Do you know what a keffiyeh is? You probably wouldn’t at first, but you could probably spot one if you were reminded of a few of the keffiyeh’s misleading western nicknames, such as “desert bandana”, “peace scarves”, or “terrorist headband”.
Spend ten minutes on campus, and you’ll probably spot one. The keffiyeh is a cotton headdress worn traditionally by Arabic men. It usually has a woven red-and-white checkered pattern and can be worn in a variety of styles that may differ across cultures. However, the keffiyeh has recently become one of the most controversial clothing items in the Western world.
In 2007, the clothing store Urban Outfitters sparked debate and controversy by discontinuing a line of “peace scarves” after pro-Israeli activists filed complaints. In a press release epitomizing Western misconceptions about the keffiyeh, Urban Outfitters quickly renounced rumors of “sympathy for or support of terrorists or terrorism.”
Many Americans share the misunderstanding that the keffiyeh is linked with insurgency. News coverage of Iraqi insurgents wearing the keffiyeh aired back-to-back with American gangsters wearing similarly shaped bandanas could be perhaps to blame for this wide-spread association.
According to Akrem, a BCC student from North Africa, “[The keffiyeh] has no relation to war…it’s just a cultural thing.” Akrem believes that much of the misconceptions have to do solely with war. “In Palestine, there is a war… when [non-Arabs] see most of the people wearing them, they think it’s about war. But, even in other countries were there is no war, people wear them,” he said.
Unknown to most Westerners, the keffiyeh is worn by much of the general Arabic public. One student at BCC said that in Saudi Arabia the keffiyeh is only a military item in certain contexts. She compares wearing a specially made keffiyeh that represents the Taliban to wearing gang apparel; in certain neighborhoods it could represent a lot. According to her, the keffiyeh could be intentionally made or worn to show affiliation with insurgencies similar to wearing specially marked do-rags or bandanas to proclaim gang affiliation.
While wearing a keffiyeh, it becomes easy to see why it is such a practical piece of apparel. Palestinian peasants originally wore the keffiyeh to shield their face and neck from constant exposure to the sun. In an arid environment like the Middle East, the keffiyeh can ward off wind chill, block out the sun, and keep the face shielded from sand and dust caught up in the wind. In fact, the United States and British militaries have been issuing the keffiyeh to soldiers since the first Gulf War.
I asked Akrem what he thinks about non-Arabs, and especially teens wearing keffiyeh for fashion.
“We don’t care…In the Western world just like back [in the Middle East], it’s a cultural thing.”