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From Yasser Arafat to Madonna: how the Palestinian keffiyeh became a global symbol

<span>Photograph: Peter Turnley/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Peter Turnley/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

Last month, three college students in Burlington, Vermont, were walking home after Thanksgiving – their second in the US, after applying to study abroad from their homes in the West Bank in 2021. According to police, the trio – Hisham Awartani, Kinnan Abdalhamid and Tahseen Ahmed – were allegedly approached by Jason J Eaton, who, without saying a word, began firing rounds from a pistol at them. Eaton did not know the students; all he could see was that two of them were wearing the keffiyeh, the black and white scarf that has been indelibly linked with Palestinian struggle for over half a century.

A climate of rising Islamophobia in the wake of the Israel-Gaza war has led to a number of hate crimes against Muslims in recent weeks, often against people wearing the keffiyeh. A woman in Brooklyn was arrested following an incident in which she threw coffee at a man wearing the traditional black and white scarf, and a security guard pulled the scarf from the neck of an attendee at New York City’s Rockefeller Center Christmas tree lighting.

But how has the history of the scarf – adopted by many in the Arab world and around the globe, with figures from Nelson Mandela to Madonna to Fidel Castro sporting it – become so heavily associated with the Palestinian quest for self-determination?

Often referred to as Palestine’s unofficial flag – particularly during the period the official flag of Palestine was banned by the occupation, between 1967 and 1993 – keffiyeh, or kufiyeh, translates literally to “related to Kufa”, the city in Iraq from which it is thought to have originated. In Palestine, it was initially a plain white cloth worn as practical headdress worn by male farmers and Bedouins for centuries to help protect against sunburn, cold, dust, and sand. Urban Palestinians, by contrast, often wore the Turkish red tarboush, or fez.

The keffiyeh became a symbol of political resistance in the 1930s, when Palestinians of all backgrounds unified against British colonial rule. When rural freedom fighters, known as fedayeen, started launching attacks against the British forces in their cities, they were easily identifiable because of the headscarf. “[The] peasantry and the bourgeoisie came together to resist occupation; a sense of nation was fostered when both groups adopted the keffiyeh, collapsing markers of identity,” says Jane Tynan, cultural historian at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, of the symbolic decision.

According to the ethnographer Joseph Massad, author of Colonial Effects: The Making of National Identity in Jordan, the popularity of a specifically black and white checkered keffiyeh as a symbol of Palestinian nationality dates to the mid-20th century when Glubb Pasha, a British officer, made keffiyehs part of the uniform for his paramilitary desert force. “The red and white hatta [keffiyeh] was to act as a marker, marking out ‘real’ Transjordanians from Palestinian Jordanians, who in turn adopted the black-and-white hatta as nationally defining of their Palestinianness in the national context of Jordan,” he writes in the book. “The arbitrary choice made by Glubb” defined “one of the most visible and provocative gendered symbols of Jordan and Palestinian nationalism”.

The red and white keffiyehs were made of thicker cotton and, surprisingly, were often manufactured at that time in British cotton mills. They would become standard-issue headwear for Britain’s colonial Palestine police force, Sudan Defence Force and Libyan Arab Forces. Over time they became so popular that they were worn in by Palestinians too.

“Population transfers and dislocations, the result of massive land expropriation and with it decline of agricultural activity, led Palestinians to search for symbols that opposed the material reality of settler colonialism,” explains Tynan. “The keffiyeh intensified the link with the Palestinian soil, with the Mediterranean Sea, which highlights the damage the occupation is doing to Palestinian people’s collective identity. This has resonance for various groups seeking social justice, from anti-capitalists to climate activists.”

This symbolism became more pronounced in the 1960s alongside the burgeoning Palestinian resistance movement, and the keffiyeh’s adoption by revolutionary figures including Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Arafat came to international prominence due to his co-founding of Fatah, a group dedicated to the liberation of Palestine through armed struggle against Israel. A photo of the militant activist Leila Khaled – the first woman to hijack an airplane – wearing a keffiyeh and holding an AK-47 rifle catapulted the keffiyeh into western consciousness as a symbol of terrorism.

Khaled prominently wore the keffiyeh in many images that were circulated in the west, “a significant factor in the object’s evolution as both an international sign of Palestinian solidarity and a non-gendered object”, writes the design historian Anu Lingala in A Sociopolitical History of the Keffiyeh.

The historian Nadim Damluji argues that Khaled wearing the “masculinized” keffiyeh “moved the scarf away from male practicality and toward an interpretative exercise”, inspiring “hundreds of angry young women around the world” to begin wearing the scarf too.

