Saturday, June 30, 2007

Anti-Iraq War/Occupation Songs: Kristofferson

Many major artists have put out of great songs in opposition to the Iraq war/occupation--in contrast to the situation with Palestine (see two previous posts). I've decided (3578 US casualties later) to try to keep a running log. The log is not meant to be exhaustive, but instead focuses on some of (what I imagine are) less well-known examples. First entry: Kris Kristofferson.

Kris Kristofferson, "The Circle (Song for Layla Al-Attar and los Olividados)," Broken Freedom Song: Live from San Francisco (2003).

Layla al-Attar a well-known Iraqi artist was killed in Bagthdad on June 27, 1993, when President Clinton ordered a bombing of Iraq in retaliation for an alleged assassination plot against President George H.W. Bush. Kristofferson's links the fact that Layla al-Attar's name was almost totally absent from US media reports on the incident to los Olvidados, the disappeared of Argentina.

Kristofferson's album, Freedom Song: Live from San Francisco, recorded on on July 19, 2002, also includes a version of the song, "Don't Let the Bastards Get You Down," which criticizes US actions in the run-up to the invasion ("Bombing Baghdad back into a stone age round the clock, non-stop, 40 days, killin' them in their homes and on the highways, and now after a decade of crippling sanctions we're talking about going in there and do it all over again..."). Kris invokes his father, Henry Kristofferson, an Air Force general who went to work for ARAMCO after he retired. I believe (at least I've been told by Aramcons) that Kristofferson grew up in Saudia Arabia.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

More thoughts on a Palestine Benefit Album

For some reason, my post on a Palestine Benefit Album got a lot of comments, perhaps because Laurie cross-posted in on Zinjabeelah. I also sent queries out to a few friends, and so I've received several suggestions and ideas, which I want to comment on.

First, David reminded me of a song that must be included, and so this is #7 on the imaginary benefit album:

7. Freeman, "P-I (Palestine-Israel)" Mars Eyes (2001).

Freeman, a Frenchman of Algerian heritage, is a member of IAM, one of France's premier hip-hop groups. His role in IAM, where he goes by the name Malek Sultan, is that of dancer, but he is also a great rapper, as is evidenced in his solo album Mars Eyes. "P-I" in fact is not a "soliditary" song but a call for peace between the two sides. Here's the refrain:

Que cet air puisse tenir l’éternité
Que cette air t’parle l’Ange, j’parle de paix
Patries Immortelles, Palestine Israël
T’es l’nombril du monde que la paix s’fonde

There have been many more suggestions, which I discuss below, but I don't think there are any more real candidates. Remember, what I'm looking for are songs by major artists (whose names would "sell" the album) that explicitly deal with Palestine. What I've learned, however, is that there are more musicians who have "come out" for Palestine than I had suspected.

Islamoyankee suggests The Cure's "Killing An Arab" (Boys Don't Cry, 1980). This is an intriguing suggestion, especially since when the single first came out in 1978, the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination made a semi-successful effort to keep it from being played on the radio (read Robert Christgau's account of the controversy here). The song in no way advocates "killing an Arab" but rather is drawn from Albert Camus's The Stranger, where the narrator Meursault kills an Algerian Arab for no good reason. I find the novel problematic, and the fact that the casual murder of an Arab is the centerpiece of what became a canonical existentialist text rather nauseating, but I still like the song, especially the "Oriental" surf guitar. Check out this live video on Youtube. Wikipedia reports that The Cure revived the song in 2005, performing at several European festivals but with the lyrics changed to "Kissing an Arab." At the Royal Albert on April 1, 2006, they changed the lyrics to "Killing Another," and added an additional new opening verse. If I were going to expand the imaginary benefit album to include Middle-East themed "peace" material, "Kissing an Arab" might do.

