The keffiyeh, the headdress that came to symbolise Palestine

The keffiyeh, the headdress that came to symbolise Palestine
3 min read
11 May, 2015
Comment: Yasser Arafat's black and white headdress is the symbol of Palestinians' national aspirations par excellence, says Nasri Hajjaj.
The scarf is still worn as a symbol of Palestine [Mahmud Hams]
I started thinking about the importance of symbols in the lives of Palestinians after a Birzeit university student wrote about Yasser Arafat through a rather contemptuous and Islamist-tinted lens after the university's elections a few weeks ago.


I had been opposed to the sanctification of symbols, despite their importance in the lives of a population whose incomplete national identity is under threat.

Palestinians have found symbols through their history and geography, which is slipping away from them between their fingers. They have irrigated those symbols with their blood and pain, so they take root in the minds and conscience of generation after generation, to preserve their identity in the face of the harshness of disintegration and the suffering of displacement.


Traditional Palestinian dress and folk songs always carried a strong symbolism in the face of persistent and systemic Israeli action to destroy or appropriate those symbols since Palestine was occupied. Israelis alleged the olive tree is their symbol and that hummus, falafel and most recently maqluba are Israeli dishes, and this has caused anger among the Palestinians, who take pride in those dishes.

We no longer distinguished between the keffiyeh, Yasser Arafat and Palestine.

However, the most evocative symbol of Palestinian national identity is the Palestinian keffiyeh, the black and white headdress that, despite its current sad state remains the closest symbol to the hearts of Palestinians. Yasser Arafat made the keffiyeh the symbol it has become and gave it new life.


Since the bloody confrontation between the Palestinian Liberation Organisation and the Jordanian regime in September 1970, we have seen how Arafat's keffiyeh developed, how even the way he wore it became symbolic. It became a symbol of an ambitious national project.


The harsher the Arab, Israeli and international response to the Palestinian national movement, Arafat's keffiyeh seemed more creative and powerful as a symbol, despite the frailty of the man wearing it and the weakness of the movement he led. We no longer distinguished between the keffiyeh, Yasser Arafat and Palestine. Western media started describing Arafat as "Mr Palestine".


An international symbol

Through Arafat and the Palestinian fighters, the keffiyeh became an international symbol for all rebels against oppression around the world, and this created a huge market for the black and white piece of cloth.


Arafat created an entire and distinctive outfit for himself from the keffiyeh, positioning his head cover in a certain way, which Arafat said resembled the map of Palestine, with a crease at the top of his head symbolising the Dome of the Rock in al-Aqsa Mosque. Arafat also used another keffiyeh as a scarf to cover his thin neck.


However, the keffiyeh has retreated upon itself, like a child scared of the dark. It was abandoned after the PLO's defeat during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982.


The keffiyeh used to be just black and white. However after Arafat's death, other colours have started to become common. Hamas introduced the colour green. Abu Ubaidah, spokesman for Hamas' Qassam brigades, hid his face behind a red keffiyeh. Islamic Jihad fighters have started wearing the Iranian black.


But none of these keffiyehs have seized the popular imagination like Arafat's black and white keffiyeh; none of them will become the symbol of national aspiration that Arafat's keffiyeh became.


Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.


This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.