Initially, the only westerners who wore keffiyehs wanted to show solidarity with the Palestinian resistance movement, mostly “anti-war activists in the late 1960s”, says Lingala. But it would quickly go on to become a signifier of anti-imperialism and leftist politics, worn by revolutionary figures including Fidel Castro and Nelson Mandela, who were opposed to Israel’s apartheid against the Palestinian people. “We know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians,” Mandela declared in 1997, three years after apartheid officially came to an end in South Africa.

As the keffiyeh gained popularity in the west during the late 1970s and 1980s, it shifted from a symbol of Palestinian solidarity to a general signifier of liberalism and anti-authority sentiment, and used for provocation by artists such as Madonna, who was photographed wearing one around her neck in an 1982 shoot. By the late 1980s, it had gone the way of countless countercultural styles before it, and itwas eventually subsumed by popular fashion and turned into a stylish accessory. Melanie Mayron wore one on TV’s Thirtysomething (1988), as did Sandra Bullock in 1987’s Hangmen.

The keffiyeh-as-fashion-accessory continued in the 1990s: Carrie Bradshaw could be spotted wearing a questionable keffiyeh halterneck in season four of Sex and the City, and Raf Simons’ take on the scarf was part of his Riot Riot Riot collection – labeled by the fashion industry at the time as “terrorist chic”. By the mid-2000s, and the rise of the “hipster”, it became ubiquitous, worn by everyone from Kirsten Dunst to David Beckham, and completely detached from its revolutionary roots. Even Meghan McCain was seen wearing one.

Nicolas Ghesquière’s Balenciaga fall 2007 “traveller” collection cemented the keffiyeh as a hot item. Ghesquière sent the Brazilian model Flávia de Oliveira down the runway in his take on the scarf, leading to W Magazine naming the item one of fall 2007’s top 10 accessories. A few months later, Isabel Marant also styled models with the keffiyeh and military green khaki as part of her spring 2008 collection.

By this time the keffiyeh was inescapable, with cheap, knock-off dupes in lurid colors available everywhere from London’s Camden Market to Urban Outfitters, who sold it as an “anti-war” scarf before it was pulled due to complaints by Stand With Us, a pro-Israel advocacy organisation that sent letters of complaint alongside pictures of Hamas fighters wearing the item to members of Urban Outfitters’ board of directors and company stockholders. “It seems odd that something that has been so publicized as a scarf used by terrorists would be picked up as an anti-war scarf. I don’t think it’s an innocent choice. It’s either pure ignorance or someone in the buying department with a political agenda against Israel and Jews,” Allyson Rowen Taylor, then associate director of Stand With Us, told the Jerusalem Post.

While the keffiyeh was enjoying its latest moment in the sun as a hot accessory in the west, the second intifada, a major uprising by Palestinians against the Israeli occupation beginning in 2000 that would lead to over 3,000 Palestinian and 1,000 Israeli deaths, was taking place. Interviews with hipsters wearing the scarf seemed to signal that they were unaware of its history in a Palestinian context, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that it was a completely apolitical statement. “It’s easy to forget that there was a strong anti-Bush sentiment prevalent even amongst the most apolitical hipsters in response to the invasion of Iraq,” says the creator of the Indie Sleaze Instagram account, which chronicles this period of style history. “This is not to say I think hipsters largely wore the keffiyeh as a political gesture of solidarity – I’m sure to many it was just another fashion trend to follow, or [something] to wear to be provocative or ironic, as there were some reactionary people and politicians who thought of the keffiyeh as a symbol of terrorism.”

Discussion of the scarves’ political roots was not entirely absent at the time. The New York Times ran a piece in 2007 headlined “Where some see fashion, others see politics”, which outlined the debate at the time, although most of the focus was on a Jewish fashion blogger who thought it was a symbol of terrorism and clueless fashionistas who purchased the scarf at Urban Outfitters. “It’s hipster 101: I need my skinny jeans, some sort of scarf and a beat up T-shirt,” said one.

“I’m not too up to speed in what’s going on in the Middle East,” said another, who had recently bought a keffiyeh from a vendor on St Mark’s Place in New York. “It’s an aesthetic thing.”

Many have tried to frame the keffiyeh as a symbol of hatred and terrorism. In 2008, at the peak of its mainstream popularity, complaints about Rachael Ray wearing the scarf in a Dunkin’ Donuts advert led to the commercial being pulled, a move lauded by the conservative political commentator Michelle Malkin – who called the trend “hate couture” – as a refreshing victory for “Americans opposed to Islamic jihad and its apologists”. That rhetoric has ramped in the past month. In Berlin, schoolchildren have been banned from wearing the scarf because authorities say “it can be understood as advocating or approving the attacks against Israel or supporting the terrorist organizations that carry them out”. Last month, a Palestinian American student at Columbia University, who lost 14 family members in Israeli strikes on Gaza’s churches, reported that she had been stopped on campus by a fellow student while wearing a keffiyeh and asked if she was a “Hamas supporter”. “You must support raping women. You must support beheading babies,” he told her.