Others mentioned songs by prominent artists that give "shout outs" to Palestine. There's rap artists Mos Def & Talib Kweli's 12", "What's Beef," which includes the lines,
Beef is what George Bush would do in a fight...Beef is oil prices and geopolitics, Beef is Iraq, the West Bank, and Gaza Strip.
Ani DiFranco, on her poem set to music, "Self Evident," inspired by 9/11 (So Much Shouting, So Much Laughter, 2002): "So here's a toast to all the folks who live in Palestine, Afghanistan, Iraq." djleftover suggests John Trudell, "Rich Man's War" (on AKA Grafitti Man, 1992) gives a shout out to Palestine (in the context of mentioning Harlem, Belfast, El Salvador, Pine Ridge). Thanks to commiecurmudgeon, who reminds us about MIA's PLO referencing on "Sunshowers" (Arular, 2005):
Quit bending all my fingo/Quit beating me like you're Ringo/You wanna go?/You wanna winna war?/Like P.L.O., I don't surrendo/I've got the bombs to make you blow.
(MIA's dad was/is a Tamil Tiger, reportedly trained by the PLO in Lebanon.) Commiecurmudgeon also suggests Natacha Atlas's song "Bastet," from Gedida (1999). I think her "Laysh Nata'rak (Why Are We Fighting)" (Diaspora, 1997) is a better choice, which calls for peace between Arabs and Jews:
Why are we fighting/When we're all together?.../Between me and you there is a long history...Let's return to peace/Let's make peace, we are brothers
(my translation from Arabic).

I just found out an album of the sort I am looking for has already been released, in France (thanks, Moustafa!), called Il y a un Pays... Palestine (Tactikollectif, 2005).
You can read about it here, if you read French). It's a double CD, with great European (mostly French) and Arab (mostly Palestinian) groups. Among the notable European acts: the great Manu Chao (who played at Bonnaroo this year), Fermin Muguruza, the Basque nationalist singer, the (mostly) Beur hip-hop band Zebda, the "raggasalsa" band Sergent Garcia, the French rock band Noir Désir. Notable Palestinian artists include rap groups DAM and MWR (both of whose members are Palestinian citizens of Israel), Palestinian-Israeli singer Rim Banna, and the fabulous Sabreen.

Although no comparable compilation has been issued in England, a number of prominent English bands have come out for Palestinians, doing benefit performances for the Hoping (Hope and Optimism for Palestinians In the Next Generation) Foundation, which funds proects for children in Palestinian refugee camps. Most active has been Massive Attack, but other participants include Basement Jaxx, Nick Cave, Steva Mason (Beta Band), Spiritualized, Primal Scream (read Primal Scream's account of their reasons for participating here), Lulu (!), Bryan Adams, Chrissie Hynde (The Pretenders), Mick Jones (ex-The Clash and Big Audio Dynamite), and Shane Magowan (ex-The Pogues). This is a true honor role of British bands.

Shame on us that there is nothing comparable going on in the US!

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Benefit Album for Palestine?

The recent release of Instant Karma: The Amnesty International Campaign to Save Darfur got me thinking about why it is that, as the occupation of the West Bank enters its forty-first year, there has never been a comparable benefit album for Palestinians. Why is it that "progressive" pop artists are so timid? Benefit albums for HIV/AIDS victims, for the ethical treatment of animals, for Bengla Desh, against hunger, for Tibet. But Palestine: taboo?

I began to wonder whether one could assemble an imaginary tribute album using tracks already recorded by well-known artists? Unfortunately, I can't think of many. Here's a start, a work in progress.

1. "War Crimes," The Specials (In the Studio, 1984), written by Jerry Dammers.

From one of Britain's best two-tone ska bands, a song about the Sabra-Shatila massacre of 1982. Here are the lyrics.

Bombs to settle arguments, the order of the boot
Can you hear them crying in the rubble of Beirut?

I can still see people dying, now who takes the blame?
the numbers are different, the crime is still the same

From the graves of Belsen where the innocent were burned
To the genocide in Beirut, Israel was nothing learned?

