The keffiyeh (كوفية, , plural: كوفيات, kūfiyyāt), shmagh, shemagh or yashmag (شماغ ) (from Turkish yaşmak "tied thing"), ghutrah (غترة, ), (حطّة) or mashadah (مشدة, ) is a traditional headdress for Arab men made of a square of cloth (“scarf”), usually cotton, folded and wrapped in various styles around the head. It is commonly found in arid climate areas to provide protection from direct sun exposure, as well as for occasional use in protecting the mouth and eyes from blown dust and sand.
Local variations exist. Many Palestinian keffiyeh are a mix of cotton and wool, which lets them dry quickly and keep the wearer’s head warm. The keffiyeh is usually folded in half, into a triangle, and the fold is worn across the forehead. Often, the keffiyeh is held in place by a rope circlet, called an agal (عقال, ). Some wearers wrap the keffiyeh into a turban, while others wear it loosely draped around the back and shoulders. Sometimes a taqiyah (cap) is worn underneath the keffiyeh, and, in the past, it has also been wrapped around the rim of the fez. The keffiyeh is almost always of white cotton cloth, but many have a checkered pattern in red or black stitched into them. The plain, white keffiyeh is most popular in the Gulf states, almost excluding any other style in Kuwait and Bahrain.
The black-and-white keffiyeh is a symbol of Palestinian heritage. The red-and-white keffiyeh is worn throughout these regions as well as in Somalia, but is most strongly associated with Jordan, where it is known as shmagh mhadab. The Jordanian keffiyeh has cotton decorative strings on the sides. It is believed that the bigger these strings, the more value it has and the higher a person’s status. It has been used by Bedouins throughout the centuries and was used as a symbol of honour and tribal identification.
Keffiyeh is often spelled kaffiyah, keffiya, kaffiya, kufiya or some other variation. There is little basis for considering any one of these more correct than the others, as the varied spellings simply show different understandings of the pronunciation in Arabic, which differs from region to region, as well as different methods of transliteration from the Arabic alphabet to the Latin alphabet. The name keffiyeh is purported to come from the name of the city Kufa (الكوفة, ) or from the word for the palm of the hand (الكف, - the other meaning of the word is “napkin” (held in hands)).
The keffiyeh, especially the all-white version, can also be called a , particularly in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain (where the skullcap is confusingly called keffiyeh), but is also known in some areas as shmagh or .
Traditionally worn by Palestinian peasants, the keffiyeh became a symbol of Palestinian nationalism during the Arab Revolt of the 1930s. Its prominence increased in the 1960 with the beginning of the Palestinian resistance movement and its adoption by Arafat.
The keffiyeh would later become a trademark symbol of Yasser Arafat, who was rarely seen without his peculiarly arranged black-and-white scarf (only occasionally did he sport a military cap or, in colder climates, a Russian-style fur hat or Ushanka). Arafat would wear his keffiyeh in semi-traditional manner, around the head and wrapped by an agal, but 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 and arranging it in the rough shape of a triangle, so resembling the outlines of the territory claimed by Palestine. This manner of wearing the keffiyeh in turn 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 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. Black and white keffiyehs are associated with Fatah, while red and white keffiyehs are associated with Hamas, and were historically associated with the PFLP and other leftist groups. 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.
This symbol of Palestinian identity is now largely imported from China, in 2008 Yasser Hirbawi who for five decades had been the only Palestinian manufacturer of keffiyehs told Reuters that “Two years ago I had to close down my factory because I couldn’t compete with Chinese-made Hattas (keffiyehs) that sell for 40 percent less.”
The British Colonel T. E. Lawrence (better known as Lawrence of Arabia), probably the best-known Western wearer of the keffiyeh, wore a plain white one with 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 played by Peter O’Toole.
Possibly due to the view of Arabs as part of the allies of World War I, the 1920s “silent-film” era of American cinema saw studios take to Orientalist themes of the “exotic” Middle East, and keffiyehs became a standard part of the theatrical wardrobe. These films and their male leads (as with The Sheik and The Son of the Sheik, starring actor Rudolph Valentino) typically had Western actors in the role of an Arab, often wearing the keffiyeh with the agal.
In current times, in the music video for the Nine Inch Nails single “Survivalism”, Trent Reznor can be seen wearing a keffiyeh, though the use of the keffiyeh in the video is appropriated in part to represent the Art is Resistance movement in the band’s promotional alternate reality game for its 2007 album Year Zero.
