I bought a keffiyeh in Egypt in 2009. I was on a Winter Break study abroad trip to study Egyptian literature and culture with the amazing writer, activist, and all around mensch Zein El-Amine. Operation Cast Lead, the last large-scale assault on Gaza by the Israeli military, had begun before we arrived, and the ongoing attacks shaped my experience of the trip, and has continued to shape my political commitments since. We watched the attacks, protests around the world on the news. We watched Barack Obama’s inauguration on the news, celebrating and speculating hopefully with cafe patrons. The devastating impact of Operation Cast Lead on Gaza, which is known as “the largest open air prison in the world,” quickly became apparent, as stories filtered out of the Occupied Territories and later when a UN fact-finding mission released its report on the Gaza conflict. I bought a keffiyeh, knowing that it was the smallest act I could possibly make in solidarity with the Palestinian people who were being murdered on the news, right across the Egyptian border.
A keffiyeh is a style of scarf or headdress that has become associated with the Palestinian resistance movement, and is worn internationally to show solidarity with the Palestinian people. It has also been subject to widespread cultural appropriation (see this article by Ryah Aqel for a basic critique, or Julia Caron’s always fantastic piece “the critical fashion lover’s basic guide to cultural appropriation”) by companies like the ubiquitous cultural appropriator Urban Outfitters, which has sold keffiyeh under names like “anti-war scarf” and “desert scarf.”
Shadia Mansour, Al Kuffiyeh 3Arabeyyeh
my favourite aspect of cultural appropriation is that it can help us begin to deconstruct our sartorial choices and acknowledges the power of clothing as a means of shaping (racial, national, sexual, gender) identity. the exact same piece of clothing can mean very different things to different people (take any politically charged piece of clothing: the hijab, high-heel shoes, doc martens, the keffiyeh, etc) and acknowledging this fact is a very important first step. the very basis of cultural appropriation gets people thinking about questions like, can one piece of clothing “belong” to one culture? what do certain pieces of clothing signify? it moves us away from basic discussions of colour palettes and cuts and styles and trends and moves us towards a more complex theorizing of fashion.
Like many activists, I wear my keffiyeh as a marker and sometimes as a reminder to myself of my responsibility to speak and act in support of justice for Palestine. It is important to me to continuously think about my place as a solidarity activist–on a very basic level the signification of my sartorial choices–but also when and how I choose to be present, to speak, to labor. How I am complicit as a U.S. citizen whose tax dollars support Israeli military action (See this Congressional report on U.S. Aid to Israel), how I am complicit as a Jew whose history and identity have been taken up in support of Israeli occupation, how I am complicit in my right of return over Palestinian refugees under unequal Israeli law. How I am held responsible under my own understanding of Jewish ethics, through my own mourning for the elision of diverse Jewish cultures under the Israeli nationalist project. Operation Pillar of Defense is leveling Gaza as we speak–four years after Operation Cast Lead, four years after the last election of President Obama–and I remember again when I first bought this keffiyeh, what it meant then and what it means now. How a piece of clothing can “move us towards a more complex theorizing of fashion,” as Julia writes, and can further open up sites of discourse, of political and ethical action.
10 Things You Need to Know About Gaza (Huffington Post)
Israeli-Palestinian Conflict 101 (Jewish Voice for Peace)
Palestinian Queers for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions
Israel: Boycott, Divest, Sanction (Naomi Klein)