Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Editorial from Middle East Report on Gaza

The current scene of bombed-out neighborhoods in the Gaza Strip resembles the destruction Israel wrought in Lebanon during the summer of 2006. (Hatem Omar/MaanImages)

Just published online, this commentary from the editors of Middle East Report (of which I am one) will appear in the next issue (#250).

Here's an excerpt:

Another path is possible, of course. Obama could quietly drop US rejection of the 2006 Palestinian election results, and work to help the Palestinians form a national unity government. As the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation is advocating, he could call the siege of Gaza by its rightful name -- collective punishment -- and demand that it cease. He could throw the weight of Washington behind Security Council action toward that end, and toward a genuine halt to settlement and separation wall construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. He could enforce the Arms Export Control Act of 1976, and terminate US supply to Israel of F-16s and Apache helicopters, paid for with US military aid dollars, because they have been used to harm civilians in the attack on Gaza. The measure of Barack Obama will be how far, if at all, he travels toward such a dramatic transformation of US policy on the question of Palestine.

Is it true that “change is coming” when Obama enters the White House? We hope so. Yet the conventional pro-Israel tilt of his campaign indicates otherwise, as does the composition of his foreign policy crew. Obama appears poised to content himself with more energetic US engagement in the sort of flawed negotiations of the Clinton years, the sort that put ending the occupation last, as if the developments of the Bush years had not rendered that approach utterly untenable.

Please, Mr. President-elect, surprise us.

Read the entire commentary here.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Rachel Maddow: A Big Fat Idiot on Gaza

I used to be a big fan of Rachel Maddow. Until this broadcast from last night. As my comrade Laurie King noted, Rachel has "drunk the kool aid on Gaza." I guess I should have known earlier, I've been told that Rachel has expressed support for the Israeli position on Gaza previously.

I wish I had more time to analyze and critique this entire segment. It is so wrong, so insidious, on so many fronts. At the same time it is entirely conventional US pro-Israel propaganda. Just look at the image in the embedded file, which conveys very graphically the fact that Hamas/Palestinians are terrorists, scary, the equivalent of those who cut off innocent Jewish and American heads with swords.

Maddow's expose starts with a map of Israel, surrounded by a sea of hostile Arabs, who have always threatened it, from without, and more recently from within. No mention of the fact that the "within" was the West Bank and Gaza, occupied in 1967. No mention at all, throughout the entire segment, that Palestinians lived under military occupation. No mention of the suffering Gazans have endured under the embargo Israel (with US and EU support) put in place after Hamas won the Palestinian parliamentary elections in January 2006.

And she repeats that tired but ubiquitous formula, the "cycle" of violence. It's not a "cycle" when one side is pummeling the other with its warships, with F-16s and Apache helicopters and the latest in "smart bombs," is getting set to send in tanks, and the other has at the most some rockets that inflict a lot of fear and terror but are not major killers. (Mind you, I am totally opposed to the stupid Palestinian deployment of rockets as a strategy. Or is it tactic?)

Maddow's guest, NBC Middle East "expert" Richard Engel, can't even explain the basic facts about the elections, that the Palestinian Prime Minister was Hamas member Ismail Haniyeh and the Parliamentary was held by Hamas and that the Palestinian Authority essentially was Hamas until President Abbas (illegally) ousted them in June 2007.

Engel does say a couple things that are right. Egypt and Saudi Arabia gave Israel the green light for the assault on Gaza. And he says that if Israel eliminates all of Hamas' rockets, that's good for "moderate" (i.e. slavishly pro-US) Arab states--IF there isn't a massacre of Palestinians. Thus showing more sympathy for Palestinians than cute Rachel. (Although isn't the massacre going on right now, whether through outright killing and more "subtle" means like starvation.)

I hope someone will give this execrable piece of phony news the full treatment it deserves. I consider it more dangerous than Limbaugh and O'Reilly and the rest of the right-wing commentators, because Rachel is such a hero for the liberal left. And deservedly so. But she needs to have her feet put to the fire on this issue.

Glenn Greenwald on the current concensus

"One can travel from the farthest right fringe of the GOP to the heart of the Democratic Party leadership and hear exactly the same thing: Israel is always right. Israel must not be criticized. Israel never bears any blame. Any action taken by Israel is justified. No matter the situation, that just gets repeated over and over like some hypnotic bipartisan mantra. Meanwhile, American citizens overwhelmingly -- 71% -- want their Government to be "even-handed" in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Yet that view is simply ignored, disregarded, not even viable for any American mainstream political leader to express."

It's a "concensus" of the elite and the chattering classes. But if the 71% don't express any public desire for even-handedness, there is no hope for Palestinians. Or US relations with the Middle East.

Read the entire article, which exposes Marty Peretz as a psychopath, and whose views are essentially supported by the US political establishment, here.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Kufiyaspotting #44: AnnaLynne McCord

Thanks to Rochelle, who alerted me to this. AnnaLynne McCord is on the cast of the The CW's new 90210 spinoff. She also appeared in the fifth season of Nip/Tuck.

Rochelle found this on the very snarky Go Fug Yourself blog. Here's what it has to say about McCord's fashion sense:

Those tights + those boots + that scarf = accessories overload, dude. Pick one and stick with it. Not that I would be able to advise you which to choose, as each of your accessories is problematic for me:

1) The scarf: haven't you seen that scarf on nearly every person in town under 35 at some point in the last three years? Including Lauren Conrad. Just take ten minutes to think about that. But, of course, it's just a scarf. A scarf alone can not entirely constitute a fashion crime. Unless, I guess, that IS all you're wearing.

(Points 2 & 3 critique the tights and boots.)

Go Fug Yourself is full of evidence that McCord's fashion sense is not, er, exemplary. And what do you make of this outfit? It's a bit bellydance, no? (Apparently she is trying to look pirate-ish, which is not really that farfetched. Think Barbary Pirates.)

(I've not yet spotted Lauren Conrad, of the MTV show The Hills, in kufiya. But I'll keep looking.)

Where kufiyas really mean something: demonstrating in solidarity with Gaza in Dubai

I'm sure it's the same at all the demonstrations in solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza. I found this article courtesy of Angry Arab. Kufiyas were ubiquitous at the protest held yesterday at the Palestinian Embassy in Dubai. Of course, the police would not let demonstrators take their protest into the street.

I couldn't grab any of the photos, so go to the original, and check out the photos. Notice that they are all wearing black-and-white kufiyas which symbolize Palestinian nationalism. Note that just a few days ago, Hamas in Gaza was trying to stomp out signs of support for Fateh, which include black-and-white kufiyas! Hamas supporters wear red-and-white ones.

“They wouldn’t let us go onto the street and forced us to leave and to stop,” Mrs al Masri said, wearing a niqab with a kaffiyeh draped around her shoulders, shortly after confronting the police. “They said it’s not allowed and I asked them why. They said they would arrest us.”...

“Allah-uh-akbar” the crowd shouted, as a young girl with a kaffiyeh around her shoulders held up a sign pleading for an end to Israel’s “war crimes”. Other placards held by the crowd read “Stop the Massacre” and “We are all Gaza”....

Dressed in a dishdash, with a kaffiyeh around his shoulders, Hani al Saadi, from Yemen, came to express solidarity with his “brothers”.