I can still hear people crying, now who takes the blame?
The numbers are different, the crime is still the same

Bombs to settle arguments, the order of the boot
From the graves of Belsen, to the ruins of Beirut

I can still see people dying, now who takes the blame?
The numbers are different, the crime is still the same

(Jerry Dammers has publicly come out in support of the campaign against the apartheid/separation wall.)

2. "PLO Style," Method Man, Tical (1994)

Method Man only invokes the PLO metaphorically, but it's great song nonetheless.

P.L.O. style, Buddha monks with the Owls...
The street life is the only life I know
I live by the code style it's mad P.L.O...

Iranian thoughts and cover like an Arabian
Grab a nigga on the spot and put a nine to his cranium"

Classic Wu!

3. Simon Shaheen & Qantara, "Olive Harvest," Blue Flame (2001).

This instrumental, composed by New York-based Palestinian 'ud and violin master Simon Shaheen, is based on Shaheen's memories of the olive harvest in his native village of Tarshiha, in the Galilee (one of the villages that was not ethnically cleansed in 1947-48). Benefit albums of the sort I am imagining usually feature major stars, but they also often include one or two world music artists. Shaheen is one of the most prominent world musicians of Arab background living in the US, so I think this track qualifies.

4. Roger Waters, "To Kill the Child," "To Kill the Child/Leaving Beirut" (2005).

It’s cold in the desert
And the space is too big
The rope is too short
And the walls are too thick
I will show you no weakness
I will mock you in song
Berate and deride you
Belittle and chide you
Beat you with sticks
And bulldoze your home
You can watch my triumphant procession to Rome
Best seat in the house
Up there on the cross
Is it anger or envy, profit or loss
That we would choose to kill the child

Waters is also active in the campaign against the wall. I'm not a huge fan of Waters, but he does have name recognition.

5. Billy Bragg, "The Lonesome Death of Rachel Corrie" (single available only online, written in March 2006, to the tune of Bob Dylan's "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll)
Read about the song and download it here:

An Israeli bulldozer killed poor Rachel Corrie
As she stood in its path in the town of Rafah
She lost her young life in an act of compassion
Trying to protect the poor people of Gaza
Whose homes are destroyed by tank shells and bulldozers
And whose plight is exploited by suicide bombers
Who kill in the name of the people of Gaza
But Rachel Corrie believed in non-violent resistance
Put herself in harm's way as a shield of the people
And paid with her life in a manner most brutal

6. Patti Smith, "Qana"

Maybe this doesn't belong here, it's about Lebanon, not Palestine. Patti wrote it last summer during Israel's onslaught on Lebanon, about the airstrike on Qana on July 30, 2006, and she performed it at Lollapalooza in Chicago. You can download it here.

Village is empty
Not a human
Nor a stone
Village is empty
In the village
Children are gone
And a mother rocks
Herself to sleep
Let it come down
Let her weep

And the dead lay in strange shapes

Some stay buried
Others crawl free
Baby didn't make it
Screaming debris
And a mother rocks
Herself to sleep

And the dead lay in strange shapes

Limp little bodies
Caked in mud
Small, small hands
Found in the road
Their talking about
War aims
What a phrase
Bombs that fall
American made
The new Middle East
The Rice woman squeaks
And a mother rocks
Herself to sleep

And the dead lay in strange shapes

Little bodies
Little bodies
Tied head and feet
Wrapped in plastic
Laid out in the street
The new Middle East
The Rice woman squeaks
And a mother rocks
Herself to sleep
Let it come down
Let her weep

And the dead lay in strange shapes

Water to wine
Wine to blood
Ahh Qana
The miracle
Is love
The miracle
Is love

And the dead lay in strange shapes

That's all I can come up with so far. Belle & Sebastian have visited Palestine with War on Want, but I don't know whether they have any relevant songs. Please help me find some more!

