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The Keffiyeh, the Shemagh, and the Ghutra

posted on: Sep 25, 2020

By: Lindsey Penn/Arab America Contributing Writer

Lately, you may have seen the keffiyeh rising in popularity. A scarf that is traditionally from the Arab world has now spread all around the world, partly due to diasporas. Throughout the Arab world, there are multiple types and styles of the keffiyeh. Each style symbolizes something (or somewhere) different, and most likely, there are multiple names for it. The three major styles of the scarf are the keffiyeh, the shemagh, and the ghutra.

The Keffiyeh

The keffiyeh is sort of an umbrella name for all of the types of scarves. Made of cotton, the scarves are 3.3 feet (or one meter) squares originally worn by men, but now men and women wear it. There are factories that make it with polyester and cotton. However, the most authentic are ones that come from a factory in the Arab world that uses cotton only, like the Hirbawi factory in Hebron. Traditionally, it is folded into a triangle and worn on the head and secured with a thick cord that almost looks like a rope. Some people also wear it more as a scarf and tie it around the neck, although it is not the traditional way to wear it.

The keffiyeh goes back to Mesopotamia thousands of years ago. People believe that the Sumerian and Babylonian priests wore it as a symbol of status. As time went on, though, the use of the keffiyeh changed to one of the practicality working class began to wear it in the lands as protection from the hot sun and the blowing sand.

Eventually, the keffiyeh became the symbol for Palestine and resistance. It is the white-and-black checkered scarf. In the 1936 Arab Revolt during the British Mandate of Palestine, the protesters wore the keffiyeh in order to protect their identities from the British. Once the British banned the keffiyeh, everyone started wearing it so that everyone’s identity was concealed. Since then, it has become the symbol of resistance for Palestinians.

The keffiyeh is the most well-known (and most worn) scarf today. Many non-Arabs wear it as a political statement or to show their support, gaining mixed reactions from Palestinians and Arabs.

The Shemagh

A second type of the keffiyeh is the shemagh, a red-and-white checkered scarf with tassels. The size of the tassels indicate how important the person is. It is typically associated with Jordan and it is not quite as politicized as the keffiyeh. However, it is still a national symbol of Jordan.

The Ghutra

The next most common type is the ghutra. A ghutra differs from the keffiyeh and the shemagh in its pattern and cloth-it is completely white, and a slightly thinner cloth than the others. It is most common in the Gulf, but especially in Saudi Arabia. The ghutra is folded into a triangle worn on the head and secured with a thick black cord called the igal.

The Debate

More recently, the keffiyeh has been at the center of a global debate. People who are not Arabs have begun wearing it as a political or fashion statement, angering many Palestinians. The keffiyeh has significant symbolism (and that’s putting it lightly). For people to wear it without at the very least knowing its importance, is insulting because it has become synonymous in many ways with the Palestinian identity and other Arab identities.

On top of that, because the keffiyeh has become so popular, many other stores and factories have begun making them in order to make a profit. These keffiyehs do not have a “Made in Palestine” label and are usually not authentic. Over the years, many clothing brands have taken the checkered design on the keffiyeh to put it on other clothing, sparking controversy. Many factories outside of the Arab world have taken up manufacturing the keffiyeh, also creating a debate.

An authentic keffiyeh can be bought from companies based in the Middle East (usually in the Levant). The Hirbawi factory is one of a few factories that will make the keffiyeh. This particular factory is special, though. It is the last family-owned factory based in Hebron and is the last truly legitimate keffiyeh factory. You can find their website here.

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