Friday, February 05, 2016

Nationalizing the Keffiyeh

Ted Swedenburg's Memories of Revolt is primarily about the ways the 1936-1939 Arab Revolt in Palestine was remembered in later decades, but within that framework it has a lot of interesting snippets of information about both Palestinian and Israeli identity.  One example of this is his discussion of how the keffiyeh, the usually black-and-white checkered square scarf/headdress, became a Palestinian national symbol.

In early 20th century Palestinian society, the keffiyeh was worn by peasants and Bedouin, and thus went with low-class and rural society seen as traditional as opposed to the modern, urban middle- and upper-classes sporting fezzes.  At the time of the Arab Revolt, the rural fighters not only wore them as what they generally wore, but wrapped them around their faces to preserve anonymity.  The problem, however, is that when they entered towns and cities, that rural dress made them conspicuous.  Swedenburg explains what happened:
On August 16, 1938, when the revolt was reaching its apogee and beginning to take control of urban areas, the rebel leadership commanded all Palestinian Arab townsmen to discard the tarbush (fez) and don the kufiya.  Rebel headquarters in Damascus announced that this was to "demonstrate the complete solidarity of the residents of the country with the struggle and as a sign that everyone in the country is a rebel."  British officials were amazed that the new fashion spread across the country with "lightning rapidity."  While the order was issued in part to help (rebel fighters) blend into the urban environment, it was equally a move in the wider social struggle within the national movement.  One rebel commander, harking back to the Arab Revolt and Damascus battles over headgear, asserted that whereas the fez was associated with Ottoman Turks, the kufiya was the headgear of the Arab nation.
The last reference is to the fact that during the Arab Revolt associated with World War I, many supporters of Faysal's armies wore keffiyehs in place of the fezzes associated with the Ottoman Empire.  In the case of the Palestinian national movement, though, the opposition between keffiyeh and fez was primarily one of social class, in which many of the urban notables were forced to declare symbolic loyalty to the rural peasantry.

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