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Lebanese singer Ghada Shbeir wins BBC Radio 3 World Music Award for Middle East/North Africa

I had never heard of Ghada Shbeir until Hisham told me about her yesterday. I've been agonizing over the news from Lebanon, so it was very cheering to have some good news from there. I urge you to watch (or listen) to Ghada Shbeir's 30+ minute concert on the BBC website (scroll down to get to it). Ghada Shbeir performs some of the best "classical" Arabic music I've heard in a long time, mostly Andalusian muwashshahat. The title of her solo album, not yet widely available as far as I can tell, is Al Muwashahat. Shbeir is also a featured vocalist on the album Crossroads of the Mediterranean, by Constantinople. I'm only just downloading it from, where you can listen to samples.

Another winner (in the Culture Crossing category) at the BBC Radio 3 World Music Awards is Maurice el Medioni, the celebrated Algerian Jewish pianist, who specializes in Orani boogie woogie. You can watch/hear him at the same website.

Not that this fabulous music in any way "compensates" for the dreadful situation in Lebanon, or the Middle East in general, but at least it offers a break....


On days like these, I wish I wasn't a Middle East "specialist" who gets paid (although not very well) to think about a region that seems to be in the worst shape ever, ever. Lebanon, Gaza, Iraq, Darfur, Hosni's new crackdown on democracy in Egypt, it goes on and on. It is all too awful to contemplate. But here are two quite fine commentaries on the situation in Gaza, by very astute observers, one from Israeli peace activist Uri Avnery, and the other from Palestinian activist Ali Abunimah. Among other things, they point to the US role in the recent Gaza events.

Avneri: "But the Hamas leaders decided that they had no alternative but to destroy the armed organizations that are tied to Fatah and take their orders from President Mahmoud Abbas. The US has ordered Israel to supply these organizations with large quantities of weapons, in order to enable them to fight Hamas. The Israeli army chiefs did not like the idea, fearing that the arms might end up in the hands of Hamas (as is actually happening now). But our government obeyed American orders, as usual."

And Abunimah: "Ever since Hamas won the Palestinian legislative elections in the occupied territories in January 2006, elements of the leadership of the long-dominant Fatah movement, including Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas and his advisors have conspired with Israel, the United States and the intelligence services of several Arab states to overthrow and weaken Hamas. This support has included funneling weapons and tens of millions of dollars to unaccountable militias, particularly the "Preventive Security Force" headed by Gaza warlord Mohammad Dahlan, a close ally of Israel and the United States and the Abbas-affiliated "Presidential Guard." US Deputy National Security Advisor Elliott Abrams -- who helped divert money to the Nicaraguan Contras in the 1980s and who was convicted of lying to Congress in the Iran-Contra scandal -- has spearheaded the effort to set up these Palestinian Contras. (This background has been extensively detailed in a number of articles published by The Electronic Intifada in recent months). Abrams is also notorious for helping to cover up massacres and atrocities committed against civilians in El Salvador by US-backed militias and death squads."

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Newsweek on Islamic Punk

Glad to see that Islamic punk is getting more coverage and visibility. I've not heard all of the groups discussed here, but highly recommend Kominas (homepage here, myspace page--with mp3s--here). Have only just heard it, but I really like their song, 9000 miles, a ska number with some dhol beats. I read Michael Muhammad Knight's The Taqwacores soon after it came out, loved it, but never imagined (until Mike told me otherwise) that there really was a taqwacore "scene." (Hope I can make it to ISNA for the taqwacores concert!) Check out the Newsweek article itself for more photos and to hear the Kominas' "9000 Miles."

(But never forget the original Muslim punk: Aki Nawaz of Fun'Da'Mental, who started his career as drummer for Southern Death Cult.)

Slam Dancing for Allah

Muslim punk rock—it's not as bizarre as it sounds.
By Matthew Philips
Newsweek, June 11, 2007

It's near midnight in a small Fairfax, Va., bar, and Omar Waqar stands on a makeshift stage, brooding in a black tunic and brown cap. He stops playing his electric guitar long enough to survey the crowd—an odd mix of local punks and collared preps—before screaming into the microphone: "Stop the hate! Stop the hate!" Stopping hate is a fairly easy concept to get behind at a punk-rock show, and the crowd yells and pumps its fists right on cue. But it's safe to say that Waqar and his band, Diacritical, aren't shouting about the same kind of hate as the audience. Waqar wants to stop the kind that made people call him "sand flea" as a kid and throw rocks through the windows of the Islamic bookstore he worked at on 9/11. Waqar, 26, the son of a Pakistani immigrant, is a Muslim—a punk-rock Muslim.

