The history of Keffiyeh: A traditional Scarf from Palestine

Majdi Habash Hirbawi History Keffiyeh

This scarf we call the keffiyeh today has a fascinating history dating back to Sumerians and Babylonians in Mesopotamia. It is also known as a shemagh, hatta, yamegh, and igal. Prophet Mohammd (pbuh) used to wear the shemagh as well. Donning the shemagh has held many different meanings and uses over time and depending on location / culture. The symbolic meaning, color and style vary from one country to another and even from one region to another. For instance, here in Palestine, it’s very common to see a keffiyeh worn in solidarity protests and demonstrations.

Where did the Keffiyeh originate?

Today it is well known that the keffiyeh is a symbol of resistance and solidarity in the Arab countries and in Palestine in particular. But the root history is said to go back to the Sumerians in Mesopotamia (the civilization of Sumerians and Babylonians in West Asia in 3100 BC). The yamegh, or shemagh, was worn by priests, as a symbol of high rank, or honor. These priests were the rulers, managing and controlling the lands where they lived.

Moving forward in history, the keffiyeh as a head covering was adopted by peasants who wore it while they were working on the land to protect them from the sun, and sand, as well to wipe their faces from the sweat, and in winter to protect them from the rain and cold

The Keffiyeh's popularity in Palestine

Yassir Arafat wearing hatta and igal During the British Mandate, especially during the 1936 Arab Revolt, Palestinian rebels used the keffiyeh to hide their identity to avoid arrest. When British Mandate authorities banned the keffiyeh, all Palestinians started wearing it to make it harder to identify the rebels. These events turned the keffiyeh into a symbol of resistance in Palestine, which continues through this day. This symbol strengthened greatly during the First Intifada in 1987, and again in the Second Iintifada in 2000.

The late Palestinian President Yassir Arafat also had an influential role in rendering the keffiyeh an everlasting symbol for the Palestinian fight against occupation during the First and Second Intifadas: he would rarely appear in public without putting his hatta and igal on.  Many Arab celebrities today express their solidarity by wearing the keffiyeh on T.V.

The only Keffiyeh factory in Palestine

More than 5 decades ago there were more than 30 Keffiyeh factories operating in Palestine. Today there is only one factory in Hebron--the Hirbawi Factory.

Mr.Judeh Hirbawi the General Manager of The Hirbawi factory said they have produced more than 250 styles of keffiyeh, more than 150,000 keffiyehs each year. The factory was established in 1961, and used to operate more than 15 machines; today, after the import of cheaper keffiyehs produced in China started competing in the local markets, only 4 machines operate in the factory that employs 15-25 workers.

making the keffiyeh at the hirbawi factory in hebron

The keffiyeh in fashion today is a controversial topic among many people here in Palestine, mainly because of the varied colors used instead of the original black-white and red-white color. Many in the West buy and wear the keffiyeh, transforming it into a fashion trend.  The trend was booming two years ago in Europe, with few wearing it even knowing the origins and symbolism. According the Mr.Judeh the Arafatiyeh Keffiyeh which is the black and white keffiyeh remains the most famous keffiyeh and the most sold hirbawi keffiyeh on the web today.

In my opinion, I see no harm in the keffiyeh becoming a fashionable accessory. We see that many artists around the world have put on a keffiyeh in music videos and movies, which participated it the fashion trend. The important thing is that we insist to infuse it with meaning, inform people about the symbolism. When we asked Mr.Judeh about this controversy, he replied that we hold strongly to the original colors and patterns of the keffiyeh, while the modern colored styles mostly came from Europe.

In terms of new colors and styles of the keffiyeh, it’s natural for things to develop and have new colors to make it more attractive for others to buy. If the Hirbawi Factory refused to manufacture other styles and colors, they wouldn’t sell enough to sustain the business and the factory would shut down its operations. More than 10 families would lose their source of income and Palestine would lose the last factory in the country. I think of Palestinian embroidery, which is constantly developing and adopting new patterns, because it’s natural for art and fashion to develop and take new shapes and forms. In the last section of Labor of Love, an exhibition by Rachel Dedman in the Palestinian Museum in Birzeit, an embroidered dress is on display--the dress’s pattern and colors were inspired by a design from Pinterest. Seeing the dress some people might not call it a Palestinian embroidered dress. The question is do we see this dress as other than Palestinian because it doesn’t feature traditional patterns, thus we wouldn’t recognize it as part of Palestinian culture? If we introduce new designs, colors and patterns to our handicrafts, do we render them as foreign? Are they no longer Palestinian when we move away from the traditional? Is there no room for Palestinian artists and designers to develop and evolve their craft?

What is the keffiyeh made from?

The keffiyeh is a traditional Middle Eastern headdress fashioned from a square meter scarf, usually made of cotton. Some other factories make it with a fabric that is a mix of polyester and cotton or solely polyester. The best quality ones are made from 100% cotton, like the ones made at Hirbawi Factory in Hebron. After the fabric goes through the machines and comes out with the embroidery, it is cut into square meter pieces and tassels and the Hirbawi tag are sewn on.

Hirbawi Keffiyeh Factory - Keffiyeh Sewing Machine

Other popular uses of Keffiyeh:

  • Table cover
  • Hey photographers, you could use it a backdrop for your settings (my sister uses the keffiyeh in her baby photography sessions where she wraps babies with one and they look super cute.)
  • Curtain
  • Tannoura
  • Chair cover
  • Nursing Cover
  • Hijab

Some of the many ways to wear a keffiyeh:

This method is most commonly used on cold days to protect the neck.

Wearing the keffiyeh GIF | Handmade Palestine

While this method is used as a light scarf on chilly spring and summer nights.
Wearing a pink and white keffiyeh GIF | Handmade Palestine

We have more than 25 style of keffiyehs. Get yourself, or your friend a nice warm keffiyeh. Autumn is here ;) 

 

 

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