Video Killed the Keffiyeh Star

The keffiyeh clad activists. You’ve seen them before – they’re all over the place. At first, keffiyeh imagery in the west was associated with Palestinian terrorists and the terrorist of all terrorists, Yasser Arafat. Then you’d see keffiyehs worn by anti-Israel demonstrators and activists as a sign of their solidarity with the Palestinian people. Eventually keffiyehs were worn by thoise demonstrating against Western imperialism and hegemony in the guise of globalization. Finally, keffiyehs became a fashion accessory worn by hipsters in clubs trying to come off as bad asses while not having much of a clue about the garment’s political or cultural implications. Heck there’s even a Jewish version of the keffiyeh with embroidered stars of David replacing the traditional honey comb pattern. It comes in blue and white and IDF khaki.

Somewhere along its evolution from traditional Arab male head dress to iconic symbol of revolution, someone in China took notice of its growing trendiness. Chinese factories started mass producing keffiyehs and making them available to fashionistas around the world for a fraction of the cost of actual Palestinian made keffiyehs. And the ironic result of the keffiyeh’s popularity is that all the traditional keffiyeh manufacturers in Palestine have had to shut down because they simply cannot compete with the cheap Chinese knock offs. Thanks hipsters. Thanks a lot. I personally really appreciate a quality keffiyeh. It’s a great multi-purpose garment. But I hate the cheap Chinese versions. They suck, like most things made in China.

Haaretz recently wrote an article about the last keffiyeh factory in Palestine. Located in Hebron, Gideon Levy regales us with some maudlin, somewhat over-the-top prose about the factory:

Lying on a faded couch in the nearby manager’s office is the elderly owner, wearing traditional garb, a kaffiyeh and galabiya, themselves tattered. For nearly 50 years he has been producing the national symbol, the kaffiyeh, and now his machinery has ground to a near halt. The looms stand still; there are no buyers for his kaffiyehs. He, too, shoots silent, sad looks at his life’s work, at the dying production hall … The factory’s splendid output is displayed on the walls of the office: shelves full of kaffiyehs in plastic packages – for which there are no buyers. Kaffiyehs in many colors to be sold as souvenirs to tourists, as well as the traditional black-and-white ones for the locals, and no one is buying. There’s tea and rice in China, and now kaffiyehs, too. Who will buy a Palestinian kaffiyeh for NIS 20 when there is a Chinese model for NIS 10? … The factory has been around for half a century, and now the time has come to close shop.

Levy chatted with factory owner Yasser Hirbawi, 76, and his sons, and everything was very, very sad. Just as sad as it was in 2008 when the New York Times wrote about a keffiyeh factory that had already been shuttered for two years. It was also located in Hebron. It had also been a victim of globalization. And it’s owner? Why none other than… Yasser Hirbawi – who was also 76 years old 2 years ago:

For five decades, Yasser Hirbawi was the only Palestinian manufacturer of the national black-and-white keffiyeh headdress, the symbol of Palestinian nationalism worn most famously by the late leader Yasser Arafat. Now, he wipes dust and cobwebs from an … old weaving machine in his small, dark textile factory in Hebron … “Two years ago I had to close down my factory because I couldn’t compete with Chinese-made keffiyehs that sell for 40 percent less,” said the 76-year-old, who himself wore a keffiyeh.

Now I don’t know what kinds of shenanigans are at play here, and I won’t even attempt to hazard a guess. According to the Haaretz article, Hirbawi’s factory is still capable of producing keffiyehs. Thus I’d like to take this opportunity to urge Mr. Hirbawi and his sons to not give up hope and to keep the factory running. Why? Well, it seems that the next big thing is upon us already and its name is Chullo.

Hailing from Peru, the Chullo is a hat made of llama or sheep’s wool worn by Andean natives. It’s a really ugly hat with ear flaps but it keeps you hella-warm in the winter. I think the Chullo, whose only political statement is that comfort and practicality is more important than fashion, is set to become mad popular. So popular perhaps that Chinese factory owners may decide to manufacture more of them and less of the very soon to be passé keffiyeh. If that happens then maybe the Hirbawis will be able to compete again!

In the meantime, Haaretz should probably beef up its fact checking department. Seriously. This is a two year old story.

About the author

ck

Founder and Publisher of Jewlicious, David Abitbol lives in Jerusalem with his wife, newborn daughter and toddler son. Blogging as "ck" he's been blocked on twitter by the right and the left, so he's doing something right.

5 Comments

  • CK, this is am amazing piece of investigative journalism. Has any other media outlet picked up upon it?

    Have you asked Ha’aretz about it? Was Gideon Levy taking vacation so he decided to pick up on a two year old story with the hope that no one would notice?

  • Haaretz probably didn’t care that much about the story, so it got put down the special interest list. Stories stay on there for up to 5 years, then they get thrown out. I guess they just found time for it recently. It doesn’t matter that the facts aren’t there, they figure no one cares.

  • Your economics don’t make much sense, here. Prior to hipsters wearing the keffiyeh, Palestinian manufacturers were fulfilling some given supply and demand equation resulting in X scarves made per year. None of these were purchased by hipsters, they were purchased by, shall we say, real people.

    When hipsters altered the supply and demand equation to some amount Y which is much larger than X, and didn’t want to pay full price for a proper scarf, China filled the supply and demand gap by making cheap knock offs.

    But you can’t then claim that it is the hipsters’ fault that the proper shops all had to close. The problem is that the people who _used to_ support the proper shops buying proper scarves _STOPPED_ when a cheaper option came along. The problem isn’t that hipsters buy cheap knock offs, the problem is that _everyone_ buys cheap knock offs if they can get them.

    The two supply and demand equations should be completely independent — non-hipsters buying X number of proper scarves from proper shops as they always did, and hipsters buying Y scarves from China. The knock-offs can only impact the sale of the X proper scarves if the people who ARE NOT hipsters STOP buying the proper scarves and opt for the cheap crap, instead.

    The problem isn’t the hipsters, the problem is people who sell out their own country by turning to cheap imports to save money.

    • But isn’t this always the outcome of well-meaning people who seek to impose their Western values upon others and frequently end up undermining the very people they’re trying to help?

    • You make some very valid points. I’m not an economist and as soon as I see Xs and Ys my eyes start to glaze… but I think I understand your point, which is don’t blame the hipsters. Presumably if the Keffiyeh factories were productive prior to the popularization of keffiyehs by hipsters etc. then Chinese factories cranking out cheap knock offs to meet popular demand should not affect the traditional market. The problem isn’t hipsters buying knockoffs, the problem is traditional keffiyeh buyers opting for the knockoffs instead of the real thing.

      That erosion of the traditional market however is an inevitable consequence of the market being flooded by said cheap Chinese knockoffs. The Keffiyeh consumer did not have the option of buying ridiculously cheap products prior to the advent of hipster inspired imports. So I think I agree with you. Sort of…

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