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Subject: Turban, Culture of Bahrain, Bahrain
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The keffiyeh/kufiya (Arabic: كوفية,kūfiyyah, originally from the city of Kufa (الكوفه), plural كوفيات,kūfiyyāt), also known as a ghutrah (غُترَة) or shemagh (شماغ), and also known by some as ḥaṭṭah (حَطّة), mashadah (مَشَدة), or in Persian chafiye (چَفیِه), and in Kurdish cemedanî ( جه مه داني), is a traditional Middle Eastern headdress fashioned from a square, usually cotton, scarf. It is typically worn by Arab men, as well as some Kurds and Jews.

It is commonly found in arid regions to provide protection from direct sun exposure, as well to protect the mouth and eyes from blown dust and sand. Its distinctive woven check pattern may have originated in an ancient Mesopotamian representation of either fishing nets or ears of grain,[1] but the true origin of the pattern remains unknown.

The keffiyeh has been worn by Arabs residing in regions in Arabia, Jordan, and Iraq for over a century, but its prominence increased in other regions in the 1960s with the beginning of Palestinian movements and its adoption by Palestinian politician Yasser Arafat. The keffiyeh has been a fashion accessory in the United States since the late 1980s. In the early 2000s, keffiyehs were very popular among adolescents in Tokyo, who often wore them with camouflage clothing.[2]

Varieties and variations

During his sojourn with the Marsh Arabs of Iraq, Gavin Young noted that the local sayyids – "venerated men descendants of the Prophet Mohammed & Ali ibn Abi Talib" – wore dark green keffiyeh or Cheffiyeh, in contrast to the black-and-white checker ones typical of the area's inhabitants.[3]

Many Palestinian keffiyehs are a mix of cotton and wool, which lets them dry quickly and keep the wearer’s head warm. The keffiyeh is usually folded in half, into a triangle, and the fold is worn across the forehead. Often, the keffiyeh is held in place by a rope circlet, called an agal (Arabic: عقال‎, ʿiqāl). Some wearers wrap the keffiyeh into a turban, while others wear it loosely draped around the back and shoulders. Sometimes a taqiyah is worn underneath the keffiyeh, and, in the past, it has also been wrapped around the rim of the fez. The keffiyeh is almost always of white cotton cloth, but many have a checkered pattern in red or black stitched into them. The plain, white keffiyeh is most popular in Arab States of the Persian Gulf, almost excluding any other style in Kuwait and Bahrain. The keffiyeh is worn by men of all ages, be it on their heads or shoulders (like a scarf).

In Jordan The red-and-white keffiyeh is a symbol of Jordanian heritage, and is strongly associated with Jordan, where it is known as shemagh mhadab. The Jordanian keffiyeh has decorative cotton or wool tassels on the sides It is believed that the bigger these tassels, the more value it has and the higher a person’s status. It has been used by Bedouins and Villagers throughout the centuries and was used as a symbol of honor and tribal identification. The tasseled red and white Jordanian shemagh is much thicker than the red and white shemagh used in Persian Gulf countries (no tassels).

In Yemen it is used extensively in both red-white and black-white pattern and some traditional Yemeni designs and colours. Multi-colored tribal shemagh were used widely before the 1950s. Nowadays these are mostly worn in Yemen and Oman only while in the Persian Gulf and Levant the black/white red/white or pure white styles succeeded. The shemagh is part of an ancient Middle Eastern headgear tradition.

Ancient Jews used to wear a headgear that was similar to either a keffiyeh, turban or a stocking cap called a Sudra.[4]

The keffiyeh, especially the all-white version, can also be called a ghutrah, particularly in Arabian Peninsula (where the skullcap is called keffiyeh), but is also known in some areas as shemagh or ḥaṭṭah:

  • Ordinary keffiyeh: a piece of white/orange/black cloth made from wool and cotton worn primarily by the Palestinians.
  • Shemagh: a piece of cloth, usually made of cotton or flax and decorated with many colors but usually by red and white worn primarily by the Jordanians.
  • Ghutrah: a piece of white cloth made of cotton mild, worn in western Iraq and by the Arabs in the Persian Gulf states.

Palestinian national symbol

Traditionally worn by Palestinian farmers, the keffiyeh was worn by Palestinian men of every rank. It became a symbol of Palestinian nationalism during the Arab Revolt of the 1930s.[5][6] Its prominence increased in the 1960s with the beginning of the Palestinian resistance movement and its adoption by Palestinian politician Yasser Arafat.[5]

The keffiyeh would later become a trademark symbol of Arafat, who was rarely seen without a distinctively-arranged black-and-white scarf. (Only occasionally did he wear a military cap or, in colder climates, a Russian-style fur hat called ushanka). Arafat would wear his keffiyeh in semi-traditional way, around the head and wrapped by an agal. He also wore a similarly patterned piece of cloth in the neckline of his military fatigues. Early on, he had made it his personal trademark to drape the scarf over his right shoulder only, arranging it in the rough shape of a triangle, to resemble the outlines of the territory claimed by Palestine. This way of wearing the keffiyeh became a symbol of Arafat as a person and political leader, and it has not been imitated by other Palestinian leaders.

