In the Blog

political tragedy is the new black

January 11th, 2007     by Thea Lim     Comments

If you live in Montreal, Toronto, or any other fashionable city in the Western world, chances are you’ve seen young, terminally hip, and non-Arab people slouching around wearing these:

hipster kaffieyh (thanks to The Village Voice for the picture)

Apparently this is a trend that has been raging in European cities for so long that it’s now passe, but it seems to have only caught on in Toronto over the past few months.

These elusive scarves are not, unfortunately, just a whacky new invention, like jeans that are so tight they burst your appendix. They’re called keffiyehs, or shemagh scarves, and while they originate in the Arab world, in recent years they have come to represent identification with the Palestinian side of the long and bloody conflict between Palestine and Israel over territory. The different colours (i.e. red, black) show affiliation with different political parties (i.e. Fatah, the PLO). For example, here is Yasser Arafat of the PLO wearing one:


Well, that’s all well and good, but how did keffiyehs go from meaning “Intifada!” (i.e. “I’m for Palestine!”) to “I’m extremely fashionable and I’m probably going to a really cool party on Saturday night?”

I can’t tell you that. Even I, with all my knowledge into the dark world of pop culture, have no idea how the keffiyeh became, ahem, to put it in hipster terms, “the sickest s*** ever.” Whatever the case, hipsters aren’t wearing the scarf because they’re really into Palestine. Vice Magazine suggests keffiyehs are hip because they’re the ultimate in anti-establishment irony (I’m paraphrasing), but I disagree.

Not only are keffiyeh-wearing hipsters not pro-Palestine, it seems to me that many scarf wearers don’t know what the keffiyeh means, which is maybe the most disturbing thing about their sudden popularity. There’s a total lack of awareness that, when a person treats the keffiyeh solely as a great accessory, not only is it demeaning and disrespectful to decades of extremely painful history for the Palestinians, it’s also very upsetting for a lot of pro-Israel Jews, who view the scarves as anti-Semitic. Just like bindis, dreads, and geisha Halloween costumes, the keffiyeh is a particularly gruesome form of cultural appropriation.

I guess the commodification of profound political symbols has been trendy for a while now. Who here hasn’t owned a Che Guevara t-shirt before they had any idea who Che was, or hasn’t at some point or other had a hammer and sickle pin somewhere on them?

But maybe the reason why the keffiyeh as high fashion is so jolting is because, unlike Che and the USSR, the conflict in Israel-Palestine is very much current, and also very poorly understood, especially in North America. To wear a symbol that is so central to the conflict and have no idea of its extremely heavy meaning seems really unfashionable - well, to me at least.

P.S. If you’d like to know more about the conflict, Joe Sacco’s Palestine is an amazing account of the Palestinian side (and also happens to be a graphic novel, whodathunk?). I don’t know of any good books that talk about the Israeli side - can anyone suggest?

Tags: body politics, in my opinion..., race and racism

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