The keffiyeh is a type of headdress worn by men in many Arabic countries. It is known by numerous other names, including many alternate spellings of the word keffiyeh. Other names include shemag, yashmag, ghutra, mashada and hatta. The headdress begins as a scarf, which then gets wrapped around the head, and sometimes folded first. Usually a portion of the scarf hangs to the side, which allows men to cover the nose and mouth during heavy winds or sand and dust storms.
This traditional headdress is considered the national symbol of Palestine. You will note many pictures of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat wearing this folded and wrapped scarf. In Palestine, the scarf, typically made of cotton, or cotton and wool, has a spider-web pattern and is often black and white. In other countries keffiyeh may vary in design and color.
In addition to being traditional garb, the keffiyeh serves an incredibly functional purpose. It can keep the head cool under very hot weather, and it also helps keep the head warm in colder temperatures. Natural fibers used to make the scarves assist in allowing breathability and quick drying.
Perhaps ironically, one of the world’s leading producers of these scarves is China. They tend to make them much more cheaply than they can be made in Arabic or African countries. For this reason, China has undercut much of the market in the countries where they are most worn.
To some people, the wearing of the keffiyeh is associated with terrorism, particularly Palestinian left wing terrorist acts of the past like the hijacking in 1969 of a TWA flight. Given Arafat’s penchant for wearing the scarf, it may also represent to some people anti-Semitism or anti-Israeli sentiment. Others view the keffiyeh as a distinctly militant symbol, especially representing the long-standing discord between Israel and Palestine. It would be a mistake to read that much into a traditional headdress, especially one worn in so many different ways, by so many different men, in a vast number of countries.
Given the rise of anti-Arabic sentiment in the west, people wearing a keffiyeh, or anything that resembles one may be viewed with great suspicion by some Westerners. This is definitely shown in a fracas that arose in spring of 2008, led by right wing American journalist Michelle Malkin. She led others to a boycott of the store Dunkin’ Donuts which featured a television advertisement with the well-known cook and talk show host Rachel Ray. Ray appears to be wearing a scarf around her neck that looks somewhat like a keffiyeh, though it is not one.
In response, Dunkin’ Donuts quickly pulled the ad. More middle of the road and liberal press suggested this was a grave over-reaction on both Malkin and Dunkin’ Donuts parts. Keith Olbermann, left-leaning newscaster at MSNBC, waxed poetic about Malkin’s part in freeing the world of “terrorist scarves.”