Keffiyehs as Cross-Cultural Mediation

by Michael Chameides

In the past ten years, traditional scarves commonly worn by men in Arab countries called keffiyehs have become a common accessory for non-Arabs in Western countries. While there has been little academic writing on this subject, there are thousands of blog posts discussing it and considerable pop-culture coverage. Many bloggers identify keffiyehs as a symbol of hate (along with Islam and Arabs) and the people who wear them as complicit with and/or duped by this hate. Other bloggers see the Western keffiyeh as a symbol of solidarity against racism and express an ambivalence or outright disdain for the keffiyeh as fashion item. Blogs attached to the sale of keffiyehs and the fashion industry provide the main voice celebrating the fashion keffiyeh. These three positions employ a series of arguments reminiscent of other debates about sub-culture trends that emerge into the mainstream such as punk rock, hip-hop, and Che Guevara. Most blog commentary judges the value of the keffiyeh by associating it with a culture and then judging that culture – reinforcing static notions of cultural interaction. However, the symbolism of the keffiyeh was not created in a cultural vacuum but through centuries of cross-cultural interaction. Like punk and hip-hop, the keffiyeh is a flexible symbol referencing an international movement rejecting the dominant Western hegemony. This rejection is often appropriated in ways that may undo the very act of solidarity. The keffiyeh may simultaneously function to differentiate the wearer from the mainstream hegemony, yet when combined with other hegemonic signifiers can be worn in such a way as to present a non-threatening identity.


While the keffiyeh is an article of clothing, its spread can be understood as part of the dissemination of global media. McLuhan argues that clothing items are media since they function as extensions of the body (1964). With a more limited notion of media, keffiyehs can be understood within the context of logos and other forms of visual media that are attached to the body. There is an increasing trend to produce symbolic commodities that emphasize fashion and portability (Allison, 2006); sports stars are paid to wear certain brands and logos are placed on clothing items. In one extreme example, New Zealand Airlines hired 30 people for the use of their heads and tattooed an advertisement on them (Newman, 2009). Adbusters created a black dot anti-logo (Adbusters, 2009) and Jonah Peretti ordered personalized shoes from Nike with the text “sweatshop” (Peretti, 2009) to critique the corporatization of our bodies. Within these contexts, the keffiyeh can be viewed as media.

From a Western point of view, the keffiyeh is a symbol of identity originally used by Arabs and is still used either to symbolize Arab identity or connote affinity with Arabs. In the West, the significance of the keffiyeh is enmeshed with the West’s relationship to the Other. Edward Said has demonstrated how the West has constructed and defined itself against the Orientalized Other (Said, 1979). Yet, his theories do not explain how members of Occidental cultures negotiate, appropriate, and collaborate with the Other. The relationship between the Western subject and the Other is wrapped up in Orientalism, but it is more complicated than merely creating an Other and defining oneself against it. There are a series of overlapping relationships. By exploring the origins of the keffiyeh, its appropriation into Western culture, the history of bohemian subculture, and contemporary responses to the Western keffiyeh, it is evident that cultural divisions have a dynamic relationship.


I bought my keffiyeh in January of 2002. I was traveling and volunteering in Palestine/Israel as part of the movement to end Israel’s occupation of Palestine. In the Middle East, each region has a standard keffiyeh design and color. The red and white scarf is common in Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan. White is typical in the Gulf States. Palestine is unusual in that the choice of which keffiyeh to wear is a political statement and is attached to a rich, political history (Swedenburg, 1992).

The black and white keffiyeh with a wavy pattern, iconized by Arafat, symbolizes support for the Fatah nationalist party. Supporters of Hamas or the Leftist parties are more likely to wear the Jordanian scarf. During my month in the West Bank and Gaza, I found strong uniformity within each town in terms of how people wore the scarf and which design was most prevalent. In at least one instance, Hamas party members forcibly removed the Fatah keffiyeh from people (Xinhua News Agency, 2008).

