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Yemeni Arab man wearing a keffiyeh in turban-style and a shal on his shoulder
Saudi man wearing the shemagh as part of traditional Saudi Arab attire

The keffiyeh or kufiyyeh or cheffiyeh ( Arabic: كُوفِيَّة, romanizedkūfiyya, lit.' coif'), [1] also known in Arabic as a ghutrah (غُترَة), shemagh (شُمَاغ, šumāḡ), or ḥaṭṭah (حَطَّة), is a traditional headdress worn by men from parts of the Middle East. It is fashioned from a square scarf, and is usually made of cotton. [2] The keffiyeh is commonly found in arid regions, as it provides protection from sunburn, dust, and sand. An agal is often used by Arabs to keep it in place.


Imam Abdullah ibn Saud, the last ruler of the first Saudi state

The keffiyeh originated amongst Bedouins as a practical and protective covering for the head and face, especially in the arid desert climate in which they have traditionally lived. [3] [4] The term itself is a loan from Italian (cuffia) and shares its etymology with English " coif". [1]

It is uncertain when the ghutra and agal became respectable headwear. Early Persian miniatures always portray Arabs as wearing turbans. The ghutra and agal are reported in the northern Arabian desert from at least the early 18th century. The earliest reliable picture (1834) of such depicts the final imam of the Emirate of Diriyah, Abdullah bin Saud. [5]

Varieties and variations

Middle Eastern Arabs, Kurds, and Yazidis wear this headpiece. [6] Iraqi Turkmen wear it and call it Jamadani [7] while Omanis call it a mussar. No matter its name it is available in multiple colours and styles with many different methods of tying it, depending on regional origin and the nature of occasion. Omanis do not use the agal, instead tying it over the kuma for formal occasions.

During his sojourn with the Marsh Arabs of Iraq, Gavin Young noted that the local sayyids—"venerated men accepted [...] as descendants of the Prophet Muhammad and Ali ibn Abi Talib"—wore dark green keffiyeh (cheffiyeh) in contrast to the black-and-white checkered examples typical of the area's inhabitants. [8]

Palestinian national symbol

Yasser Arafat wearing his iconic fishnet pattern keffiyeh in 2001

Prior to the 1930s, Arab villagers and peasants wore the white keffiyeh and agal (rope) while city residents and the educated elite wore the Ottoman tarbush (fez). [9] During the 1936–1939 Arab revolt in Palestine, Arab rebel commanders ordered all Arabs to don the keffiyeh. In 1938, British Mandatory High Commissioner in Palestine, Harold MacMichael, reported to the Foreign Office: "This ‘order’ has been obeyed with surprising docility and it is not an exaggeration to say that in a month eight out of every ten tarbushes in the country had been replaced by the [keffiyeh and] ‘agal’." [10] Following the end of the revolt, most residents either reverted to wearing the tarbush or elected to go hatless. [11]

The black and white chequered keffiyeh dates to the 1950s when Glubb Pasha, a British officer, wanted to distinguish his Palestinian soldiers (black and white keffiyeh) from his Jordanian forces (red and white keffiyeh). [12] The black and white keffiyeh’s prominence increased during the 1960s with the beginning of the Palestinian resistance movement and its adoption by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. [13]

The black-and-white fishnet pattern keffiyeh would later become Arafat's iconic symbol, and he would rarely be seen without it; only occasionally would he wear a military cap, or, in colder climates, a Russian-style ushanka hat. Arafat would wear his keffiyeh in a semi-traditional way, wrapped around his head via an agal. He also wore a similarly patterned piece of cloth in the neckline of his military fatigues. Early on, he had made it his personal trademark to drape the scarf over his right shoulder only, arranging it in the rough shape of a triangle. This way of wearing the keffiyeh became a symbol of Arafat as a person and political leader, and it has not been imitated by other Palestinian leaders.

Another Palestinian figure associated with the keffiyeh is Leila Khaled, a female member of the armed wing of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Several photographs of Khaled circulated in the Western newspapers after the hijacking of TWA Flight 840 and the Dawson's Field hijackings. These photos often included Khaled wearing a keffiyeh in the style of a Muslim woman's hijab, wrapped around the head and shoulders. This was unusual, as the keffiyeh is associated with Arab masculinity, and many believe this to be something of a fashion statement by Khaled, denoting her equality with men in the Palestinian armed struggle.