Muslim punk rock certainly sounds like an oxymoron, especially since fundamentalist Muslims condemn all music as haram (forbidden). But Diacritical is one of about a dozen Islamic punk-rock bands throughout the country, bands with names like Vote Hezbollah, the Kominas ("bastards" in Punjabi) and Al-Thawra (Arabic for "the revolution"). The bands vary in sound, polish and success: the Kominas' funk-infused Bollywood songs have been on rotation on the BBC, while sounds of explosions and gunfire punctuate Arabic chanting on the MySpace page of Al-Thawra. But they're alike enough to tour together this summer, ending Labor Day weekend in Chicago at the usually staid Islamic Society of North America's annual conference. Muslim punkers call their brand of music taqwacore—a blend of the Arabic word for piety, taqwa, and "hard-core," the English word for musicians who want to be taken very seriously. "The Prophet Muhammad was all about smashing idols," says Michael Muhammad Knight, a Muslim convert whose 2003 novel "The Taqwacores" is a manifesto for the Muslim punk movement. "And what's more punk rock than that?"

Punk has always been home to the marginalized and angry, led by the Sex Pistols and the Clash in Britain and the Ramones across the pond. But Muslim punk rockers are fighting a two-sided establishment: one side West, the other Middle East. To them, the war on terror is unequivocally a war on Islam, but they're equally infuriated by Islamic fundamentalists and the bloodshed they foment against Westerners as well as other Muslims. "It's not like I'm choosing sides," says Kourosh Poursalehi, 18, who wears a denim vest with a print of Ayatollah Khomeini on the back—for the shock value. "To me they're both wrong. Bush with the war is doing horrible things, but there's not a person in my family who's happy with the Islamic revolution in Iran." These punks are the first generation of American-born Muslims; their parents came to the United States in the 1960s, '70s and '80s. They grew up just like most kids their age—playing videogames and listening to music. But in their midteens and early 20s, they suddenly had to come to terms with their dual identities. "It was 9/11 that first made me conscious of my ethnicity," says Shajahan Khan, 23, the son of Pakistani immigrants who grew up outside Boston. The day after 9/11, a classmate asked him what his people had done. "I was like, 'What people? My people from Cambridge or Boston?'" says Khan, guitarist of the Kominas.

Admittedly, these Muslim punks aren't especially devout, at least in the traditional sense. None goes to Friday prayers regularly, but they all say they're deeply spiritual. To them, Islam begins and ends with one's personal relationship with God. After a recent show at a Manhattan bar, Waqar felt the urge to pray. "I went into the men's room, got down on the nasty floor and started praying," he recalls. Nothing says Muslim punk rock more than searching for Allah on the floor of a nightclub bathroom.

(Photos are of the Kominas, and taken from their official website. Earlier post here. Check out Diacritical's myspace page for the group's reaction to being called Islamic punk--they say, not.)

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Laura Bush "Veils" for the Pope

Here's a photo (courtesy the White House) from W. and Laura Bush's meeting yesterday with Pope Benedict XVI. Can you imagine the uproar if Laura donned a headscarf to meet an Islamic leader?
It reminds me of the story of Oriana Fallaci's (first) interview with Ayatollah Khomeini, which ended abruptly when she ripped off her chador, calling it a a "stupid, medieval rag." Can you imagine what might befall someone who dared pull such a stunt on the Pontiff? (To his credit, Christopher Hitchens, who reports on the Fallaci story, would support such an action. Khomeini reportedly found it amusing.)

