When Facts Falter

A response to the "keffiyah craze"

By Meena Haque

When Facts Falter

When I picked up a copy of Jerk’s October issue, the article by Renee Orenstein, “When Fashion Falters,” immediately caught my attention. Orenstein questioned the popularity of the keffiyah scarf: a checkered, fashion must-have associated with the Middle East.

Though many corporate venders now profit from producing similar-looking scarves, Orenstein stated that keffiyahs have a historical significance that is often overlooked, including an association with “Arab people and Palestinian solidarity.” She then linked the keffiyah to terrorism and anti-American and anti-Israeli sentiments based on images of radical Muslims draped in the scarves. Though I agree that the keffiyah has rich history regarding the Middle East, linking a scarf to terrorism is far from merely expressing an opinion; it perpetuates a racial stereotype.

It is offensive to say the keffiyah is a symbol of terrorism because it is worn by certain groups and individuals who supposedly engage in terrorist activities. Orenstein stated that “the keffiyah implies terrorism, anti-Semitism, and anti-Israel sentiments because members of anti-Israel groups such as Hamas and Fatah adopted the keffiyah as a symbol of their political beliefs.” This is incorrect because the scarf’s history proves it is unrelated to religious or political beliefs. The keffiyah has never been adopted as a symbol or gesture of terrorism.

The keffiyah existed before Israel’s occupation of Palestine, before the creation of groups such as Hamas and Fatah, and before the War on Terror that Americans see on television every day. Middle Easterners wore keffiyahs before the Palestinian revolts against the British between 1936 and 1939. The scarves were even around before the Arab Revolt of 1916-1918 against the Ottoman Turks. Many photographs of Lt. Colonel Thomas Edward Lawrence, a British soldier who helped the Arabs fight against the Ottoman Empire in WWI, featured him wearing a keffiyah along with his military uniform.

To me, the keffiyah symbolizes nationality, culture, pride, and heritage. It has history, yes, but a history that represents an effort for peace and overcoming fights and struggles, whether against the British Empire in the ’30s or the Ottoman Empire in 1916. It represents the rich heritage and nationality that exists in the Middle East, a heritage not only including Arab Muslims, but also Lebanese Christians, Syrian Christians, and Coptic Christians from Egypt.

When people are force-fed images by the media, they begin to associate certain objects — or, in this case, articles of clothing — with those images. Just turn on CNN or Fox News, and you might see individuals from the Middle East who commit hate crimes wearing keffiyahs draped over their bodies. People make subconscious associations among race, actions, clothing, and terrorism through the repetition of images, like Orenstein did in her article. However, if keffiyahs truly represented these heinous acts, then we should be fighting a war against clothes, not against terrorism.

To say a scarf implies hate crimes solely based on a miniscule population of a vast group of people is an untruthful, dangerous accusation. So, to all the Middle East-lovers and trendy fashionistas meandering down St. Mark’s Place in Manhattan who know about keffiyahs and still plan on wearing them: great. Put on your keffiyah and have pride in what you wear. Your actions and intentions — not the clothes you wear — define your beliefs. Don’t let a baseless accusation convince you otherwise.