While the choice of scarf may be more significant in Palestine than other parts of the Middle East, it still can be understood as part of a general signification of homogenous traditionalism. In these circumstances, wearing a keffiyeh marks the individual as belonging to the standard culture of the area, a culture that is historically rooted in the place. In globalization studies, place is distinct from space and is “triply symbolic because it relates to identity, relationships, and history.” Place is understood as an unmediated location of shared experience and commonality (Rantenen, 2005). The keffiyeh is a mediated symbol for that unmediated sharedness.

The claiming of traditional place may be a political choice and is not necessarily an “authentic,” unintentional, and/or pre-modern expression. In Palestine, claiming a traditional, national identity to the land is a political position in the face of a Zionist ideology founded in Europe that explicitly attacks (and sometimes denies the existence of) traditional, Arab culture. The keffiyeh glosses over Palestinian class and religious divisions, to depict a territorial and natural connection to the land (Swedenburg, 1992; Swedenburg, 1990).

The use of the keffiyeh to symbolize traditionalism and normalcy is distinct from the hipster in the West whose keffiyeh is more likely to be understood as a marking of difference and an accessory connoting foreignness. Yet, the homogenizing message of the keffiyeh in the Middle East does not exclude messages of differentiation. The keffiyeh in the Middle East simultaneously says, “I am from this region and I am not from some other region.”


When I bought my keffiyeh, I was not aiming to blend-in or claim a historical relationship to the land. I was thinking about going home, to the US, and wearing my symbol of solidarity. In the West, the keffiyeh can be seen as an equivalent of an anti-war button and signifies a critique of the Israeli occupation, US war in Iraq, and/or Western exploitation of the Middle East. In the late 60’s, the keffiyeh was one of many symbols used by Americans to symbolize solidarity with and participation in Third World national struggles (Swedenberg, 1992; Pelletier, 2009).

The keffiyeh is part of a larger trend to use style to symbolize a break with the dominant culture. Dick Hebdige, in his influential study of subculture and style in post-war Britain, found that the mostly white youth cultures of punks, mods, teds, and glam rockers represented a break with the post-war consensus and attempted to denaturalize assumptions about race, class, and gender (1988). Likewise, as the keffiyeh has grown in popularity and mainstream appeal, it has continued to be used as a symbol of resistance. Urban Outfitters, a US corporate clothing store specializing in pop-culture, sold keffiyehs officially labeled as “anti-war scarves” (Kim, 2007). The keffiyeh whether worn in Palestine or the US can be understood as a critique of Western colonialism.

Yet, keffiyehs critique more than just exploitation in the Middle East, they are also used to reject anti-Arab racism actively employed in the West. Steven Salatia notes that after September 11 2001, there was a rise in attacks on Arabs – as well as those deemed to be Arab and that this can be understood as a shift from Orientalism to anti-Arab racism. Arabs are attacked by Westerners regardless of the nation they reside in (Salatia 2006, 2007). Racists use clothing (an extension of the body) as a tool to determine whom to target. When Westerners begin to wear some of the Arab clothing, it complicates the empirical demarcations employed in anti-Arab racism. For example, in 2007 Raed Jarrar, an Iraqi, was barred from entering his flight in Los Angeles because he had a t-shirt that read “We Will Not Be Silent” in English and Arabic. The Transportation Security Administration official explained the decision by equating Arabic writing with violence (ACLU, 2007). After this incident, non-Arabs in the West began wearing the identically designed shirt to airports (Goodman, 2006). This attempt to blur lines of demarcation can be seen more explicitly with the “We are all Palestinian” campaign, a slogan adapted from “We are all Zapatistas,” calling for solidarity, shared self-interest, and the reorganization of difference across ethnic and national boundaries (Solomon, 2002). Additionally, a Jordanian restaurant owner once thanked me for wearing my keffiyeh, stating that there would be negative repercussions if she wore it and was glad that I was taking the risk.5