Thursday, June 07, 2007

More T's

I was just alerted to the t-shirts sold by Dangerous Breed (Thanks, Bob). "An independent t-shirt and clothing company based in Brooklyn NYC founded in 2001. In a world of political polarization, “with us or against us” rhetoric, and either completely meaningless or painfully obvious t-shirts (usually both), it set out to do something a little different: to make content and style part of the same equation. To make people think rather than tell them WHAT to think."

Dangerous Breed's mission: "To evolve the message t-shirt into a new and "dangerous" breed of fashion as social commentary."

They are crazy and cool and thought-provoking. But what is most provocative about them is that they cost $33! Who the hell can afford that?

If I had $33 to blow on a t-shirt, I also like the "Ski Iraq" and the "USA out of NYC" models.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Oppose 40 Years of Occupation in Your Kufiya-Trim T

Now available from War on Want, just in time for the Enough! coalition national demonstration and rally in central London on June 9th, meeting at Lincoln's Inn Fields at 1.30pm and marching to Trafalgar Square. The demo is in support of the demand to end the 40 year occupation. Or wear it to the events on June 9th and June 11th in Washington, DC. Saturday, June 9: Rally at the Capitol: The World Says NO to Israeli Occupation! 2:00-4:00PM, sponsored by the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation and United for Peace and Justice. Monday, June 11th, grassroots lobbying.

The t-shirts read "end the occupation, justice for palestine" on the front, next to the War on Want logo, and "end the israeli occupation, justice for palestine now" on the back. With kufiya-style trim.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Walmart Hall of Shame: J-Lo joins Beyoncé

Here are some of the the bands who performed (pimped for Walmart) in Fayetteville last week as part of the annual Walmart Shareholders' meeting:

Tuesday, May 29: Fall Out Boy, in a concert (for the first time ever at a Walmart shareholders meeting) open to the public.

Wednesday, May 30: The Eagles (Walmart employees only). The Eagles' forthcoming album will be sold exclusively in Walmart stores!

Thursday, May 31. Kool and the Gang and Hall & Oates, also open to the public. Walmart goes all out this year for the Northwest Arkansas public. (Robert "Kool" Bell and his brother Ronald, leaders of Kool and the Gang, are members of the Nation of Islam, as far as I am aware.)

Friday, June 1. At the Wal-Mart shareholders "meeting" (more like a revival meeting) at Bud Walton Arena: the special guest artists are Jennifer Lopez
and the newest American Idol winner, Jordin Sparks. The event is MC'd by Sindbad. J-Lo joins Beyoncé--last year's performer at the Shareholder's Meeting--in the Walmart Hall of Shame.

Meanwhile, the local progressive group Against the Wal organized protests, for the fourth consecutive year. Suggested reading for J-Lo and Robert "Kool" Bell: the recent Human Rights Watch report on Walmart, “Discounting Rights: Wal-Mart’s Violation of US Workers’ Right to Freedom of Association.” (Walmart is only the second corporation to be investigated by Human Rights Watch.)

40 Year Anniversaries: Sgt. Pepper's, Israeli Occupation

The last few days I've been hearing and reading a lot about the 40th annniversary of the release (June 1, 1967) of the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. And now we are starting to hear, and read, about another 40th anniversary--of the start of the so-called Six-Day War (Arabs prefer to call it the June War), on June 5, 1967. I've not been monitoring that closely, but thus far, my sense is that, as usual, media accounts focus on the Israeli viewpoint, and fail to note that tomorrow marks the 40th anniversary of 40 years of occupation of the West Bank (or, at least, much of it). Will anyone in the mainstream media, I wonder, pay any attention to the new Amnesty International report, "Enduring Occupation: Palestinian under Siege in the West Bank," which documents the ongoing and awful effects of the occupation: the apartheid wall, the expansion of illegal settlements, the enclavization of Palestinian Bantustans, the destruction of homes and crops, the destruction of the Palestinian economy, the blockades, and so on? (Kneejerk forecast: I doubt it!)

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.