Thursday, May 29, 2008

Hey Hipsters: Take off that Godamn Keffiyah

I'm sorry, I can't take it anymore. The keffiyah-controversy is rearing its infuriating head yet again, and I've finally decided to throw my 2 cents in.

While realizing that this makes me a right-wing sellout imperialist Zionist pig, I am going to try to explain why I want to set every person I see walking around Berkeley and SF in a keffiyah on fire. My apologies in advance.

To start with, the keffiyah, nowadays, is not so much a geographically-specific article of clothing (like when it served a purely utiliarian purpose to keep sand out of folk's faces) as it is a cultural and political symbol of Arab nationalism, made iconic by Yasser Arafat and since more or less appropriated across the board by all the Palestinian movements (certainly when worn as a scarf). In the West, the keffiyah has become particularly associated with Palestinian fighters during the First and Second Intifada. Given some of the brutality and frankly, downright scary ideology of some of those groups, specifically Hamas and Islamic Jihad (and some groups within the larger Fatah movement), I do not think it is entirely unfair that some people feel an uneasiness to see the keffiyah becoming increasingly popular as a fashion symbol.

Ironically, I am not bothered as much when I see Arabs wearing the keffiyah. Partially this is because they have a legitimate cultural, and even political, reason to wear it. When a symbol comes from your own culture, I feel it has the potential to be a lot more nuanced. I am unconvinced that the many white, black, and Asian young people I have seen walking around with these scarves understand how complex and symbol-laden they are. Incidentally, some people who are getting tired of the "Fashion Keffiyah" phenomenon are Arabs. Funny how people on opposite sides of the political issue can agree they have a problem with someone trying to claim a piece of clothing has nothing to do with politics. I guess this is how die-hard Communists and anti-Communists feel about those stupid Che shirts.

Here's the issue. I hope and expect that Palestinians (and to an extent, fellow Arabs or Arab-Americans) understand the Middle East conflict, at least from their perspective, and know why they wear the keffiyah and what symbol they are trying to send. When I see a bleach-blond college age white girl wearing one, I have no clue what the message is. If they support the Palestinian cause, to what end? What are their views on Israel? On Jews in general? Or do they just like scarves? I don't know any of that, and absent clarification, all I know is that they dig "Palestine", whatever they think that means. The increased dumbing-down of the Middle East conflict- across the board, but particularly among the pro-Palestinian youth- makes me nervous about the half-formulated ideas of the masses being encouraged in one direction or another by equally clueless manufacturers who are producing and marketing pseudo-keffiyahs because they look cool. Describing a keffiyah as merely a "peace" or "anti-war scarf" is a deliberate political act and decision, and claiming ignorance does not improve it.

Incidentally, even if folks like Hamas weren't wearing keffiyahs, cultural appropriation is not nearly as cool as people seem to think it is. Even if you agree with the Palestinian struggle, warts and all, wearing a keffiyah rip-off in magenta does not help the Palestinians. At least if some of the profits went to a charity or something, you might be able to justify the smug attitude of some of the keffiyah wearers. As it is, these people seem to be supporting major corporations stealing a culture's most powerful symbol for the purpose of rebranding it as a-political, and a-historical, fashion. That makes you an asshole regardless of your politics.

Some people don't get (or buy) the Jewish discomfort of keffiyahs. Some folks on the left side of the blogosphere are rallying around the keffiyah in response to some righties screeching about a Dunkin' Donuts ad:

Look, right there! In the middle of the picture. No, above the “artificial sweeteners and skim milk are better for you” latte she’s hawking… she’s wearing a black and white scarf! Or more precisely, what the froth squad are calling a keffiyah — the traditional Arab headscarf that, in a particular black-and-white pattern, became a symbol of the Palestinian people and their struggles for sovereignty. Sadly, they’re not joking. Although I have to say I laughed out loud at the phrase “hate couture.” The thing is, if you look at the scarf Rachael Ray is wearing in that picture, it doesn’t even remotely resemble the pattern traditionally associated with the keffiyeh, which resembles an interlocking net or a chain-link fence.

What’s next… is Santa Claus a Communist again because of the red suit? You know, we really shouldn’t stop at black and white scarves; even more radical Palestinian groups than Arafat’s (such as Hamas) have been known to adopt checkered scarves in red or other colors. We better check the whole Urban Outfitters catalog and boycott suspect neckwear — especially that one called “Desert Scarf,” that’s very suspicious.

This link was useful; it's interesting to see how many permutations Urban Outfitters has come up with (quite a few of which I think just look silly). But while they certainly aren't identical, I think that you have to be trying really hard to not see that they're all based off of the original keffiyah design, confirmed by their original marketing campaign (on what basis is a random fringed black and white scarf any more"anti-war" than another, UNLESS you're talking about a keffiyah?)

After some thought, here is the best comparison I have been able to come up with. I realize it may not satisfy some of the die-hards, but this is my best articulation of why I get such a cringe when I see it:

Think of Skinheads. Skinheads are a visibly recognizable group given their hair and clothing. Additionally, among some skinhead groups, different colors or details in clothing communicate different political information- racist skinheads indicate affiliations or beliefs through the color of their suspenders and shoelaces, for instance.