The colors of the stitching in a keffiyeh are also vaguely associated with Palestinians' political sympathies. Traditional black and white keffiyehs became associated with Fatah. Later, red and white keffiyehs were adopted by Palestinian Marxists, such as the PFLP. [14] Because of its association with Fatah, in April 2021, Hamas arrested students and staff at Al-Azhar University for wearing the keffiyeh. [15]

Symbol of Palestinian solidarity

The black and white chequered keffiyeh has become a symbol of Palestinian nationalism, beginning with the plain white keffiyeh's use during the 1936–1939 Arab revolt in Palestine and followed by the chequered pattern's use in the 1950s (see above). Outside of the Middle East and North Africa, the keffiyeh has gained popularity among activists supporting the Palestinians in the conflict with Israel. [16] [17] [18]

During the 2023 Israel–Hamas war, pro-Palestinian protests around the world saw demonstrators wearing keffiyeh. [19] As part of restrictions on pro-Palestinian protests in Germany, schools in Berlin banned the wearing of keffiyeh [20] and an individual said that he had been "forbidden to walk inside the city for 24 hours because [he] was wearing a keffiyeh". [20] Similar bans on pro-Palestinian protests across France [21] saw a demonstrator fined €135 for wearing keffiyeh. [21] Likewise, legal observers at protests in London described "targeting by riot police of people wearing a Palestinian keffiyeh" and threats of arrest for doing so. [22] [23] [24] Protesters in Canada, [25] Lebanon, [19] Malaysia, [26] Morocco, [27] Pakistan, [19] the Netherlands, [28] and the United States [29] [30] were also seen wearing keffiyeh, and Lidia Thorpe wore keffiyeh while speaking in the Australian Senate to condemn Australian support for "an oppressive occupation" and liken the Palestinian struggle with that of Indigenous Australians". [31]


A loom at work making a traditional Palestinian keffiyeh in the Hirbawi factory, Hebron, West Bank

Today, the keffiyeh as a symbol of Palestinian identity is largely imported from China. With the scarf's growing popularity in the 2000s, Chinese manufacturers entered the market, driving Palestinians out of the business. [32] Mother Jones wrote, "Ironically, global support for Palestinian-statehood-as-fashion-accessory has put yet another nail in the coffin of the Occupied Territories' beleaguered economy." [32]

In 2008, Yasser Hirbawi, who for five decades had been the only Palestinian manufacturer of keffiyehs, was struggling with sales and has reported that sales had fallen "from 150,000 units per year in 1993 to a mere 10,000 units in 2010", [33] before transitioning from local to global online sales. [33] In the wake of the 2023 Israel–Hamas war, Hirbawi announced that the company, run by Yasser's sons since his death in 2018, [33] would donate profits from keffiyeh sold in October 2023 to the Palestine American Medical Association, [34] selling over 20,000 that month. [34]

Jordanian national symbol

Another type of keffiyeh is the shemagh, which is a scarf that is red-and-white, checkered and has tassels. The bigger the tassels, the more important the person. This red-and-white keffiyeh is associated with Jordan and is its national symbol. [35] The shemagh is worn mostly in Jordan and by Bedouin communities. [36] It is made from cotton. The Jordanian shemagh and the Palestinian keffiyeh are different in regard to color and geographical meanings. [37]

Other cultural symbolisms

Early Jewish migrants to Mandatory Palestine adopted the Keffiyeh because they saw it as part of the authentic local lifestyle. [38] Up until the 2000s, Turkey banned the keffiyeh because it was considered a symbol of solidarity with the PKK. [39]

Westerners in keffiyeh

T. E. Lawrence at Rabegh, north of Jeddah, in 1917

British Colonel T. E. Lawrence (better known as Lawrence of Arabia) was probably the best-known Western wearer of the keffiyeh and agal during his involvement in the Arab Revolt in World War I. This image of Lawrence was later popularized by the film epic about him, Lawrence of Arabia, in which he was portrayed by Peter O'Toole.

