Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Kufiya in Poland, front page of New York Times

Piotr Malecki for The New York Times

The front page of yesterday's (October 27) New York Times featured this photo of a kufiya-adorned woman in a Polish electronics store, as part of a story about the slowdown in Poland's once-hot economy. (Thanks, Joel.) Another example of how downright common the kufiya has become. And how even when you are suffering economically, you can still look stylish.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Colin Powell: "[So] what if he [Obama] is Muslim?"

Colin Powell, on Meet the Press today, has the courage to say what someone of his stature should have said ages ago. He says, of course the answer to the claim that Obama is a Muslim, that he's a Christian. But he goes on to say:

The really right answer is, what if he is? Is there something wrong with being Muslim in America? The answer is no, that's not America. Is there anything wrong with some seven year old Muslim American kid thinking that he or she could be president? Yet I have heard senior members of my own party drop this suggestion, he might be a Muslim and he might be associated with terrorists. This is not the way we should be doing it in America. (My transcription.)

Then he goes on to talk about a soldier killed in Iraq, US Muslim, buried at Arlington National Cemetery, with star and crescent on his tombstone. Watch it here.

the fashion that refuses to die...

I can't escape it. In today's (Sunday) New York Times, in the Style section, there is the usual Bill Cunningham "On the Street" photos of street fashion, this one entitled "Color Guard." It features the colorful street style's of contemporary Paris. And damned if there isn't a guy wearing a kufiya in one of the shots.

Unfortunately, it's not posted online. You will need to consult your hard copy--until I can find an online version.

UPDATE, October 25. Here it is.

And, if you check out Cunningham's "On the Street" slide show that came out today, on the first blush of autumn fashion in NYC, you'll spot, yes, another kufiya. On a guy, toward the end of the slide show (28 seconds left). Here.

Kufiyas are, maybe, okay, but taking off Eid al-Fitr is "un-American"

Yarmulkes are banned at the workplace, too.

From the Wall Street Journal, October 18.

"Mass firings at meatpacking plants in Colorado and Nebraska last month highlight growing conflicts over how to accommodate religion in the workplace. The plants, owned by the U.S. unit of Brazil's JBS SA, collectively fired about 200 Muslim Somali workers who walked off the job over prayer disputes. The workers had asked management to adjust their evening break times so that they could pray at sunset. Managers at both plants initially agreed but then reversed their decisions after protests by non-Muslim workers...

A Tyson Foods Inc. chicken-processing plant in Tennessee this year agreed to let its work force claim holiday pay for Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, instead of Labor Day. Non-Muslims protested that the policy was un-American. Tyson managers reinstated Labor Day and switched a paid birthday to a personal day that could be used for religious observances...

In August, a federal judge in Nevada ruled that the Las Vegas police department must allow an orthodox Jewish officer to wear a beard, but not a yarmulke. The judge noted that the city permits employees to wear beards for medical reasons, but it prohibits all officers from wearing headgear...

Muslims in Greeley, Colo., last month protested the firing of more than 100 JBS workers after a walkout over Ramadan. (Sara Loven/The Greeley Daily Tribune, via AP)

The Somali workers said that they should be allowed to pray on their breaks and would be gone for only a few minutes. Supervisors responded that the only permitted unscheduled breaks were for use of the bathroom and that the plant couldn't have hundreds of workers leaving the lines at the same time.

"It takes less than five minutes," says Graen Isse, a Somali worker who was fired following a similar dispute at a JBS plant in Greeley, Colo. He says he and other workers offered to let JBS deduct pay for time spent praying."

Read the entire article here.

Update: I've just read an article about struggles over such issues at a JBS plant in Grand Island, Nebraska, from the Oct. 15 New York Times. It's a little more nuanced than the WSJ article. Interestingly enough, the objections to the JBS decision to give Somali workers time off to pray (and to cut the workday, and pay, of all workers by 15 minutes) came from Sudanese (mostly Christian) and Latino workers!

