Keffiyeh: The silent language of liberation

It stands not merely as a piece of cloth but as an unbroken thread weaving its story, with each thread representing the enduring spirit of the Palestinian people in their quest for freedom

By Ehaab Qadeer and Fiza Natoo

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Published: Mon 8 Jan 2024, 5:09 PM

In the bustling streets of New York City, amidst the slapstick chaos of Home Alone 2, a subtle yet significant moment unfolded. As Kevin McCallister races through the urban maze, a street vendor sporting a distinctive keffiyeh captures a quiet nod to a symbol with a rich history, echoing far beyond the screen.

This cinematic cameo adds an unexpected layer to the timeless narrative of the keffiyeh. It is more than a mere fabric; it emerges as a profound statement—a legacy of resistance elegantly etched in black and white threads.

The silent language of liberation

During the tumultuous Arab Revolt in 1936, the keffiyeh assumed a transformative role, becoming a symbol of defiance for Palestinians battling British colonial rule.

This symbolic strength is further underscored by its role in the uprising movements of the 80s and early 2000s. Late Palestinian President Yasser Arafat, rarely seen in public without his hatta and igal, played an influential role in elevating the keffiyeh from a symbol of local resistance to an international emblem of Palestinian identity.

He draped the keffiyeh over his right shoulder, transforming it into a visual manifesto, mirroring the pre-1948 map of Palestine. The keffiyeh took centre stage, embodying the collective yearning for freedom.

Beyond fabric: The significant semiotics of the keffiyeh

The fishnet pattern, arguably the most recognisable, has been interpreted in diverse ways—from symbolising the Palestinians' connection to the sea to signifying collective strength and subtly alluding to the nation's occupation. Beneath the checks lie olive leaves, paying homage to the deep cultural significance of olive trees in Palestinian heritage—a resilient symbol not only of economic sustenance but also of an unwavering attachment to the land.

The bold lines traversing the keffiyeh are associated with historic trade routes or interpreted as walls constraining freedom. While their origins remain debated, these patterns speak a silent language—a visual code telling the long and nuanced tale of Palestine.

Keffiyeh as a revolutionary symbol

As the keffiyeh graces the shoulders of activists and adorns the profiles of celebrities, its silent proclamation echoes through time—a testament to sovereignty, identity, existence, and revolution. It stands not merely as a piece of cloth but as an unbroken thread weaving its story, with each thread representing the enduring spirit of the Palestinian people in their quest for freedom.

Unravelling the hidden threads

The roots of the keffiyeh extend deep into history, dating back to Sumerian times in Mesopotamia around 3100 BCE, where it was worn by priests as a symbol of honour and rank. The word 'keffiyeh' finds its origin in the 'Kufa' area of Iraq, meaning "from the city of Kufa". Prior to the 1930s, it was worn by Bedouin tribes and Palestinian farmers year-round as protection against the sun and sand storms.

During the 1936 Arab Revolt, Palestinians used the keffiyeh to conceal their identity, prompting a ban by British Mandate authorities. In response, Palestinians collectively embraced the keffiyeh, turning it into a potent symbol of resistance that persists to this day.

The keffiyeh, often known as a shemagh, arab scarf, Palestinian hatta, yamegh, or igal, carries diverse meanings and uses across cultures and regions. Its symbolic significance varies, with colours and styles reflecting the unique identity of each country. In Palestine, it is a common sight during solidarity protests and demonstrations, embodying a powerful symbol of resistance.

In recent years, the shemagh’s entrance into the fashion world has brought both opportunities and challenges. While it has expanded its reach and sparked important conversations about its origins, concerns about commercialisation and commodification have arisen. Critics argue that turning the keffiyeh into a fashion accessory risks diluting its powerful message of resistance and solidarity, emphasising the need for a sensitive and respectful approach to its cultural significance.

Nevertheless, the hatta weaves a narrative that transcends time and borders. From its ancient origins to its role in political resistance, this square metre of fabric carries the hopes, struggles, and identity of the Palestinian people. As it continues to make a statement on the shoulders of activists and in the fashion world, the yamegh stands as a testament to the resilience, strength, and enduring spirit of a people in their quest for freedom.

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