Just a Checkered Scarf?
It was roughly three years ago that I first spotted someone strutting across campus with a black and white keffiyeh (the traditional headdress for Arab men) wrapped around her neck as a scarf. Up until then, my only frame of reference for the keffiyeh was television coverage of turmoil in the Middle East. As an indispensable part of Yasser Arafat’s wardrobe, I understood the keffiyeh as a symbol of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), and most recently, associated it with fundamentalist factions such as Hamas. But curiously, the keffiyeh has checkered its way into the chic get-ups of the hipster community and into the American Peace Movement’s expressions of solidarity with the Palestinian struggle.
Always ready to capitalize on a fashion opportunity, last month Urban Outfitters -- a trendy American clothing store -- began carrying an entire line of keffiyehs marketed as “anti-war woven scarves.” These keffiyehs became Urban Outfitters’ hottest selling accessories, but were recently pulled from the shelves in response to complaints from Jewish community members who questioned whether the “anti-war” marketing strategy was suggestive of an anti-Israel position and an expression of sympathy for terrorism.
As the sales of “anti-war” scarves have halted, the emergence of the “Keffiyeh Israelit” is on the rise. Israeli entrepreneurs have repackaged the keffiyeh in a distinctly Zionist motif (blue and white checkered Stars of David), hoping that it will be adopted as a patriotic fashion accessory.
The politicization of fashion and the fashionability of politics are interesting phenomena. One would think that these constant shifts in who-wears-what and who-markets-what wouldn’t cause such a stir. After all, the keffiyeh has a long history of serving different purposes for many populations. For decades, the wearing of the keffiyeh was almost ubiquitous among British soldiers. Beyond Lawrence of Arabia, Special Air Service soldiers wore them while operating in the deserts of North Africa. In more recent wars, keffiyehs have also been adopted by U.S. troops. Their practicality explains their popularity: folded in half, pressed into triangle, and then placed over the mouth and nose, they’re perfect for wind protection and for keeping sand out of one’s face.
So, if the keffiyeh has been worn by U.S. soldiers, by peace activists, by terrorists, by Jordanians, Saudi Arabians, Palestinians, Israelis, and hipsters, doesn’t that make it just a checkered scarf? One would think so, but the political conditions of our time make it difficult to strip the keffiyeh of its projected meaning. The colors, patterns, and images we wear express who we are, what we care about, and with whom we identify. They’re often the first things we notice, which make them powerful forms of communication.
Is it sensible for specific groups and political causes to stake claim on certain designs if ultimately they will just be co-opted, re-adopted, or appropriated for something else? Does a Star of David keffiyeh only invite knee-jerk resistance to its intent? Or does its existence simply dilute the keffiyeh’s political significance all together?