As an aside, Greeley, Colorado is where Sayid Qutb had his revelatory experiences with American civilization and mores, in the late 1940s. Props to John Calvert of Creighton University for doing the most to dig this info out. Read about it here.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Kufiyaspotting #42: Afrika Bambaataa (or is it faux?)

I've been a fan of Afrika Bambaataa ever since I heard, back in the day, Afrika Bambaataa and the Soul Sonic Force do "Looking for the Perfect Beat" from 1982 (check out the terrific video here.) Bam, along with DJ Kool Herc and Grandmaster Flash, was one of the pioneers of hip-hop, and he and the Soul Sonic Force were largely responsible for the moment in the early eighties when rap was dominated by the "electrofunk" sound. (Then Run-DMC came along and hardcore took over.) I had the good fortune to see Bam and the Soul Force perform in Austin, at Liberty Lunch, in 1986 or 1987.

Bam & Co. were renowned for their creative, wild, Afrofuturist outfits--in the tradition of Parliament/Funkadelic and the Sun Ra Arkestra, but with a touch of the Village People for good measure. I don't remember ever seeing a video with Bam dressed in this Afrofuturist "sheikh" outfit (kufiya and 'aqal, the cord used to hold the kufiya in place.) This photo appears in the CD jacket to Part One of the Rhino Records box set, Street Jams: Electric Funk, a wonderful document of that era, with tracks from Flash, Grandmixer D.ST., Newcleus, The Wreckin Cru (featuring Dr. Dre!) and much more. (Alas, no Arabian Prince.)

"We are the future, You are the past!"

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Kufiyaspotting #41: Harry Potter

I clipped this photo from The Arts section of the New York Times of Saturday, July 21, 2007 (p. 1). It took me over a year to (a) recover the clipping from the piles strewn around my office and (b) scan it. It's from an article about the long lines, in the US and England, that formed to buy the final Harry Potter volume, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. This photo, of young fans celebrating the release of the novel in London, is another example of how completely everyday and mundane kufiya wearing had become by summer 2007, at least in London. (The photo does not appear on the on-line version of the article.

This is the larger spread (I couldn't quite scan the whole thing.)

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Otis Grand on CNN: Beirut Blues

Otis Grand is one of the world's great blues guitarists. We were together at the American University of Beirut in the late sixties and early seventies, and I used to play music with him from 1972-1975, part of that time in the Bliss Street Blues Band. I was never a very good singer, but Otis was an awesome guitarist. He moved to London in 1976, and in the early 1980s started playing music professionally there.

He appeared yesterday on the CNN show, "Inside the Middle East," talking about his life and the blues, from Beirut. There is great footage of him playing. And, there are some photos of the Bliss Street Blues Band, as well as some footage. I'm the guy with the dishwater blonde "Afro." Check it out.

Friday, October 03, 2008

"The Taqwacores" -- the movie

Very exciting news: Michael Muhammad Knight's novel, The Taqwacores, is being turned into a movie, with Mike serving as co-producer and co-writer. Read about it here. They are just starting up, so keep going back to read the blog as production proceeds.

Mabrouk, ya Michael!

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Report from The Guardian on the kufiya

This report appeared in The Guardian on September 22, and it's only now that I've had a chance to post it. It's one of the best and most accurate journalistic accounts that I've read. It's not the first to report on the last kufiya factory in Palestine, but at least it starts there. When I was in the West Bank in June, I planned to go to Hebron and purchase a kufiya from the Hirbawi factory, but alas, I never made it there. I saw a local, Hirbawi-manufactured kufiya in a shop in Bethlehem, and I should have bought it. The local ones really are of higher quality than the other 99%, which all seem to be produced in China. Interestingly, China is one of the few places where it's relatively easy for Palestinians from the West Bank to get visas, and so quite a few people go there, and many of these are involved in importing...kufiyas. So Palestinian merchants are complicit in the decline of the local kufiya manufacturing sector too.

A couple other interesting things to note about the article. I did not know that Islamists had taken up the red-and-white checkered kufiya, which formerly was worn as a distinctive sign by Palestinian leftists (Communists, PFLP, DFLP).