Another Palestinian figure associated with the keffiyeh is Leila Khaled, a female member of the armed wing of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Several photographs of Khaled circulated in the Western newspapers after the hijacking of TWA Flight 840 and the Dawson's Field hijackings. These photos often included Khaled wearing a keffiyeh in the style of a Muslim woman’s hijab, wrapped around the head and shoulders. This was unusual, as the keffiyeh is associated with Arab masculinity, and many believe this to be something of a fashion statement by Khaled, denoting her equality with men in the Palestinian armed struggle.

The colors of the stitching in a keffiyeh are also vaguely associated with Palestinians’ political sympathies. Traditional black and white keffiyehs became associated with Fatah. Later, red and white keffiyehs were adopted by Palestinian Marxists, such as the PFLP. Today, Palestinian Marxists have virtually disappeared, and red and white keffiyehs are instead identified with Hamas.[verification needed][5][7]

The color symbolism of the scarves is by no means universally accepted by all Palestinians or Arabs. Its importance should not be overstated, as the scarves are used by Palestinians and Arabs of all political affiliations, as well as by those with no particular political sympathies.


Today, this symbol of Palestinian identity is now largely imported from China. With the scarf's growing popularity in the 2000s, Chinese manufacturers entered the market, driving Palestinians out of the business.[8] In 2008, Yasser Herbawi, who for five decades had been the only Palestinian manufacturer of keffiyehs, is now struggling with sales. The Herbawi Textile Factory has 16 machines. In 1990, all 16 machines were functioning, making 750 keffiyahs per day. Today, only 2 machines are used, making a mere 300 keffiyahs per week. Unlike the Chinese manufactured ones, Herbawis uses 100% cotton. Yasser Herbawis son, Izzat, states the importance of creating the Palestinian symbol, in Palestine, “the keffiyah is a tradition of Palestine and it should be made in Palestine. We should be the ones making it.”.[9]

Mother Jones wrote, "Ironically, global support for Palestinian-statehood-as-fashion-accessory has put yet another nail in the coffin of the Occupied Territories' beleaguered economy."[8]

Westerners in keffiyeh

British Colonel T. E. Lawrence (better known as Lawrence of Arabia) was probably the best-known Western wearer of the keffiyeh. He wore a plain white one with agal during his involvement in the Arab Revolt in World War I. This image of Lawrence was later popularized by the film epic about him, Lawrence of Arabia, in which he was played by Peter O'Toole.

The 1920s “silent-film” era of American cinema saw studios take to Orientalist themes of the “exotic” Middle East, possibly due to the view of Arabs as part of the allies of World War I, and keffiyehs became a standard part of the theatrical wardrobe. These films and their male leads typically had Western actors in the role of an Arab, often wearing the keffiyeh with the agal (as with The Sheik and The Son of the Sheik, starring actor Rudolph Valentino).

Erwin Rommel also commonly wore a keffiyeh around his neck during the Western Desert Campaign.

Symbol of Palestinian solidarity

Outside of the Middle East and North Africa, the keffiyeh first gained popularity among activists supporting the Palestinians in the conflict with Israel.

The wearing of the keffiyeh often comes with criticism from various political factions in the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The slang “keffiyeh kinderlach” refers to young left-wing Jews, particularly college students, who sport a keffiyeh around the neck as a political/fashion statement. This term may have first appeared in print in an article by Bradley Burston in which he writes of “the suburban-exile kaffiyeh kinderlach of Berkeley, more Palestinian by far than the Palestinians” in their criticism of Israel. While this political use is generally associated with the left wing, European activists have also worn the keffiyeh.[10][11]

In 2007, the Prime Minister of Spain, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero gave a speech in which he criticized Israel harshly, then accepted a keffiyeh from members of the audience and had his photo taken wearing it.[12]

While Western protesters wear differing styles and shades of keffiyeh, the most prominent is the black-and-white keffiyeh. This is typically worn around the neck like a neckerchief, simply knotted in the front with the fabric allowed to drape over the back. Other popular styles include rectangular-shaped scarves with the basic black-and-white pattern in the body, with the ends knitted in the form of the Palestinian flag. Since the Al-Aqsa Intifada, these rectangular scarves have increasingly appeared with a combination of the Palestinian flag and Al-Aqsa Mosque printed on the ends of the fabric.