I have not seen any empirical data showing that solidarity keffiyehs reduce hate crimes, anti-Arab racism, or war in the Middle East. Moreover, wearing keffiyehs should not be understood as effacing cultural difference. Yet, it can still be understood as a statement against racism and imperialism. This statement is often attached to the globalization framework of the New Left and Third World Revolutionary movements that saw Third World identity as transcending national boundaries. (Jones, 1998) Just as Salatia saw a post-9/11 racism that was not contained by national borders, in the 60’s the Black Panthers understood that the oppression they faced was part of a greater system that also targeted Africans in Africa as well as Vietnamese, Puerto Ricans, etc (Jones). The keffiyeh as a statement of solidarity recognizes the necessity for shared identity that transcends national boundaries in the face of transnational oppression. It projects an ideoscape – a neologism that Appadurai created to emphasize the perspectival element in ideology (1996) – that links the experiences of people in Oakland, Vietnam, and Palestine as one of solidarity against a common enemy (Jones). The keffiyeh in the West is a rejection of homogenized national identity.


Internationalism precedes the late 60’s Third World movements. The 1950’s civil rights rhetoric (gaining access to the democratic nation-state as part of a patriotic project) was an anomaly in the history of Black struggles for justice. C.L.R. James, Paul Robeson, and W. E. B. Du Bois touted an internationalist approach (Jones). In the 18th century, Black slaves joined with sailors, artisans, farmers, and laborers of various European ethnicities to resist Western capitalist domination. In that era, Haiti served as a center for organizing across the Atlantic (Linebaugh, 2000). In the 20th century, Caribbean internationalism continued to be influential around the world. Marcus Garvey and Franz Fanon were major influences on the 60’s movements both in the West and Africa (Jones). Rastafarianism, which identifies Garvey as a prophet and combines Christian iconography with anti-colonial ideology, was a key ingredient in the emergence of British punk. In the 70’s, Caribbean immigrants in the Bronx founded a new culture, which became known as hip-hop (Chang, 2005). Internationalist Leftism, punk culture, and hip-hop are all created through cross border rejections of the dominant hegemony. It is these movements that provide the context for the Western keffiyeh.

In 1960’s Britain, Rastafarianism became a significant feature of black youth, manifesting their alienation from dominant society and utopic visions of an imagined elsewhere (Hebdige). Punk culture grew off of this Rastafarian culture, much like the keffiyeh in the West, serving as a white response to colonized people responding to colonialism. Punk culture was created as a solidarity response to British Rastafarianism – which was the product of Caribbean post-colonialism. Punk has hundreds of years of cross-cultural, transnational exchanges at its roots. Punk is thematically related to the rise of the keffiyeh because they both rely on a bohemian celebration of the subaltern. Moreover, punk provides a subcultural context for people to wear the keffiyeh.

As punk rose in popularity, it traveled around the world – into both mainstream and subaltern contexts. The Los Angeles, California punk scene of 1977 – 1983, like Britain, was mostly white. Youth joined the scene and rejected the mainstream in an effort to find community in a more authentic lifestyle. They were tapping into the aura of the Other – an imagined realness that stood outside the fakeness of an imagined white, middle-class suburbia. Rather than relying on Rastafarians, LA punks used a more general non-white collage as a model for self-imposed Otherness. Punks as a mostly white subaltern group, believed in hybridized fluid identities and actively crossing boundaries. Yet, they also reinforced dominant notions of the Other by casting people of color as an authentic template for rebellion. (Traber, 2001)

In the 2002 issue of Onward, an anarchist newspaper, Solomon makes a similar critique of anarchists styling their resistance on Palestinian liberation. Solomon writes, “Identification with Palestinians – an ‘exotic’ and demonized group within racist U.S. discourse, one of the most blatantly and frequently discussed as such in this moment – is rather edgy. White U.S. anarchists in full black bloc drag who don kaffiyas – in misappropriated, anarchist-appropriate colors, no less – manage to simultaneously play off of and into racist constructions in the U.S. of the scary kaffiya-wearing Arab.” Solomon argues that many white Palestine activists, particularly the punk-influenced black bloc anarchist culture, play off of the demonization of Palestinians as a way to define themselves apart from dominant culture.

