It is commonly found in arid regions as it provides protection from sunburn, dust and sand. Its distinctive standard woven checker-ed pattern may have originated in an ancient Mesopotamian representation of either fishing nets or ears of grain, but the true origin of the pattern remains unknown.
Toward the end of the 1980s, the keffiyeh became a fashion accessory in the United States and, during the 2000s, it became very popular among adolescents in Tokyo, where it was often worn with camouflage-style clothing.
Palestinian national symbol
Traditionally worn by Palestinian farmers, the keffiyeh became worn by Palestinian men of any rank and became a symbol of Palestinian nationalism during the Arab Revolt of the 1930s. Its prominence increased during the 1960s with the beginning of the Palestinian resistance movement and its adoption by Palestinian politician Yasser Arafat.
The black-and-white fishnet pattern keffiyeh would later become Arafat’s iconic symbol and he would rarely be seen without it; only occasionally would he wear a military cap, or, in colder climates, a Russian-style ushanka hat. Arafat would wear his keffiyeh in a semi-traditional way, wrapped around his head via an agal. He also wore a similarly patterned piece of cloth in the neckline of his military fatigues. Early on, he had made it his personal trademark to drape the scarf over his right shoulder only, arranging it in the rough shape of a triangle, to resemble the outlines of historic Palestine. This way of wearing the keffiyeh became a symbol of Arafat as a person and political leader, and it has not been imitated by other Palestinian leaders.
Another Palestinian figure associated with the keffiyeh is Leila Khaled, a female member of the armed wing of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Several photographs of Khaled circulated in the Western newspapers after the hijacking of TWA Flight 840 and the Dawson’s Field hijackings. These photos often included Khaled wearing a keffiyeh in the style of a Muslim woman’s hijab, wrapped around the head and shoulders. This was unusual, as the keffiyeh is associated with Arab masculinity, and many believe this to be something of a fashion statement by Khaled, denoting her equality with men in the Palestinian armed struggle.
The colors of the stitching in a keffiyeh are also vaguely associated with Palestinians’ political sympathies. Traditional black and white keffiyehs became associated with Fatah. Later, red and white keffiyehs were adopted by Palestinian Marxists, such as the PFLP.
The colour symbolism of the scarves is by no means universally accepted by all Palestinians or Arabs. Its importance should not be overstated, as the scarves are used by Palestinians and Arabs of all political affiliations, as well as by those with no particular political sympathies.
A loom at work making a traditional Palestinian keffiyeh in the Hirbawi factory, Hebron, West Bank. Today, this symbol of Palestinian identity is now largely imported from China. With the scarf’s growing popularity in the 2000s, Chinese manufacturers entered the market, driving Palestinians out of the business. In 2008, Yasser Herbawi, who for five decades had been the only Palestinian manufacturer of keffiyehs, is now struggling with sales. Mother Jones wrote, “Ironically, global support for Palestinian-statehood-as-fashion-accessory has put yet another nail in the coffin of the Occupied Territories’ beleaguered economy.”