And I did not know that the practice of dyeing kufiyas various colors was at first something that kids were doing, and later adopted by the fashion moguls.

And I didn't know that Leona Lewis had been kufiyaspotted. But I didn't even know who Leona Lewis was until I read this article.

And here's why this is still relevant, and why The Guardian is reporting on it...A friend of mine just got back from London on Sunday, and she said everyone is wearing kufiyas there.

Chequered history

Everyone from Leona Lewis to Colin Farrell has taken to wearing the keffiyeh, as fashion goes wild for this symbol of resistance. But with sales soaring, why does the only factory in Palestine that makes these scarves look set to close? Rachel Shabi reports

Leila Khaled wearing a keffiyah

Leila Khaled wearing a keffiyah. Photgraph: Eddie Adams/AP

'Next time you come, it will be better, God willing," says Yasser Herbawi, the 76-year-old owner of the first and only Palestinian keffiyeh factory. It's hard to see how. Last year, the distinctive black-and-white checked scarves became a surprise global trend, knotted around the necks of the most fashion-savvy. At the same time, the family-run company that produces this symbol of the Palestinian national struggle has been slowly grinding to a halt.

"It's the Chinese imports," explains Yasser, sitting amid piles of keffiyehs at the Herbawi factory storeroom, just outside Hebron in the West Bank. "In the 70s we could barely keep up with demand, but by the mid-90s cheap Chinese scarves started coming in, because of globalisation and Gatt." Yasser's sons Abdel Atheem, 50, and Judeh, 43, nod in agreement and curse the trade tariff-busting agreement. "We were forced to lower our prices and today we are working to a fraction of our capacity because we cannot compete." The factory used to produce more than 1,000 scarves a day, but now makes less than 100 - and struggles to sell those. A shutdown seems almost inevitable.

Needless to say, the Herbawi family isn't much enamoured with the cheap imports that first swamped and then stole their market. "They are not the same quality," says Yasser as he picks up a keffiyeh and spreads it across his knees, reverently feeling the light, dimpled cotton between his fingers. "Our product is better, much better. We take care of it and use only natural products, and it is beautiful." This textiles factory, which Yasser started 40 years ago, supplied the entire West Bank and Gaza - orders for scarves, robes and jackets, all fashioned from the same check, would also arrive from neighbouring Arab countries. Of course, the company creates much more than a specific cotton weave. "We are making the symbol of Palestine," says Yasser. "This scarf is the history and the heritage of our country."

The black-and-white square keffiyeh is Syrian in origin and is the head garment of choice for traditional, rural Arab males of a certain age. It was the 1930s Arab revolt against the British Mandate and Zionist organisations in Palestine that first established the scarf as a resistance symbol: it was worn in solidarity, and to make it difficult for the authorities to weed out orchestrators of the rural-led uprising. By the 60s, the scarf became emblematic of the nascent Palestinian national movement - it was the favoured headwear of the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and habitually worn by other symbols of the Palestinian resistance such as Leila Khaled. Then a red-and-white Jordanian version surfaced, taken up by Palestinian Marxists to differentiate themselves within the wider nationalist movement. More recently, its meaning changed again: "The Marxists in Palestine have all but disappeared and the ones who replaced them are the Islamists," explains Dr Samir Awad, political scientist at the West Bank's Bir Zeit university. "Now it's the Hamas guys who put on the red-and-white, just because they don't want to be associated with Fatah."

Around the Middle East, traditional, rural Arab men do still wear the keffiyeh, in the traditional way - as a headpiece, with the aqal ring holding it in place. But Awad says that these days, it is less widely used as a neckwear nationalist emblem by the younger generation of Palestinians. He provides one possible explanation: "The image of the keffiyeh as a symbol of resistance was tarnished by events in Afghanistan and Iraq, where it is used by terrorists, by anyone who wants to hide their face," he says. "It is very annoying, but there is no monopoly on the keffiyeh." The common appearance of the keffiyeh in suicide bomber videos has doubtless caused the two concepts to fuse in the minds of some observers.

