Why Is a Black-and-white Kaffiyeh Like a Red Flag?

When worn by an Arab MK, the traditional Arab headdress – both a symbol of the Palestinian struggle and a popular fashion element – enraged MK Miri Regev. She forgot that even David Ben-Gurion once wore one.

Eyal Sagui Bizawe
Eyal Sagui Bizawe
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Kaffiyeh-clad Mohammed Assaf, after winning 'Arab Idol' last year. Credit: AP
Eyal Sagui Bizawe
Eyal Sagui Bizawe

In the 1999 Egyptian film "Fatat min Israeel" (“A Girl from Israel”; directed by Ihab Radhi), the yarmulke symbolizes everything that is evil. The film's plot takes place in a hotel in Taba, located on the border between Israel and Egypt, where a bereaved Egyptian family — their firstborn son was killed in the 1967 Six-Day War — are guests. But the family’s vacation soon turns into a nightmare. The hotel in Taba is full of Israelis, and the members of the Egyptian family, who suffer anxiety attacks every time they get into an elevator with them or encounter them in the lobby, have a hard time dealing with them.

The symbols of Israeli identity that appear at various points in the film are clear: a Star of David pendant; the Ashkenazi, ultra-Orthodox style of dress; the skullcap. Egyptian-Jewish characters, who have appeared in Egyptian cinema since its inception, were usually depicted by means of their typical manner of speech or lifestyle, rather than via specifically Jewish symbols per se, such as the Star of David or menorah. The latter symbols, which have appeared in Egyptian cinema fairly recently, are usually used to symbolize specifically Israeli rather than Egyptian-Jewish characters.

Over time, the categories of "Jewish" and "Israeli" have become blurred over time, and young directors have begun portraying Egyptian Jews as wearing Hasidic dress or skullcaps. It is almost certain that these directors have never in their lives laid eyes on local Jews – even the most traditional of whom never dressed that way.

It seems that MK Miri Regev has never laid eyes on an Arab in her life. Not really. The kaffiyeh that MK Basel Ghattas (Balad) draped around his neck during his speech in the plenum two weeks ago aroused her ire, and she quickly called for him to be tried on charges of incitement. It also looks as if Regev has never in her life seen Mizrahi Jews (that is, of Middle Eastern or North African origins) either, even though she takes care to note her own Mizrahi origins. If she had, she would have known that wearing a kaffiyeh was not customary only among Arabs: Some older Mizrahi Jews still wear the Jewish version of the headdress, the sudra.

The exact origins of the kaffiyeh (kufiya in Arabic) are not known. Traditionally worn in the Arabian peninsula, even before the advent of Islam, it was used to protect one's head and face from sand and dust. The headdress was apparently originally made of cotton, and in certain cases of a cotton-wool blend. Today kaffiyehs made of various kinds of fabric can be found; most are made in China and even imported by Palestinians.

Various kinds of kaffiyehs, known by various names depending on the region in which they were worn or the kind of fabric they were made of, developed over the years. As far as their design is concerned, over the centuries kaffiyehs came in three main styles: all white (mostly popular in the Gulf states), red and white (worn mostly in Jordan), and black and white.

It is not the traditional historical significance of the kaffiyeh that got MK Regev angry, nor is she the one who, 10 days ago, caused young Druze people from the village of Abu Snan to attack their Muslim classmates, who came to school wearing kaffiyehs. The kaffiyeh, particularly the black-and-white one, long ago became one of the most important and visible symbols of identification with the Palestinian struggle.

As far back as the Great Arab Revolt, which began in 1936 and ended in 1939, the Palestinians used this traditional headdress to hide their faces. In the caricatures that appeared in the Palestinian press at the time, the kaffiyeh (or hattah, as it was called in the local dialect) symbolized Arab identity, just as the skullcap symbolized Jewish identity.

