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Who’s afraid of the big, bad Scarf? The censure of the keffiyeh

When fashion becomes a crime worthy of the expulsion of winsome celebrity chef Rachael Ray from the billboards of Dunkin’ Donuts, it is clear that the laws of sensibility have been hurled through the moral window.

The advert, depicting Ray and her luminous gnashers against a be-blossomed backdrop, evokes the anticipated summer ambiance and a rapacious craving for the glazed fancies.

Unless, of course, you are a member of the Fox News posse, for whom this is no ordinary advert: it is the manifestation of terror, the teasing tentacle of subversion, and a candid infringement on the security and morals of American society.

The means by which the cheeky chef and her cup of coffee prompted such outrage is inscrutable to the eye of the average individual, yet by viewing the image through the murky vision of the scandal-mongers, all becomes less clear.

Certainly, it is a scarf. A black and white scarf – in paisley, no less.

But wait, as the vision clouds further it resembles a… a… keffiyeh?

The fact is, Rachel Ray did not don a keffiyeh; but had she done so, would it have been deserving of the uproar that ensued?

In the current climate, it seems that even the humble scarf is now a victim of misinterpretation, as Michelle Malkin, the conservative commentator and contributor to Fox News, demonstrated earlier this week:

“[The keffiyeh] has come to symbolize murderous Palestinian jihad. Popularized by Yasser Arafat and a regular adornment of Muslim terrorists appearing in beheading and hostage-taking videos, the apparel has been mainstreamed by both ignorant (and not-so-ignorant) fashion designers, celebrities, and left-wing icons.”

Despite the retaliatory fury directed at both Malkin’s comments and the subsequent decision by Dunkin’ Donuts to pull the advertisement, this is not the first instance of keffiyeh censure.

In 2002 the Columbia Spectator columnist, Adam B. Kushner advocated a ban on the Palestinian keffiyeh at university graduation ceremonies (Columbia Spectator, April 29, 2002) on the basis that the keffiyeh represents a “dogmatic symbolism” that provides little opportunity for those who disagree with the pro-Palestinian stance to respond with their arguments.

Kushner’s assertion received a tepid welcome: critics indicated that speech through symbols like the keffiyeh comprise a unique virtue, as donning the scarf can serve as a way of both exhibiting support for the Palestinian cause and inviting people who are interested to talk about Middle Eastern affairs more efficiently than tackling the issue vocally.

Moreover, while the students were questioned about their choice of scarf the university remained free to fly the stars and stripes, and audience members to express cultural and gender identities through their clothing.

As one commentator contended, “To ask that all of these be muted in the name of drawing students together for graduation is absurd; to advocate that pro-Palestinian politics in particular be muted is to apply an absurd principle unequally.” (Columbia Spectator, May 3, 2002).

The political potency of the keffiyeh both within the Middle East region and outside has proven fierce, enabling the garment to become perhaps the most loaded symbol the world over, with leaders such as the Venezuelan President, Hugo Chavez, sporting them in solidarity with the Palestinians.

As the keffiyeh becomes increasingly maligned, perhaps a brief history lesson is required to enhance awareness for what is, essentially, an innocuously beautiful and cultural garment.

Widad Kawar, the Amman-based collector of Palestinian costumes and artefacts, maintains that the black-and-white version was used by all Arabs prior to the British Mandate, while the red-and-white keffiyeh emerged out of military necessity, rather than political sentiments:

“It was always black-and-white for the Bedouin, and all the Arabs in Palestine and the wider region. When the British were here – because the first red-and-white version came from Manchester – they ordered red-and-white for the Jordanian army because they wanted the army to be different. The men liked it, so it stopped being only for the army: Syria loved it, Iraq loved it, and Saudi Arabia!”

While the origins of the red-and-white keffiyeh can be attributed to the military, both the black-and-white, and red-and-white, took on a new political significance during the 1970-1971 skirmishes between Palestinians and Jordanians in the Jordanian capital, Amman.

According to Yasir Suleiman, author of A War of Words: Language and Conflict in the Middle East, the schism between the Jordanian red-and-white and the Palestinian black-and-white keffiyat gained added poignancy:

“As a witness to events of this kind at the time, I can report how some Jordanian male students at the University of Jordan started to wear this head cover in an ostentatious display of their Jordanian identity and anti-Palestinian credentials. Palestinians who, before 1970, would sometimes wear the black-chequered kufiyya (imitating Yasser Arafat) stopped doing so.”

Though Suleiman stops short on the reasons behind the downturn in the number of Palestinians sporting the black-and-white kefiyyat, it could be ventured that in a period of heightened inter-communal tensions vigilantly regulated by the mukhabarat, many students considered it prudent to avoid overt displays of their Palestinian identity.

Yet the keffiyeh retains a deeper symbolism than that of a political or military nature.

In Fadwa El-Guindi’s ethnographical study of the garment in Egypt, Veil: Modesty, Privacy and Resistance, it emerged that men utilise the scarf as a ‘male veil’, an instance of which she aptly captured during her visit to a Cairo campus:

“While I was with women students in the women’s lounge, a man knocked on the door. The women scrambled for their hijabs and qina’s. Moments of confusion and tension passed, after which the man knocked again on the door. I looked out of the door and saw a man in a gallabiyya… He pulled his kufiyya over his face and entered very cautiously, literally rubbing against the wall trying not to look in the direction of the women until he reached a curtain diagonally hung in the corner of the room.”

Once ensconced behind the curtain, the man proceeded to engage in a discussion concerning Mawdudi with the women, during which:

“It was the man who both face-veiled when with women and sat behind the hijab (curtain). His shadow showed him lifting the kufiyya off his face and letting it down to his shoulders, but keeping it on his head. … After about thirty-five minutes, he excused himself, and went through a ritualized exit, similar to his entry.”

Long associated with the Palestinian struggle, the keffiyeh has, nonetheless, evolved away from its military origins and become as multifaceted as the region itself.

Whether it is a fashion statement on the streets of Los Angeles or Helsinki, it simultaneously remains a political and/or religious symbol, an icon of the Palestinian movement, and a means to sustain the defining markers of identity, solidarity, and plain fashion.

The decision by Dunkin’ Donuts to censor Ray and her pseudo-keffiyeh has enabled a non-issue to become a key issue.

Rather than focus on the keffiyeh, perhaps it would be more prudent to analyse how such reactions marginalise members of the American, and indeed, the global community.

The way forward is not through scare-mongering, but by awareness, action, and cooperation.

And if a donut and falafel, or ten, can be guzzled along the way, all the better.


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One thought on “Who’s afraid of the big, bad Scarf? The censure of the keffiyeh

  1. It’s actually a square of material worn over the head and neck to provide protection from the sun. If anyone chooses to use it as a political or fashion statement that’s their choice but that was never the reason for it’s existence. I’ve read statements that wearers should be educated in the true meaning of the garment before donning it…..well, that’s it. It’s a square of material wrapped around the head and neck to protect the wearer from sun and sand.

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