The Palestinian keffiyeh (Arabic: كوفية, romanized: koofiyyeh) is a chequered black and white scarf that is usually worn around the neck or head. This keffiyeh has become a symbol of Palestinian nationalism, dating back to the 1936–1939 Arab revolt in Palestine. Outside of the Middle East and North Africa, the keffiyeh first gained popularity among activists supporting the Palestinians in the conflict with Israel and is an icon of Palestinian solidarity.
The black and white keffiyeh worn by Palestinian men of any rank, became a symbol of Palestinian nationalism during the Arab Revolt of the 1930s. This reached a peak in 1938, when the leadership of the revolt ordered that the urban classes replace their traditional tarbush hats with the keffiyeh. The move was intended to create unity, as well as allow the rebels to blend in when they entered the cities.
The black-and-white fishnet pattern keffiyeh would later become Arafat's symbol and he would rarely be seen without it; only occasionally would he wear a military cap, or, in colder climates, a Russian-style ushanka hat. Arafat would wear his keffiyeh in a semi-traditional way, wrapped around his head via an agal. He also wore a similarly patterned piece of cloth in the neckline of his military fatigues. Early on, he had made it his personal trademark to drape the scarf over his right shoulder only, arranging it in the rough shape of a triangle, to resemble the outlines of the territory claimed by Palestine. This way of wearing the keffiyeh became a symbol of Arafat as a person and political leader, and it has not been imitated by other Palestinian leaders.
Another Palestinian figure associated with the keffiyeh is Leila Khaled, a female member of the armed wing of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Several photographs of Khaled circulated in the Western newspapers after the hijacking of TWA Flight 840 and the Dawson's Field hijackings. These photos often included Khaled wearing a keffiyeh in the style of a Muslim woman's hijab, wrapped around the head and shoulders. This was unusual, as the keffiyeh is associated with Arab masculinity, and many believe this to be something of a fashion statement by Khaled, denoting her equality with men in the Palestinian armed struggle.
The colors of the stitching in a keffiyeh are also vaguely associated with Palestinians’ political sympathies. Traditional black and white keffiyehs became associated with Fatah. Later, red and white keffiyehs were adopted by Palestinian Marxists, such as the PFLP.
The wearing of the keffiyeh often comes with criticism from various political factions in the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The slang "keffiyeh kinderlach" refers to young left-wing American Jews, particularly college students, who sport a keffiyeh around the neck as a political/fashion statement. This term may have first appeared in print in an article by Bradley Burston in which he writes of “the suburban-exile kaffiyeh kinderlach of Berkeley, more Palestinian by far than the Palestinians” in their criticism of Israel. European activists have also worn the keffiyeh.
While Western protesters wear differing styles and shades of keffiyeh, the most prominent is the black-and-white keffiyeh. This is typically worn around the neck like a neckerchief, simply knotted in the front with the fabric allowed to drape over the back. Other popular styles include rectangular-shaped scarves with the basic black-and-white pattern in the body, with the ends knitted in the form of the Palestinian flag. Since the Al-Aqsa Intifada, these rectangular scarves have increasingly appeared with a combination of the Palestinian flag and Al-Aqsa Mosque printed on the ends of the fabric.
In 2006, the Prime Minister of Spain, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero gave a speech in which he criticized Israel harshly, then accepted a keffiyeh from members of the audience and had his photo taken wearing it.
The keffiyeh print has been many times used in fashion by brands such as Topshop, ASOS, Cecilie Copenhagen, Boohoo or the Isreali brand Dodo Bar Or, bringing controversy and debates about cultural appropriation. In 2007, the American clothing store chain Urban Outfitters stopped selling keffiyehs (sold under the name of "anti-war scarves") after facing criticism from "a pro-Israel activist... [who] complained about the items". The company stated they had not intended "to imply any sympathy for or support of terrorists or terrorism" and that offence "was by no means [their] intention".
Now these dogs are starting to wear it as a trend
No matter how they design it, no matter how they change its color
The keffiyeh is Arab, and it will stay Arab
The scarf, they want it
Our intellect, they want it
Our dignity, they want it
Everything that’s ours, they want it
We won’t be silent, we won’t allow it
It suits them to steal something that ain’t theirs and claim that it is.
Shadia Mansour, "al-Kūfīyah 'Arabīyah"
British-Palestinian hip-hop rapper Shadia Mansour denounced cultural appropriation of the keffiyeh, defending it as a symbol of Palestinian solidarity, in her first single, "al-Kūfīyah 'Arabīyah" ("The keffiyeh is Arab"). She performs wearing a traditional Palestinian thawb and proclaims in her song: "This is how we wear the keffiyeh/The Arab keffiyeh" and "I'm like the keffiyeh/However you rock me/Wherever you leave me/I stay true to my origins/Palestinian." On-stage in New York, she introduced the song by saying, "You can take my falafel and hummus, but don't fucking touch my keffiyeh."
Production in Palestine
Today, this symbol of Palestinian identity is now largely imported from China. With the scarf's growing popularity in the 2000s, Chinese manufacturers entered the market, driving Palestinians out of the business. For five decades, Yasser Hirbawi had been the only Palestinian manufacturer of keffiyehs, making them across 16 looms at the Hirbawi Textile Factory in Hebron. In 1990, all 16 of the looms were functioning, making around 750 keffiyehs per day. By 2010, only 2 looms were used, making a mere 300 keffiyehs per week. Unlike the Chinese manufactured ones, Hirbawi uses 100% cotton. Hirbawi's son Izzat stated the importance of creating the Palestinian symbol in Palestine: "the keffiyeh is a tradition of Palestine and it should be made in Palestine. We should be the ones making it."
- William Roseberry; Jay O'Brien (8 January 2021). Golden Ages, Dark Ages: Imagining the Past in Anthropology and History. Univ of California Press. pp. 170–. ISBN 978-0-520-32744-3.
While the kufiya signified social inferiority (and rural backwardness), the tarbush signaled superiority (and urbane sophistication).
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In August 1938, at the height of the insurgency, the rebel leadership commanded all townsmen to discard the tarbush and don the kufiya. The order was issued to help the rebels blend in when they entered the cities, but it was also a move in the wider social struggle... Official colonial sources, which noted that the fashion spread with "lightning rapidity," saw this more as the result of a conspiracy than as a manifestation of the spirit of unity (Palestine Post, 2 September 1938). Once the rebellion ended, the effendis of the town reassumed the tarnish, owing in part to British pressure (Morton 1957:98-100).
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- Bramley, Ellie Violet (9 August 2019). "The keffiyeh: symbol of Palestinian struggle falls victim to fashion". The Guardian. Archived from the original on 24 May 2021.
- "US chain pulls 'anti-war' keffiyehs" Jerusalem Post
- Andersen, Janne Louise (4 September 2011). "The Passion, Politics and Power of Shadia Mansour". Rolling Stone. Archived from the original on 1 February 2014. Retrieved 15 February 2014.
- Sonja Sharp (22 June 2009). "Your Intifada: Now Made in China!". Mother Jones.
- "The Last Keffiyeh Factory In Palestine". Palestine Monitor. 24 June 2010. Archived from the original on 27 September 2011.