The History of the Kuffiyeh

On the morning of May 15th, nearly a week into Israel’s most recent attack on Palestinians in Gaza and Al Aqsa, I was getting ready to leave my home for Salat Al Eid. I had my outfit all picked out, make-up done and sipped that post-Ramadan coffee. For a finishing touch, I draped a Keffiyeh around my shoulders. It was important to me that no matter how cute the Eid photo or the friends hugged and salams said, everyone knew - Palestine was on my mind that morning. 

The Kuffiyeh is a traditional scarf native to various countries in the Middle East. It can be worn around the head but is more commonly worn draped around the neck and shoulders. Without a doubt, this piece of fabric is the most widely recognized symbol of the Palestinian struggle. 

The word itself “Keffiyeh” or “Kuffiyeh” means “relating to Kufa,” referencing the city of Kufa in Iraq, which was the center of Arab knowledge and learning in the 8th century. Other than this literal translation of the word, there’s little known of the actual origin of the fabric. Some accounts claim the fabric originated in the seventh century following battles between Arab and Persian forces near the city of Kufa. Others say it originates in Mesopotamia before the Islamic revelations and were worn by religious leaders around 5,000 years ago. But in more modern times, it’s practical use is to protect the wearer from sun, sand and winter cold. Various Arab nations have their own version of the cloth, with differing colors, patterns and material - the Shemagh in Jordan, or Hattah in Syria, and the Ghutra  in the Gulf. Gulf states like Bahrain, the UAE and Qatar prefer a plain white fabric, and in other countries like Jordan and Saudi Arabia, the Kuffiyeh is found in shades of red. 

But the Palestinian cloth in it’s tradition black and white pattern is the most widely recognized and the most politically charged. With the collective Palestinian identity under attack, symbols like the Kuffiyeh shifted from being a cultural practice to a call for resistance and resilience. Palestinian leadership were never seen without it and protesters used the cloth to hide their identities and protect themselves from tear gas. 

There are countless stories and meanings attributed to the patterns found on the traditional Palestinian Kuffiyeh, but it’s said to be broken into three themes: trade routes, resilience and occupation. The bold lines symbolize historical trade routes through Palestine, which brought trade from all over the region. The overlapping olive leaves represent perseverance, strength and resilience - and the olive tree itself is a symbol of Palestine and a crucial part of the economy. And the criss-cross of the fishnet to represent the Medditarranean sea and the Palestinian fisherman, another significant aspect of Palestinian life. The sea is also the only escape many Palestinians have from the harsh realities of the occupation. 

The Kuffiyeh has become a symbol of so much: in preparation for this article, I asked my instagram followers, “what one word comes to mind when you see a keffiyeh.” Many have already been referenced in this article; words like “homeland” “identity” and “love” were also used. One that caught my attention was the word “misrepresentation.” This is a reference to the screengrab that circulated earlier this year of a google search that said, “what do terrorists wear” - the result was a photo of a protester with a Kuffiyeh wrapped around their head. We can thank Hollywood movies and bad media representation for this kind of thinking. As far as I know - or anyone who has studied history minus the dominant Eurocentric lens - terrorists don’t have a uniform. 

Another word that was used: “appropriated.” This is in reference to the recent Louis Vuitton scarf with eerie similarities to the Kuffiyeh that also went viral on social media for its price tag of $705. This isn’t the first time the fashion industry has mass produced the Palestinian pattern in the name of fashion. I’m old enough to remember when a similar fabric was draped around the neck of every A-list celebrity. I saw them being sold in shops like Urban Outfitters, American Eagle, Aeropostale (back when those were THE places to shop). We would chuckle to ourselves as we shopped, making jokes that people were unknowingly advocating for a free Palestine on a daily basis. But as I grew up and understood the fabric more, I look back on this with sadness. 

With all this being said about the Palestinian love for the Kuffiyeh, there is only one textile factory left in Palestine that produces Kuffiyehs. Hirbawi factory in the West Bank was started 50 years ago and is a Palestinian owned and family run business. They describe the Kuffiyeh as the “unofficial Palestinian flag.” 

There was one word that came up repeatedly when discussing the significance of the Kuffiyeh: resilience. No matter where it started or its intended uses, it has become a symbol of the resilience of the Palestinian people and the Palestinian liberation movement.

100% of profits from the Palestine Solidarity Capsule will go to Islamic Relief's efforts to support Palestinians. 

Thank you to Sumayya for the comprehensive research and writing of this important article. 

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