Inside Hirbawi, Palestine's last remaining keffiyeh factory

A look at the efforts being made to save this little piece of Palestinian history

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On a quiet street in Hebron, in the West Bank, down a short driveway and through an unremarkable doorway, I discover the last outpost of an invaluable piece of Palestinian culture.

I am at the Hirbawi factory, the last remaining maker of the authentic Palestinian keffiyeh, founded in 1961 by Yasser Hirbawi. Today I am met by Abed, one of his three sons. Delighted, if a little surprised, to have an unannounced visitor, he shows me to the factory floor, past several shelves piled high with scarves. “Welcome, welcome,” he says, waving me inside.

Amid a deafening clatter — the looms have many, many moving parts — the smell of grease and air filled with cotton fluff, I am greeted with an amazing sight. Huge machines are slowly creating Palestinian keffiyehs, one row at a time. A self-confessed textile nerd, I find the experience almost overwhelming. Shelves are covered in industrial-sized spools of thread and a wall is filled with neatly displayed rectangular samples — inexplicably lit in neon purple. A poster of Yasser Arafat is cellotaped to one of the pillars.

As I gingerly move between the machines, the men tending them look up and smile, unbothered by this random tourist getting in the way. I am the only one here. In the office, an Austrian woman is placing an order, but no one else seems eager to experience this little piece of history.

It takes more than a year to master one of the hulking looms in the Hirbawi factory. Sarah Maisey / The National

It’s a sign of the fact, while known as the unofficial Palestinian flag, and despite the best efforts of a dedicated few, the future of the keffiyeh is by no means certain.

The distinctive square headscarf, with its striking fishing net pattern, is a cornerstone of Arab culture, from Turkey and Yemen to Saudi Arabia. When the Hirbawi factory opened in the West Bank’s largest city, it was one of 30 such factories producing the distinctive keffiyeh.

Scarves, thobes and even jackets were shipped across Palestine and the wider region, with the Hirbawi factory alone weaving 1,000 scarves a day — its machines running for 18 hours a day just to keep up with the demand.

By 2008, however, Hirbawi was the only site still in business, and production had dropped to only 100 scarves a day. So, what happened?

While today indelibly linked to Palestinian nationalism, the keffiyeh can be traced back to Mesopotamia circa 3100 BC, when it was worn by Sumerian men to denote high status and priesthood. Over the centuries, it has always been the preserve of men, but during Ottoman rule (1517-1917) its use within Palestine became the preserve of farmers.

During the 1936 Arab Revolt against British rule, the keffiyeh began its shift towards something more rebellious when it was used by protesters to cover their faces. When the British outlawed it to try to halt the protests, Palestinians reacted by taking up the scarf en masse — including women — making protesters impossible to single out.

During the Nakba of 1948 — the forced removal of Palestinians from their homes after the formation of Israel — the scarf’s air of dissent grew, so when Mohammed Abdel Rahman Abdel Raouf al-Qudwa al-Husseini, better known as Yasser Arafat, assumed leadership of the Palestine Liberation Organisation in the late 1960s, he made the keffiyeh his signature, folded and draped into the shape of Palestine.

Inside the Hirbawi factory. Sarah Maisey / The National

Over the next three decades, the scarf became increasingly politicised within Palestine, as the Fatah party claimed the black-and-white version as its own, and Hamas adopted the red and white. Overseas, however, these distinctions were less meaningful, and with its frisson of activism, the scarf was increasingly adopted by those keen to show off political credentials and sympathies.

By the mid-1990s, the popularity of the keffiyeh was becoming increasingly widespread, and thanks to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, it became a victim of its own success. Aimed at opening up trade barriers around the world, the Gatt allowed for foreign access to markets. Asian factories sensed an opportunity and began producing their own keffiyehs at a lower price and in greater quantities. Flooding the market, these were snapped up by those who either didn’t know, or care, that they were buying a cheap facsimile.

In the 2000s, the keffiyeh was co-opted as a fashion accessory. For autumn/winter 2007, detached from all meaning and heritage, Balenciaga released its own chequered scarf, priced at $3,000. The high street quickly followed suit, with American Apparel and Topshop releasing their own black-and-white versions.