Fashion statement

When Palestine Liberation Organization chairman Yasser Arafat adopted the habit of wearing the kaffiyeh in the 1960s, the black-and-white headdress became not only his own, iconic symbol, but also more generally a symbol of Palestinian identity and of the struggle against the Israeli occupation. Leila Khaled, an activist of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, made the kaffiyeh a non-gender issue by wearing it as a hijab. She also made it into a fashion statement, thanks to the photographs of her that appeared in the Western media.

As far back as the early the 20th century, one could find Westerners who visited Middle Eastern countries and adopted the habit of wearing the kaffiyeh. The best-known of them is the British colonel, Thomas Edward Lawrence — better known as Lawrence of Arabia — who participated in the Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire. The earliest Zionists, including David Ben-Gurion and Chaim Weizmann, wore the kaffiyeh as well, and in the years preceding the establishment of the State of Israel, it was also popular among youth movements and members of the Palmah, the elite force of the Haganah underground Jewish militia.

In the 1960s and 1970s, clothing designer Rojy Ben-Yosef designed a collection of kaffiyeh dresses, and Shoshana Damari – known as Israel’s "national singer" – even wore the headdress onstage when she sang her well-known song "I am from Safed.”

Leftists all over the world have adopted the kaffiyeh, which quickly became a symbol of the fight for human rights and against globalization. At the same time, it became a fashion item in the 1980s and even more so when the second intifada broke out in the first decade of this century. Various celebrities around the world began to wear the kaffiyeh, at first. Fashion designers such as Raf Simons and Nicolas Ghesquière began using it in their collections, and later on it became a design element in popular fashion chains such as Zara, Topshop and even the Israeli Castro company.

But the kaffiyeh’s popularity is a mixed blessing. Palestinian activists are angry that it has become a fashion accessory, devoid of the association they seek to stress with their national struggle.

British-Palestinian hip hop singer Shadia Mansour expresses this very well in her 2010 song “El Kofeyye Arabeyye” (“The Kaffiyeh is Arab”), the first single she issued. The song, which Mansour wrote after she saw a blue-and-white kaffiyeh decorated with a Star of David, includes the following lines: “That’s why we rocked the kuffiyeh, the white and black. / Now these dogs are startin’ to wear it as a trend. / No matter how they design it, no matter how they change its color, / The kuffiyeh is Arab, and it will stay Arab.”

A well-known Palestinian song which seems much more traditional, less angry, happier yet still full of national pride, is called “Ali el-Kaffiyeh” (“Raise Your Kaffiyeh”). The song returned to Palestinian consciousness when Mohammed Assaf, a Palestinian singer from the Gaza Strip who won the "Arab Idol" competition in 2013, sang it on the program.

The lyrics of the song, which became a kind of second Palestinian national anthem, are in the Palestinian dialect, and refer to local traditions and styles, which give the song an even stronger nationalist character. “Raise the kaffiyeh; wave it; / Sing the ataba and the mijana [styles of local folk music] and enjoy them.”

The current season of "Arab Idol," by the way, features two contestants who represent Palestine. This is the first time there have been participants from inside the Green Line: Manal Mousa is from Deir al-Assad (but was knocked out of the contest on Saturday), and Haitham Khalaily is from nearby Majd al-Krum. The national symbols seen on the show, such as Palestinian-style embroidery and a black-and-white kaffiyeh, are apparently playing a starring role again.

Also, the Moroccan fashion designer Fadila Aalouchi recently came out with a collection featuring items with various kaffiyeh patterns. Not only is she raising awareness of the Palestinian problem with such designs, but she is also helping preserving the headdress’ status as a Palestinian symbol.

Thus it seems the black-and-white kaffiyeh remains a symbol of the Palestinian struggle. It is so closely identified with that struggle that it has become, for MK Miri Regev, a red flag waved in front of an angry bull — which is exactly how the kippah worn by Jews is probably seen by viewers of the Egyptian film "A Girl from Israel." Like the old saying goes: An eye for an eye, a kaffiyeh for a kippah.

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