A Kuffiyeh of a Different Color

By Joharah Baker – The West Bank

On a recent trip to Milan, Italy, I spotted three teenage girls strolling through the famed Duomo area of the city. For the most part, the girls looked like any typical group of teens, decked out in skinny jeans and ponytails, all carrying their cups of iced coffee, coke or whatever drink was popular that day. There was one thing, however, that caught my eye. Around their necks, each had a colorful checkered scarf – one blue, one green and one pink, all of which strikingly resembled an accessory I know all too well – the kuffiyeh.

At first, I was pleasantly surprised. These young Italians were wearing my national scarf, albeit with a fashionable twist, since the kuffiyeh (or hatta as we so fondly like to call it), is traditionally black and white. All the same, for me, it still symbolized a level of awareness among non-Arabs that I believed was a step in the right direction.

After a moment of contemplation, I realized I had gotten way ahead of myself. I knew the colored kuffiyehs had become somewhat of a fashion trend over the past few years, with colored scarves ranging from yellow to purple to hot pink adorning the necks of men and women alike. Still, I had not realized how much controversy it had actually elicited until I heard of a campaign against colored kuffiyehs being launched in Palestine. The campaign is calling on Palestinians to halt the sale and purchase of these kuffiyehs, which they say is an insult to our national heritage. Palestinians say Israel has also jumped on the bandwagon, creating blue and white kuffiyehs (the colors of the Israeli flag), some even with the Star of David embossed on them. This, of course, is where Palestinians will have to draw the line. There is enough controversy over the Israeli takeover of hummus and falafel without having to battle over our checkered scarf.

It is not as if the black and white headdress has not made its global debut before this. For years, progressive activists have donned the scarf in solidarity with the Palestinians or simply as a show of camaraderie with revolutionary movements throughout the world. More recently, the black and white scarf went to Hollywood, with famous celebrities such as Kanye West and Justin Timberlake donning the accessory in their concerts.

So, obviously, the wearing of kuffiyehs was not always an issue – until now, that is. This is not to deny that there have always been those die-hard Palestinian haters who bash anyone who even remotely shows sympathy with the Palestinian cause, especially those who chose to wear the kuffiyeh, worn for years by the ‘terrorist Yasser Arafat’. What these ignorant people do not seem to understand is that the kuffiyeh was traditionally worn by Palestinian farmers to shield their heads and mouths from the hot sun and sand while working in the Middle Eastern heat. Only in the 1960s did it become a symbol of Palestinian nationalism in the struggle to liberate the land occupied by the state of Israel. There is nothing “terrorist” about it, but of course, those who chose to vilify an obvious piece of Palestinian heritage will do so whether it is justified or not.

Personally, I find nothing wrong with putting a modern twist on tradition. This is not to say that I particularly like the colored kuffiyehs, but that is only because of a choice of style. Having said that, I do think a bit of awareness about the kuffiyeh and what it stands for wouldn’t hurt anyone, especially those in the West who insist on such ignorant tunnel vision.

Take, for example, the May 2008 advertisement for Dunkin’ Donuts, which featured the peppy food show host Rachel Ray holding up a cup of iced coffee and wearing what appeared to be a black and white kuffiyeh. Ray, an American of Italian descent, was obviously not trying to make a political statement about Palestine with her outfit, which, by the way, was probably not even chosen by her. Still, the chain restaurant, known for its sugary sweets and fresh coffee, was suddenly bombarded with hate mail for posting the kuffiyeh-clad Ray on their website. Lo and behold, the Donut caved and pulled the picture down from its site, even after insisting that the food queen was only wearing a black and white paisley scarf.

My point is that these recent events have brought to light some important aspects regarding our representation, especially in the West. I think the kuffiyeh should be properly recognized and presented as a part of Palestinian heritage that did become a symbol of nationalism and resistance, but which remains, first and foremost, a symbol of our identity. It is not, as some would call it, ‘terrorist chic’, nor is it something Israel should be allowed to distort, either by defaming it or by altering it into an Israeli accessory.

Still, as Palestinians who are proudly part of the global village, we should accept that others will want to share in what is ours. Do we not wear Levi jeans, Nike tennis shoes, and baseball caps? Has no one ever seen a Palestinian in a cowboy hat? I definitely have. It is not the fact that others wear the kuffiyeh, even the fashionably, colored ones, that is making the Palestinians so uncomfortable. It is the fact that our very existence is still being threatened, our country slowly being chipped away and devoured by settlements, checkpoints and bypass roads, which is why so many of us desperately cling to the symbols that define who we are. We do not want to lose anything else, including such a prominent symbol as the kuffiyeh, for which songs have been sung and poems written.

Kuffiyehs with the Star of David should be resisted. With all that is Israeli, it is not a question of fashion but one of political will. When a young girl in Milan throws a pink kuffiyeh around her neck, she may or may not know from where it originated. But when a settler in the heart of Hebron dons a blue and white checkered scarf with a Star of David embroidered on it, he knows the message being sent out is not one of style, but of malicious intent to insult the majority of Hebronites on whose land his country has occupied.

-Joharah Baker is a Writer for the Media and Information Program at the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy (MIFTAH). She can be contacted at mip@miftah.org. (Originally published in MIFTAH – www.miftah.org)

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