Military use

For decades, keffiyeh have been issued to British soldiers who now, almost exclusively, refer to them as shemaghs. Their use by some units and formations of the military and police forces of the former British Empire and subsequent Commonwealth dates back to before the Second World War. Because of its utility it was adopted by the Palestine Police Force, the Transjordan Frontier Force, the Sudan Defence Force, the Arab Legion, the Jordanian Armed Forces, the Libyan Arab Force, the Long Range Desert Group, the Special Air Service and Popski's Private Army, amongst others, who wore them while operating in North Africa. After the war, their use by the Army continued with the shemagh being worn in both desert and temperate environments in theatres such as Dhofar. Australian Army forces have also used the shemagh since the Vietnam War, and extensively during Iraq and Afghanistan, particularly by Australian Special Forces units. Since the beginning of the War on Terror, these keffiyeh, usually cotton and in military olive drab or khaki with black stitching, have been adopted by US troops as well, a reversal of previous policy which saw them strictly forbidden during the Gulf War.[13] Their practicality in an arid environment, as in Iraq, explains their enduring popularity with soldiers. Soldiers often wear the keffiyeh folded in half into a triangle and wrapped around the face, with the halfway point being placed over the mouth and nose, sometimes coupled with goggles, to keep sand out of the face. This is also commonly done by armoured, mechanised and other vehicle-borne troops who use it as a scarf in temperate climates to ward off wind chill caused by being in moving vehicles. British soldiers deploying to Iraq or Afghanistan are now issued with a tan-colored shemagh. Irish Army Rangers use a green shemagh to conceal their identity whilst in the "green" role.

Fashion trend

As with other articles of clothing worn in wartime, such as the T-shirt, fatigues and khaki pants, the keffiyeh has been seen as chic among non-Arabs in the West. As the Palestinian liberation movement became increasingly popular amongst leftwing activists in western Europe during the 1960s and 70s the Keffiyeh soon became symbolic of socialist activism, transformed into a general symbol of rebellious behaviour after being adopted by Punks during the 70s and 80s and was still considered synonymous with socialism-inspired anti-liberal opinions during the wave of anti WTO riots in the early 2000s.[14] Keffiyehs became popular in the United States in the late 1980s, at the start of the First Intifada, when bohemian girls and Jewish punks wore keffiyehs as scarves around their necks.[2][5] In the early 2000s, keffiyehs were very popular among youths in Tokyo, who often wore them with camouflage clothing.[2] The trend recurred in the mid-2000s in the United States,[2][5] Europe,[5] Canada and Australia,[15][16] when the keffiyeh became popular as a fashion accessory, usually worn as a scarf around the neck in hipster circles.[2][5] Stores such as Urban Outfitters and TopShop stocked the item.[5] (after some controversy, however, Urban Outfitters pulled the item).[5] In spring 2008, keffiyehs in colors like purple and mauve were given away in issues of fashion magazines in Spain and France.

In recent years, new keffiyeh designs with Israeli and Jewish motifs have also been sold. Jews have historically worn their own variations of the Keffiyeh and in pre-state Mandate Palestine, both Jews and Arabs dressed in keffiyehs.[17][18]

Controversial symbol

The keffiyeh has become a symbol of Palestinian nationalism, dating back to the 1936–1939 Arab revolt in Palestine. As a result of its symbolic meaning in this context, its display in the West has periodically been the subject of criticism.

In 2007, the American clothing store chain, Urban Outfitters, stopped selling keffiyehs after “a pro-Israel activist… complained about the items”, and the store also issued a statement that “the company had not intended ‘to imply any sympathy for or support of terrorists or terrorism’ in selling the keffiyehs and was pulling them”.[19] Caroline Glick, deputy editor of the Jerusalem Post, equates the Palestinian keffiyeh with the fascist wearing of brown shirts.[20]

See also


Further reading

  • The lexicon includes more references explaining what a sudra is on page 962.

External links

  • “The Keffiyeh and the Arab Heartland” from
  • “Saudi Aramco World: The dye that binds” by Caroline Stone
  • More Referebces about a sudra on page 962 from Jastrow Dictionary Online
  • Modern Chronology of the Keffiyah Kraze from Arab American blog Kabobfest
  • A simple trend or a political statement? from NowPublic blog
  • Che Couture Gives way to Kurds’ Puşi Chic by Işıl Eğrikavuk, Hurriyet
  • Politics vs Clothing: the Case of the Keffiyeh by Yazeed Kamaldien, Mail & Guardian
  • Palestinian Keffiyeh outgrows Mideast conflict

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