Punk’s exoticization of the Other is found in many other white subcultures. John Leland, in Hip: A History, argues that hipness is the ability to cross social demarcations and a performed comfort with hybridity. The hipster is the wealthy poet who gets along with the working class; the white kid who listens to hip-hop, the black man who lives in the ghetto and made it rich; the woman who is tough enough to hang out with the boys. Much of hipness in the US has been about bridging the racial split between Black and white (2004). Prior to punk and prior to the 60’s anti-imperialist uprisings, there were the beats – the literary subculture of the 50’s who fashioned their identities around Black jazz culture and the Harlem Renaissance. (Hebdige, Leland). In the 19th Century, Walt Whitman fashioned his hipness around the working class, urban street culture (Leland).

Mike Sell in “Bohemianism, the Cultural Turn of the Avantgarde, and Forgetting the Roma”, locates the beginning of this pattern of appropriation and hybridity in 1820’s Paris – the birth place of both the avant-garde and bohemia subculture. Sell writes that the bohemian values disrupted class, sex, and race boundaries. The bohemian performs an exoticized authenticity to create a particular self-designed Otherness. Parisian bohemian culture was modeled on the ethnic minority Roma (often called gypsies). Yet, while Roma and bohemians may have shared a critique of the dominant European society, these groups generally did not act in solidarity nor did bohemians consistently work to empower Roma (2007).

The avant-garde was a particular form of bohemian. The original avant-gardes were influenced by Sufism and the introduction of science to European culture by Arabs. The avant-garde presented a vision of progress, newness, and invention. Like the other bohemians, the avant-garde often replicated racism of the dominant culture within their subculture. (Sell)

The punks, beats, and poets described by Leland and Hebdige are bohemians. Likewise, keffiyehs as a statement of solidarity arose along with a statement of hipness. In 1983, keffiyehs became a common feature in downtown, artsy subculture – a post-punk subculture that celebrated hip-hop. In hip culture, at times, the notion of intentional solidarity with Palestinians is dropped, leaving an aimless notion of rebellion (Swedenburg, 1992). When Macy’s department store displays its keffiyehs along side punk-style t-shirts with messages such as “peace” and “free speech” as well as images of protests, it is nostalgically associating 60’s anti-imperialist protests, hippies, punks, and keffiyehs together – creating a bricolage of rebellion available for convenient purchase. The bohemian keffiyeh wearer may or may not have an actual relationship with Arabs and/or a political commitment of solidarity. Bohemians use the representation of Otherness to rebel against homogenized national identity. This is how the keffiyeh has been localized for the West. The keffiyeh enables actual relationships to be replaced with a recognized symbol of danger, ethnicness, and cosmopolitanism. This localization – the split between actual relationships of solidarity and the representation of deviance – enables the keffiyeh to be commodifed.

As Arabs take on a more prominent role as Other, identification with Arab culture becomes more significant. Heeb, a Jewish hipster magazine that consistently features articles and photo-spreads celebrating Jews’ engagement with Black culture, ran a story about how the War on Terror will make Arab the new Black (2007). During Obama’s presidential election bid, he was accused of being Muslim, implying that Americans may be more afraid of a Muslim president than a Black president. The prominence of keffiyehs as a US trend had significant bursts during the Israeli War on Lebanon and the US ‘War on Terror’, two periods of increased media scrutiny of Arabs.

The keffiyeh, whether worn in solidarity or in traditionalism, positions the wearer as outside Western colonialism. When combined with signifiers of privilege and access to Western power (such as particular clothing items, accent, skin color, demeanor, and geographical context), the keffiyeh will represent a bohemian and deterritorialized rebellion.


