The Original Kufiya
The Palestinian keffiyeh, also known as a “kufiya”, “hatta” or “shemagh”, goes far beyond its iconic black and white checks. Originating in Iraq, the square meter scarf spread throughout the Arab world as a traditional headdress worn in the Middle East and North African regions.
Upon reaching Palestine, the keffiyeh grew to represent far more than it had elsewhere. Today, it has transcended borders, religion and gender to become an international symbol of solidarity with the Palestinian cause.
But what is the real story behind the keffiyeh – how did this headscarf come to hold so much cultural and historical meaning?
What is the Palestinian keffiyeh?
The Palestinian keffiyeh (AKA kufiya, shemagh or hatta) is a black and white checkerboard headscarf. The keffiyeh has taken many forms, dating back as far as 3100BC Mesopotamia in the “Kufa” region of Iraq.
In Palestine, the garment was initially only popular among rural workers in the country – the fellah. Its breathability made it an effective way to protect farmers from the harsh sun and sand storms. In contrast, the more urban Palestinains – the effendi – would instead boast a red felt hat called the tarboush.
Over the last century, the keffiyeh has become popularized among the general Palestinian community. It no longer signifies social class, but instead has become a symbol of Palestinian identity and resistance.
What does the Palestinian keffiyeh symbolize?
The keffiyeh first gained its popularity during the Arab Revolt against British colonial rule in 1936. In an effort to hide their identity from British authorities, Palestinian nationals used the headscarf to cover their faces. After British authorities attempted to ban the keffiyeh, Palestinian civilians (regardless of their social class) began to wear it in a move of solidarity, making it harder for the opposition forces to pick out their fellow revolutionaries from the crowd.
Fast forward to the 1960s and the rise of the Palestinian resistance movement, the prominent Palestinian politician, Yasser Arafat, further solidified this meaning behind the keffiyeh. The keffiyeh became Arafat’s personal trademark as he draped it over his right shoulder to resemble the pre-1948 map of Palestine.
Arafat, who was rarely seen without his keffiyeh, popularized the headscarf on an international scale. Particularly after the Israeli authorities banned the Palestinian flag for almost three decades (1967 – 1993), the keffiyeh took its place as a global expression of Palestinian identity.
Today, the keffiyeh is an unspoken expression of solidarity with the Palestinian people. The garment is worn by human rights activists, politicians, star athletes and even celebrities like Kanye West and David Beckham, Whilst this has sparked up debates about cultural appropriation, it is undoubtedly telling of the keffiyeh’s influence at a global scale.
What do the patterns on the keffiyeh represent?
The iconic patterns on the keffiyeh have long been disputed. Typically, it consists of three main patterns:
the bold lines and
the olive leaves.
The fishnet pattern – the most popular of the three – is argued to represent the Palestinians’ connection to the sea.
Some believe the fishnet to be a symbol of collectivism – knotting individuals into a wider, stronger entity.
Others, like Palestinian performer Fargo Tbakhi, perceive the pattern to resemble barbed wire – a nod to the nation’s occupation.
A less prominent, yet equally meaningful, pattern is the olive leaves that line the bottom of the keffiyeh. Olive trees are of great cultural significance to Palestinians, playing a vital role in the Palestinian economy. Even today, approximately 100,000 families in Palestinian territories rely on Palestinian olive oil and products as a main source of income.
More than this, the olive tree, which lives an average of 300-600 years, is a representation of Palestinian resilience and attachment to their land.
Finally, the bold lines along the keffiyeh have been said to represent trade routes across historic Palestine which made the region a hub for exchange. Others believe the lines represent the walls that surround the land, obstructing their freedom.
Overall, the patterns along the keffiyeh, while certainly fashionable, hold a millennium of cultural and historical meaning. Whilst these meanings have never been officially confirmed, the patterns tell you a little bit about the long and rich history of Palestine.
Where can I buy the Palestinian keffiyeh?
The Hirbawi Textile Factory is the last standing producer of the authentic Palestinian keffiyeh. Founded in 1961 by Yasser Hirbawi, the company out-lived its many competitors to become the sole provider of the iconic headscarf, selling 150,000 keffiyehs annually at one point in time. However, once global companies caught wind of the trend and began to produce more cheaply made replicas, the original Hirbawi keffiyeh was overshadowed. At one point, the Palestinian company only sold as little as 10,000 scarves a year.
Today, Hirbawi has made a comeback with their emphasis on quality and authenticity. More than this, Hirbawi now produces a variety of keffiyehs for people from all walks of life. Check out some of Hirbawi’s vibrant keffiyehs here.