Monday, June 04, 2007

Kufiyas in the press, once again (and...I'm quoted)

This article appeared in Canada's daily, the National Post (something like Canada's USA Today) on May 29, and you can read it here. This story appears to have a lot of legs. Some time around when I was called by Karen Burshtein, I got a call from a producer at CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation), asking for background on the kufiya story, as they were putting on a radio show featuring two guests with differing views about the kufiya-as-fashion. I also was called a few days ago by a reporter from The New Statesman, who may or may not do a story. He informed me that the kufiya is very much the rage in England, worn by both politicos and fashionistas. Both Janet Jackson and David Beckham, for instance, have been spotted wearing kufiyas. (I only found this photo of Beckham--not sure whether you could call that orange thing around his neck a 'kufiya'.)

You say keffiyeh, I say shemagh
Urban Outfitters; Can keffiyehs ever be just a fashion statement?

Karen Burshtein, National Post

While I respect my colleagues at this paper, I've never really thought of the employees of the National Post mothership in Don Mills as a source of cutting-edge fashion trends. That changed a few weeks ago when I was waiting for a cab in the lobby.

There, I struck up a conversation with a guy who works in advertising or circulation or whatever it is they do on the second floor. He asked me what I do here and I told him I write about fashion.

"Fashion, eh? Well, I betcha don't know what this is," he said, tugging at a fringed black-and-white scarf tied around his neck.

"Betcha I do," I replied. "A keffiyeh. I used to have one when I was a student in Paris."

The keffiyeh is best known in the West as the head covering of choice of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Arab men have worn them for centuries, although few can fold the scarf as Arafat did, to mimic the shape of Palestine. When I was an art history student 20 years ago, we all wore keffiyehs with our perfecto leather jackets, cowboy boots, black Levis and ponytails. The look was Euro hip, a forerunner of the boho chic craze, perhaps vaguely countercultural. But it was more fashion statement then political statement, until the first intifada in 1987 when it became associated with the Palestinian cause.

Now, I learned from my colleague in Don Mills, the keffiyeh has become trendy again.

A model sports a keffiyeh at the Balenciaga fashion show in February. Photograph by CHRIS MOORE/GETTY IMAGES

"You can buy them at Urban Outfitters," he said. Well, yes and no, I discovered. A couple of months ago, Urban Outfitters, the American-owned accessories and lifestyle retailer, started selling keffiyehs in several colour combinations as part of its spring accessories range, marketed as "anti-war woven scarves." A dozy, corn-fed-looking male model wore one on the cover of its spring catalogue.

Naturally, it didn't take long for the blogosphere to weigh in on what kind of political statement Urban Outfitters and the wearers of its keffiyehs were trying to convey.

Some in the pro-Israel faction accused the retailers of marketing terrorism. "They have the chutzpah to market them as 'anti-war scarves,' " blogged Daniel "Mobius" Sieradski on Jewschool, a popular blog for Jewish youth. On the other hand, some Palestinians argued that turning the keffiyeh into a fashion accessory for hipster wannabes trivialized their cause.

An emotional blogger posted this on Kabobfest, a forum for Arab-Americans: "With a great deal of discomfort and a tad bit of pissed-off-ness, I regret to (re)inform the KABOB-o-sphere that Palestine has officially become a trend … That's right folks, for a mere $20 (or 75.0127 Saudi riyals) you, too, can jump on the socially stupid hipsterdoofus bandwagon by rocking your very own 'Anti-War Woven Scarf '! (available only at Urban Outfitters or … er … uh … the Middle East)."

Feeling the heat, and possibly remembering the curious "Everyone loves a Jewish girl" T-shirts emblazoned with dollar signs and shopping bags it released a few years ago, Urban Outfitters pulled the keffiyehs from the shelves. "Due to the sensitive nature of this item, we will no longer offer it for sale," a notice on the company's Web site stated. "We apologize if we offended anyone, this was by no means our intention." Its president added that they did not intend to "imply any sympathy for or support of terrorists or terrorism."

And yet, when I was in London recently, I noticed keffiyehs being sported by all manner of the fashion conscious --from the guy with a Hugh Grant haircut and Louis Vuitton case alighting from the Eurostar at Waterloo station to the arty chick at the Tate Modern to the fashionista browsing on Oxford Street wearing one with her kind's standard: black blazer, black skinny jeans, black ballerina slippers.

Keffiyehs seemed to be the new pashminas. Sienna Miller was apparently spotted wearing one. For that matter, they were on sale at TopShop. French designer Nicholas Ghesquiere even referenced the keffiyeh in his collegiate-inspired ready-to-wear collection for Balenciaga, for this fall.

But for all the outrage and bemusement of the bloggers, there is probably considerably less political meaning to the keffiyeh trend than each side of the political debate is giving it. I think it's not that much different than any other cultural item -- like cowboy boots or a tunic -- that fashion co-opts as a trend, usually for its exoticism and maybe sense of insiderness and which eventually becomes pretty much drained of any cultural association.

