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The Rise of the Keffiyeh: Fashion Trumps Politics

January 31, 2009

Like Swiss water bottles and canvas bags who proudly proclaim that they are not plastic, the rise of the keffiyeh has allowed an object previously connected to a movement to be suddenly detached, left to the fashion gods who reign over what 13-year-old girls will be wearing for back-to-school this season. Among the hipster scenes of North America and Europe, and, I’ve recently realized, South Africa, the keffiyeh has been THE “it” item for the past several years, one that allows you to effortlessly flow into the coolest bars while somehow—almost oxymoronically—also maintaining your originality. Most importantly for this scene, the keffiyeh is also mildly political: in wearing this scarf one is suddenly given the ability not only to be cool, but to also simultaneously fight (oh-so-effortlessly) “the man.” Over the past year, however, the item’s popularity has gone beyond the angsty, anemic boys and girls of hipsterdom and into the mainstream, creating a global fashion phenomenon.

Before it’s rise to the hipster kingdom, the keffiyeh was most prominently associated with the pro-Palestinian movement. It first became a symbol of Palestinian nationalism during the Arab revolt of the 1930s, and increased in prominence during the 1960s Palestinian resistance movement. The person to make the scarf most iconic was Yasar Arafat, who was rarely (if ever) seen without it tied distinctively around his head and draped about his shoulders. The keffiyeh first became popular in North America in the 1980s, when it was still seen first and foremost as a statement of Palestinian solidarity, not of one’s fashion sense. The beginning of the 21st century changed this, however, with the hippest celebrities sporting them at stylish restaurants and nightclubs. By the mid-2000s, Urban Outfitters had them on the shelf, and in 2007 Balenciaga had it’s own version of a keffiyeh. Demonstrative of how popular keffiyehs are today, when I googled the word, I received over 119,000 hits.

During my first weekend in Cape Town, I perused the shops of the many neighborhoods of the city, and stumbled on keffiyehs everywhere. At discount stores, at family-run shops, even at African craft markets. They are worn chique-Afrique by the oft-mentioned rising middle class of South Africa. I was struck by this phenomenon, somehow thinking that the keffiyeh would be popular mostly in Northern, cold climates where it provided not only comfort but also an ounce of warmth. Its global prominence seems especially odd to me in light of the recent Israeli attacks on Gaza. While thousands were being killed or wounded, cute girls and handsome young boys sat sipping iced-coffees in the Cape Town sun, keffiyehs draped over their tawny shoulders. The rise of the keffiyeh has created a global army of checkered-clad youths, but not in the way that it was originally intended; rather than taking to the streets and demanding a Palestinian state, these youths are more often than not politically disengaged, unaware of the attacks on Gaza or the daily struggle of Palestinians. In being part of the ever-fickle and materialistic fashion world, the keffiyeh has become just another “it” item to stock the shelves and promise some popularity to pimply high school girls. Despite it’s continued use in pro-Palestine marches in London, Paris, and New York over the past several weeks, my observations of keffiyehs in Cape Town confirmed what I already had assumed: the scarf is doomed to be the next Che Guevara, a cool image that helps to boost fashion sales, all the while being disconnected from the movement it used to speak so loudly for.

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