Keffiyeh is above fashion, faction Stereotype: The headdress that has come to symbolize Arab nationalism wasn't so easily stereotyped in the past. Early Zionists wore them, such as David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister.

Sun Journal

August 12, 1998|By Ann Lolordo | Ann Lolordo,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM -- When right-wing extremists wanted to protest Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's decision to return more land to the Palestinians, they chose to depict the hard-line politician in an Arab headdress.

The symbolism of the red-and-white checked keffiyeh was not lost on Israelis, regardless of their political affiliation. The depiction was tantamount to calling Netanyahu a traitor to the Jewish people. A similar poster of former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, an architect of the Oslo peace accords, appeared in the weeks before Rabin was gunned down by a religious student in 1995.

The keffiyeh, commonly worn by aging Arab men to shield their heads from the sun, became synonymous with the Palestine liberation movement of the 1970s and its campaign of terror.

"In the West, it is a stereotypical signifier of the Palestinian" and a symbol of terrorism, said Ted Swedenburg, an American anthropologist who has written on the Arab headdress. "I think it's a powerful, symbolic weapon. If you are going to attack someone, put a keffiyeh on them."

But the cotton headdress has a colorful history that transcends the stereotype, crossing political, social and cultural boundaries of the region.

Worn by the Bedouin tribes that wandered through the vast deserts of the Middle East, the keffiyeh has been the headgear of kings and camel drivers. It can be seen throughout the Arab world, from the palaces of Saudi Arabia to the outback of Yemen.

During the 1936 Arab revolt, the leaders of the primarily peasant rebellion sought to use the keffiyeh as a national unifier, said Swedenburg. They ordered all Palestinians to wear the keffiyeh.

"It had been an item of clothing that was almost exclusively identified with the peasantry," said Swedenburg. "So if you were an urban or educated Palestinian, you either went bareheaded or you wore a tarbush [a conical hat known as a fez]. It was both a moment of national unity and a moment where national unity was imposed by the lower classes over the urban."

More than 30 years ago, Yasser Arafat wore a black-and-white checked keffiyeh as he led revolutionaries of the Palestine Liberation Organization. As the man who later made peace with the Israelis, Arafat wore the keffiyeh on the White House lawn, fashioning it in his distinctive style that some say mimics the shape of Palestine.

The Palestinian youth of the 1980s uprising known as the intifada wrapped it about their faces as they hurled stones at Israeli soldiers.

"Kids were wearing it to identify with the national struggle," said Swedenburg. "If you were wearing black, you were with Arafat. If you wore red, you were leftist."

The keffiyeh also served a more practical purpose -- to mask the identity of the Intifada foot soldiers and shield them from tear gas rounds.

Even after the signing of the peace agreement, the keffiyeh retains its symbolic potency. Recently, the followers of the Islamic group Hamas have been seen in green and white keffiyehs.

"Since the '70s, it's been worn by left wing, progressive solidarity groups across the board in the West," said Swedenburg.

T. E. Lawrence, the British officer better known as Lawrence of Arabia who helped lead an earlier Arab revolt against the Turks, wasn't the first non-Arab to wear the keffiyeh.

The early Zionists who settled Palestine also took a fancy to the headdress. An exhibit at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem that explores the Jewish relationship to the East discusses the appropriation of the keffiyeh by the early Jewish settlers.

The Zionists wanted to create a new Jew who would be the antithesis of the pale-faced, religious bookworm of the eastern European shtetl, said Yigal Zamona, the curator of the exhibit titled "To the East." They envisioned a physically strong Jew who would be in harmony with nature and feel a kinship to the land, he said.

"The model they looked to was the Arab," he said.

Photographs in the museum show the headdress being worn by the Hashomer, a group founded in 1911 to provide security for the Jewish colonies of Palestine. The guards, photographed on horseback and carrying weapons, dressed this way despite growing tensions between Arabs and Jews, the exhibit program states.

A 1918 etching of a young Jewish woman named Cilla shows her in a keffiyeh-style headdress that was made of material resembling a Jewish prayer shawl, said Zamona. Artists also depicted the keffiyeh in their renderings of biblical heroes, he said.

After Israel's founding and during its first years, Jews appropriated the keffiyeh as "an emblem of local authenticity and Israeli-ness," according to the exhibit program.

When photographers snapped David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister, among his soldiers near Ein Gedi in 1949, he was wearing the uniform of the Israel defense forces with a keffiyeh tied around his neck like a scarf.

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