Taking issue with the kind of protest that appeared on Jewschool, Ted R. Swedenburg, a professor of anthropology at the University of Arkansas who lectures on Mideast pop culture and who has written about keffiyehs on swedenburg.blogspot. com, said calling the scarves a terrorist symbol is short-sighted and unfair, given the keffiyeh's long, varied history.

It's like saying everyone who wears shiny black boots is a Nazi.

Swedenburg says, "Historically, the keffiyeh was an unremarkable, very conventional clothing customarily worn over the head by Palestinian and other Arabs to protect their head and sometimes their faces from the elements -- wind, sun and cold." In different parts of the Arab world different coloured keffiyehs are worn.

The plain white one is most popular in the Gulf states, for example. The red-and-white one was associated with the Jordanian army. The black-and-white versions are most common in Palestine and were traditionally worn by rural peasants. At various times, they have became a symbol of Palestinian nationalism. In the 1930s when the British tried to ban them, elite city dwellers wore them in solidarity with peasants, often atop their fezzes.

"Then Arafat wore the black-and-white, which was very mainstream," says Swedenburg, "and it became associated with the current Palestinian situation. But to say it is a symbol of terrorism is to say that all Palestinians are terrorists." Indeed, after 9/11, some U.S. activists started wearing keffiyehs to show solidarity with Arab Americans who were being targeted by hate crimes and for racial profiling. Last year, an Israeli company started marketing blue-and-white keffiyehs to hip Jewish Israelis.

That said, its trendiness in the United States -- as opposed to Europe where its fashionability has come and gone several times -- is interesting. Fashion trends, after all, never spring from a vacuum. The mainstreaming of the keffiyeh might possibly be part of what influential fashion journalists such as the International Herald Tribune's Suzy Menkes recently called the Muslimization of fashion (she was referring to designers showing head-to-toe covered-up looks). But more likely it's simply because the Mideast is in the news, Swedenburg said.

In a phone interview, Swedenburg said he thinks Urban Outfitters was singled out because it was either cynically or cluelessly trying to capitalize on the antiwar mood in America: "I think the anti-war sentiment in the U.S. is so mainstream that Urban Outfitters thought they could market it. But I find it interesting, very funny, that they thought they could market a keffiyeh as an anti-war scarf. I don't think there is anyone who would call it that. It's not like it's a peace sign."

The interesting Canadian footnote to this story is that Urban Outfitters didn't pulled the keffiyehs from its shelves in Canada. It either deftly or unwittingly sidestepped the controversy by calling them "shemaghs," as I discovered when I spoke with a salesperson in the men's accessories department at Urban Outfitters' Yonge Street branch in Toronto.

He told me the store carries them ("We were told to call them shemaghs, but I don't know. When I looked them up on Wikipedia, it said keffiyehs") in green-and-black, pink-and-black, blue-and-black, yellow-and-black and orange-and-red, "but not black-and-white."

I told Swedenburg about this angle on the story and he was puzzled and amused by news of the Canadian shemagh.

"That term is so rarely heard in modern use. They were called shemaghs by British soldiers in North Africa during the Second World War. I'm guessing really, but maybe Urban Outfitters thought shemagh might appeal to anglophile Canadians."

But we'll never know. When I phoned a spokesperson at Urban Outfitters corporate headquarters in Philadelphia to ask why its Canada stores were still selling keffiyehs and why they were being called shemaghs, she confirmed there had been a company-wide withdrawal of the scarves, and said she was unaware they were still for sale at Urban Outfitters in Canada, adding she had never heard the term shemagh. She declined to comment further and told me a senior spokesperson would call me. So far, I haven't heard back.


John Hutnyk said...

"I only found this photo of Beckham--not sure whether you could call that orange thing around his neck a 'kufiya'"

- Ted, it looks to me like that saffron cloth round his Holiness Sri David Beckham is a Hindu 'RAM' scarf (often this signifies right wing hindutva leanings, but I expect David has no idea). They are available at all good outlets on the banana-pancake tourist trail - so I expect Victoria bought it for him in a London 'ethnic' clothes shop. David, of course is ofay with all things subcontinental, having famously tattooed his wife's name in Hindi on his arm - but he'd asked a local Mancunian balti shop waiter to write the letters down and this came out in a sort of missed/messed up translation as Bhiktoria (v and b close sounds in Hindi). Oops. It is cruel to laugh at his expense, but then, he can afford it - the millionaire scum. Enjoy his stay on your side of the pond.


Ted Swedenburg said...

Thanks, John! Actually, if Beckham does something to make soccer more popular in the US, I'll be glad to have him here. Even if he is a clueless millionaire.

Mobius said...

the author of that article completely misrepresented me and fabricated the quote she attributed to me. you can read my letter to the editor -- which the author rebutted rather than running -- here.

Anonymous said...

Shemagh is also how Jordanians refer to the kuffiyeh--perhaps for similar reasons--distancing from Palestinians..