"Arab Money." Where does it go? It buys jewels for Condi

I plan to put up a long over-due post on Busta Rhymes' song "Arab Money," but here's an initial foray. Here is where the Arab money goes--not to help impoverished Gazans but to pay for extravagant gifts to lavish on the imperial masters and overlords. Apparently they pay Condi to keep her eyes off Gaza. Last night she attended Legally Blonde the Musical. It's not that there is any crisis in the Middle East to attend to, right? (Read the entire article here.)

Arabs lavish jewels on Secretary of State Rice

By MATTHEW LEE, Associated Press Writer
Monday, December 22, 2008

President George W. Bush's foreign policies may be unpopular in the Middle East, but Arab leaders showered his top diplomat with jewelry worth far more than a quarter of a million dollars last year. While Bush himself didn't fare nearly as well, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice raked in at least $316,000 in gem-encrusted baubles from the kings of Jordan and Saudi Arabia alone, making her one of top recipients among U.S. officials of gifts from foreign heads of state and government and their aides in 2007.

Condi and lapdog Abdallah II

In January, Jordan's King Abdullah II gave Rice an emerald and diamond necklace, ring, bracelet and earrings estimated to be worth $147,000, according to the State Department's annual inventory of such items released Monday just in time for Christmas.

The king and his wife, Queen Rania, also gave Rice a less expensive necklace and earrings along with a jewelry box valued at $4,630, the document shows.

Not to be outdone, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia presented Rice with a ruby and diamond necklace with matching earrings, bracelet and ring worth $165,000 in July. The inventory also includes a $170,000 flower petal motif necklace the Saudi monarch gave to Rice in 2005, which the department says was not previously disclosed.

From the same Arab leaders, Bush received just over $100,000 in gifts in 2007, the list shows.

Other gifts include an $85,000 sapphire and diamond jewelry set and $10,000 piece of artwork depicting a desert scene of bedouins, camels and a tent made of gold given to first lady Laura Bush by Saudi King Abdullah.

Unfortunately for the Bushes, Rice and other recipients, they won't be able to enjoy the gifts as they have been turned over to the General Services Administration and government archives in accordance with federal law, which bars officials from accepting personal presents in almost all circumstances.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Kufiyaspotting miscellaneous #4689

Although I've been completely obsessed today by what is going on in Gaza, the kufiyaspotting must go on. Three random items:

1. Even though Urban Outfitters discontinued its Early Spring '07 kufiya line, marketed as "antiwar woven scarves," it has continued to sell kufiyas, just under other names. Today you can buy a pretty authentic-looking (but probably made in China) black-and-white kufiya from Urban Outfitters online, marketed as a "houndstooth scarf," and found under male accessories. $20. Good for wearing at demos to protest Israel's onslaught on Gaza.

Note that the model is wearing a Sitting Bull t-shirt, also available from Urban Outfitters.

Does the Sitting Bull t-shirt make the houndstooth scarf more "edgy"? Or does it remind us that Palestinians too are living in conditions not unlike Indian reservations?

2. I found this photo at a post on Daily Style Guide, entitled "Controversial Fashion: The Shemagh Scarf."

It's Taylor Momsen, who plays Jenny Humphrey on The CW television series, Gossip Girl. It's the one about teen socialites of the Upper East Side, New York City, full of jealousy, drugs and sex.

3. From a recent report (December 12) by the very well-informed reporter Amira Hass in Ha'aretz, on Hamas' treatment of the Fateh opposition in the Gaza Strip. (One can only hope that things might change a bit after today.) Please read the entire article here. (Thanks, Theresa!)

Are there really no rivals (Fatah, in other words), or have they been silenced? Around November 11, the anniversary of Yasser Arafat's death, the Palestinian police in the Gaza Strip worked to conceal any symbols related to the date, the man and the movement - in addition to prohibiting the staging of any memorials.

It wasn't the Fatah movement that called for rallies, but a committee composed of PLO organizations. It didn't even attempt to hold rallies in an open area (such as a soccer field or city plaza) - as Hamas does every few days (with its green flags). When yellow Fatah flags were hung up, police were called to the location and removed them; high school students who went around wearing checkered kaffiyeh-like scarves - or any other symbol that alluded to Arafat and Fatah - were asked to remove them and also summoned for a brief police interrogation. Even candles that were set out in windows in Abu Amar's (Arafat's) memory were confiscated. So Fatah supporters reported, at least. The removal of these symbols wasn't only an expression of the government's self-confidence, but of intimidation and coercion as well.

I think that the kufiyas in question are the black-and-white ones, favored by Arafat and by Fateh supporters. Red ones, favored by Hamas supporters, are okay.


Such an atrocity today. I shudder to think what tomorrow will bring, as Israel continues its offensive.

The US media accounts are absurdly pro-Israel, as one would expect. Fortunately there are reliable alternatives.

Consult first this article by Sara Roy, who is really the Western expert on Gaza, from the London Review of Books. Penned before today's assault, it provides excellent background. Here's one nugget:

According to the World Health Organisation, the political divisions between Gaza and the West Bank are also having a serious impact on drug stocks in Gaza. The West Bank Ministry of Health (MOH) is responsible for procuring and delivering most of the pharmaceuticals and medical disposables used in Gaza. But stocks are at dangerously low levels. Throughout November the MOH West Bank was turning shipments away because it had no warehouse space, yet it wasn’t sending supplies on to Gaza in adequate quantities. During the week of 30 November, one truck carrying drugs and medical supplies from the MOH in Ramallah entered Gaza, the first delivery since early September.

Makes you wonder how Gaza's hospitals can cope at all with all the wounded.

Helena Cobban (Just World News) has a fine commentary that, among other things, demolishes one typical trope used by the US media, the cycle of violence. It's no "cycle" but a vastly uneven contest, as the rightwing British paper, the Daily Telegraph, tells us in a report today from Tim Butcher:

Nine Israeli civilians have been killed by rockets fired from Gaza since it withdrew all settlers and soldiers from the territory in September 2005.

Over the same period, at least 1,400 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli security forces in Gaza, according to figures compiled by B'Tselem, an Israeli human rights group.

Israel's decision to act came after a six-month truce with Hamas, which ran out on Dec 19.

Ali Abunimeh of Electronic Intifada penned a response almost immediately. Here's an excerpt:

What the media never question is Israel's idea of a truce. It is very simple. Under an Israeli-style truce, Palestinians have the right to remain silent while Israel starves them, kills them and continues to violently colonize their land. Israel has not only banned food and medicine to sustain Palestinian bodies in Gaza but it is also intent on starving minds: due to the blockade, there is not even ink, paper and glue to print textbooks for schoolchildren.

As John Ging, the head of operations of the United Nations agency for Palestine refugees (UNRWA), told The Electronic Intifada in November: "there was five months of a ceasefire in the last couple of months, where the people of Gaza did not benefit; they did not have any restoration of a dignified existence. We in fact at the UN, our supplies were also restricted during the period of the ceasefire, to the point where we were left in a very vulnerable and precarious position and with a few days of closure we ran out of food."

