‘We are very emotional’: keffiyeh-maker’s bittersweet reaction to surge in demand

Last Updated: June 9, 2024By
Bella Hadid’s Bold Statement at Cannes

There hasn’t been much political fashion at the Cannes film festival in southern France, but Bella Hadid definitely made a statement. On Thursday, she strolled by the sea in a dress made from red and white keffiyehs.

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Earlier in the week, Cate Blanchett wore a dress that some thought was pro-Palestinian, while others thought it was just an optical illusion. But Bella’s dress, designed by Hushidar Mortezaie, was clear in its message.

Bella, whose dad is Palestinian, has received death threats because of her strong support for Palestine. The keffiyeh, a checkered scarf often seen as Palestine’s unofficial flag, has been used in pro-Palestinian protests for years.

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A Struggling Tradition

Until not too long ago, the only remaining keffiyeh factory in Palestine, Hirbawi, was barely hanging on. It was struggling against cheap Chinese imports. In 1995, it even had to close for five years due to low demand. By 2010, it only had one employee besides the three family members running it.

Things have changed now. The factory has about 20 employees, according to Nael Alqassis, a spokesperson from their export office in Portugal. The family has been using the same 15 looms since the 1950s, though they often break down and need repairs from a local blacksmith because parts are hard to get.

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Recent Spike in Demand

In the past few months, demand for keffiyehs has skyrocketed. After the Israeli offensive in Gaza started following Hamas’s attacks on October 7, Hirbawi sold 20,000 scarves in just a few weeks—normally, they would sell that many over the entire winter. Another restock of 5,000 sold out in 12 hours, and they keep selling out every two to three weeks.

“For a Chinese counterfeiter, this might seem like a joke. But for us, it’s a lot,” Alqassis said.

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Traditionally, they made keffiyehs in black and white or red and white. Now, they have about 50 different designs inspired by various places in the Palestinian territories. The Gaza keffiyeh, for example, has strong pink and red colors because “Gazans love spicy food,” Alqassis explained.

Bittersweet Success

Alqassis described their current success as bittersweet. “We are very emotional. It hurts us to feel that we are earning extra money because of the war. We are not just a business. Our aim is to preserve this national symbol.”

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Some supporters of Israel see the keffiyeh as a sign of support for Palestinian militancy. Earlier this month, the Victoria state parliament in Australia banned MPs from wearing it, calling it “political.”

Since October, Hirbawi has donated $25,000 of profit to a Palestinian-American medical group teaching Gazans to be doctors. They will also use some of the extra income to modernize the factory and increase production for the first time in 30 years.

“Seeing our keffiyehs in demonstrations worldwide gives us hope and shows we are not alone,” Alqassis said.

Deep Cultural Roots

There are many theories about the keffiyeh’s origins, but Alqassis believes it’s from the Middle East. In the 19th century, Palestinian villagers wore keffiyehs, but it wasn’t until the 20th century that they became a political symbol during the revolt against the British mandate. City Palestinians began wearing keffiyehs to avoid being identified by the colonizing army.

In the 1960s, the keffiyeh became associated with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and its leader Yasser Arafat, who was rarely seen without one. It then spread globally as a symbol in anti-colonial struggles.

“For me, the keffiyeh holds deep sentimental value,” Alqassis shared. “It reminds me of home, warmth on cold days, and my loving grandfather who gave me my first keffiyeh. It’s about heritage and family bonds.”

Fashion and Cultural Appreciation

Fashion brands often use the keffiyeh in their designs. Alqassis receives many emails from customers concerned about cultural appropriation. He clarifies, “Wearing a keffiyeh bought from us is the best form of solidarity. You are appreciating our tradition by supporting the people who created it.”

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