Syria

Sisi enacts military trials decree to cover ‘existential threat’

US calls for online war against ‘Islamic State’

Donors pledge $8 billion for Horn of Africa

Acid attacks in Iran: Deputy of Judiciary Chief to lead investigation

Lebanon army enters Islamist stronghold in Tripoli