The Keffiyeh: Politics or Fashion?
Photo: Keffiyeh-inspired scarves, taken from Runway 2 Reality.
So I'm shopping at the Simon's at Carrefour Laval when I come across a cool black and white scarf. I check out the tag; at $15, the price is right. The decision to buy takes a split second and I power it down to the check-out counter. Later that week, I'm wearing my scarf and knocking back beers with some friends at Foufs when a guy from my alternative media class pops out of nowhere and asks: "Are you trying to make a political statement with that?" "That" turns out to be the scarf. Confused and a little pissed off from being tipsy, I say: "I got this for $15 at Simon's. How political can it be?" The answer turns out to be: very.
After a slight hangover the next day, I get to researching. The scarf I bought at a retail powerhouse? None other than the prime symbol of Palestinian solidarity: the keffiyeh, otherwise known as a shemagh, a ghutra, or a hatta. It's a traditional Arab headdress for men usually made from cotton, folded and wrapped in various ways around the head. Some wear it loosely draped around the back and shoulders. There are many local variations.The all-white ones are popular in the Gulf States, the black and white in the Levant, and the red and white in Jordan.
The keffiyeh grew into a symbol of Palestinian nationalism in the 1960s and eventually became a trademark of late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. He wore his black and white scarf in a distinctive arrangement, draping it over his right shoulder in a triangular shape that mimicked the outlines of Palestine. Another Palestinian associated with the keffiyeh is Leila Khaled, formerly of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and currently a member of the Palestinian National Council. Khaled wore her keffiyeh wrapped around her head and shoulders like a Muslim hijab. Since the keffiyeh was linked to Arab masculinity, many saw this as a political statement of armed equality.
The idea of the keffiyeh as a fashion trend has been around since the '80s, but has enjoyed a massive comeback in recent years. Many college-age Europeans and North Americans see it as a symbol of solidarity with the Palestinian cause or a sign of war resistance in general. It's gotten to the point where even shops like Urban Outfitters and Topshop churned out keffiyehs in a variety of colors like hot pink and dark green. In 2007, Urban Outfitters pulled their "anti-war scarves" from the shelves after much controversy. The subject of "fashion keffiyehs" has been thoroughly dissected by the blogosphere and garnered lots of resistance on the web. On Facebook alone, there at least a handful of anti-"fashion keffiyeh" groups with names like "Palestinian Scarves are the 'fashion-wear' of the cerebrally challenged" and "STOP Fashion Keffiyeh."
Tell the truth, I'm a pussy when it comes to foaming-at-the-mouth political activists and avoid the subject of politics like the dickens. But I think people have a point when they say that wearing the keffiyeh as a fashion statement is insensitive and shallow. I get annoyed when hipsters walk around with a Mao messenger bag (nothing as spacious as a megalomaniacal ego, I suppose), so why should keffiyehs be any different? Think of the hammer and sickle, think of Che Guevara, think of the swastika. No matter how much we'd like to pretend that a scarf is just a scarf, the reality is that symbols can never be divorced from their meanings. So I'm gonna retire my "desert jacquard scarf" from Simon's (pictured above right) since I know jack shit about what it stands for. $15 to broaden my horizons -- the price is right, indeed.