The keffiyah: cultural, political, or chic?

The controversial scarf is the newest competitor of the commercialized “Che” merchandise.

by Ramla Bile

A few years ago, nearly anyone wearing the keffiyah wore it for cultural reasons or as a political statement. As retailers begin to market the scarf, the line between political solidarity and aesthetics continues to erode. The keffiyah has suddenly become what it’s never been – bohemian, military-chic hipster gear. What was previously able to unite people on a shared political front is now trendy, making it impossible to differentiate between hipsters and political enthusiasts.

In the Middle East, the keffiyah serves a functional purpose: to protect against the sun and the desert sand. Culturally, it demonstrates masculinity. Within African-Muslim communities, the keffiyah is a symbol of piety, which men wear along with their finest clothing to Friday prayer. On an intellectual level, people wear the keffiyah to express political solidarity with the struggles of the people in the Middle East, and in this context, women also wear the garment to demonstrate camaraderie. Even British and American troops fighting wars in the Middle East wear the keffiyah to protect against the sun and sand. In cinematic representations of Arabs, even in the absence of Arab actors, the keffiyah is always a component of the wardrobe.

Vendors like Urban Outfitters began selling the garment as an “anti-war scarf,” but to consumers, the trouble in the Middle East has not been of particular interest. Instead, many found the piece to be fashionable. It’s “Eastern,” therefore it’s exotic and chic. The idea that people value the aesthetics of the keffiyah is wonderful, but the fact that people fail to appreciate the cultural value of the keffiyah is regrettable.

The most interesting aspect of this trend is the question of where people are buying this scarf. In Minneapolis, it’s not likely that these consumers purchased their keffiyahs from the Arab shops on Central Avenue or from any one of the Somali malls. In fact, the hyper-commercialization element of the keffiyah is most unfortunate. Factories have replaced the art of handcrafting in refugee camps. Some traditional scarves are handmade in the refugee camps, allowing dispossessed groups to sustain themselves on such embroidery projects. The fact that chains are now producing the product takes away from the original purpose to support neglected populations.

Even more offensive is the complaint that the keffiyah is an endorsement of terrorism. With its popularity grew the allegations that those who sport the keffiyah are Fatah and terrorist sympathizers. Urban Outfitters eventually pulled the item and apologized for offending anyone. It’s one thing to cheapen cultural symbols of other societies, but it’s worse to suggest that an integral part of the culture of “the other” is somehow offensive. The decision to stop selling the keffiyah seems to imply that it’s a provocative garment and accepts the argument that it’s an endorsement of terrorism – making a broader case that anything culturally Arab or Muslim is an endorsement of terrorism and providing yet another excuse to significantly deny the culture of the other.

The checkered print scarf has been cheapened and tokenized at retail stores without teaching consumers anything meaningful about the cultures it comes from. Such reductionist tendencies are among the awful consequences of globalization. But globalization itself is more than the material, nearly all-encompassing, market-driven element. In the process of transporting culture, it’s often the case that meaningful cultural implications are forgotten while superficial interpretations are adopted. The keffiyah, which is rich in meaning, has been reduced to a racist association with terrorism, an association worthy of both criticism and protest.

Ramla Bile welcomes comments at [email protected].