On the Keffiyeh, Palestine, Solidarity, and Cultural Appropriation

The kufiyah is one of Palestine’s most iconic symbols. It is incredibly important, therefore, that non-Palestinians, and especially non-Arabs, wear it out of respect for the wishes of Palestinians themselves.

(N.B., I use the transliteration “kufiyah” here, rather than “keffiyeh”—although the latter is much more common—because the former is more accurate vis-à-vis the actual Arabic, كوفية‎.)

Kufiyahs from Women in Hebron

I just received two beautiful new Palestinian kufiyahs, in the colors of the Palestinian flag. Both are Hirbawi originals, made in Al-Khalil, not that commodified hipster nonsense.

If you want to buy a kufiyah, make sure it was made in Palestine. I purchased these from a women-run Palestinian co-op in Hebron.

Visit Hebron postcards

The Visit Hebron postcards they included with the kufiyahs were a nice touch.

It is an insult to buy the cheap kufiyahs that are sold in stores. The kufiyah has been mass produced as a hip, culturally appropriated fashion item to the effect that there is now only one Palestinian factory left: Hirbawi. If you want a kufiyah, support the Hirbawi factory, or do not buy one.

Yasser Hirbawi

Yasser Hirbawi

The octogenarian founder and owner of this last-remaining kufiyah factory, Yasser Hirbawi, explains that it’s “the Chinese imports” that have put Palestinian kufiyah-makers out of business. “In the ’70s we could barely keep up with demand,” he said, “but by the mid-’90s cheap Chinese scarves started coming in, because of globalisation and GATT [the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade]. We were forced to lower our prices and today we are working to a fraction of our capacity because we cannot compete.” At one point, the factory was making over 1,000 scarves each day; now it makes less than 100, and often has trouble even selling these.

The Arabic reads ("Hirbawi original").

The Arabic reads شماغ الحرباوي الاصلي (“an original Hirbawi shemagh”—shemagh is another word for kufiyah).

If you are eying a kufiyah, look for صنع في فلسطين (“made in Palestine”) and الحرباوي الاصلي (“Hirbawi original”).

The Arabic reads ("Made in Al-Khalil, Palestine").

The Arabic reads صنع في فلسطين الخليل (“Made in Al-Khalil, Palestine”).

Solidarity, Not Cultural Appropriation

On the subject of solidarity, versus appropriation, it is important to read the article “Why We Wear the Keffiyeh,” by the Palestinian activist Nerdeen Kiswani.

The piece was originally published on I Stand with Palestine, but the site now appears to be down, so I have archived the entire essay below (emphasis mine).

Why We Wear the Keffiyeh

by Nerdeen Kiswani

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I have always received many questions about the black and white Palestinian solidarity scarf known widely as the Keffiyeh. They typically range from people purporting it as a “terrorist scarf”, to why I am against it as a fashion trend. The latter was especially questioned when long time cultural appropriator, Urban Outfitters, put up a keffiyeh styled button up and shorts; these [ 1 2 ] are the Urban Outfitters posts in question.

A Cultural and Political Tradition

The pattern/style used on these clothing items that Urban Outfitters is selling is lifted from a Palestinian solidarity scarf know as a Keffiyeh/Kuffiyeh/hatta. The pattern and scarf are universally recognized and worn amongst the Arab and Muslim world collectively, however it is especially symbolic to the cause of Palestinian resistance. In the 1930’s the Palestinians revolted against the British Mandate of Palestine as well as the growing Zionist militias, many of them had worn the scarf to hide their identity, or show their support. It had thus become a symbol of resistance; to wear it meant that it was worn in solidarity. In the 1960s, the keffiyeh became an even greater recognized symbol of Palestinian solidarity when the leader of the Palestinian Liberation Organization Yasser Arafat had worn it. Many other Palestinian leaders and freedom fighters donned the scarf on as well, ranging from faceless resistance youths in the intifadas, to the female freedom fighter of the PFLP, Leila Khaled.

There are years of history behind the Keffiyeh, not only is it something that belongs to our culture, it is also something we cling to symbolically to collectively resist our oppressors, the settler colonial state of Israel, and the illegal inhumane occupation. There is certainly no monopoly on the Keffiyeh in terms of wearing it in the Arab/Muslim world, since some who wear it on their heads wear it for simply cultural reasons alone. It is typically regarded as a symbol of solidarity worn around the neck.

