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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?

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Thanks for the link! It just might have resolved a fashion conflict for me :o)

I've liked the look of the black and white Keffiyeh since I first saw them on European tourists in 1980's. I wasn't particularly aware of what was going on in the world, and gathered that the scarf's political statement was: I travel.

I later noticed Keffiyeh in black and white, and red and white on seemingly important Arab men, but did not make a religious connection. And I never pursued buying one.

Years later, I was psyched to learn that my new husband owned two black and white Keffiyeh. Imagine my surprise when he stopped me at the door the day I wanted to wear one out of the house. "But," I protested, "all kinds of people wear them. I saw a guy in a purple and white one yesterday." Surely the Urban Outfitters model?

I have discussed the ongoing conflict in the Middle East with my husband a number of times, and he knows I am sympathetic to the pain and suffering on both sides of the issue. He knows I only hope for peace and compromise, in spite of the comlexities of the issue. And he knows I probably don't want to get into it over Palestine and Israel walking down the street in Denver because I happen to like the Arab houndstooth.

I prefer the checks to the look of the peace sign keffiyeh on the link, but I clearly prefer the message of the latter.

The houndstooth checkered style has come and gone in fashion through the decades. Houndstooth patterns were all over everything in the late 1980's. I even had jean stirrup pants with the black & white pattern and it had nothing to do with Palestine or wanting to harm Jews. In Buddhism, the swastika is used as a symbol which was explained to me of the cycle of life. First time I saw someone wear one, I had honestly thought the man was anti-Semitic and out to get Jews. I am glad I looked at him more closely and saw another pendant, a Buddha, and then asked at the local Buddhist centre.

It is a person's own choice to wear what he or she wants to wear. Jews need to look in their own mirror as a woman not covered under Orthodox standards will be assault via men throwing stones if a Western female tourist accidentally wanders into Mea Shirim. Sounds almost as if the Orthodox are like the fanatic Muslims when it comes to women: totally covered and have them breeding for the religion. An Orthodox woman in Israel is often worn out from having 6+ kids and supporting a husband for his "studies".

Last year I was visiting my family on the US West Coast. My brother-in-law happened to be wearing a Keffiyeh. This man also happens to be an ex-army officer who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. When I commented that that was an interesting choice of symbols to wear he was surprised. He said that he bought it because he saw people wearing scarves like this in Germany and he just thought it "looked cool." When I explained to him the symbolism of the Keffiyeh he seemed shocked and a little horrified - he's definitely NOT the activist type. Ironically (or not?) this is the same person who refused to read Said's "Orientalism" saying "I don't want to get brainwashed or anything." I'm posting my comment because while I agree that someone's choice to wear a Keffiyeh is indeed THEIR choice, their motivation to wear it (or lack thereof) is really irrelevant - the symbolism persists, you can't will it away with ignorance or otherwise.

As the sales of Ì¢‰âÒanti-warÌ¢‰âÂå scarves have halted, the emergence of the Ì¢‰âÒKeffiyeh IsraelitÌ¢‰âÂå 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.


I wear a keffiyeh (black and white with sharp waves) as a scarf here in the United States. I purchased the keffiyeh while stationed in Iraq. I had dealings with many of the Iraqis and often asked of its meaning. I could not find a single Iraqi who could tell me any significant meaning of the keffiyeh beyond that it keeps the sun off your head. I wear mine as a reminder of the war. I completely believe in the war (I was an infantryman), and believe that we need to help the children of Iraq. I do not want to forget what my brothers died for, but I also do not want to forget who they died for. They died protecting the children of Iraq.

I was walking down a busy street the other day, through an inner city college campus just as classes were dismissed, and I was struck by the quantity of this black and white checker design. To me, a long-time advocate for Israel, it was obvious that the motif was borrowed from the Palestinian Keffiyeh.

Could this classify as a peace scarf as well as a keffilyeh?

In reference to your speculation concerning the reason American troops wear the keffiyeh, I would have to disagree. As a service member who has done quite a bit of desert time, I can tell you that we are wearing them for practical purposes. Keffiyehs keep the sun off of our necks and prevent sand from getting into our cammie blouses. We can wet them down and pace them inside of our brain-buckets to keep cool as well. Desert warfare sucks. It sucks worse when you have sand in your eyes and mouth. I will be headed to Afghanistan soon and I, for one, will be taking my keffiyeh with me. Lots of my guys swear by them. We love them because they are useful...not because we are intent on appropriating Arab culture.

I was walking down a busy street the other day, through an inner city college campus just as classes were dismissed, and I was struck by the quantity of this black and white checker design. To me, a long-time advocate for Israel, it was obvious that the motif was borrowed from the Palestinian Keffiyeh. But seeing the design on scarves, purses, and even rain-boots, as if it had become the latest fad to replace or join the ranks of the Burberry plaid, is cause for a question: how many other people are aware of the motifÌ¢‰â‰ã¢s political affiliation? Is this checkered pattern an entry point to discussion? Or a conveniently colored item to match with the rest of an outfit?

In saying Ì¢‰âÒtheir practicality explains their popularity,Ì¢‰âÂå you may be missing the point. While some do associate the keffiyeh with Palestinian politics, it's recent popularity may have less to do with developments in Israel/Palestine than with a long-running strain of orientalism in American culture. US troops wearing keffiyeh get a similar kick that other tourists in the Middle East get from putting kohl on their eyes and dressing up in hijab. To Americans and Europeans, Arabs have long been exotic, mysterious, and free (whether or not our images reflect accurately on their reality). ItÌ¢‰â‰ã¢s these archetypes that are influencing the customers at Urban Outfitters. The blue and white checkered keffiyeh is never going to have the same sexy appeal because it canÌ¢‰â‰ã¢t draw on the same imagery.

as in any co-opting of anything, an echo back to the "original" will always sound... either that or the new keffiyeh yisraelit will just look silly to people who are all too familiar with arafat's signature hat. all of this of course begs the question of "originals" in general. as jews, we sometimes like to think of ourselves as originators of three major world religions, as the original non-baby-sacrificing, more-than-the-surrounding-cultures-women-respecting tribe, but further investigation always reveals more than meets the eye and that we, too, are historical culminations of conglomerations of other "originals." but deconstructing our way out of our originality won't cure anyone from knee-jerk reactions. unless we wait a few generations, maybe. and hope there is still an israel to come up with more statements of the cloth.


How to cite this page

Namerow, Jordan. "Just a Checkered Scarf?." 1 February 2007. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on June 1, 2020) <>.

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