So, you want to wear a keffiyeh?

So, you want to wear a keffiyeh?
7 min read

Elias Jahshan

13 February, 2018
Comment: To capitalise on the keffiyeh without the knowledge, sensitivity or respect it is due, is inappropriate and offensive, writes Elias Jahshan.
The Hirbawi factory is the last family-run Palestinian keffiyeh manufacturer [AFP]
I'll never forget the first time I saw someone around my own age wear the keffiyeh in public.

I was 21, and it was during my year of study abroad in France in 2007.

There was a fellow international student, a Palestinian, who laid out and folded his black and white scarf on his desk at the end of a class. Other students were rushing out to enjoy the fresh and rare heavy snow fall around Caen, my host city, but he took his time.

With an unmistakable air of confidence, he then wrapped the scarf around his neck and walk out into the cold, his head held high.

As the son of a proud Palestinian myself, I was mesmerised. More importantly, I felt empowered. I decided then and there that I wanted to own an authentic keffiyeh for myself.

Several months later, I bought one from a market stall in Caen - but it was made in China. When I returned home to Sydney for Christmas, my late father had to gently break it to me that it was not authentic. It didn't take long for me to stop wearing the fake scarf in public.

Around this time, though, wearing the keffiyeh - or "desert scarf" as it was commonly known - was all the rage in the West. Fast fashion retailers mass-produced knock-offs in various colours, Kanye West sported one in one of his video clips and even David Beckham and Colin Farrell were snapped wearing it.

Suddenly, a significant cultural motif for Palestinians - and for the wider Arab world and diaspora - had been reduced to a "cute", "stylish" or "edgy" fashion statement. As someone who lives with the epigenetic inheritance of my Palestinian father, who was displaced from his home in Jaffa in 1948, it was hard not to be offended.

The keffiyeh may look like a cool festival accessory or design print, but wearing it has political and cultural connotations to many

While the fashion fad has now come and gone, cultural appropriation of the keffiyeh persists today.

Last year, as I attended a music festival in the English countryside, I noticed a handful of revellers wearing the scarf while smashing down cans of Strongbow or dancing in their wellies in the mud.

There was also the odd market stall that sold them under the umbrella of "festival fashion". While it was fortunate that these were far and few between, it still baffled me as to how some people - who I assumed to be educated - still did not have the wisdom to avoid wearing or selling garments in a context that would be viewed as disrespectful of the marginalised group they are associated with.

The author, Elias Jahshan, proudly wears his Palestinian-made keffiyeh

Topshop also grabbed headlines last year after it was criticised on social media for producing a jumpsuit with keffiyeh prints in time for the music festival season. The British high street giant quickly responded to accusations of cultural appropriation by (rightly) removing the item from their stock.

The designs used by Topshop were eerily like those used by Israeli fashion designer Dodo Bar Or in 2016, who outright hijacked the distinct black and white print for some items in her upmarket fashion range.

The keffiyeh may look like a cool festival accessory or design print, but wearing it has political and cultural connotations to many, especially Palestinians both in the Middle East and in the global diaspora like myself. It has been that way for centuries, long before Leila Khaled or Yasser Arafat famously wore them.

In addition, as Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza and within Israel continue to be denied equal rights; as some far-right politicians - especially in the Israeli Knesset - deny their very existence; and as several mainstream media outlets continue to dehumanise them, the embrace of the keffiyeh in the context of music festivals or as a fashion statement is not a celebration of a shared cultural experience.

It is also not a form of "showing appreciation" to that culture, as some would argue. If anything, it is a form of cultural erasure and strips it of its significance.

There are plenty of excuses one can use as an alibi for their insensitivity, but there are times when one's sense of entitlement must be left at the door. This also applies to people - well, non-Arabs specifically - who purport to wear the keffiyeh as a sign of solidarity with Palestinians.

If one wants to wear it as a show of solidarity, it is certainly welcomed. However, the real issue here is one of intent. It's irritating to see non-Arabs - often aspiring or elected politicians (especially among the far-left), prominent human rights figures, or speakers at rallies - wear it as they opt for Palestinian movements when they are really using it to prop up their own cause, ambitions or worse yet, their egos. 

There are times when one's sense of entitlement must be left at the door

This comment from a friend on my Facebook expresses a succinct message to those kind of people: "Cultural identity is a sensibility deeply embedded within. It can't be easily worn authentically by those who are not Palestinian without trampling on and co-opting for oneself the expression of Palestinian identity. Allies are important, but true allies know their place and where their experience is limited."

For the record, this is not about who "owns" or is "allowed" to wear the keffiyeh. It is a reminder that some garments are inextricably linked to certain to cultures and histories, and to capitalise on them without the knowledge, sensitivity or respect shown towards them is just inappropriate and offensive.

Read more: Sympathy for Ahed Tamimi is not enough

I also do not want to detract people from wearing the keffiyeh as a show of solidarity, especially with Ahed Tamimi in the headlines, and Donald Trump's divisive decision to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem. Nor should people feel uncomfortable if they were given one as a gift, if anything, receiving one in that way is an honour, especially if the recipient has earned it.

If one were to purchase a keffiyeh as a show of solidarity, for the love of whatever deity you believe in (or lack thereof), avoid the knock-offs on the high street.

Instead, purchase them from the very people whose culture it represents. A starting point would be online from Hirbawi, the last family-run Palestinian keffiyeh manufacturer and brand.

Alternatively, you can do what I did during my Middle East holiday 2011: Visit the West Bank and spend your tourist money on one, you'll end up supporting local businesses that way, too.

As a show of solidarity, avoid the knock-offs on the high street

It's been 11 years since I saw my classmate put on his keffiyeh and wear it proudly around the campus of l'Université de Caen. The small act of him folding it on his desk is seared into my memory. It made me realise it was okay to show your pride in who you are and where your family is from, and for that I am grateful.

I continue to wear my keffiyeh at any chance I get, usually in winter. But it's far more than just something that keeps me warm. It is a tribute to my Palestinian heritage, a symbol of solidarity, and a reminder to everyone who sees me wear it that we exist and that our culture and history is real.

More than anything, though, I wear it in honour of my late father Faris, a proud Palestinian who never had the chance to return to his homeland. 


Elias Jahshan is an Australian journalist and editor based in London. He is a former board member of Arab Council Australia.

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.