Keffiyah popularity has benefits

One needs to be more cautious about the difference between retailer and consumer behavior.

I just read Ramla Bile’s column, “The keffiyah: cultural, political, or chic?” from Wednesday about the commodification of the keffiyah.  I thought it was a great article and brought up some points that I had never really placed side by side.

I have seen a few people around my campus at Macalester wearing the keffiyah, people I know are not from the Middle East. Ramla is right in criticizing the commercialization of this very important cultural symbol by lecherous and opportunistic retail outlets. I really enjoyed her insight regarding the handcrafted nature of the keffiyah in modern refugee camps.

However, I do think that there is a growing number of people, such as myself, who, although are quite aware of the “awful consequences of globalization,” are slightly encouraged by a growing adoption of cultural symbols suggesting solidarity and a flexibility of mind (Ramla would perhaps argue a naïveté). This indicates a new generation of young people who are more willing to look beyond the keffiyah, or the hijab, or any other cultural affect and enter into dialogue with these people.

My question to Ramla, and it is an important question to consider, is what if the keffiyah was entirely Fatah? Or relegated to one group or another?

Ramla’s column rests on the prior assumption that suburbanite hipsters are without culture and without political clout and that retailer define behavior. In general and in jest, I would agree with the first point. However, one needs to be more cautious about the difference between the retailer and consumer behavior.

There are two possible scenarios that could stem from wide-scale availability of the keffiyah. One: Someone could buy it without knowing what it is because they like the colors, think it will match their shoes and be a nice light scarf for the upcoming spring weather.

Or two: Someone will buy the scarf in full knowing and don it with some form of recognition of the power that this symbol has and be forced to react in social situations because of the scarf, thus engaging in international political conversation.

Both of these scenarios demand attention. The latter provides an opportunity that most young Americans (especially the privileged hipster type) never have. They will have to defend their decision and engage in conversation about politics or express their simple view that, yes, the war in the Middle East is harmful and in their opinion, wrong.

The former case is perhaps more intriguing. Someone wearing this scarf thinking it held no more value than their Burberry demonstrates the full power of symbols; they are first of all some piece of fabric with a utilitarian purpose. One person’s sand is another person’s April wind.

Also, I feel that we live in a time in which we could all do well to drop the knee-jerk associations surrounding political-religious symbols that further widen the gap between Us and Them, the West and Not. There really is no better place for this to begin than in the States; it is perhaps the only place for it to happen.

Ramla cannot expect everyone else to be as smart and informed as she regarding these matters. More importantly, she does point out the cultural values that get lost in translation, but really, what else do you expect?

American kids, especially hipsters, are too easily criticized because of their ostensible gullibility and lack of experience that serves as justification for their behavior. Even if poorly and pathetically executed, one almost has to give them credit, and then suggest that they buy them at other shops.

There is an argument out there by some academics suggesting that the adoption of these symbols, albeit through the superficial avenues of the free market, by people who are considered “other” in the relative frame of the symbols (for example, westerners at United States college campuses) does have some unifying effect and is elemental to the American pluralistic experience.  Think of jazz.

Although Ramla’s column makes some very good points, I think it rests on some partially formed assumptions and suggests that cultural symbols are not without borders and should remain static in their association and meanings.

Ben Pederson is a student at Macalester college. Please send comments to [email protected]