Electronic Intifada continues to post invaluable first-hand accounts of what is going on in Gaza by people who are actually on the ground. Western media accounts meanwhile will mostly repeat what Israeli government officials tell them. Here's an excerpt from an account by Safa Joudeh, who is getting an MA in Public Policy from SUNY Stony Brook, and is currently living in Gaza and working as a freelance journalist.

Outside my home which is close to the two largest universities in Gaza, a missile fell on a large group of young men, university students. They'd been warned not to stand in groups as it makes them an easy target, but they were waiting for buses to take them home. Seven were killed, four students and three of our neighbors' kids, young men who were from the Rayes family and were best friends. As I'm writing this I can hear a funeral procession go by outside; I looked out the window a moment ago and it was the three Rayes boys. They spent all their time together when they were alive, they died together and now they are sharing the same funeral together. Nothing could stop my 14-year-old brother from rushing out to see the bodies of his friends laying in the street after they were killed. He hasn't spoken a word since.

The AFSC blog, End the Siege on Gaza, is another very good source for regular updates.

Another source is the Free Gaza Movement, which to date has organized four boat convoys into Gaza, breaking the international blockade. (Kufiya wearer Aki Nawaz of Fun-Da-Mental was on the first mission.)

The US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation has initiated an emergency alert--urging letters to the White House, State Department, Congress and the media, and the organizing of demos and rallies.

Here's a cultural angle. I only discovered this song today--"Hamas Rule," a dubstep track that is somewhat in the Muslimgauze vein, by Shackleton from the Skull Disco release Soundboy Punishments. I recommend it highly. Listen to a segment here. Available to purchase from emusic or itunes. And there is also the great Muslimgauze track, "Curfew, Gaza" from the album Zul'm. Listen here. You can buy a download from emusic or itunes.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Rock musicians will lobby Obama to stop the use of music as a technology of torture

And this too, courtesy of Wired:

"Reprieve, a British human rights law group that represents over 30 Guantanamo Bay detainees, is planning to work with musicians to lobby President-elect Barack Obama to end the practice of sonic torture by military interrogators."

Read the rest of the article here.

Among musicians who have protested are Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, who is considering taking legal action to stop the practice. (Don't forget, Trent Reznor has been kufiyaspotted.)

One of the earliest, and best, accounts of the practice is by my Middle East Report comrade Moustafa Bayoumi, published in The Nation. Read it here.

"Locked and Loaded" from the US Air Force band Max Impact

Listen here.

Notice that at the beginning you hear both the sounds of a helicopter and an Oriental sounding flute. Just so you know that the lyrics are about...Afghanistan? Iraq? Pakistan?

Here are a few lines, courtesy Wired:

Walk in the shade of the clouds at night
Crawling in the dirt, calling an A-10 strike
Dancing in the shadows, lives are on the line
Bombs are gonna fall, just in time.

Wired is wrong, however, about Max Impact being a "Nu Metal" band, although "Locked and Loaded" is a Nu Metal song. As their website notes, Max Impact "fuses the elements of contemporary music from today's hip-hop, pop and urban sounds-and everything in between. Max Impact brings together the musical styles of today's top artists like Destiny's Child, Maroon 5 and Christina Aguilera." Quite a "musical arsenal," as they call it.

Pop Culture Heroes: Eartha Kitt

But she took the steeliness with her, in a willful, outspoken manner that mostly served her career, except once. In 1968 she was invited to a White House luncheon and was asked by Lady Bird Johnson about the Vietnam War. She replied: “You send the best of this country off to be shot and maimed. No wonder the kids rebel and take pot.” The remark reportedly caused Mrs. Johnson to burst into tears and led to a derailment in Ms. Kitt’s career. (New York Times, Dec. 25.)

Which contemporary pop culture icon will have the guts to bring such a message to Mrs. Obama, regarding Afghanistan?

Incidentally, Eartha had a minor hit in 1953 with the song "Uska Dara (A Turkish Tale)," sung in part in Turkish, and based on a Turkish folksong. (Download here.) It must be the only US hit sung in Turkish?

UPDATE, Jan. 9: I just found this excerpt from an interview with Eartha Kitt, published in Re/Search 14, Incredibly Strange Music Vol. I, which elaborates on the Lady Bird incident:

RE/Search: When you were invited to a White House luncheon, didn't you cause a scandal?

EARTHA KITT: In 1968, during the Vietnam War, I was invited by Lady Bird Johnson to give my opinion about the problems in the United States, specifically, "Why is there so much juvenile delinquency in the streets of America?" The First Lady seemed to be more interested in decorating the windows of the ghettos with flowerboxes. I mean—it's fine to put flowers in the ghettos, but let's take care of the necessities first: give people jobs, and find a way to get us out of poverty.

When it came my turn to speak, I said to the president's wife, "Vietnam is the main reason we are having trouble with the youth of America. It is a war without explanation or reason." I said that the young ghetto boys thought it better to have a legal stigma against them—then they would be considered "undesirable" and would not be sent to the war. In their opinion, in this society the good guys lost and the bad guys won.

I didn't say this ranting and raving, but we were in a large room, we didn't have microphones, and we had to speak loudly enough to be heard. That incident, reported in such a way as to deface me in the eyes of the American people, obviously had to have been given by someone from the White House—probably the press secretary: "Earth Kitt makes the First Lady cry..." There were no reporters present! So this was a manufactured furor.

R/S: Didn't you suffer because of this?

EK: Of course—within two hours I was out of work in America.


Thursday, December 25, 2008

Peace Be With You: Bethlehem

Peace Be With You
Originally uploaded by tsweden
Media accounts today claim things are much better today, Christmas '08, in Bethlehem. More tourists, more visitors. But Palestinians who live in Bethlehem and work in Jerusalem still have to pass through this monstrosity every day, this apartheid wall.

Things will not be 'better' in the Holy Land until these structures are all blown up.

Merry Christmas.

P.S. Check out Juan Cole's much more extensive account of how awful things really are in Bethlehem.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Kufiya controversy in Beirut: AFP

Several people forwarded me this article from AFP (thanks, all!). It details how trendy young Lebanese are donning multi-colored kufiyas, and how older Palestinians, especially in the camp, regarding the scarf's faddishness as detracting from its Palestinian national meanings. Note that the kufiya patterns in the photos (the one on the left, and go to the original here) from Beirut are not the original Palestinian Arab kufiya patterns, but more like what you'd find in Pakistan. I have no idea why.

Iconic Palestinian headdress brings colourful clash to Beirut

By Rima Abushakra
Published De. 8

BEIRUT (AFP) — The iconic black and white keffiyeh, or Arab headdress, famously donned by late Palestinian president Yasser Arafat has hit the streets of Beirut in a rainbow of colours -- much to the chagrin of older Palestinians.

Stylish youngsters, both men and women, can be seen in the city's chic cafes and restaurants sporting red, blue, pink, brown and purple versions of the keffiyeh.

Western and Arab tourists are also snapping up the hip item.

The trend, however, is seen by many here as an insult to a symbol traditionally linked to the Palestinian cause.

"These colours aren't for us... it's nonsense, it's a fashion show," said Salim Ali Kayd, 74, who has been a Palestinian refugee in Lebanon since 1948, when Israel was created.

"The keffiyeh stands for a person's honour and manhood. It was a rite of passage to wear one upon reaching the age of 18," he added explaining the customs of his generation.

Others like him living in the narrow alleyways of the Shatila refugee camp on the outskirts of Beirut are also upset that their national symbol has become a fad.

"Yasser Arafat used to wear it for a reason. It means something," said Kalthoum Ghandour, a 45-year-old Palestinian doctor living in Lebanon.

"It was what the revolutionaries wore to conceal their identity," she added. "This is our revolution, our symbol.

"This trend distorts our heritage."

Shops in Beirut's diverse Christian and Muslim neighbourhoods are selling the bright-coloured items imported from Syria, Thailand and China.

A backlash against the trend has spread to college campuses in Lebanon, where Facebook groups have sprung up called "Palestinian scarf: Understand it or don't bother wearing it!" and "I refuse to let the keffiyeh become a high fashion statement".

This is not the first time the keffiyeh has been co-opted by others. The garment has come in and out of fashion, with youths in the 1960s and 1970s wearing it as a sign of revolt or sympathy with the Palestinian cause. The scarf has also become a signature item for anti-war activists.

While the latest trend may be more accessory and less ideology -- the keffiyeh's powerful symbolism continues to resonate, and not only among Palestinians.

The issue grabbed headlines in recent months when the Dunkin' Donuts chain came under fire for an online ad that featured an American celebrity chef wearing a paisley patterned scarf that some mistook for a keffiyeh

The ad was pulled after a conservative US commentator complained that it promoted jihad.

The US clothing store Urban Outfitters this year also stopped selling coloured versions of the keffiyeh because of controversy.

"They used to wear it around their necks and now they are wearing it around their waists. What's next?," said Haitham, 28, a Palestinian refugee who did not reveal his last name.

>Dana, 25, said she recently purchased a blue version of the keffiyeh and maintains that the garment carries no political symbolism.

"I used to wear the white one when I would go to protests in college," she said. "These ones are a pure fashion statement.

"I got the blue colour because my eyes are blue," added Dana, who did not want her last named used. "Nonetheless people who hate Palestinians shouldn't wear them."

Some young Palestinians, however, are proud to see the craze gather steam.

"I have about 10 of them... The keffiyeh belongs to us no matter its colour. I am happy they have become popular," said Ahmed el-Hassan, 22.

Keffiyehs are hard to come by in Lebanon's 12 Palestinian refugee camps that house an estimated 400,000 refugees. They cost on average five dollars but some high-end designers in Lebanon are selling them for over 100 dollars.

"The original one was white and black," el-Hassan said. "These might be copies but they're still called keffiyeh which represents Palestine's heritage."

Saturday, December 06, 2008

New kufiyaspotting: rappers in Iran

Here's yet another kufiya manifestation, this time in Iran, from Monday's Guardian (thanks, Laleh!). The nub of the report--that Iranian rappers are wearing kufiya (for some reason, spelled here "chafiyeh") and, apparently in imitation, by yound men and women. This is ironic because rap has been condemned in official circles and the kufiya is associated with the Iranian revolution, worn routinely by Ayatollah Khamenei and by the Basij. (The article is reproduced in full below.)

While Tait's report on Iranian rappers taking up the kufiya is interesting, I think he gets the history of the kufiya's use in Iran all wrong. I have posted about this previously, and I quote once again from Roxanne Varzi's ethnography, Warring Souls: Youth, Media, and Martyrdom in Post-Revolutionary Iran:

The qafiyeh [why this spelling, I don't know] was first donned by Islamic revolutionaries to show support for Palestine and resistance to Westernization. Later, it became a symbol of the volunteer soldiers fighting for Islam in the Iran-Iraq war.

Tait, then, leaves out the fact that the kufiya was originally worn as a sign of solidarity with Palestine, and then took on additional meanings, associated with Iranian nationalism and the Islamic republic.

A report by Mohammed Memarian for Mideast Youth comments on Iranian President Ahmedinejad's use of the kufiya (again, spelled chafiyeh here):

In the visits he [Ahmedinejad] paid to different provinces before elections, he used to meet war casualties [some of them with severe condition, for example those who were affected by chemical weapons, still live in special wards] as well as graves of the martyrs of Iran-Iraq war. Wearing Chafiyeh [i.e. an originally Arabian cloth, similar to a scarf, which people use to cover head and neck in summer in southern provinces of Iran; for the same reason, Iranian soldiers extensively used it during war. After 8 years of Iran-Iraq war, Chefyeh turned into an important symbol of those who had sympathy with the values of war, especially martyrdom] was a straightforward message to all. Whatever the rationale of his election, Ahmadinejad marked a significant breakthrough for fanatic supporters of (original values of) revolution.

As I also note in another kufiya post, the Iranian government has cracked down on those who wear red kufiyas as an insignia of Arab identity in Khuzestan (Arabistan), Iran's southern, Arab-majority province.

Why are Iranian rappers putting on kufiya? Not, I think, out of solidarity with Arab ethnic minority struggles in southern Iran. Could it be the fact that it's so hip in the West, including among US rappers, like Lupe Fiasco, Chamillionaire, The Cool Kids, Kanye West and Jay-Z? Are they trying to shift the meanings of the kufiya away from an association with the Iranian revolution and toward Palestine? (I'm pretty sure Iranian rappers are hip to the Palestine struggle.)

I with Tait's article named names, so I could find videos and photos of the Iranian rappers in question. I'm not terribly conversant with Iranian hip-hop, but I really like Hich Kas, who I've posted about previously. For more general info, music and vids, check out the website Pars Hip Hop. And a decent article.

Iran's underground rap artists take to wearing symbol of Islamic revolution

* Robert Tait in Istanbul
* The Guardian, Monday December 1 2008

For nearly 30 years its distinctive chequered pattern has been a sacrosanct symbol of Iran's Islamic revolution and an essential garment for its most committed adherents.

But now the chafiyeh, the black-and-white scarf proudly worn by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his loyal followers, has become an unlikely fashion item for young Iranians drawn to the same western pop culture that country's leaders disdain.

The scarf has become a craze among Iran's emerging crop of underground rap artists, who have taken to wearing it in concerts and video clips, according to Jahan News, a website considered close to Iran's intelligence ministry.

It has also become a trend among young men, who wear it along with T-shirts incongruously bearing the names of famous western bands. Young women have also been seen with the scarf, Jahan News reported.

Its new-found acceptability was demonstrated in a recent edition of a popular cinema magazine, which carried an advert placed by an Iranian leatherwear company showing a model wearing a bomber jacket with a chafiyeh tucked underneath.

The scarf's popularity with rappers is particularly ironic. Last year, Iran's culture and Islamic guidance ministry announced a campaign against rap music, which it deemed vulgar and obscene. Rap has become increasingly popular with young Iranians, who have been inspired by the work of artists among the large Iranian exile community in Los Angeles. The genre has been used to express concerns about drugs, street gangs and even western pressure on Iran over its nuclear programme.

The links with rap are far removed from the chafiyeh's origins. After being worn by many Iranian soldiers in the 1980-88 war with Iraq, it was adopted as the symbol of "the sacred defence", as the war effort is officially called. Volunteers used the garments as prayer mats and to protect their faces from chemical attacks. They were also deployed as burial shrouds and sometimes to tie the hands of captured enemy soldiers.

Nowadays, Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, wears it in all his public appearances. It is also worn by members of the hardline Basij militia.

Visiting foreign dignitaries, including the Venezuelan president, Hugo Chávez, have also donned the scarf. Last year, Nicaragua's president, Daniel Ortega, was greeted with shouts of "Allahu Akbar" when he put on a chafiyeh during a ceremony at Tehran University.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Odetta Footnote: "Oh Freedom," Beirut

Ever since Odetta's passing on December 2 I've been reading a lot about her, and listening to her music a lot--I purchased several of her best songs from emusic. Many I wasn't familiar with. I did not know that the song, "Oh Freedom," was associated so closely with Odetta (she performed it at the 1963 March on Washington.)

Here's the footnote: I was a student at the American University of Beirut (1969-1973) at a time of intense political activism--lots of demonstrations, lots of student strikes. The song that student activists typically sang in those days, particularly in the 72-73 period, was "Oh Freedom." I don't know how many times I heard, and sang, the refrain "And before I'll be a slave I'll be buried in my grave/And go home to my lord and be free," in a demonstration, when a building was occupied, etc.

I saw Odetta perform once, at the Cambridge Folk Festival, in 1968. Although she was a giant in the folk music movement, my impression is that she has not really received the credit she deserves, as an absolutely critical influence on the generation of folk singers that were involved in the folk music movement of the 50s and 60s.

(Incidentally, she died on the same day as Elizabeth Fernea, who was the wife of my dissertation advisor, Bob Fernea, and who I loved dearly and admired greatly.)

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Report on the Andalucias Atlanticas festival in Essaouira

I went last year but couldn't make it this year. A friend who was lucky enough to go sent me this report, with accompanying photos:

"The last days of October and early November saw terrible weather Morocco, with various parts of the kingdom seeing heavy rains, flashfloods and mudslides. The normally windy city of Essaouira was no exception, but as the winds howled and rains poured, several hundred spectators sitting inside the massive tent set up for the Andalucias Atlanticas festival, were enraptured by some of the greatest voices in Andalusian music in Spain and the Maghreb. This year's festival payed homage to Samy El Maghribi, a pioneering figure in Moroccan music, who passed away earlier this year. The first evening of the festival (October 30) saw Abdelkarim L'Amarti, whose orchestra plays gharnati and hawzi, joined by Yolande Amzalag, the daughter of the late El Maghribi, who sang some of her father's earliest classics.

Yolande Amzalag

Samy El Maghribi's repertoire was vast, ranging from chaabi to melhoun and including one of Morocco's most memorable songs of independence ("Alf Hnia wa Hnia" which El Maghribi wrote in 1955 in celebration of King Mohammed V's return home after French-imposed exile.) A special tribute to El-Maghribi was also paid by Maxime Karoutchi, a rising star of the Judeo-Andalusian repertoire (see links below).

Marina Heredia

The audience was also regaled by the fiery vocals and dancing of Marina Heredia and Pasion Vega, two leading flamenco performers.

El Gusto Orchestra of Algiers

But the highlight of this festival was undoubtedly the performance by El Gusto, an ensemble of 40 musicians of Jewish and Muslim background, who sang together in the kasbah of Algiers in the 1950s and have recently been reunited by Safinez Bousbia, a young Algerian filmmaker. El Gusto - often described as the North African "Bueno Vista" - includes prominent figures of Algerian chaabi and hawzi music including oud virtuouso Rachid Berkani who performed with Farid al Atrache; mandole-player Abdelkader Chercham, who teaches chaabi repertoire at the Algiers' conservatory of music; pianist El Hadi Halo, who also happens to be the son of Mohammed Al Anka, a legend of Algerian chaabi- and three living legends of Judeo-Andalusian music: guitarist and vocalist René Perez, guitarist and vocalist Luc Cherki, and pianist Maurice Medioni [who could not make it to the festival]. In keeping with El Gusto's - and the festival's spirit of convivencia - the performance began with a blessing sung jointly by an imam and a rabbi, and then, with rain lashing outside, El Gusto played classics by North African legends like Mohammed El Anka, Dahmane El Harrach and Salim Halali. The lead vocalist Abdel Madjid Meskoud drew warm applause with his moving rendition of the late Kamel Messaoudi's classic "Noujoum el Lil."

René Perez

René Perez and Luc Cherki had people on their feet when they played their signature numbers "Elle Est Parti (Mchat Aliya)" and "L'Oriental."

Luc Cherki

Luc Cherki sang a new song ("La Ville d'Essaouira") he had composed for the festival and in honor of this charming town that he first performed in 1963 (when it was still called Mogador) when he was invited by Salim Hilali. El Gusto ended their performance with a stirring rendition of "Ya Rayeh," the song first composed by Mohammed Al Anka, popularized by Dahmane el Harrach, and recently revived by French-Algerian artist Rachid Taha. The festival was an inspiring success."


Karoutchi singing Samy El Maghribi's melhoun number

Karoutchi singing Salim Hilali medley - Ya Kalbi/Raymonde Rametni

And check out this performance of El Gusto on BBC, preceded by an interview with Damon Albarn, who produced their album (which is terrific!):

I'll announce the dates and the program for next year's festival as soon as I know them.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Chronicle of Higher Education on my MESA kufiya talk

Back from the Middle East Studies Association Annual Meetings last night. And I just learned that the Chronicle of Higher Education blog covered my talk on the kufiya: "What's in a Scarf: Scholar Ponders the Meanings of the Kaffiyeh," by David Glenn. Read it here.

Here's my favorite quote: "Mr. Swedenburg publishes comprehensive-verging-on-obsessive coverage of kaffiyeh sightings on his blog."

Only "verging" on obsessive??

In that spirit, I learned awhile back that Sarah Jessica Parker appeared in a kufiya-style tanktop in an episode of "Sex in the City." I don't know which episode, so I asked a friend who owns DVD's of all the season and watches obsessively to keep an eye out. I still haven't got a report. Someone who was at my talk said that she had noticed the kufiya in an episode, and had heard that there were protests, and so the kufiya top was deleted from the DVD version. I'm on the case.

And check out the comments of the Chronicle blog article. One commenter says s/he saw "Jerry Springer: The Opera" at Studio Theatre 2ndStage in D.C. in August, and that "Satan makes his entrance accompanied by an entourage of gunmen wearing keffiyahs wrapped to cover everything except their eyes." I'm on the look out for that too.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

kufiya note #7078 (plus turban and hijab chic)

I'm still slogging away, when I can, on the MESA paper, and am finding ever more material.

Here's another photo of Chris Brown, which I found courtesy of the blog Flypaper, dated February 26, 2008. Here is an earlier post of mine of Chris B. You learn from these photos that he owns more than one.
Flypaper posted the Brown photo again, along with a shot of Beyoncé in a turban (original is from here), and some hijab fashion, under the title "Middle Eastern chic" (April 29, 2008). Symptomatically, not "Arab" chic. As Sunaina Maira notes in her article on Belly Dancing and Arab-Face, “Despite the recent proliferation of belly dance classes and clothing, hookah bars, and Arab music in urban U.S. popular culture, the word 'Arab' is hardly ever used in connection with these products and practices, and they are more commonly glossed as 'Middle Eastern.'” (Check out wayneandwax's post on Arab-Face here and download Maira's article here.)

Arab seemingly is too dangerous an identification to market, or blog. Nonetheless, I appreciate Flypaper's move to link the kufiya trend to other clothing trends. (I posted previously about turban style and hijab chic here. J-Lo and Prince beat Beyoncé to the punch.)

Here is a shot of Cameron Diaz, kufiya draped, appearing at Pangea Day in May, courtesy Popsugar. Pangea Day is a "global event bringing the world together through film, which on May 10, 2008, linked live events in Cairo, Kigali, London, Los Angeles, Mumbai, and Rio de Janeiro. It was initiated by Jehane Noujaim, director of Control Room (the documentary about Al-Jazeera). Check out the excerpts from the films that were shown--this is not just some flaky, ignorant Hollywood stuff that Cameron is participating. (And what about the fact that she wears a kufiya to an international event organized by an Egyptian?)

And back to Flypaper: the next post following the one on "Middle Eastern chic" is one about the "new Pashmina," as reported on by the London Times (April 26), which writes, " Except there’s a new way to wear scarves that’s almost universally foolproof – not knotted in a neat choker that ends up slipping round your neck, but folded into a big triangle at the front and tied, Middle-Eastern style. This is a cunningly brilliant route to prints and colours you wouldn’t otherwise be seen dead in, but know will cut a dash." Note, again: not folded Palestinian style or Arab style but Middle Eastern style.
Flypaper, helpfully, provides a photo of this triangle-in-front style, which the Times does not do. (Pashmina is a very pricey type of cashmere shawl, from the Kashmir, that became popular in the West of late. Maira writes that they showed up in clothing stores and street fairs in New York City in 1997-99, as part of the Indo-chic trend (p. 345, "Henna and Hip-Hop: The Politics of Cultural Production and the Work of Cultural Studies," Journal of Asian American Studies, October 2000).

More recently, reported (August 18, 2008) on the first look at the "killer scarves" for fall 2008, and, whaddyaknow, the "triangle in front" (here labelled "triangle wrap") shows up again:

"Scarves were even seen wrapped tightly around the neck, in a fringed belted version and also in a triangular look that resembles the VERY CONTROVERSIAL keffiyeh (that I love to don)."
The controversy refers to is, of course, the Rachael Ray/Dunkin' Donuts one. Note that the scarf and cap on the lower right (shoulder love) have a kufiya-looking pattern. And is the "head's covered" scarf more "hijab chic"?

That's not the end of it, for the post features more scarves, including the Peace Treaty line. Pictured is the Capsicum Peace Treaty scarf (shades of Urban Outfitters' "anti-war woven scarf").

And if you go to the website ( you can find "triangle wrap," kufiya-style scarves, including this one, the Netanya.

And there's more to the kufiya/pashmina connection, or merger. Bluefly is also marketing a red, cashmere kufiya (only $99, on sale), as part of its Kashmere line.
Finally (for now), you can buy the trompe l'oeil kufiya t-shirt now from

As Fredflare says, "Unless you've been living under a rock somewhere, you've seen (or worn) this ubiquitous scarf. Now you can rock it all year long on a super comfy 100% cotton t-shirt by Newbreed Girl!" The kufiya is no longer just for fall/winter! (But see this earlier trompe l'oeil here.)

Apparently, kufiyas aren't going away any time soon. The "triangle" style of wearing them is getting, almost, branded. They are getting merged with Indo-chic pashminas. Viral...

Nor, I would maintain, does the fact that celebrities wear them necessarily mean that kufiyas are disconnected from progressive, or at least humanitarian, politics. Check out Pangea.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Ghanian rapper Kwaw Kese: kufiya, big pimpin'

Check out this vid, in which Kwaw Kese (from Ghana) is kufiya-clad most of the time. The song does remind one of Jay-Z's "Big Pimpin'," doesn't it?

Found it courtesy of the very fine blog, The Elephants Child. I know nothing about Kwaw Kese, except that he's a "hip life" artist.

Kufiya-clad American Leftist, circa 1987

I found this in Fred Davis' book, Fashion, Culture and Identity (1992), in his chapter on Antifashion (p. 163). Jennifer Berman's cartoon, from In These Times, is entitled "The American Leftist (Progressivus Sandinistis Supportoris)." It features two male leftists in stereotypical late 1987 attire; I show (of course) only the one wearing what the cartoon calls a "Palestinian style scarf." (Unfortunately, it's not drawn very accurately. At the time it would have been a real black-and-white checked one.)

Among the other international characteristics of these two stereotypical leftists, according to the list at his left, is that they know: "some of the words to 'the Internationale'"; "at least 5 people who have been to Esteli [Nicaragua]"; "protest chants in Spanish" and "love Thai food."

More evidence that the kufiya was everyday eighties leftist attire, especially in the key movements of the era, the Central American solidarity movement and the nuclear disarmament movement. Contrary to what some accounts I've been reading say (including wikipedia--at least, as of today), its use in the US pre-dates the first Palestinian intifada, which broke out in December 1987.

Kufiyaspotting #43: Free Paris Hilton

I'm scheduled to give a paper at the Middle East Studies Association Annual Meetings in a couple weeks, entitled "Kufiyaspottings: Solidarity, Commerce, Banalization." I'm in the process of writing the thing, and so I've been reading over my old posts and also looking again at the work of the folks over at Kabobfest, who also do a lot of kufiyaspotting. And they turned me on to this:

It's hard to know what to say. Other than that Paris has managed, in my opinion, to outdo all other kufiya stylings in sheer trashiness. You simply can't beat it.

Except that Paris herself is not in fact the author of the "Free Paris" t-shirt. It is produced by Dissizit. (But alas, no longer up on their website.) I give them a tip of the tarbush, for they have managed to channel the true inner spirit of Paris.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Kufiya in Poland, front page of New York Times

Piotr Malecki for The New York Times

The front page of yesterday's (October 27) New York Times featured this photo of a kufiya-adorned woman in a Polish electronics store, as part of a story about the slowdown in Poland's once-hot economy. (Thanks, Joel.) Another example of how downright common the kufiya has become. And how even when you are suffering economically, you can still look stylish.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Colin Powell: "[So] what if he [Obama] is Muslim?"

Colin Powell, on Meet the Press today, has the courage to say what someone of his stature should have said ages ago. He says, of course the answer to the claim that Obama is a Muslim, that he's a Christian. But he goes on to say:

The really right answer is, what if he is? Is there something wrong with being Muslim in America? The answer is no, that's not America. Is there anything wrong with some seven year old Muslim American kid thinking that he or she could be president? Yet I have heard senior members of my own party drop this suggestion, he might be a Muslim and he might be associated with terrorists. This is not the way we should be doing it in America. (My transcription.)

Then he goes on to talk about a soldier killed in Iraq, US Muslim, buried at Arlington National Cemetery, with star and crescent on his tombstone. Watch it here.

the fashion that refuses to die...

I can't escape it. In today's (Sunday) New York Times, in the Style section, there is the usual Bill Cunningham "On the Street" photos of street fashion, this one entitled "Color Guard." It features the colorful street style's of contemporary Paris. And damned if there isn't a guy wearing a kufiya in one of the shots.

Unfortunately, it's not posted online. You will need to consult your hard copy--until I can find an online version.

UPDATE, October 25. Here it is.

And, if you check out Cunningham's "On the Street" slide show that came out today, on the first blush of autumn fashion in NYC, you'll spot, yes, another kufiya. On a guy, toward the end of the slide show (28 seconds left). Here.

Kufiyas are, maybe, okay, but taking off Eid al-Fitr is "un-American"

Yarmulkes are banned at the workplace, too.

From the Wall Street Journal, October 18.

"Mass firings at meatpacking plants in Colorado and Nebraska last month highlight growing conflicts over how to accommodate religion in the workplace. The plants, owned by the U.S. unit of Brazil's JBS SA, collectively fired about 200 Muslim Somali workers who walked off the job over prayer disputes. The workers had asked management to adjust their evening break times so that they could pray at sunset. Managers at both plants initially agreed but then reversed their decisions after protests by non-Muslim workers...

A Tyson Foods Inc. chicken-processing plant in Tennessee this year agreed to let its work force claim holiday pay for Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, instead of Labor Day. Non-Muslims protested that the policy was un-American. Tyson managers reinstated Labor Day and switched a paid birthday to a personal day that could be used for religious observances...

In August, a federal judge in Nevada ruled that the Las Vegas police department must allow an orthodox Jewish officer to wear a beard, but not a yarmulke. The judge noted that the city permits employees to wear beards for medical reasons, but it prohibits all officers from wearing headgear...

Muslims in Greeley, Colo., last month protested the firing of more than 100 JBS workers after a walkout over Ramadan. (Sara Loven/The Greeley Daily Tribune, via AP)

The Somali workers said that they should be allowed to pray on their breaks and would be gone for only a few minutes. Supervisors responded that the only permitted unscheduled breaks were for use of the bathroom and that the plant couldn't have hundreds of workers leaving the lines at the same time.

"It takes less than five minutes," says Graen Isse, a Somali worker who was fired following a similar dispute at a JBS plant in Greeley, Colo. He says he and other workers offered to let JBS deduct pay for time spent praying."

Read the entire article here.

Update: I've just read an article about struggles over such issues at a JBS plant in Grand Island, Nebraska, from the Oct. 15 New York Times. It's a little more nuanced than the WSJ article. Interestingly enough, the objections to the JBS decision to give Somali workers time off to pray (and to cut the workday, and pay, of all workers by 15 minutes) came from Sudanese (mostly Christian) and Latino workers!

As an aside, Greeley, Colorado is where Sayid Qutb had his revelatory experiences with American civilization and mores, in the late 1940s. Props to John Calvert of Creighton University for doing the most to dig this info out. Read about it here.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Kufiyaspotting #42: Afrika Bambaataa (or is it faux?)

I've been a fan of Afrika Bambaataa ever since I heard, back in the day, Afrika Bambaataa and the Soul Sonic Force do "Looking for the Perfect Beat" from 1982 (check out the terrific video here.) Bam, along with DJ Kool Herc and Grandmaster Flash, was one of the pioneers of hip-hop, and he and the Soul Sonic Force were largely responsible for the moment in the early eighties when rap was dominated by the "electrofunk" sound. (Then Run-DMC came along and hardcore took over.) I had the good fortune to see Bam and the Soul Force perform in Austin, at Liberty Lunch, in 1986 or 1987.

Bam & Co. were renowned for their creative, wild, Afrofuturist outfits--in the tradition of Parliament/Funkadelic and the Sun Ra Arkestra, but with a touch of the Village People for good measure. I don't remember ever seeing a video with Bam dressed in this Afrofuturist "sheikh" outfit (kufiya and 'aqal, the cord used to hold the kufiya in place.) This photo appears in the CD jacket to Part One of the Rhino Records box set, Street Jams: Electric Funk, a wonderful document of that era, with tracks from Flash, Grandmixer D.ST., Newcleus, The Wreckin Cru (featuring Dr. Dre!) and much more. (Alas, no Arabian Prince.)

"We are the future, You are the past!"

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Kufiyaspotting #41: Harry Potter

I clipped this photo from The Arts section of the New York Times of Saturday, July 21, 2007 (p. 1). It took me over a year to (a) recover the clipping from the piles strewn around my office and (b) scan it. It's from an article about the long lines, in the US and England, that formed to buy the final Harry Potter volume, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. This photo, of young fans celebrating the release of the novel in London, is another example of how completely everyday and mundane kufiya wearing had become by summer 2007, at least in London. (The photo does not appear on the on-line version of the article.

This is the larger spread (I couldn't quite scan the whole thing.)

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Otis Grand on CNN: Beirut Blues

Otis Grand is one of the world's great blues guitarists. We were together at the American University of Beirut in the late sixties and early seventies, and I used to play music with him from 1972-1975, part of that time in the Bliss Street Blues Band. I was never a very good singer, but Otis was an awesome guitarist. He moved to London in 1976, and in the early 1980s started playing music professionally there.

He appeared yesterday on the CNN show, "Inside the Middle East," talking about his life and the blues, from Beirut. There is great footage of him playing. And, there are some photos of the Bliss Street Blues Band, as well as some footage. I'm the guy with the dishwater blonde "Afro." Check it out.

Friday, October 03, 2008

"The Taqwacores" -- the movie

Very exciting news: Michael Muhammad Knight's novel, The Taqwacores, is being turned into a movie, with Mike serving as co-producer and co-writer. Read about it here. They are just starting up, so keep going back to read the blog as production proceeds.

Mabrouk, ya Michael!

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Report from The Guardian on the kufiya

This report appeared in The Guardian on September 22, and it's only now that I've had a chance to post it. It's one of the best and most accurate journalistic accounts that I've read. It's not the first to report on the last kufiya factory in Palestine, but at least it starts there. When I was in the West Bank in June, I planned to go to Hebron and purchase a kufiya from the Hirbawi factory, but alas, I never made it there. I saw a local, Hirbawi-manufactured kufiya in a shop in Bethlehem, and I should have bought it. The local ones really are of higher quality than the other 99%, which all seem to be produced in China. Interestingly, China is one of the few places where it's relatively easy for Palestinians from the West Bank to get visas, and so quite a few people go there, and many of these are involved in importing...kufiyas. So Palestinian merchants are complicit in the decline of the local kufiya manufacturing sector too.

A couple other interesting things to note about the article. I did not know that Islamists had taken up the red-and-white checkered kufiya, which formerly was worn as a distinctive sign by Palestinian leftists (Communists, PFLP, DFLP).

And I did not know that the practice of dyeing kufiyas various colors was at first something that kids were doing, and later adopted by the fashion moguls.

And I didn't know that Leona Lewis had been kufiyaspotted. But I didn't even know who Leona Lewis was until I read this article.

And here's why this is still relevant, and why The Guardian is reporting on it...A friend of mine just got back from London on Sunday, and she said everyone is wearing kufiyas there.

Chequered history

Everyone from Leona Lewis to Colin Farrell has taken to wearing the keffiyeh, as fashion goes wild for this symbol of resistance. But with sales soaring, why does the only factory in Palestine that makes these scarves look set to close? Rachel Shabi reports

Leila Khaled wearing a keffiyah

Leila Khaled wearing a keffiyah. Photgraph: Eddie Adams/AP

'Next time you come, it will be better, God willing," says Yasser Herbawi, the 76-year-old owner of the first and only Palestinian keffiyeh factory. It's hard to see how. Last year, the distinctive black-and-white checked scarves became a surprise global trend, knotted around the necks of the most fashion-savvy. At the same time, the family-run company that produces this symbol of the Palestinian national struggle has been slowly grinding to a halt.

"It's the Chinese imports," explains Yasser, sitting amid piles of keffiyehs at the Herbawi factory storeroom, just outside Hebron in the West Bank. "In the 70s we could barely keep up with demand, but by the mid-90s cheap Chinese scarves started coming in, because of globalisation and Gatt." Yasser's sons Abdel Atheem, 50, and Judeh, 43, nod in agreement and curse the trade tariff-busting agreement. "We were forced to lower our prices and today we are working to a fraction of our capacity because we cannot compete." The factory used to produce more than 1,000 scarves a day, but now makes less than 100 - and struggles to sell those. A shutdown seems almost inevitable.

Needless to say, the Herbawi family isn't much enamoured with the cheap imports that first swamped and then stole their market. "They are not the same quality," says Yasser as he picks up a keffiyeh and spreads it across his knees, reverently feeling the light, dimpled cotton between his fingers. "Our product is better, much better. We take care of it and use only natural products, and it is beautiful." This textiles factory, which Yasser started 40 years ago, supplied the entire West Bank and Gaza - orders for scarves, robes and jackets, all fashioned from the same check, would also arrive from neighbouring Arab countries. Of course, the company creates much more than a specific cotton weave. "We are making the symbol of Palestine," says Yasser. "This scarf is the history and the heritage of our country."

The black-and-white square keffiyeh is Syrian in origin and is the head garment of choice for traditional, rural Arab males of a certain age. It was the 1930s Arab revolt against the British Mandate and Zionist organisations in Palestine that first established the scarf as a resistance symbol: it was worn in solidarity, and to make it difficult for the authorities to weed out orchestrators of the rural-led uprising. By the 60s, the scarf became emblematic of the nascent Palestinian national movement - it was the favoured headwear of the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and habitually worn by other symbols of the Palestinian resistance such as Leila Khaled. Then a red-and-white Jordanian version surfaced, taken up by Palestinian Marxists to differentiate themselves within the wider nationalist movement. More recently, its meaning changed again: "The Marxists in Palestine have all but disappeared and the ones who replaced them are the Islamists," explains Dr Samir Awad, political scientist at the West Bank's Bir Zeit university. "Now it's the Hamas guys who put on the red-and-white, just because they don't want to be associated with Fatah."

Around the Middle East, traditional, rural Arab men do still wear the keffiyeh, in the traditional way - as a headpiece, with the aqal ring holding it in place. But Awad says that these days, it is less widely used as a neckwear nationalist emblem by the younger generation of Palestinians. He provides one possible explanation: "The image of the keffiyeh as a symbol of resistance was tarnished by events in Afghanistan and Iraq, where it is used by terrorists, by anyone who wants to hide their face," he says. "It is very annoying, but there is no monopoly on the keffiyeh." The common appearance of the keffiyeh in suicide bomber videos has doubtless caused the two concepts to fuse in the minds of some observers.

For some years now, the keffiyeh has carried activist-chic credentials for anti-war protesters and supporters of the Palestinian cause across several continents. But it is more recently that the scarves have gained their full fashion stripes. "We noticed club kids were wearing them about a year and a half ago," says Melanie Rickey, fashion news director at Grazia magazine. "They were dyeing them fluorescent colours, and it was seen as a bit risque." Picking up on the trend, Balenciaga brought out a designer keffiyeh last summer. "What did they do, smother it with gold?" asks Abdel Atheem at the Herbawi factory when he hears of its £3,000 price tag. "If I tried to sell the scarves for £10, nobody would listen," says Yasser of the product, which gets a local market price of around £3. "And ours is the real thing."

The designer endorsement was a bit like the Midas touch - high street stores such as Topshop and American Apparel were soon churning out "black-and-white woven cotton" scarves for roughly the same sum that Yasser laments would cause his customers to turn a deaf ear. "After a while people just thought, 'These are nice scarves,'" says Rickey, "so that by this time last year, every teenage girl from London to Scotland had one." The keffiyeh as fashion item might now be on the wane, but Rickey thinks that the popular neckpiece started a paradigm-shifting trend - a retailer's dream scenario: it took the scarf out of a winter-wardrobe context and into the realm of all-year-round accessory. "The fastest selling accessory is the summer scarf," she explains. "Stores such as Oasis carry 30 to 40 different patterns - customers just can't get enough of them."

The high street has moved on from the black-and-white weave; Rickey says the current hot stock is glitter-thread-shot hippy scarves. Such faddishness is what makes it tough to interpret the craze for keffiyehs as ideological expression or act of Palestinian solidarity - in fact, fashion scarf-wearers often confess to being clueless over the politics of the chequered fabric. Still, that didn't stop the trend being read as inflammatory and insulting in some quarters. Earlier this year, Urban Outfitters pulled its line of "anti-war woven scarves", which had been a bestseller, after receiving complaints. "Due to the sensitive nature of this item, we will no longer offer it for sale," the company announced. "We apologise if we offended anyone, this was by no means our intention."

In May, Dunkin' Donuts pulled one of its online adverts because Rachael Ray, the celebrity chef that featured in it, was wearing a fashionably knotted keffiyeh. Slamming the scarves as "Jihadi chic" and "hate couture", popular American blogger and columnist, Michelle Malkin, one of the key campaigners against the black-and-white checks, wrote that, "Fashion statements may seem insignificant, but when they lead to the mainstreaming of violence - unintentionally or not - they matter."

Whatever the intention, the global surge in sales has had no impact on the fortunes of the ailing Herbawi factory. The textiles company does not export and, even at a local level, foreign competitors are holding sway. In the market stalls of Jerusalem's Old City, a Hebron factory-made keffiyeh is a rare sight among the scarves on sale to tourists. "For sure, I prefer the local product," says market vendor Saleh abu Ghazela, who stocks the Herbawis' new line of pastel multi-coloured checks alongside Chinese versions of the traditional colour combination. "But very few customers care about the quality or ask where the scarf comes from, and I have to cater to the market's demands."

All of which explains why most of the looms aren't even switched on at the Herbawis' factory. Fifteen machines used to operate daily for 18 hours, but now only one section of the vast factory is lit and just four clacking looms turn giant reels of thread into long flats of cloth. A factory technician moves between them, snipping rogue strands and making constant adjustments to the weave. "He has been our employee for 40 years," says Judeh Herbawi, of their last remaining staff member. "It is because of him that we stay open." Beyond this square of light, rows of grand machinery emblazoned with the label "Suzuki Loom" stand silent in the shadows, swathed in thick, yellow factory dust. Old swatches of keffiyeh fabric are still stretched out upon these once industrious machines - and underneath the powdery dust, the distinctive pattern so symbolic of the Palestinian national cause has all but faded away.

· This article was amended on Thursday September 25 2008. It was Urban Outfitters, rather than American Apparel as we originally said in the article above, that marketed the keffiyeh as an "anti-war woven scarf" but stopped selling it after protests. This has been corrected.