Now that the keffiyeh has been historically contextualized, we can analyze the contemporary blog commentary. The keffiyeh is a mediated tool that disrupts the colonial imagination. Most responses will attempt to smooth over the disruption by redrawing and/or affirming these divisions. Hebdige, borrowing from Roland Barthes, identifies three common, overlapping strategies: 1) to commodify, 2) to trivilialize and efface, and 3) to transform the rebellion into meaningless exotica.

To Hebdige’s list, we should add that some, rather than appropriate the symbol or downplay its danger, will widen the casting of Other to include sympathizers of the Other. Bloggers who paint the keffiyeh and all its wearers as unenlightened haters are employing this strategy. Many bloggers describe the people who wear keffiyehs as an ideologically monolithic group – a group that revels in narrow-mindedness and violence against Jews, Westerners, women, and gays. The blogger Ruet Cohen makes a series of associations and then makes the illogical leap that “the keffiyeh is merely a visual extension of that despicable support for Islamic terrorism and jihad” (2009). Anti-Arab racism has been discussed above and at length in other scholarly works. Yet, it is important to note that accusing bohemians of colluding with an evil enemy has been going on for over 100 years. In 1895, Max Nordau compared avant-garde writers and artists with assassins, prostitutes, and pronounced lunatics (Sell). Nordau was the second in command of the early European political Zionist movement , working under Zionist leader Theodore Hertzl. Nordau and Hertzl espoused sexist and racist ideas and advocated for European Jews to assimilate to European conceptions of gender, race, and sexuality – a combination of identities that necessitates fighting colonial wars. To be a man meant to fight for the state and colonize the Other. Nordau and Hertzl created a strategic alliance with the West against the Arabs of Palestine (Boyarin, 1997). A tradition picked up in 1967 by Israel and the major Jewish organizations (Finkelstein, 2000). Many of the bloggers critical of keffiyehs had content on their blogs that indicated they were Zionist and/or Jewish. While many of these bloggers identify with gay and feminist liberation, they are redrawing lines that Nordau drew. They depict a hardened division with Zionists and Western powers on one side, Muslims and people who wear keffiyehs on the Other. 12

It is this attitude that led a school in Pittsburgh to ban keffiyehs. Al-Abbasi, one of the Arab students affected told the Pittsburgh-Gazette: “It’s my culture, my ancestors wore it, you know? . . . It’s my roots. It’s not political. It doesn’t have any message.” (Gurman, 2009) Blogger Jillian agrees arguing that the critics are using the keffiyeh as a stand-in for anti-Arab racism (2009). But critics of the keffiyeh argue that the keffiyeh is a stand-in for anti-Semitism. Regardless of its historical significance, the keffiyeh has been transformed into a symbol displaying one’s allegiance to a particular ideological alignment. To anti-Arab bloggers, the keffiyeh – regardless of context – represents a critique of the West’s war on Islam and the Middle East.

Most of the bloggers who argue that the keffiyeh is a symbol of hate are angered by the current trend of commodified keffiyehs. In 2007, a British designer unveiled a £3,000 take on the keffiyeh (Cartner-Morely, 2007). Twenty-dollar keffiyehs with fresh, non-traditional designs are sold on street corners in hip areas of major, US and European cities. In addition to Macy’s, keffiyehs can also be purchased at Marshall’s, a discount department store chain (Swedenburg, 2009). Celebrities including Kanye West, Justin Timberlake, Chris Brown, Jay-Z, Jermaine Dupri, David Beckham, Mary-Kate Olsen and Kirsten Dunst have worn keffiyehs. Teen Vogue celebrated the keffiyeh as “breezy, global chic” and deemed it the “it” accessory (Delevingne, 2008).

While the item remains steeped with meanings of coolness, some people who buy these scarves report not even considering that these items may have a political or cultural significance (Sisi, 2009; Delevingne, 2008). The same trend of commodification happened to punk rock culture (Hebdige, Traber). Even the burqha, once a symbol of Arab sexism has been turned into a fashion item – celebrated on the runway and in Women’s magazine Vogue (McLarney, 2009).