For some years now, the keffiyeh has carried activist-chic credentials for anti-war protesters and supporters of the Palestinian cause across several continents. But it is more recently that the scarves have gained their full fashion stripes. "We noticed club kids were wearing them about a year and a half ago," says Melanie Rickey, fashion news director at Grazia magazine. "They were dyeing them fluorescent colours, and it was seen as a bit risque." Picking up on the trend, Balenciaga brought out a designer keffiyeh last summer. "What did they do, smother it with gold?" asks Abdel Atheem at the Herbawi factory when he hears of its £3,000 price tag. "If I tried to sell the scarves for £10, nobody would listen," says Yasser of the product, which gets a local market price of around £3. "And ours is the real thing."

The designer endorsement was a bit like the Midas touch - high street stores such as Topshop and American Apparel were soon churning out "black-and-white woven cotton" scarves for roughly the same sum that Yasser laments would cause his customers to turn a deaf ear. "After a while people just thought, 'These are nice scarves,'" says Rickey, "so that by this time last year, every teenage girl from London to Scotland had one." The keffiyeh as fashion item might now be on the wane, but Rickey thinks that the popular neckpiece started a paradigm-shifting trend - a retailer's dream scenario: it took the scarf out of a winter-wardrobe context and into the realm of all-year-round accessory. "The fastest selling accessory is the summer scarf," she explains. "Stores such as Oasis carry 30 to 40 different patterns - customers just can't get enough of them."

The high street has moved on from the black-and-white weave; Rickey says the current hot stock is glitter-thread-shot hippy scarves. Such faddishness is what makes it tough to interpret the craze for keffiyehs as ideological expression or act of Palestinian solidarity - in fact, fashion scarf-wearers often confess to being clueless over the politics of the chequered fabric. Still, that didn't stop the trend being read as inflammatory and insulting in some quarters. Earlier this year, Urban Outfitters pulled its line of "anti-war woven scarves", which had been a bestseller, after receiving complaints. "Due to the sensitive nature of this item, we will no longer offer it for sale," the company announced. "We apologise if we offended anyone, this was by no means our intention."

In May, Dunkin' Donuts pulled one of its online adverts because Rachael Ray, the celebrity chef that featured in it, was wearing a fashionably knotted keffiyeh. Slamming the scarves as "Jihadi chic" and "hate couture", popular American blogger and columnist, Michelle Malkin, one of the key campaigners against the black-and-white checks, wrote that, "Fashion statements may seem insignificant, but when they lead to the mainstreaming of violence - unintentionally or not - they matter."

Whatever the intention, the global surge in sales has had no impact on the fortunes of the ailing Herbawi factory. The textiles company does not export and, even at a local level, foreign competitors are holding sway. In the market stalls of Jerusalem's Old City, a Hebron factory-made keffiyeh is a rare sight among the scarves on sale to tourists. "For sure, I prefer the local product," says market vendor Saleh abu Ghazela, who stocks the Herbawis' new line of pastel multi-coloured checks alongside Chinese versions of the traditional colour combination. "But very few customers care about the quality or ask where the scarf comes from, and I have to cater to the market's demands."

All of which explains why most of the looms aren't even switched on at the Herbawis' factory. Fifteen machines used to operate daily for 18 hours, but now only one section of the vast factory is lit and just four clacking looms turn giant reels of thread into long flats of cloth. A factory technician moves between them, snipping rogue strands and making constant adjustments to the weave. "He has been our employee for 40 years," says Judeh Herbawi, of their last remaining staff member. "It is because of him that we stay open." Beyond this square of light, rows of grand machinery emblazoned with the label "Suzuki Loom" stand silent in the shadows, swathed in thick, yellow factory dust. Old swatches of keffiyeh fabric are still stretched out upon these once industrious machines - and underneath the powdery dust, the distinctive pattern so symbolic of the Palestinian national cause has all but faded away.

· This article was amended on Thursday September 25 2008. It was Urban Outfitters, rather than American Apparel as we originally said in the article above, that marketed the keffiyeh as an "anti-war woven scarf" but stopped selling it after protests. This has been corrected.