a few months ago i wrote about palestinian scarves, or the keffiyeh. this issue hasn't gone away for me. it really pisses me off seeing them worn everywhere. so i rewrote the article with more detail and debate:
There has been a trend spreading across the city of Bristol that I hear has been spotted across the South West and the Midlands, up in to Leeds and beyond. Around the necks of fashionable men and women, we have seen a growing appearance of checked and fringed scarves, draped over shoulders and chests, like a political pashmina.
Yes, I’m talking about what our favourite fashion outlets like to call ‘the Palestinian scarf’. Or, if we want to dumb down ever further (I’m talking to you Top Shop…) the ‘table cloth’ scarf. This attractive and eye-catching design has somehow become the accessory du jour, giving the wearer that ever popular hippy bohemian look with a Middle Eastern twist.
However, something rather fundamental has been forgotten along the way. In the mires of fashion culture and the incessant desperation to look cutting edge and alternative, those kids on the high street seemed to miss the fact that this scarf isn’t meant to be worn as some sort of Mesopotamian boho equivalent. It isn’t a scarf to be worn with a studied air underneath a Hoxton mullet/fin/geek pie.
It isn’t even a fucking scarf. It is a Keffiyeh.
So, what is the Keffiyeh? As a quick background, the Keffiyeh became a symbol of the Palestinian Nationalist movement, because of its traditional costume affiliation with rural areas. It was perhaps made most famous by the late Palestinian president, Yasser Arafat, who wore his Keffiyeh in a particular style to make his political point. The black and white spider web style of the design reflects the Fateh party, and the triangular pointed shape in which he wore the scarf suggested the shape of the Palestinian land itself. In contrast, members of the PLO party tend to wear a yellow and red patterned Keffiyeh, to represent their affiliation with workers and poorer sections of Palestinian society.
The Keffiyeh has not always been associated with Palestinian Liberation politics – this has mainly developed since the Intifada. In fact, when Yasser Arafat donned his keffiyeh, it was considered quite unusual. It seemed that for a long time the only people wearing Keffiyehs in Palestine were tourists. For many years it was simply the traditional dress of Arab men, designed with the purpose of protecting the wearer from the dry heat of the sun. Political and practical then.
So, when picking your table cloth scarf, did you intend to demonstrate your support for Fateh or the PLO? Perhaps Hamas was more your bag? They’re fond of green (traditionally associated with Islam), just in case you want to bear that in mind when you’re next browsing in the accessories section.
It seems that over the last few years there has been a worrying growth in the appropriation of political and cultural symbols by the fashion industry. The Keffiyeh is the most obvious and current case in point, but it has been seen before with the huge trend of wearing Che t-shirts. It always seemed to me that half those kids didn't know who Che was, and even when they did they were living in cloud cuckoo land, thinking he didn't kill anyone because he was a goodie socialist. I remember a friend’s response to my question as to why she was wearing a Che t-shirt: ‘who? Oh, I just liked the face…’ They certainly didn’t seem to buy the T-shirt having consciously considered Che’s politics, what he did as a doctor and then as an activist, whether it was right or wrong to support his actions and so on and so forth. Even if after taking in to account all the ins and outs of Guevara’s political motivations and you still wanted to buy the item of clothing in question, you would have been missing out on the big point that Che was a COMMUNIST and therefore not really in to the globalisation of his image. With the exception perhaps of spreading world wide socialism, which isn’t really the fashion industry’s aim here I suspect… Of course, we have to accept the fact that the iconoclasm of Che has been supported by the Cuban government, but for now that is by the by.
But none of that matters really does it, because what is important now is the image – the image of the wearer of the T-shirt and the faux political impression you want to give. The fashion industry is diluting the politically potent to make it marketable, kitsch and a “look”. We have the fashion and advertising industry appropriating an image and turning it in to a mass marketing tool, which people buy without giving a shit of what the object represents and stands for. Even if the buyer is aware of the conflicts that are represented by the Keffiyeh, they buy it irrespective of their own political thought or opinions, so long as they still look cool. It doesn’t make much difference, so long, as Kid Carpet would say, ‘you’re keeping it buff’.
The Keffiyeh is a symbol of a cause that has become so desperate that fighters and suicide bombers have been engaged in the Intifada through the nineties and now this decade in the hope of Palestinian liberation. They partake in a struggle where, every day, Israeli tanks parade about, shooting rockets and fire and building a wall to demarcate and reduce the occupied territories. This of course, triggered war in Lebanon and intensified terrorism throughout the world. Is this something that you take in to consideration when you put it in your shopping bag? Is it necessary to think about whether your next party outfit had the political power to embody one of the longest running and bloodiest conflicts of the twentieth, and now the twenty first, century?
It doesn’t matter whether you have no opinion on the Israeli or Palestinian conflict, or if you do, which side you feel most strongly about. Perhaps it is easier to just take the idea of the scarf as a symbol of political movement, and put those politics aside for a moment. The marketing of the Keffiyeh as a ‘tablecloth scarf’ is another example of the fashion industry taking what was politically active and important and inflammatory and turning it into a product, a commodity that could be sold. The advertising industry did it, as Egg credit cards desecrated Kruger’s ‘My Body is a battleground’ with credit card rates in their recent advert of guinea pigs looking at reworked famous pieces of art. The political isn’t the personal anymore, it is the marketable. What meaning is there in our historical and potent political and cultural images, if it can be drained of any sense of significance or argument to suit a consumer market? We have to start to ask ourselves, how can anything have any moral or immoral point to it when everything has a price tag and a cool kudos value? What about the values that matter? What about giving a damn?
If for every Kaffiyeh they sell in Top Shop or urban outfitters or wherever (it’ll be M&S next.) they donated ALL the proceeds to helping the orphans in occupied Palestine and the refugees in the Lebanese camps, or if for every purchase of a Kaffiyeh the buyer was forced to read about its cultural and political significance, the history of its use and the problems of Israel and Palestine conflict, and then maybe be forced to take action and sign a petition or do SOMETHING, fair enough.
If for every Che t-shirt the wearer was required to study even a pamphlet about the history of South American socialism and the sometimes good, sometimes violent role he played in it, then ok.
And even if you wear the Keffiyeh because you truly believe you are showing some kind of political affiliation with the Palestinian Liberation Front or the Palestinian Nationalism campaign through doing so, and you genuinely believe that this is the only way that you can demonstrate your ideals and beliefs, then maybe that is acceptable (although there are better ways of helping a movement than accessorising…).
But if, like I’m sure most of you are, you wear it because it is oh so pretty, then for fuck's sake, go get some principles. They’re on special offer in Selfridges you know.