Urban Outfitters found itself at the receiving end of a significant backlash, after it named its version “anti-war woven scarves”. Forced to pull it from shelves, the company also had to issue an apology. “We apologise if we offended anyone, this was by no means our intention,” it said.

While all the ensuing controversy helped to increase the popularity of the scarf, it sounded the death knell for the factories in Hebron, which couldn’t compete with a flood of cheap copies. Having saturated the market, the foreign copies even reached Jerusalem, only 28 kilometres away.

Today, stepping inside the Hirbawi factory is like stepping back in time. It is the only factory of its kind still in operation, with hulking Suzuki looms, half a century old, clattering away noisily.

Notoriously complicated to operate — it takes more than a year to master one — each machine weaves scarves as one continuous length, which must be cut to size by hand. Not all the machines here are running, however. Of the original 15, half now stand idle, shut down as sales slowed two decades ago and never recovered.

Hirbawi is creating scarves in an increasingly wide variety of colours. Photo: HirbawiUSA

Yet, despite this, there is room for hope. In 2008, Hirbawi was forced to let go of all but one member of staff as sales plummeted. Now, a handful of men move between the machines, carefully tending the emerging cloth. While still down on the numbers of its heyday, it bodes well that Hirbawi is starting to look to the future again. Salvation, it seems, is coming from outside Palestine, specifically from Germany and the US.

Hearing of the plight of the factory, Palestinians living in Germany set up a website to promote and sell keffiyehs and olive oil, to offer support and a financial lifeline.

Called Paliroots.com, it joined forces with the factory, becoming its European representative, bringing it into the digital age in the process. In 2015, the site was seen by Azar Aghayev, who was spurred into launching a US version, called Hirbawi USA.

Seeing the German site was a light bulb moment for him, Aghayev explains. “They were selling keffiyehs and some other Palestinian products like olive oil and spices. We got in touch and told them that we would like to sell the keffiyehs from within the US.”

Today, as the American affiliate of Hirbawi, Aghayev sells 36 colour variations on his site. This is a far cry from the early days, when he ordered only four colours. “We shipped our first box of keffiyehs from Palestine to the States. Only black and white, red and white, pure black and Gaza.”

With many scarves named after Palestinian cities, the Gaza design is a bright mix of orange, red and green. Having previously visited Palestine and witnessed first-hand the situation faced by its people, Aghayev knew long-term support was desperately needed. “I wanted to help the Palestinian cause as much as I could, and this seemed like a sustainable way to do so.”

Fans can now buy Hirbawi scarves at select locations and websites across the world. Photo: HirbawiUSA

The goal, he explains, is to reclaim ownership of the keffiyeh for Hirbawi and Palestine, and to protect the future of the scarf and the factory making it. “My aim is recognition of the brand. And creating sustained jobs and a sustainable operation back in Palestine, where stability is a little hard to come by. And raise awareness for the Palestinian cause, of course. That goes without saying.”

With the colours of the scarf now loaded with political meaning within Palestine, Hirbawi has widened its colour palette to sidestep the issue, creating many new variations.

Visitors can pick up a keffiyeh in colours such as chocolate, taupe, deep blue and even one in the green and orange of the Irish flag.

Called the Saoirse, it is, the factory declares, a recognition of the similar struggles faced by Ireland and Palestine, and is dedicated to “liberty and freedom” and the “people of Ireland”.

Inevitably, as Hirbawi USA has grown, others have tried to cash in. However, Aghayev remains unfazed and committed to the long game. “Other folks rushed to sell Hirbawi keffiyehs online, unofficially. Without the knowledge of the factory and selling versions that weren’t meant to be exported,” he says. While pragmatic, he does not hide his scorn for those who peddle copies.

However, despite the help coming from Europe and America, little support is offered to the Hirbawi factory from within Palestine. The population has much bigger issues to worry about than keeping one factory going.

Case in point, the taxi driver taking me to the Hirbawi factory from Bethlehem was unmoved by its fate. More concerned that he would never be able to afford to marry, when I handed him a gift of a scarf, he looked at it — and me — quizzically. Explaining this was for the son he would one day have, I pointed out that by the time the child arrives, the Hirbawi factory may well be a thing of the past.

Updated: September 19, 2022, 3:43 AM
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