‘Jihadi chic’ or flag of solidarity? The Many Strands of the Palestinian Keffiyeh
On June 1st, the Palestinian Museum in Connecticut shared a piece of digital art by Waleed Ayyoud of George Floyd wearing a keffiyeh scarf, with the caption, ‘united we stand against injustice’. Unsurprisingly, the backlash came thick and fast, with one pro-Israel writer tweeting, ‘This picture has the fantastic ability to, simultaneously, whitewash the crimes of Palestinian leaders throughout the last century while also staining the memory of George Floyd’. In 2007 you could find the scarves sold in Urban Outfitters, in a range of colours to match your outfit, for just £20… until the CEO, Dick Heyne, withdrew them on the basis that the company did not intend ‘to imply any sympathy for or support of terrorists’. Just 3 years ago, Zac Efron (link below) blessed his Instagram followers with a shot in the scarf (and little else), apparently unaware of the controversy (unless he’s a very well-hidden pro-Palestinian activist). Is it time for the keffiyeh to leave western wardrobes for good?
Image: Zac Efron, Instagram, (2 April 2017) – link here: https://www.instagram.com/p/BSZfcXmhaoW/?utm_source=ig_embed.
Zac in a keffiyeh in 2017- Jumping on a fashion trend?
According to the lecturer Ahmed al-Shit, the black-and white chequered pattern, controversially modelled by Zayn Malik in 2014, was first worn by a Sumerian king: the famous Mask of Sargon (pictured) suggests that the headdress, along with the accompanying camel-hair aghal band, were a sign of royalty back in the 23rd century BC.  The fellahin (rural peasants) and Bedouin quickly adopted it, since the lightweight cloth was ideal for protection from sand and sun, and more importantly camel-drivers could park their camels using the aghal, tying their knees together to stop them running off while their riders stopped for a bite to eat. Mysteriously, we’re still not sure where the traditional chequered pattern emerged from, but most likely it echoes an ancient Mesopotamian depiction of fishing nets, or ears of grain (if you squint a bit).
Some traditions argue, too, that the Prophet Muhammad himself took on the headgear, wearing it to his last public appearance in 632. Even today, local sayyids in Iraq who are considered to be descended from the Prophet wear dark green keffiyehs to set themselves apart. However, the black-and-white pattern itself has no clear direct link to the religion, despite Zayn (pictured) being accused of wearing it to ‘preach the Islamic faith’.
The 20th century transformed the functional, historic keffiyeh to a tool of resistance, which in itself represented struggle against oppression- the roots of Waleed Ayyoud’s artistic decision. 1936 saw the Great Revolt, when mounting tensions fuelled by increasing Jewish immigration overflowed resulting in an explosion of attacks against Jewish communities and British authorities. Guerrilla fighters in the countryside wore the keffiyeh to disguise their identities and evade arrest as they attacked railways, which was rather frustrating to the Brits struggling to keep control, who responded with stop-and-searches.
Although Air Vice-Marshall Pierse claimed this policy had been ‘punitive and effective’, revolt resumed with gusto from 1937, with 472 bombs thrown in just 15 months. Our rural headscarf was rather less effective as a form of disguise among urban fashions, so the rebel leadership called on all Palestinians to wear the keffiyeh to help them evade arrests, in an ‘I am Spartacus’ moment: The Times bemoaned that ‘[the rebels] have been coming in from outside and passing inconspicously among ordinary Arab civilians, as alike all now wear the keffiyeh’. Another meaning had been added to its black-and-white pattern, of solidarity between Palestinians.
As 700,000 Palestinian Arabs were displaced from their homes according the UN Partition Plan of 1947, and another 300,000 following the Six Day War in 1967, the idea of solidarity became ever more salient. The keffiyeh took on a new role: marking its wearer as the member of a scattered Palestinian nation. Its Mesopotamian fishnet pattern stubbornly offered an alternative narrative to the Zionists who claimed ancient rights to the land. This symbolism was not lost on Yasser Arafat (pictured), who was rarely seen without a keffiyeh, presenting himself to the international media wearing it in a triangle to signify the borders of the land Palestinians claim as their own. It had been established as a national symbol, woven with a passionate resistance to oppression and unfaltering hope for a future unified Palestinian land.
Ironically, its power as a symbol of solidarity started to be eroded because of its international popularity. As the hippie movement of the 1960s faded to post-Vietnam disillusionment, young American bohemians and punks took on the keffiyeh to signal their solidarity with the Palestinian people, most remarkably by young Jews, nicknamed ‘keffiyeh kinderlach’, critical of their government of their religious homeland. From 1976 Israel had become the largest recipient of American aid, the same year that saw mass protests by Arabs a
gainst attempts to expropriate land in the Galilee. The keffiyeh became associated as much with hippie culture as with Palestinian identity, which Topshop articulated so helpfully by its rather tasteless marketing of a ‘festival-ready’ playsuit (pictured) in the traditional keffiyeh print, without any consideration to its Palestinian heritage. It wasn’t even that nice.