“Calls to ban the scarf suggest that the keffiyeh is a provocative and subversive symbol, but this is reductive,” explains Tynan, referencing recent attempts by French and German governments to ban the scarf from schools and protests, citing a risk of “public disorder”. “The keffiyeh bears witness to the ongoing occupation of Palestinian territories. Stories of the Palestinian people are embedded in the keffiyeh, which by now is a meaningful and fitting symbol of the ongoing struggle for social justice.”

Perhaps paradoxically, the more popular the keffiyeh has become in the west, the less this has translated into a boon for the Palestinian economy. Today, only one authentic Palestinian weavery remains. “After the second intifada [in 2000], the influx of mass-produced Kufiyas [from China] significantly undercut the market for authentic, locally made Kufiyas. It became increasingly difficult to compete with the low prices of the imported counterfeits, despite our Kufiyas being of much higher quality and holding deep cultural significance”, explains Nael Alqassis, CEO of Hirbawi, the last remaining keffiyeh factory in Palestine, via email. “This situation threatened the very survival of the traditional Palestinian Kufiya weaving industry, reducing it to a single operational factory – ours. The resilience and persistence of Hirbawi in the face of these challenges have been crucial in keeping this important aspect of Palestinian heritage alive.”

As the keffiyeh finds itself in the limelight once more, it does so in a very different cultural climate to that of the mid-2000s. “Over the past decade, social media has helped bring political awareness and activism into mainstream youth culture. With call-out culture, there has also been a rise in societal awareness of cultural appropriation as a problematic or controversial issue,” says Lingala.

“It has returned as a symbol of Palestine solidarity, and many are now rediscovering the history and meaning of the keffiyeh,” Tynan adds. “We see people on social media sharing stories about its symbolism, creating images explaining the history and meaning of the textile: the olive-leaf pattern signifying olive growing, the fishnet pattern signifying the Mediterranean Sea, and the bold lines running through the textile design to represent trade routes running through historic Palestine. Now it is understood as a symbol advocating for the Palestinian cause, but the keffiyeh also embodies larger aspirations around social justice and decolonisation.”

The keffiyeh’s return as an explicitly political symbol of the Palestinian right to self-determination may signal a death knell for brands’ tone-deaf attempts to appropriate the print while ignoring its history. Topshop’s 2017 “festival playsuit”, which incorporated the design, was pulled following public outcry, although Boohoo’s 2019 “tribal smock dress”, which did the same, somehow managed to fly under the radar. Virgil Abloh released yet another luxury take on the scarf for LVMH as recently as 2021, in a particularly eyebrow-raising blue and white colorway that some commentators believed to be an asinine attempt at politics.

Controversially, some Israeli designers also insist on their right to use the print, such as the Tel Aviv-based brand Dodo Bar Or. “I’m afraid to get into politics, but I grew up with the keffiyeh fabric – I saw it every day. Israel is a collection of cultures; we have everybody here,” the designer told a Times reporter in 2018 about her decision to use the Palestinian fabric. This “melting pot” justification of appropriation rang hollow following Bar Or’s Islamophobic social media posts that seemed to equate the Muslim call to prayer to terrorism after the 7 October Hamas attack. The brand was subsequently pulled from stockists including Net-a-Porter and Matches.

The Israeli occupation means that the only remaining authentic producer of the keffiyeh, which is based in Hebron in the West Bank, faces numerous logistical challenges when it comes to the continuation of its craft. Without Palestinian control over its own borders, Hirbawi’s ability to import raw materials and export keffiyehs is heavily dependent on Israeli checkpoints and border controls that often lead to delays and increased costs.

For Alqassis, whose family business is experiencing an “unprecedented surge in demand” from customers based everywhere from Ireland to Mexico to Japan, the act of wearing the keffiyeh in the current climate goes beyond cultural appropriation. “We believe that wearing an authentic, made-in-Palestine Kufiya is the best form of international solidarity. This situation, while challenging in terms of meeting the demand, is a powerful testament to the Kufiya’s significance and the international public support for Palestine,” he tells me. “We are hopeful that as the demand for authentic made-in-Palestine Kufiyas grows, it will lead to the opening of more factories in Palestine. This would not only revive the Kufiya industry in its homeland but also strengthen the economic foundation of our community, keeping this significant part of our heritage alive and thriving.”