AskDefine | Define keffiyeh

User Contributed Dictionary





  1. The cloth worn on the head and about the neck by certain Arab males, indoors and out.

Extensive Definition

The keffiyeh (, ; plural: , kūfīyāt), shmagh, shemagh or yashmag (, ), ghutra (, ), hatta (, ) or mashada () is a traditional headdress of Arab men, made of a square of cloth ("scarf"), usually cotton, folded and wrapped in various styles around the head. It is commonly found in arid climate areas to provide protection from direct sun exposure, as well as for occasional use in protecting the mouth and eyes from blown dust and sand.
Local variations exist. Many Palestinian keffiyeh 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 (, ). Some wearers wrap the keffiyeh into a turban, while others wear it loosely draped around the back and shoulders. Sometimes a skullcap 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 the Gulf states, almost excluding any other style in Kuwait and Bahrain. The black-and-white keffiyeh is most popular in the Levant. The red-and-white keffiyeh is worn throughout these regions as well as in Somalia, but is most strongly associated with Jordan, where is it known as shmagh mhadab. The Jordanian keffiyeh has cotton decorative strings on the sides. It is believed that the bigger these strings, the more value it has and the higher a person's status. It has been used by Bedouins throughout the centuries and was used as a symbol of honour and tribal identification.
Keffiyeh is often spelled kaffiyah, keffiya, kaffiya, kufiya or some other variation. There is little basis for considering any one of these more correct than the others, as the varied spellings simply show different understandings of the pronunciation in Arabic, which differs from region to region, as well as different methods of transliteration from the Arabic alphabet to the Latin alphabet. The name keffiyeh is purported to come from the name of the city Kufa (, ) or from the word for the palm of the hand (, ) (the other meaning of the word is "napkin" (held in hands).
The keffiyeh, especially the all-white version, can also be called a ghutra (, ), particularly in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain (where the skullcap is confusingly called keffiyeh), but is also known in some areas a shmagh (, ) or a hatta (, ).

Palestinian national symbol

In the 1960s, the keffiyeh became a symbol of Palestinian nationalism as a result of its association with rural areas (as opposed to the city-dweller's fez).
The keffiyeh would later become a trademark symbol of Yasser Arafat, who was rarely seen without his peculiarly arranged black-and-white scarf (only occasionally did he sport a military cap or, in colder climates, a Russian-style fur hat or Ushanka). Arafat would wear his keffiyeh in semi-traditional manner, around the head and wrapped by an agal, but he also wore a similarly patterened 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 and arranging it in the rough shape of a triangle, so resembling the outlines of the territory claimed by Palestine. This manner of wearing the keffiyeh in turn 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 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 use of the keffiyeh as a hijab remains very uncommon, and to the extent it exists, it must be assumed to be a personal political statement.
The colors of the stitching in a keffiyeh are also vaguely associated with Palestinians' political sympathies. The iconic "spider-web" black-and-white keffiyeh is often displayed symbolically by members of Arafat's Fatah party (which more generally uses yellow as its party colour), although it has never been able to expropriate it as their exclusive symbol. The zig zag style of stitching is sometimes described as symbolic of their historic struggle and their inability to progress towards their objectives without having to avoid obstacles. This is in contrast to how many members of the radical leftist PLO factions (such as PFLP, PFLP-GC DFLP) prefer the checkered red keffieyhs — red being both the traditional colour of the workers' movement and the red scarf supposedly more indicative of a bedouin and rural (thus poorer, more popular) background. While widely known, this color symbolism is by no means universally accepted by all Palestinians, and its importance should not be overstated — red or black-and-white scarves are used by Palestinians of all political stripes, as well as by those with no particular political sympathies.
This symbol of Palestinian identity is now largely imported from China, in 2008 Yasser Hirbawi who for five decades had been the only Palestinian manufacturer of keffiyehs told Reuters that "Two years ago I had to close down my factory because I couldn't compete with Chinese-made Hattas (keffiyehs) that sell for 40 percent less."

Westerners in keffiyeh

The British Colonel T. E. Lawrence (better known as Lawrence of Arabia), probably the best-known Western wearer of the keffiyeh, 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.
Possibly due to the view of Arabs as part of the allies of World War I, the 1920s "silent-film" era of American cinema saw studios take to Orientalist themes of the "exotic" Middle East, and keffiyehs became a standard part of the theatrical wardrobe. These films and their male leads (as with The Sheik and The Son of the Sheik, starring actor Rudolph Valentino) typically had Western actors in the role of an Arab, often wearing the keffiyeh with the agal.
In current times, in the music video for the Nine Inch Nails single "Survivalism", Trent Reznor can be seen wearing a shemagh around his neck, though the use of the shemagh in the video is appropriated in part to represent the Art is Resistance movement in the band's promotional alternate reality game for its 2007 album Year Zero.

Symbol of Palestinian solidarity?

Increased sympathy and activism by certain Westerners toward Palestinians in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict in the years of the Oslo Peace Accords and Second Intifada have led to the wearing of keffiyehs as a sign of their solidarity with Palestine and the Palestinian people. For example, 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 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 some years, the wearing of the keffiyeh has been almost ubiquitous amongst 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 Trans Jordan Frontier Force, the Sudan Defence Force, the Arab Legion, 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 keffiyeh 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 and troops as well. Their practicality in an arid environment, as in Iraq, explains their constant 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.

Fashion trend

As with other articles of clothing worn in wartime, such as the T-shirt and khaki pants, the keffiyeh has been seen as chic among non-Arabs in the West, who may be uninterested in politics, the military, or both. Keffiyehs became popular in the United States in the late 1980s, at the start of the First Intifada, when bohemian girls wore keffiyehs as scarves around their necks. Stores such as Urban Outfitters and TopShop stocked the item.

Controversial symbol

The keffiyeh has become a symbol of the Palestinians in the long running Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 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 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." Rhoda Koenig, a theatre critic for the The Independent in 2006, asserted that the keffiyeh had "become a symbol of Islamic militancy". Caroline Glick, deputy editor of the Jerusalem Post, equates the Palestinian keffiyeh with the fascist wearing of brown shirts. A spokesman for Spain’s Popular Party accused Prime Minister Zapatero of "anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism and Israelophobia," after he "criticized Israel's attacks on Lebanon and posed in a Palestinian-style keffiyeh scarf.".

Dunkin' Donuts controversy

Dunkin' Donuts discontinued an online ad featuring Rachael Ray wearing a scarf after conservative columnist Michelle Malkin claimed that the scarf resembled a keffiyeh.

In media

See also

  • Krama
  • kufi or kofia -- other headcoverings sometimes adopted by Muslim men
keffiyeh in Arabic: شماغ
keffiyeh in Bulgarian: Куфия
keffiyeh in Danish: Shemagh
keffiyeh in German: Kufiya
keffiyeh in Spanish: Kufiyya
keffiyeh in Persian: چفیه
keffiyeh in French: Keffieh
keffiyeh in Italian: Kefiah
keffiyeh in Dutch: Keffiyeh
keffiyeh in Norwegian: Palestinaskjerf
keffiyeh in Polish: Kefija
keffiyeh in Russian: Куфия
keffiyeh in Slovenian: Kefija
keffiyeh in Finnish: Shemagh
keffiyeh in Swedish: Palestinasjal
keffiyeh in Ukrainian: Куфія
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