Globalization and Symbols of Nationalism: The Keffiyeh

Left: Yasser Arafat, right: Leila Khaled.


“[…] The late ’50s and the ’90s was a time of heightened activity for the Palestinian national movement. It was also a period of heightened popularity for its adopted symbol, the keffiyeh.”
– Silvia Boarini

The keffiyeh is originally a black and white checkered cloth, historically used to protect the head and neck of Arab men from sun and sand – it also communicated a lower social status from those who wore it. Hitherto, the keffiyeh is more notably linked to one of the most powerful symbolisms of Palestinian resistance: during the Arab Revolt in 1936 against the British Mandate, Palestinians wore the scarf to conceal their identity while protesting. In the late 1960’s, the keffiyeh became increasingly implemented as an emblem of Palestinian nationalism when Yasser Arafat, chairman of the PLO (Palestinian Liberation Organisation), frequently wore it publicly and was hardly seen without it.  Other political figures from the PLFP (Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine), also dressed in the scarf, namely the female freedom fighter, Leila Khaled. During this time, European and American leftists would also fashion the keffiyeh signaling solidarity with the Palestinians and their cause. 

How Capital Dilutes Political Meaning

Since 1961, The Herbawi Factory in Hebron has been the only existing factory that produces the original keffiyeh in Palestine. After activists who supported Palestinians began wearing the keffiyeh, by the mid 90’s Chinese imports of the replicated scarf started to circulate due to globalization and GATT (General Agreements on Tariffs and Trade). In turn, The Herbawi Factory was forced to lower sale prices, as it could not compete with the mass production and cheaper costs of the Chinese manufacturers. The contribution of manufacturing that added to Palestine’s GDP dropped drastically from 1998 to 2008 when the keffiyeh became less of a political expression and more of a fashion statement.


Graph from The Global Economy.

Fashion designers such as Zara and Balenciaga re-mastered the keffiyeh as a must-have wardrobe accessory, while celebrities like David Beckham and Rihanna began to don the scarf in different colours and styles. The fast global distribution meant that any political status had been disembodied from the keffiyeh and was now purely a commodity in Marx’s most elementary explanation:  its symbolic value, in relation to cultural capital, was guaranteed high fashion status. The problem did not lie in the fact that the keffiyeh had become a global phenomenon that celebrities to hipsters were trending, but that it had lost all political meaning and sense of solidarity for the people of Palestine. From the whole decade – in particular – of 1998 to 2008, capitalism saw its chance and took it; lowering an object of purely symbolic resistance to a consumable decoration of materialistic signification.


Left: shorts from Zara website, right: David Beckham.

Even after the trend had died down after its most prolific period, the highlight of the keffiyeh and its notable print continued to be mindlessly replicated, diluted, and shattered. The “go-ahead’ from capital to wear or re-produce the scarf with no recognition or remuneration for Palestinians and their case, saw a new wave of unjustifiable appropriation from Palestine’s oppressors. In 2010, the keffiyeh had a total makeover by a group from the Jewish music label, Shemspeed; they created their very own ‘keffiyeh’, but instead of the original fishnet style pattern, they used blue embroidered Stars of David. Similarly, in 2016, Israeli fashion designer, Dodo Bar Or, launched a new women’s line that themed the pattern of the keffiyeh, which evidently caused a major upset with Palestinians as representation of their struggle had been benefited from by the very same occupation that injected that struggle.

Left: model sporting the ‘Isreali keffiyeh’, right: dress from Dodo Bar Or’s fashion line.

If looking deeper into the issue and past notions of cultural appropriation, then we can understand that the root of the problem lies in how globalization appropriated a symbol of political struggle from a minority group into a mass produced consumer product. As a consequence, this made it acceptable for the scarf to then be appropriated by celebrity icons and individuals, completely diminishing the keffiyeh to nothing more than a buyable accessory with all direct profit going to outsourced businesses.

Words by Sahar Amer.