By Leoni Schwandt
Individuals, societies, and in fact the whole world consist of an infinite number of objects. We handle them with our hands, we look at them in museums, we wear them – but we rarely think about what they tell us about us or our environment. Their purpose, their meanings and often their very consistency change over time and space and highly depend on how we chose to look at them. And some changes are very consciously implemented to trigger a certain narrative around objects. One such object with an extensive record of intended and unintended alterations of meaning is the Palestinian keffiyeh. Although similar scarves were and are common in large parts of the Arab world, with varying names and styles of wearing, the keffiyeh has made its controversial way into millions more wardrobes throughout the past few decades.
Formerly, mostly worn by the Palestinian Bedouins during the 1920s many Palestinian village and townspeople adopted the Bedouin keffiyeh to express their rising nationalism as a counter reaction to British-supported Jewish immigration into Palestine. In the 1960s an even more explicit meaning was indelibly imprinted onto the scarf and its meaning. After Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza strip in 1967, Yasser Arafat adopted a black and white keffiyeh with a certain pattern emblematizing the oppression of the Palestinian people through Israel. The scarf quickly transformed into the symbol of Palestinian national identity. Throughout the following years the keffiyeh was often worn by protesters and individuals in the Arab region, Europe and North America alike, explicitly expressing their solidarity with the Palestinian Resistance Movement and thus fostering the scarf’s symbolic meaning as the epitome of the Palestinian struggle.
In 2004, decades after Arafat’s adoption of it, the designer Jon Auderson incorporated keffiyeh patterns into a shirt, labelling it ‘Arab-Cowboy-Shirt’. Auderson was soon followed by countless designers and brands incorporating the keffiyeh into collections to a point where it was reduced to an apolitical fashion item. To do so, deflected, subverted and finally controlled any civil power the keffiyeh may have held, but it also crudely denied a potent history of Palestinian manufacturing within which keffiyeh, traditionally a largely cotton-based item, held great significance.
At several intervals over the 19th and 20th century, the cotton industry in Palestine flourished and played a decisive role in the global economy, exporting about 75% of the raw cotton to Lebanon and the United States. After WWI the local weaving industry faced a major decline under the British Mandate (1918-48) and the majority of textiles were imported from Europe and later Asia. After al-Nakba (Palestinian Catastrophe) in 1948 – causing the misplacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians – and the formation of present day Israel in 1967, the textile industry shrunk to relative insignificance. However, despite the near extinction of factories producing keffiyeh scarves, their popularity rose to unprecedented heights. Most of these scarves available in shops throughout the Arab region, as well as Europe and North America, are cheaply produced replicas made in China. If the used cloth contains cotton at all, it is rather unlikely to be from Palestinian mills.
Today there is but one keffiyeh factory, located in Hebronin the West Bank, which produces a maximum of ‘10,000 scarves a year. Not one of these scarves are exported, as overseas suppliers produce mass quantities at a fraction of the price’. The owner of this family-run business, 67-year old Yasser Hirbawi, struggles less with the difficulties during production, but with insufficient demand. Ironic if we look at the enormous global distribution of fashion keffiyeh scarves.
I find it is easy to understand the immense popularity of the fashionable keffiyeh as adopted by the masses, despite most being unaware of its origin or meaning- referring to the Palestinian cause. However, it is unthinkable that not a single of the keffiyeh-hipsters did indeed adopt the keffiyeh to position her/himself in the political arena, but the question is: how effective is a keffiyeh for the Palestinian cause worn with pro-Palestinian sentiments if not purchased from in the country itself?
It is certainly naïve to believe that with a thriving keffiyeh export, Palestine’s economy would be in a much better condition. Yet – and I have no intention to preach what or what not to wear – one needs to consider that even if worn in symbolic solidarity the intended support for Palestine through a keffiyeh should lie/result in direct economical consequences, rather than those which are counterproductive, as they spur China’s rather than Palestine’s mills.