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How the keffiyeh became a symbol for Palestinian liberation

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The keffiyeh, a black and white or red and white scarf, is a symbol of Palestinian identity and history. And since war broke out between Israel and Hamas, it's also believed to have inspired violence here in the U.S., including an attack on three young men in Vermont. All three of them are Palestinian.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Two of them were wearing keffiyehs - traditional Arab scarves.

WAFA GHNAIM: The keffiyeh is a square cloth. It's usually white, with either a black checkered pattern or a red checkered pattern, though it can come in multiple colors. And there's also kind of a woven kind of design on the edges, as well as some tassels and macrame that hang on the corners.

CHANG: That is Wafa Ghnaim. She's a research fellow at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and curator for the Museum of the Palestinian People.

GHNAIM: Specifically, it's a men's headdress and usually folded diagonally in half and secured on the head with a agal or a headrope.

CHANG: We asked her to walk us through the history of this garment that's closely associated with Palestinian identity.

GHNAIM: Up until the 1920s, Bedouin men wore the keffiyeh as an expression of their own identity. And in this particular part of the world, headdress and clothing was always a reflection of identity for both men and women.

CHANG: Bedouins are the nomadic tribes of the Middle East, and Wafa says the keffiyeh historically was used to distinguish Bedouin men in historic Palestine from the villagers and the city people. So how did the keffiyeh become an identifier for all Palestinians? Well, Wafa says there are two time periods we can point to where the symbolism of this scarf evolved.

GHNAIM: In the late 1930s, what's called the Arab Revolt occurred. It's between 1936 and 1939. And at this time, we see Palestinian men, not just that were Bedouin or nomadic, but from villages and towns, that began to wear the black and white keffiyeh as an expression of political identity and national identity.

CHANG: Then Yasser Arafat, head of the Palestinian Liberation Organization and later president of the Palestinian Authority, emerged in the 1960s. And he always wore a keffiyeh.

GHNAIM: You know, Yasser Arafat was known to fold the keffiyeh into the shape of historic Palestine before wearing it on his head. So we have a really beautiful symbolism in that, in the way that he expressed his own connection to homeland.

CHANG: Wafa, who's Palestinian herself, owns a keffiyeh that she embroidered.

GHNAIM: You know, I look at the keffiyeh as a symbol of freedom and history. I mean, you know, there is always this connection with activism and national identity. But when I wear a traditional garment, which is what the keffiyeh is, I feel connected, not just with this current moment. I feel connected with my past, with my ancestors, with my great-grandparents, with my father. And my keffiyeh, specifically in the way that I've added embroidery to it, reminds me of my mother where I learned how to do Palestinian embroidery or tatreez. And so marrying both of those together on my keffiyeh and wearing them is the way that I show pride in my people but as also a memory of my ancestors and our long and beautiful and rich history of creation and culture and art.

CHANG: Yeah. What did you embroider specifically on your keffiyeh?

GHNAIM: I decided to embroider a goat design, which when I learned that design from my mother, it was a maternal motif because it features two goats looking at each other. And underneath them are, like, a baby goat on each side. And I stitched this keffiyeh when I was on maternity leave with my son, my newborn baby at the time - my son. And I wanted to create it - I had a calling in that moment to create it and to wear it, but then also to pass it on to him and as part of his own cultural inheritance of being a Palestinian in exile.

CHANG: I love that. You know, when I hear you describe what the keffiyeh means to you personally, it's so beautiful. And I have to ask you, like, when you watch people react hatefully to the keffiyeh - I'm thinking about the shooting recently of three young men in Vermont, two of them were wearing keffiyehs. In New York recently, a woman allegedly harassed and threw a cup of hot coffee at a British Indian man who was wearing a keffiyeh as well. And we don't know exactly what motivated these people to strike out, but what goes through your mind when you see people become victims of violence when wearing this scarf?

GHNAIM: Of course, this is tragic, and it saddens me because the keffiyeh is a historic garment. And all I can think about is how dehumanized Palestinians and our cause for freedom is. And how the keffiyeh is ultimately - and the way that it's viewed and the symbolism and the way it's viewed today - is a reflection of that dehumanization. The keffiyeh will - and our clothing - will always reflect our current context and our identity. This is the history of Palestinian dress. We always express identity through our dress. And I think right now, we see that, also, it seems, people reflect their own beliefs and judgments of our identity onto our dress. And I find that in and of itself very interesting.

You know, as a Palestinian dress historian, I'm often regarded as an activist. But I find that interesting because as somebody who is preserving cultural heritage with colleagues and peers, preserving cultural heritage of other cultures in the world, they're not considered activists. And so for Palestinians to be so maligned that - to the point that to preserve our own cultural heritage or our dress history makes us a political in any way, I think is an interesting thought to consider and how that might change one day when we are free.

CHANG: When you're just sharing your family history to be perceived as being an activist, I mean, that's really something, isn't it?

GHNAIM: Yeah. To preserve even a scarf and the beauty and history of a scarf and how it reflected certain segments of society and how it was worn and the way it was folded. Or even in our embroidery and the designs that we embroider, to have that be politicked and regarded as sort of this revolutionary - and of course, you know, of course, as a Palestinian, I am an activist and I do believe in freedom. And that will never change. But at the end of the day, I'm here to document the history of dress. And this, to me, is a cultural and humanitarian contribution, not necessarily a political one.

CHANG: Wafa Ghnaim is curator for the Museum of the Palestinian People. Thank you so much for joining us today.

GHNAIM: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF 47SOUL SONG, "MEELI") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Linah Mohammad
Prior to joining NPR in 2022, Mohammad was a producer on The Washington Post's daily flagship podcast Post Reports, where her work was recognized by multiple awards. She was honored with a Peabody award for her work on an episode on the life of George Floyd.
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
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