Answer Man

Keffiyeh headgear has no religious symbolism

Yasser Arafat wore a keffiyeh to show Palestinian solidarity.
Yasser Arafat wore a keffiyeh to show Palestinian solidarity.

Q: What is the religious or cultural symbolism displayed by Muslims who wear the black-and-white-checked headgear (scarf, tunic) that seems to be universal and ubiquitous?

J.T., of Belleville

A: Just as no respectable American executive would attend an important business meeting without a suit and tie, this distinctive “headgear” you wonder about is an important fashion accessory for many in the Middle East.

Depending on where you travel, it’s called a keffiyeh (kufiya, kafiyya, etc.), shemagh, guhtrah, mashadah or cermedani. That’s one of the things you might find surprising. The name — along with the color and style of wear — varies by region and peoples.

The other fact you may not have realized is that its origin is relatively recent. You may remember seeing Lawrence of Arabia wearing one in that 1962 movie classic, but the Middle East experts I contacted said that’s about as far back as it goes — the early 20th century. So it has no particular religious symbolism related to the Islamic faith, which dates back to the 600s.

Instead, it largely has become a style accoutrement much as Westerners might don a vest, shawl or pocket square to complement their outfits. It’s certainly more practical than a necktie — which may explain how it became popular. As you know, it is commonly found in arid regions, so it provides protection against sun, dust, sand and the chill of the night. Perhaps some Bedouin farmer wrapped cloth around his head one day to avoid a sunburn and the idea caught on.

However, there is one group for whom it has taken on significant importance. Traditionally worn by Palestinian farmers, the black-and-white fishnet-pattern keffiyeh remains a symbol of Palestinian nationalism since the Arab Revolt nearly a century ago.

“In the 1930s, the Palestinians revolted against the British Mandate of Palestine as well as the growing Zionist militias,” activist Nerdeen Kiswani wrote on the I Stand With Palestine website. “Many of them had worn the scarf to hide their identity or show their support.”

It then exploded onto the scene when Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat began wearing it in various forms almost everywhere he went after the early 1960s. Early on, he would arrange it in the rough shape of a triangle over his right shoulder to resemble the outline of the land claimed by Palestine. Soon, his supporters en masse began wearing them to the point his opponents called them “terrorist scarves.” Kiswani says the scarf is worn only as a sign of solidarity.

“Palestinians, and those who stand in solidarity with them, are still heavily stigmatized when wearing the symbol of support and resistance,” wrote Kiswani, who says a college professor once told her “don’t shoot me” when he encountered her wearing one on her college campus. “We are given dirty looks when we wear these items and people accuse us of spreading hatred or even being terrorists ourselves.”

Experts point out, though, that this particular pattern is a favorite among Palestinians and other Arabs with no particular political ties. The origin of the common checkered pattern itself is a mystery. Some say it may have grown out of an ancient Mesopotamian representation of either fishing nets or ears of grain, but nobody is certain.

The Palestinian keffiyehs are generally a mix of cotton and wool designed to dry fast yet keep the head warm when needed. It is generally folded in half into a triangle with the fold worn across the forehead. Some wearers wrap it into a turban while others drape it loosely around the neck and shoulders. It is often held in place by an agal, a ring of rope worn around the head. The word itself means “from Kufa,” an Iraqi city that became a popular manufacturing center of the garment, much as damask fabric came from Damascus.

But as I mentioned earlier, colors and styles vary. In Jordan, it’s often called a shemagh mhadab, and it’s often red-and-white checked. In addition, these often sport decorative tassels, with the size of the tassels indicative of the importance of the wearer in society. During his travels in Iraq, journalist Gavin Young found that the local “sayyids” — religious leaders considered to be descendants of Mohammed — wore dark green keffiyehs to set themselves apart. In many other areas, including the Persian Gulf states, the keffiyeh usually is fashioned from plain white cotton cloth and sometimes is called a ghutrah.

Now, one final surprise: Thanks to Hollywood and other influences, the keffiyeh has become such a chic worldwide fashion statement that, yes, they, too, now are largely imported from China, which has all but wiped out traditional Palestinian makers. According to an article at www.palestinemonitor.org, Yasser Herbawi, the last manufacturer, said in 2008 that his output since 1990 had fallen from 750 per day to 300 per week because he could not compete with the more cheaply made Chinese variety.

As Mother Jones noted in 2009, “Ironically, global support for this Palestinian-statehood-as-fashion-accessory has put yet another nail in the coffin of the Occupied Territories’ beleaguered economy.”

Today’s trivia

Do you remember the name of the East St. Louis native who became the United States’ 15th ambassador to the United Nations in 1979?

Answer to Wednesday’s trivia: “She’s totally committed to major independence, but she’s a lady through and through.” So begins “Her Strut,” Bob Seger’s paean to a woman who combines brains, energy and beauty. But who inspired the native Detroit rocker to write this anthem? In a 1981 radio interview, Seger revealed his muse as none other than Jane Fonda, a fact the actress acknowledged in 2011 after attending a Seger concert in Los Angeles. “I am flattered, to say the least,” she wrote of the revelation on her website blog. “Bob sang it last night and did a shout out to me in front of a packed stadium. When I hear ‘Night Moves,’ or ‘Against the Wind,’ or ‘Horizontal Bop’ among the many others, I am transported to specific times, exciting times, romantic, sensual times and it makes me so happy.” You can find a picture of the two backstage at www.janefonda.com/bob-seger.

Roger Schlueter: 618-239-2465, @RogerAnswer

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