To be palatable to a normative audience, and therefore marketable, the deviant ideologies originally ascribed to these commodities must be ideologically transformed into something less threatening. As Hebdige and Barthes argue, the item can retain meaning, but its significance must be downplayed or exoticized.

Thus, the ambivalence or outright disdain that many bloggers have for the popularization of the keffiyeh. Anti-Arab bloggers see the keffiyeh as a sympathetic symbol of Arab/Islamic terrorism and are relying on static notions of both the keffiyeh and the Arab/Muslim. Likewise, bloggers committed to the keffiyeh as a symbol of Arab culture and solidarity are seeing their symbol altered and stripped. Blogger Joharah Baker recognizes that the fashion keffiyeh demonstrates “a level of awareness among non-Arabs that I believed was a step in the right direction” (2008) Indeed in the face of such intense racism, it is powerful that so many people are proudly wearing a traditional Arab symbol. Yet, Baker worries, “It is the fact that our very existence is still being threatened, our country slowly being chipped away and devoured by settlements, checkpoints and bypass roads, which is why so many of us desperately cling to the symbols that define who we are” (Baker). Dalia Al Kury laments that the fashion keffiyeh is “weak and meaningless” (2007). Some bloggers compare the fashion keffiyeh to imperialism, Westerners taking whatever they want with no respect for others (Marakardasnelson, 2009; Records, 2009).

Bloggers tended to see the fashion keffiyeh as diluting Arab symbolism as opposed to viewing it as an accessory to exoticism. Yet, that doesn’t mean that exoticism is not part of the equation. Many people who purchase keffiyehs are not committed to solidarity yet associate keffiyehs with exoticized caricatures such as Bin Laden and Arafat (Delevingne).

While there may be strong criticism of the fashion keffiyeh, there is not a clear distinction between the fashion keffiyeh and the solidarity keffiyeh. Both are Western appropriations of another culture used to symbolize one’s difference and rebellion. There may be significant differences in the way the wearer contextualizes their keffiyeh. Yet as media, the keffiyeh does not communicate those specifics. Moreover, there are not clear distinctions between fashion and solidarity. The decision to wear a keffiyeh as an act of solidarity is, in essence, a fashion statement. In both contexts, the keffiyeh may be used to connote the same meaning. The anarchist and the designer both use symbols and style to imply edginess.

Even the distinction between solidarity and Arab is unclear. As noted above, during the recent invasion of Gaza, many Arabs in Lebanon began wearing the black and white keffiyeh. The widespread use of the keffiyeh in Palestine was part of a political campaign. As a conceptual model, I am arguing that the key difference is whether one’s keffiyeh emphasizes difference or normativity. Yet, if pushed these distinctions may break down since they depend on each other.

The keffiyeh is wrapped up in the forces of globalization and at the same time it is grounded in the struggle between the East and West. Without this encounter, keffiyehs would not symbolize Arabness, but various regionalisms and class statuses. Without this encounter, there would be no Palestinian resistance, or at least not the way we know it. There would be no “War on Terror” or anti-Arab racism. There would be no opportunity to define oneself on one side or the other of this divide.

Yet, the keffiyeh should not be reduced to a uniform in a ‘clash of civilizations.’ While the keffiyeh has non-mediated origins as a practical clothing item, its meaning has been strategically mediated. It is a post-modern symbol with flexible meanings about identity, ideology, and positionality. It represents heterogenization and hybridization as much as homogenization. The Palestinian national movement sought a symbol to resist Israeli and Western colonialism. Third World movements and bohemian subcultures sought a symbol to resist essentialized national identities. The keffiyeh does both. The keffiyeh’s success is not utopic; this item is not immune to commodification and appropriation. The keffiyeh has gained meaning through centuries of cross-cultural interaction and it is as pure as we are.