Demand for traditional keffiyehs surges in last remaining Palestinian factory

The chequered scarf has become a powerful emblem of Palestinian solidarity as war rages in Gaza

Demand for traditional keffiyehs surges in last remaining Palestinian factory

Demand for traditional keffiyehs surges in last remaining Palestinian factory
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A loud clacking noise fills the air at the Hirbawi factory in the occupied West Bank city of Hebron, as a dozen sewing machines simultaneously churn back and forth, weaving the intricate stitches of the Palestinian chequered scarf, the keffiyeh.

Workers look on and occasionally cut off excess thread while several machines sew multicoloured versions of the scarf – blue, orange and green – and others create the easily recognisable traditional black-and-white keffiyeh.

The Hirbawi factory, founded in 1961, is the last Palestinian factory in the West Bank that is producing the quintessential Palestinian garment.

But since October 7, when Israel launched a military operation on Gaza in retaliation for a Hamas attack, demand locally and abroad for the scarf has been soaring.

“It’s not one fold or two-fold, it’s more,” says Joudeh Hirbawi, the factory’s owner.

The Palestinian death toll in Gaza, which has exceeded 18,000, the vast majority of them civilians, has led to huge protests in most major cities around the world with people demanding an end to the war, now in its third month.

Protesters have come out by the thousands, waving Palestinian flags and signs demanding a ceasefire, and also donning the scarf that was most famously worn by Palestine Liberation Organisation leader Yasser Arafat.

He wore the hatta, as it is called locally, in the traditional manner, and carefully styled it around his head, folding it in the shape of Palestine.

The headdress has since continued to serve both as a fashion and political statement, as well as a powerful symbol of solidarity with the Palestinian cause.

“No one can deny the symbolic importance of the keffiyeh,” Mr Hirbawi tells The National.

But amid tensions that have spilt over well beyond the region, violence has sometimes ensued.

In the US state of Vermont last month, three Palestinian university students – two of them wearing keffiyehs – were shot while on their way to a family dinner. One student was paralysed from the chest down.

And a woman in Brooklyn, New York, was arrested and charged with a hate crime after she threw coffee at a man wearing the scarf.

Amid a rise in Islamophobic attacks and anti-Arab sentiment, police in Germany and France have banned, fined or detained protesters wearing keffiyehs.

“The controversy is not about the keffiyeh, it’s about the situation that we are in,” Mr Hirbawi says. “The keffiyeh is but a very small part of it.”

Meanwhile, despite the rise in demand, particularly for the traditional keffiyehs, the business Mr Hirbawi’s late father started is not without its challenges.

The sewing machines operate 10 hours a day, but produce on average only 15 or 16 keffiyehs because of the complicated pattern.

The tassels are added manually after.

For the factory, competition is strong, as cheaper, lower quality scarves mostly made in China are flooding markets.

“That’s why there are no other factories around,” Mr Hirbawi says.

Still, his business's faithful clients are willing to pay the higher price tag, and also, more recently, put up with the long wait for orders for a scarf that is Made in Palestine.

“People are willing to wait up to six months, not because our keffiyeh is a work of art,” he says.

“It’s a matter of solidarity.”

Updated: December 17, 2023, 10:21 AM