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."


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