‘Cultural appropriation’ doesn’t go nearly far enough in encapsulating how this is so very inappropriate. Celebrities from Zac Efron to the great politician Kanye have been slammed by commentators for cluelessly promoting ‘jihadi chic’, and the Washington Post has discarded it as a symbol of ‘murderous Palestinian jihad’. Its history has not been one of peaceful protest. The PLO, led by Arafat for most of its lifetime, has stated its aim as ‘to liberate Palestinian territory… first and foremost [through] armed struggle’. The keffiyeh is a frequent presence among Hamas fighters, who have been responsible for some horrific attacks on Jewish civilians and over 25 executions. Prominent media platforms particularly in Israel and the US have consolidated the link between the keffiyeh and terrorism: searching dominant US media outlets from 2012-2017, a ‘keffiyeh’ was mentioned with ‘justice’ 10 times, but ‘keffiyeh’ and ‘terrorist’ 202 times. In 2015, you could sign a petition to the UK parliament to ‘ban the black and white terrorist scarf’. It is unsurprising that the scarf worn by militants came to be hated by their victims.
But is it fair for the international community to discard the keffiyeh as so tainted by terrorism to be unacceptable dress? I would argue not.
The Palestinian keffiyeh is powerful because of its many symbolic meanings, as a statement of royal power, a flag of resistance to oppression, and a badge of solidarity with the Palestinian cause. More remarkable to me is howthese meanings are conveyed. Because it was made to be worn, it transfers these values to its wearer, both marking and shaping identity. Palestinians worldwide wear the scarf with pride not only because it is an item of historical and cultural importance, but also because in putting it on they mark themselves out as part of an ancient Palestinian people.
As the statue of Edward Colston splashed into the Bristol Harbour, we were reminded of the importance of the enduring significance of cultural symbols. At the same time, there are few calls to discard the Union Jack, despite the human rights abuses committed in Iraq or allegations of torture of terrorism suspects or actions in Northern Ireland. If we are willing to focus on the positive values within its fabric, it would be hypocrisy to blacklist the keffiyeh. Especially so, given the endangered status of Palestinian culture. Monroe Beardsley among others have described the treatment of Palestinians by Israeli legislation as ‘ethnocide’, the ‘commission of acts with intent to extinguish a culture’, seen in the Nation-State law of 2018 which downgraded Arabic to a second-rate language. It would be cruel to deprive Palestinians of a precious national symbol of solidarity and hope.
 Both quoted in the Jewish Journal (3 June 2020)at https://jewishjournal.com/news/united-states/316859/palestine-museum-tweets-image-of-george-floyd-with-palestinian-flag-keffiyeh/ (acc. 09/06/2020)
 Jerusalem Post (19 Jan 2007) at https://www.jpost.com/international/us-chain-pulls-anti-war-keffiyehs (acc. 09/06/2020)
 Image: Zac Efron, Instagram, (2 April 2017) at https://www.instagram.com/p/BSZfcXmhaoW/?utm_source=ig_embed.
 Ahmed al-Shit, ‘One must be proud of their traditional attire’ in Hawar News (9 July 2019), http://www.hawarnews.com/en/haber/one-must-be-proud-of-their-traditional-attire-h10140.html (acc. 09/06/2020)
Image: Mallowan (1936) “The Bronze Head of the Akkadian Period From Nineveh”, Iraq Vol. 3(1) pp. 104. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sargon_of_Akkad.
 Ted Byfield et. al., The Sword of Islam: AD 565 to 740 (Christian History Project, 2003), p. 28.
 Beverly Chico, Hats and Headwear around the World: A Cultural Encyclopedia (ABC-CLIO, 2013), p. 204.
 Debbie Schlussel, ‘Boy Band Jihad’ (June 6 2012) on http://www.debbieschlussel.com/50331/mega-pop-star-pimping-islam-on-your-daughters/ (acc. 09/06/2020)
 Quoted in Kayyali Abd al-Wahhab, Palestine: A Modern History (Routledge, 1978) p. 196
 The Times (1938), quoted in Djurdja Bartlett, Fashion and Politics (Yale University Press, 2019), p. 126.
 Image: ‘File: Flickr – Government Press Office (GPO) – THE NOBEL PEACE PRIZE LAUREATES FOR 1994 IN OSLO. (cropped).jpg’, Wikimedia Commons < https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Flickr_-_Government_Press_Office_(GPO)_-_THE_NOBEL_PEACE_PRIZE_LAUREATES_FOR_1994_IN_OSLO._(cropped).jpg>.
 Image: Topshop website https://us.topshop.com/en/tsus/product/scarf-playsuit-5558463?awc=6009_1591871308_3138665bc31845de205bc71c03286d12&utm_medium=affiliate&utm_source=awin&utm_campaign=UK_78888_Skimlinks&utm_content=Sub+Networks (6 April 2017) archived 2017, via https://www.arabnews.com/node/1079456/fashion
 LexisNexis search timeframe was 1 January 2012 to 1 January 2017; search conducted 07/06/2020.
 The petition was closed 11 March 2015, but you can find it in the archives at https://petition.parliament.uk/archived/petitions/61831
 Monroe Beardsley, ‘Reflections on Genocide and Ethnocide,’ in Genocide in Paraguay, ed. Richard Arens (Temple University Press, 1976), p.86.