However, it has been regularly bashed and labeled by much of western society as a “terrorist scarf” which insinuates that those who wear it are akin to supporters of terrorism.  Coffeehouse and donut company Dunkin’ Donuts demonstrated this when they pulled an ad of Rachel Ray wearing a scarf that resembled the Keffiyeh. Critics claimed that the keffiyeh was “the traditional scarf of Arab men that has come to symbolize murderous Palestinian jihad.” Prominent publications were even questioning whether Ray was a terrorist sympathizer herself. Although Dunkin’ Donuts removed the ad after buckling under the pressure, Palestinians, and those who stand in solidarity with them, are still heavily stigmatized when wearing the symbol of support and resistance. We are given dirty looks when we wear these items and people accuse us of spreading hatred or even being terrorists ourselves. On my campus, a middle-aged male professor approached me, along with four other Palestinian women wearing the Keffiyeh, and said “don’t shoot me.” We are typically expecting this sort of language when attending peaceful rallies or protests, yet as Palestinians we also face this in our learning environment, the one place we mistakenly thought we were supposed to be safe. Instead of recognizing that we wear the scarf to support the Palestinians who were uprooted and expelled from their homes, and Palestinians that continue to struggle to this very day from apartheid, siege, blockade, and countless instances of human rights violations, we are simply vilified using one extreme word that our movement continuously suffers from ‘terrorist’. Western media has continuously labeled it as ‘violent’ and use words like Jihad, Islamist, Hamas, and terrorist to describe something that’s very important to us.

Not A Fashion Statement

In recent years the Keffiyeh has gained a lot of attention in the fashion world, it became a worldwide phenomenon for many people to wear it. It was sold all over the world mainly being imported from China with people were wearing it for ‘fashion’ as opposed to recognizing it for the symbol it carries, and the struggles it has been through.

Often when Muslims and Arabs express their solidarity by wearing a keffiyeh we are berated and denounced as inherently violent. Those who do not belong to either group and wear it are either considered terrorist sympathizers or simply chic, hipster, edgy, and even fashion forward. Most do not even know what it means and can easily discard it when it is not in season anymore, while we live with it our entire lives. The worst part of all of this is that this sudden popularity of the scarf had not benefited Palestinians in any way.

There is only one Keffiyeh factory left in Palestine in Hebron (Khalil), the ‘Herbawi factory’ continuously struggle to stay open, while most stores buy their keffiyehs from china at a cheap price and re-sell it at a huge percentage markup. It is a slap in the face to real Palestinian Keffiyeh makers who are struggling to keep their business alive. They sell it at a lower price and are the original makers of this item, yet stores who do not care about the Palestinian resistance, and often even criticize it, are outselling them. It would be considered an abomination to attempt to sell a keffiyeh patterned shirt like Urban Outfitters for $115 in Palestine. And although the price is much more fair on the Palestinian end, and is original, they are the ones struggling to survive meanwhile companies that do not care about the Palestinian cause are profiting off it. This cultural appropriation is especially angering  because it was simply another fashion trend which people followed because it was in style. A solidarity staple was donned around the necks of  people who did not even acknowledge the Palestinian struggle. The sentimental value was ripped to shreds when many stores carried it in different styles and colors.

A Symbol of Solidarity

Palestinians are not against cultural exchange or allowing those who aren’t Palestinians to show solidarity. If you are familiar with the conflict, and stand in solidarity with the Palestinians, you have every right to buy it, wear it, and flaunt it. There is absolutely no problem whatsoever with any people of any background, nationality, or ethnicity wearing anything representing Palestine as long as you support the Palestinian cause. However, it is important that those who do support Palestine buy the Keffiyeh from companies that actually benefit Palestinians and the cause. It is not cultural appropriation, and is a symbol of resistance, if it is purchased and worn the right way, with the right intentions. Palestinians encourage those who stand in solidarity to signify their support physically through such items as long as their stance is to support Palestinians. Wear the keffiyeh in your everyday wardrobe if you are prepared to answer questions about it, if you are doing it because you stand with Palestine, if you are doing it because you care, and if you truly support Palestine and want to raise awareness.

Most, if not all, Palestinians have no objection to anyone representing Palestine as long as they know what they are representing and they believe in it.

If you are interested in wearing a Keffiyeh in solidarity below are several useful links to where you can purchase them online: