Saturday, February 10, 2007

kufiyaspotting #14: New York Times (citing me)

This article appears tomorrow in the Sunday Times Style section. (I was originally told that it would appear in the Style section the Thursday after next, February 22, but that the editors liked the piece so much they decided to move it up to this Sunday.) It's a good article, and not only because it quotes me :). I'm not sure whether the red kufiya is associated today, in Palestine, with Hamas today, but that may be correct, for all I know. The red kufiya used to indicate either Jordanian or PFLP affiliation. Otherwise, this seems pretty much spot on, except that Rochelle Davis, who is also quoted is a "she," not a "he."

Addendum: Rochelle Davis informs me that the Hamas/red kufiya association is dead wrong. And my stepsister Cynthia notes with regret that the article gives the last word to fashionista Jay Hukahori. But Hukahori is dead wrong too--the kufiya is not "dead," even if its NYC fashion career may be played out.

New York Times, February 11, 2007
"Where Some See Fashion, Others See Politics"
By Kibum Kim

THREE months ago, Jay Hukahori, a 24-year-old fashion design student at Parsons, went to a party at Guesthouse, a club in Chelsea, in an outfit topped off by a kaffiyeh, a scarf with a black and white chain-link pattern and knotted tassels that is typically worn in Arab countries.

“I knew that with the doormen, it’d be easily identifiable as a hip accessory,” Ms. Hukahori said.

Once the trademark headwear of Yasir Arafat, and long associated with his Palestinian countrymen, the kaffiyeh has lately shown up on the shelves of adventurous boutiques in the United States and even mainstream retailers like Urban Outfitters.

Its newest wearers, who wrap it around the neck like a scarf, say they are less Fatah sympathizers than fashion party crashers. The kaffiyeh appears to be the dubious successor to last year’s Che Guevara T-shirts, a symbol denuded of any potent political associations by pop culture.

But not everyone finds it so simple a fashion statement. A blogger named Mobius, posting Jan. 16 on Jewschool, a Jewish blog that targets a young audience, blasted Urban Outfitters for selling kaffiyehs. Taking issue with the retailer’s decision to label the item an “anti-war woven scarf,” Mobius posted pictures of terrorists adorned in kaffiyehs.

The same day Urban Outfitters, which had offered the scarves in several color combinations for $20, pulled them from stores. Its Web site posted this explanation: “Due to the sensitive nature of this item, we will no longer offer it for sale. We apologize if we offended anyone, this was by no means our intention.” A spokeswoman for the store, which has 95 branches nationwide, declined to comment further.

Hanyi Lee, a graphic designer in New York, who had bought a kaffiyeh at Urban Outfitters and now owns three, didn’t intend anything provocative when she wore hers. “I didn’t think it was anything that heavy,” Ms. Lee said, noting that she takes fashion cues from a variety of cultures.

Ms. Hukahori thought it strange that Urban Outfitters would call the kaffiyeh (pronounced kuh-FEE-yeh) an antiwar scarf.

“That’s so cheap of Urban, a PR gambit,” she said. “But I think it’s great that this controversy will get kids to start learning about it.”

Clearly, many wearers have not considered the kaffiyeh’s political import. “I’m not too up to speed in what’s going on in the Middle East,” said Liz Chernett [pictured below--T.S.], a strategic consultant in branding and a youth trends expert who bought a kaffiyeh from a vendor on St. Mark’s Place three months ago. “It’s an aesthetic thing.”

Perhaps what is most telling about the mainstreaming of the kaffiyeh is what it says about the country’s political mood. The scarf’s popularity seems to have less to do with solidarity with Arabs than it has to do with the war in Iraq. Marketing it as an antiwar statement, as Urban Outfitters attempted, would probably have been even more controversial a few years ago, when the country was more divided about Iraq, said Ted Swedenburg, a professor of anthropology at the University of Arkansas, who blogs about pop culture, music and the Middle East.

In Britain, where voters are even more united against the war than Americans, the kaffiyeh’s fashionability has been taken a step farther. TopShop, the high-street juggernaut, is selling kaffiyehs stamped with skull prints, conflating two hot looks of the recent past.

Dr. Swedenburg said he thinks that the exotic element of the scarf becomes more important, and the political aspect less so, as it becomes mainstream. “It’s chic because it’s different,” he said. “It’s Eastern.”

According to Professor Swedenburg and others who have studied the history of the kaffiyeh, it was originally the headwear of Palestinian peasants, worn around the head and fastened in place by a band called an agal. In the insurrection against the British occupation from 1936 to 1939, the kaffiyeh became a symbol of Palestinian nationalism as well as an expression of class struggle. The insurgents forced upper-class Palestinians, who typically wore the Ottoman fez, to don the kaffiyeh to show sympathy with the fighters. The kaffiyeh rose in prominence again in the 1960s when the Palestinian resistance movement started and Arafat famously adopted it. “Above all, it’s important to remember a kaffiyeh is something to wear like a hat, to keep out the cold, keep out the sun,” said Rochelle Davis, an assistant professor of culture and society at Georgetown University’s Center for Contemporary Arab Studies.

But if an older generation of Arabs still wears it as utilitarian headwear, the younger generation in the Middle East may wear it expressly to show support of the Palestinian cause, and it is also used by militants to disguise their faces. The black and white kaffiyeh is often associated with Fatah; the red and white with Hamas.

Many in the Jewish community, in particular, object to people wearing the scarf as a fashion statement. “Because there are people who wear the kaffiyeh as a sign of solidarity with Palestinians, some people view it as an endorsement of terrorism,” said Mik Moore, chairman of the board of directors for the Jewish Student Press Service, an independent nonprofit organization.

Dr. Swedenburg doesn’t think it should be viewed this way. “I think to associate it directly with terrorism is to tar all Palestinians with the brush of terrorism,” he said. “That’s a mischaracterization.”

Dr. Davis shares this opinion. “I think it diminishes its meaning and its value to just say ‘it’s been used by terrorists,’ ” he said. “I think it has a much richer history and a much richer meaning system than that.”

For those with a long memory, the current kaffiyeh craze may seem familiar. The scarves became a fashion statement in the United States at the start of the first intifada in 1987. In 1988, CBS News and Time magazine chronicled the trend. In a 1992 Michigan Quarterly Review article about the kaffiyeh’s modern history, Dr. Swedenburg wrote about how a “sign of Palestinian struggle suddenly appeared in the ensembles of ‘downtown’ U.S.A., together with black turtlenecks, ripped Levi’s, high-top sneakers and eight-zippered black leather jackets.”

In its 2007 revival, the kaffiyeh has similar sidekicks. “It’s hipster 101: I need my skinny jeans, some sort of scarf and a beat up T-shirt,” Ms. Hukahori said. “O.K., I’m a hipster now.” [Hukahori is pictured below. The caption under this photo reads, "Jay Hukahori modeling hers. She says she doesn’t wear it anymore because she no longer thinks it’s fashionable."]

Whether the scarf is seen as a political statement is usually in the eye of the beholder. “I think the meaning is given to it as much by the viewer as the wearer,” Dr. Davis said. “I see it and immediately think, ‘Is that person wearing it for a reason or just as a fashion accessory?’ ”

Ms. Chernett has not encountered any reactions to her kaffiyeh in New York but she has in cities like Philadelphia.

“I’ve gotten a lot of comments about it, like, ‘Doesn’t that support terrorists?’ ” she said. “ ‘Aren’t you Jewish?’ ” (Ms. Chernett said she is half-Jewish.)

Ms. Hukahori doesn’t have to answer any such questions; she hasn’t worn her kaffiyeh in public in months. It would never make her stand out with a club doorman today, she feels. The kaffiyeh, she said, is “dead.”


Arlinora said...

I grew up in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, and they wear a red and white checked kufiya. It has nothing to do with Palestine there, it's just their traditional headdress.

Anonymous said...

I am a teacher and I have noticed lately some young kids wearing t-shirts of the Israeli Defense Forces. I find these offensive. I wonder if the retailer who sells these will take them off the shelf?

Anonymous said...

I wonder if the mix-up about coloring came from a cursory perusal of the wikipedia entry on kaffiyehs:

"The colors of the stitching in a keffiyeh are also vaguely associated with Palestinians' political sympathies. The iconic "spider-web" black-and-white keffiyeh is often displayed symbolically by members of Arafat's Fateh party (which more generally uses yellow as its party colour), although it has never been able to expropriate it as their exclusive symbol. This is in contrast to how many members of the radical leftist PLO factions (such as PFLP, PFLP-GC DFLP) prefer the checkered red keffieyhs - red being both the traditional colour of the workers' movement and the red scarf supposedly more indicative of a bedouin and rural (thus poorer, more popular) background. The Islamist factions, such as Hamas, use green - representative of the Islamic faith - as a party color, but for keffiyehs they stick to the traditional black-and-white or red variants, with no particular preference evident. While widely known, this color symbolism is by no means universally accepted by all Palestinians, and its importance should not be overstated - red or black-and-white scarves are used by Palestinians of all political stripes, as well as by those with no particular political sympathies."

Unknown said...

Interesting enough, although the urban outfitters in New York discontinued the sale of the "anti-war woven scarf," the case is not the same for the West Coast. When I went back to Los Angeles, I discovered the Urban Outfitters next to UCLA were selling them in some traditional colors and in other loud neon shades. I thought some pictures and uploaded them onto a post for a site I blog for:

sian and crooked rib said...

just another horrible example of fashion taking away political or radical meaning to make something a commodity. just like the che t shirts, i doubt many of the peopele wearing the kufiya have any idea of its political or cultural meaning. they just see a pretty pattern. this might not be the case for all , but must be for many.
makes me sick. like egg credit cards chaging that barbara kruger painting. idiots.

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