Nakba Day: The complex history of the Palestinian keffiyeh

The checked scarf has morphed into an international symbol of protest, resistance and solidarity

A participant in the Revolutionary May Day Demonstration in Berlin wearing a Palestinian keffiyeh. Getty images
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May 15 is Nakba Day, which commemorates when Palestinians were forcefully removed from their homes after the formation of Israel in 1948.

The Nakba – or “catastrophe” – marks a devastating watershed moment in Palestinian history, one that has taken on deeper poignancy in light of Israel's war on the Gaza Strip.

Various symbols of solidarity have since emerged, motifs that represent the many facets of Palestinian culture, from the watermelon to tatreez embroidery. Arguably, none is more potent than the keffiyeh, or checked scarf.

Origins and early use

While the distinctive patterning is indelibly linked to Palestinian nationalism today, the keffiyeh can be traced back to Mesopotamia circa 3100 BC, when it was worn by Sumerian men to denote high status and priesthood.

The Bedouin headscarf is thought to take its name from the Iraqi city of Kufa, where it reappeared in the 7th century. The keffiyeh has since been adopted across many Arab cultures, including in Saudi Arabia and Syria. Sometimes spelt kuffiyah, the headscarf has various regional names, including ghutra and shemagh.

In Palestine, it was predominately worn by farm workers as protection against the sun, but that changed during the 1936-1939 Arab revolt when Palestinians rose up against British rule. Realising the British could easily identify protesters by their distinctive headdress, the scarf was taken up by people from all walks of life – including women and the upper class – to give rioters some anonymity.

Thus the keffiyeh shifted from something practical to become a symbol of protest and resistance.

Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation from 1969 to 2004 and president of the Palestinian National Authority from 1994 to 2004, made a point of wearing the keffiyeh every day, even going as far as to painstakingly fold and drape it in the shape of Palestine.

Authenticity and retail

While many shops the world over sell black and white, or red and white, checked scarves and call them keffiyehs, it is worth noting that a vast number have no direct links to Palestine, but rather have been made by the million in China and Vietnam. For those searching for an authentic scarf that helps ensure the survival of artisans and Palestinian families and businesses, it is worth doing some research and buying only from verified companies.

In Palestine itself, only one keffiyeh factory remains today. The Hirbawi factory in Hebron was founded in 1961, but has since faced declining sales due to fast fashion imitations. It was struggling to stay afloat as recently as August 2022, but since the war began in October 2023, there has been a surge in interest from those looking to purchase an authentic keffiyeh. Hirbawi is so inundated with orders that customers are now facing a four-month wait for their scarves.

In neighbouring Jordan lies Al Bulbul, run by a Palestinian family. The mill started out making keffiyehs in Jericho in the 1950s, but had to relocate to Amman in the 1960s. Like Hirbawi, it has been inundated with orders, with many websites that stock its wares noting the scarves are sold out.

SEP (Social Enterprise Project) is another keffiyeh company of note. It has been working with Palestinian refugees in the Jerash camp since 2014, employing them to hand-embroider the scarves. The sales have provided work to some 500 people so far. In January 2024, SEP joined forces with menswear brand GMBH, to hand-embroider a suit jacket made from a red and white keffiyeh.

Controversy and revival

The scarf continues to be divisive. Earlier this year, the Museum of the Moving Image in New York ran into hot water when it refused entry to two visitors wearing keffiyehs, a move it later described as a “mistake”. Multiple fashion companies, from Fendi to Asos, have faced criticism in recent years for appropriating the keffiyeh without crediting its history or employing Palestinians artisans.

In America, the scarf is being worn by students protesting the genocide in Gaza, with sit-ins and blockades shutting down or disrupting more than 130 universities. These protests have also taken place at campuses in Australia, UK, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt and Ireland.

In Malmo, three Palestinian brothers born and raised in the Swedish city, recently released Palestine Cola. The drink – orders for which have already topped four million – is meant to rival US brands Coca-Cola and Pepsi, which some have boycotted for their perceived links to Israel.

On its can? The Palestinian keffiyeh design, and the words “liberty for everyone”, underlining the founders' message – and the keffiyeh's connotation – that, regardless of ethnicity and religion, everybody has the right to freedom.

Updated: May 15, 2024, 6:29 AM