Many of the Jewish Zionist immigrants to Ottoman Palestine and British Mandatory Palestine wore the keffiyeh in emulation of the Arab population out of the desire for closeness and a sense of belonging to the place.[ citation needed] These included youth group members, political notables, and militiamen, including Hashomer. Other Jewish residents of Palestine wore the keffiyeh for studio photograph sessions as Orientalist dress.[ citation needed] After the 1929 Palestine riots and the 1936–1939 Arab revolt in Palestine, "the popularity of the keffiyeh began to decline and Jewish attempts to emulate the Arabs became less common, but throughout the 1940s and 1950s, the keffiyeh could still spotted in Israel," including on politicians and soldiers. As the keffiyeh became a key component of Yasser Arafat's signature look, it definitively lost popularity among Israelis and was associated exclusively with the Palestinian nationalist movement. [40]

The 1920s' silent-film era of American cinema saw studios take to Orientalist themes of the exotic Middle East, possibly due to the view of Arabs as part of the Allies of World War I, and keffiyehs became a standard part of the theatrical wardrobe. These films and their male leads typically had Western actors in the role of an Arab, often wearing the keffiyeh with the agal (as with The Sheik and The Son of the Sheik, starring actor Rudolph Valentino).

During the 2001 Iraq and Afghanistan wars, members of the United States Armed Forces began wearing keffiyeh for practical reasons. While the scarves were never issued by the American armed forces directly, many private tactical equipment retailers marketed and sold them to service personnel in the Marines and Army. The scarves were usually dyed into color schemes that closely matched the service uniforms, and bore symbols that appealed to Western consumers (e.g., skull and cross bones, Gadsden snakes, and Spartan helmets). Black and coyote-brown keffiyeh are still commonly worn by military veterans without any implied support for Arab nationalism or similar causes, and at times can carry the opposite message.[ citation needed]

Fashion trend

As with other articles of clothing worn in wartime, such as the T-shirt, fatigues and khaki pants, the keffiyeh has been seen as chic among non-Arabs in the West. Keffiyehs became popular in the UK in the 1970s and then in the United States in the late 1980s at the start of the First Intifada, when bohemian girls and punks wore keffiyehs as scarves around their necks. [41] [42] In the early 2000s keffiyehs were very popular among youths in Tokyo, who often wore them with camouflage clothing. [41] The trend recurred in the mid-2000s in the United States, [41] [42] Europe, [42] Canada and Australia, [43] [44] when the keffiyeh became popular as a fashion accessory, usually worn as a scarf around the neck in hipster circles. [41] [42] Stores such as Urban Outfitters and TopShop stocked the item. However, after some controversy over the retailer's decision to label the items "anti-war scarves", Urban Outfitters pulled it. [42] In spring 2008, keffiyehs in colors such as purple and mauve were given away in issues of fashion magazines in Spain and France. In the UAE, males are inclining towards more Western headgear while women are developing preferences for dupatta—the traditional head cover of South Asia. [45] The appropriation of the keffiyeh as a fashion statement by non-Arab wearers separate from its political and historical meaning has been the subject of controversy in recent years. [46] While it is often worn as a symbol of solidarity with the Palestinian struggle, the fashion industry has disregarded its significance by using its pattern and style in day-to-day clothing design. For example in 2016 Topshop released a romper suit with the Keffiyeh print, calling it a "scarf playsuit". This led to accusations of cultural appropriation and Topshop eventually pulled the item from their website. [47]

See also


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  2. ^ J. R. Bartlett (19 July 1973). The First and Second Books of the Maccabees. CUP Archive. p. 246. ISBN  978-0-521-09749-9. Retrieved 17 April 2013. traditional Jewish head-dress was either something like the Arab's Keffiyeh (a cotton square folded and wound around a head) or like a turban or stocking cap
  3. ^ Donica, Joseph (10 November 2020), "Head Coverings, Arab Identity, and New Materialism", All Things Arabia, Brill, pp. 163–176, ISBN  978-90-04-43592-6, retrieved 18 October 2023
  4. ^ "Ghutrah — who designed it?". Arab News. 7 August 2013. Retrieved 18 October 2023.
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  6. ^ "Learn About Kurdish Dress".
  7. ^ Salman, Mofak. "Altunköprü the ancient name of Türkmen Township" (PDF). They also wear a scarf which is known among the public as Jamadani
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Further reading

  • Jastrow, Marcus (1926). Dictionary of Targumim, Talmud and Midrashic Literature. Hendrickson Publishers. ISBN  978-1-56563-860-0. The lexicon includes more references explaining what a sudra is on page 962.
  • Philippi, Dieter (2009). Sammlung Philippi – Kopfbedeckungen in Glaube, Religion und Spiritualität. St. Benno Verlag, Leipzig. ISBN  978-3-7462-2800-6.

External links