Skinheads are a far-ranging group, whose politics vary all over the spectrum. Some skinheads are racist, though many are not. And some of those racist skinheads are violent. Even though these racist skins are not representative of the group as a whole, and are repudiated by their fellow skinheads, the image of the skinhead as a racist thug has persisted- to the extreme frustration of non-racist skins, including the younger brother of a friend of mine, who once described the dynamic as, "I don't judge you based on how you dress, don't judge me based on how I dress."

I am not saying it is right to judge people based on their clothes. But clothing does communicate, sometimes deliberately, and some clothing is used, by some groups, for very specific political messages. I react to seeing people wearing a keffiyah similarly to how I imagine I (and many other people) would react if I suddenly started seeing a rash of rich college students- white, black, and Filipino- decked out in skinhead wear. Part of it is low-level forms of fear and intimidation, due in part to stereotyping but also of not knowing what code is being transmitted, of what message this choice signifies. But even more than the intimidation is the IRRITATION of seeing people taking a complicated symbol of another community (which includes some people who are downright nasty and violent) and who, in all likelihood, are nothing more than fashion sheep, have no idea of the significance of what they're wearing and don't know WHY they put it on in the first place.

Though I think keffiyahs look cool, they will probably always make me a little uncomfortable. It's unfair to call them terrorism or antisemitism scarves. But it's just as dishonest to pretend they mean "peace," or even worse, don't mean anything. To paraphrase something several people said the last time keffiyahs were in the news- if you're going to wear it, have a reason. I don't need or want a keffiyah ban- but making some marketing jackasses finally realize that yes, people have a problem with divorcing the keffiyah from all of its problematic significance (pro or con), is ultimately a good thing.

More keffiyah history here and here.


Anonymous said...

In the early 1970's kefiyyahs were commonly worn by young (Jewish) Israelis in a manner similar to the way Arafat wore them. I know because I was living in Israel at the time and did the same. Not only was the fashion look cool, but the scarf was a practical way to keep out some of the chill, but not freezing, Israeli winter weather.

At this point, thanks to the settlers and Baruch Goldstein, no Israeli Jew with any sense would dream of wearing one, because of the danger of being mistaken for an Arab.

Frankly, I have more sympathy for the Arabs who are pissed at the appropriation of their cultural symbols than I am for Jews who see this as a symbol of terrorism. But both are being over-sensitive. This whole issue is being used by wingnuts who are fomenting anti-Arab prejudices to further their political goals. Thinking Jews should take care not to be useful idiots to further the aims of these people.

David Schraub said...

Well technically, what I was "rallying" behind was the idea that going "oh fuck! A black and white scarf! It could be a keffiyah, and thus possibly a image of support of the intifada! Boycott!" makes sane supporters of Israel (like, normally, myself) look insane.

Particularly when Ray wasn't wearing a keffiyah. Let's wait to swing at that pitch until it actually crosses the plate, yes?

Friar Yid said...

Hi Anon,

I'm not saying Keffiyahs and terrorism are synonymous. But I do think there's a legitimate argument to be made as to why it makes some people uncomfortable, and that people wearing politically-charged clothing (or clothing rip-offs) knowing nothing about the message (or messages) it sends is a little bizarre. If people want to argue for changing the image and symbolism of the keffiyah from the ground-up, that's one thing. But I don't think it's fashion conglomerates' choice to make.

Hi David,

I don't have a problem opposing Malkin's Donut boycott. But they're an easy target. Sane Israel supporters could be more useful by explaining, particularly to non-Jews, why some people are so weirded out by the keffiyah- possibly caused by seeing rip-off clones of it popping up everywhere- that Malkin & co. think they can manipulate them in the first place- even when the object in question is not an actual keffiyah. Part of the frustration that led to this post was reading comments on lefty blogs this week that showed most people don't have a clue why anyone (aside from "yahops", "crazys", or "Republicans") could have an issue with "faux-keffiyahs" gaining popularity and becoming ubiquitous.

I just don't see why I have to choose between "Malkin is God" and "Fake Keffiyahs for all."

Tzipporah said...

As it is, these people seem to be supporting major corporations stealing a culture's most powerful symbol for the purpose of rebranding it as a-political, and a-historical, fashion. That makes you an asshole regardless of your politics.

BEST QUOTE so far about this whole thing. Thanks.

mujtaba said...

Hey man I agree with you.
I am Arab and I know what it stands for. I wear it sometimes for cultural reasons, but when I see others wear it without knowing what it truly is, it bothers me. It also makes me feel as if my culture is being taken away.

I liked your blog entry very much since it has both sides of the story (Israeli and Arab)

Honestly man, I wish those two groups would just get along and accept each others differences.

Anonymous said...

If it weren't for the fact that some Muslims are uncomfortable with non-Muslims or simple airheaded style conscious (like me). I'd say take a chill pill - they are lovely articles of clothing and shouldn't equate with a cultural martyrdom. At this point, most of my friends are elite US military and they're for sure wear Shemaghs and Keffiyah. It shouldn't be a symbol of something like those idiodic rising sun flag bumperstickers (the ones with the rays representing Imperial Warlike Japan and their ruthless occupations). But, the postings here do make me think. It's like I found when I meet an Arab Muslim, I'll greet them with A'saalam Aleikum. I found there is some controversy about infidels saying that, but it's a greeting of peace. Oh well - I'll still wear mine, except at a Bar/Bat Mitzvah or a political rally!