Palestinian keffiyeh: Consumerist Tragedy

I recently learned that many Palestinian keffiyeh makers have been shut out of markets because of cheap international factories making them. This is a tragedy. Not only because Palestinians are shut out of a market their culture is the foundation of, but also because the keffiyeh, long a symbol of Arab, especially Palestinian, struggle and solidarity, is being sold as a fashion symbol.

This article isn’t about cultural appropriation, whether the keffiyeh should be worn as a fashion statement only, but rather, if it is to be worn as fashion only, where the best places are to purchase the pattern.

According to Hirbawi Kufiyah, they are the “last factory in Palestine to manufacture Keffiyeh.” This is due to Chinese and other international factories mass-producing the pattern and selling ti for cheap. This has pushed out Palestinian factories who have been making authentic keffiyehs for ages. I find this reprehensible – not only is the keffiyeh a symbol of Palestinian persecution and the fight against that, but it is being marketing and sold as just another piece of fabric to buy for $10 off Amazon. Like I said, reprehensible.

In a 2019 Guardian article, it said “Some Arabs object to the print’s commercialisation, saying it normalises the occupation.” This occupation refers to the British Mandate of Palestine after World War 1 that allowed Britain to occupy and colonize Palestinian land, which eventually gave rise to the Israeli state being created in Palestinian territory. Whether you think the Israeli state should be in Palestinian land, or that they even are on “Palestinian land” is beside the point.

In the 1936 Arab revolt during the British Mandate, Palestinian rebels used the keffiyeh to mask their identities, avoiding arrest. Then, when British authorities banned the wearing of the keffiyeh, Palestinians began wearin it to make the rebels harder to identify. This led to the keffiyeh becoming the symbol of Arab resistance.

Returning to the keffiyeh pattern, it is not only cheap Chinese factories mass-producing the fabric. Indeed, even luxury brans like Cecilie Copenhagen, has featured the pattern in its collections, selling to fashion retailers like Asos.

As stated in the Guardian article, “there are concerns that its connections with the Palestinian struggle are being diluted and exploited. Omar Joseph Nasser-Khoury, a Palestinian fashion designer, says the keffiyeh symbolises “dispossession, systematic displacement, extrajudicial killings [and] oppression”. Its use by designers divorced from that context is, he says, irresponsible. “It’s almost disrespectful and it’s exploitative.”

Nasser-Khoury further states, “it’s almost become commonplace” to see the design co-opted. The effect of this for Amani Hassan, programme director at The Arab British Centre, is “it loses its original meaning” and, with that, “it normalises the occupation”.

I agree.

Normally, I don’t bank too heavily on “cultural appropriation,” and instead choose to view it as “cultural appreciation,” depending on context, but in this case, I think this isn’t just cultural appropriation, but cultural dilution. And it isn’t the wearing of the pattern without understanding of historical context, but rather, the pushing out of the Palestinian factories and makers who made a living from creating keffiyehs, but who now are out of business. And that’s a tragedy.

If you plan on wearing a keffiyeh or keffiyeh print, considering purchasing only from Palestinian factories, that is, the only one still up and running in Palestine. I plan on purchasing bolts of fabric with the keffiyeh pattern and sewing my own clothing as a symbol of Arab pride, but I also plan on buying a keffiyeh from that factory in support of their heritage and respect for Palestinian history. I urge you to do the same.

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