Increased sympathy and activism by certain Westerners toward Palestinians in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict in the years of the Oslo Peace Accords and Second Intifada have led to the wearing of keffiyehs as a sign of their solidarity with Palestine and the Palestinian people. For example, the slang “keffiyeh kinderlach” refers to young left-wing Jews, particularly college students, who sport a keffiyeh around the neck as a political/fashion statement. This term may have first appeared in print in an article by Bradley Burston in which he writes of “the suburban-exile kaffiyeh kinderlach of Berkeley, more Palestinian by far than the Palestinians” in their criticism of Israel. While this political use is generally associated with the left wing, the keffiyeh has also been worn by neo-Nazis and far-right activists in Europe.
While Western protesters wear differing styles and shades of keffiyeh, the most prominent is the black-and-white keffiyeh. This is typically worn around the neck like a neckerchief, simply knotted in the front with the fabric allowed to drape over the back. Other popular styles include rectangular-shaped scarves with the basic black-and-white pattern in the body, with the ends knitted in the form of the Palestinian flag. Since the Al-Aqsa Intifada, these rectangular scarves have increasingly appeared with a combination of the Palestinian flag and Al-Aqsa Mosque printed on the ends of the fabric.
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 United States in the late 1980s, at the start of the First Intifada, when bohemian girls wore keffiyehs as scarves around their necks. In the early 2000s, keffiyehs were very popular among youths in Tokyo, who often wore them with camouflage clothing. The trend recurred in the mid-2000s in the United States, Europe, Canada and Australia, when the keffiyeh became popular as a fashion accessory, usually worn as a scarf around the neck in hipster circles. Stores such as Urban Outfitters and TopShop stocked the item. (After some controversy, however, Urban Outfitters pulled the item.) In spring 2008, keffiyehs in colours like purple and mauve were given away in issues of fashion magazines in Spain and France. After Balenciaga’s 2007 Fall/Winter collection, the scarves became a fever around the world.
In mid-2000s New York City, non-Arabs tended to wear keffiyehs in one of three ways. Pro-Palestinian activists wore them loosely draped over their shoulders. World-music aficionados wore them as regular, bunched scarves around their necks (as did girls in the 1980s). Finally, hipsters folded them in half to make a triangle, then gathered the scarf around the neck to leave one point facing down in the center of the chest. New keffiyeh designs with Israeli motifs are sold since 2007.
The keffiyeh has become a symbol of Palestinian nationalism. As a result of its symbolic meaning in this context, its display in the West has periodically been the subject of criticism. In 2007, the American clothing store chain, Urban Outfitters, stopped selling keffiyehs after “a pro-Israel activist … complained about the items” and issued a statement that “the company had not intended ‘to imply any sympathy for or support of terrorists or terrorism’ in selling the keffiyehs and was pulling them”. Rhoda Koenig, a theatre critic for the The Independent in 2006, asserted that the keffiyeh had “become a symbol of Islamic militancy”. Caroline Glick, deputy editor of the Jerusalem Post, equates the Palestinian keffiyeh with the fascist wearing of brown shirts. A spokesman for Spain’s People’s Party accused Prime Minister Zapatero of “anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism and Israelophobia”, after he “criticized Israel’s attacks on Lebanon and posed in a Palestinian-style keffiyeh scarf”.
American Arabs were angered by the controversy, calling it a campaign of prejudice. Laila Al-Qatami, Communications Director of the Arab Anti-Defamation Committee, called it "a sad commentary when an article of clothing is labeled in such negative and derogatory terms and used as a premise to vilify Arabs and Muslims. That they were incorrect in their allegations did not, as usual, deter their hate campaign against an article of clothing and more generally against Arab and Muslims and specifically against Palestinians”. Nemi Jamal, a Palestinian-American designer, said "The Palestinian people consider this their flag. It is about pride and class struggle and nothing else. To say it stands for what they've said is just a disgrace. The keffiyeh has a long history as a symbol of Palestinian nationalism, dating back to the 1936–1939 Arab revolt in Palestine. In response to the labeling of the keffiyeh as an anti-Israeli or anti-Semetic, it can be argued that Jews of Arab extraction wore the keffiyeh in the past, as demonstrated by photographic evidence from the turn of the 20th century.