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Story | Community
19 September 2021

How the Palestinian keffiyeh became a symbol of resistance

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Image source: SOPA Images, via Reuters

Palestine Cultural Week at QNL in Education City highlights transformation of keffiyeh

The black-and-white checkered Palestinian keffiyeh has become integral to the nation’s identity – representing a long history of struggle. And today it also plays an important role in national celebrations, songs, and weddings. But what are the roots of the keffiyeh, and how did it become a national symbol of the Palestinian struggle?

Qatar National Library – housed in Qatar Foundation’s Education City – recently hosted Palestine Cultural Week, and Dr. Yahya Zakaria Al-Agha, Ambassador for Cultural and Educational Affairs at the Palestinian Embassy in Qatar, and Vice-Chairman of the Palestinian Schools Board, was among the participants.

Explaining how the name keffiyeh originated from the Iraqi city of Kufa, Dr. Al-Agha says: “The Iraqi keffiyeh differs from the Palestinian in terms of its colors. The Iraqi keffiyeh has more black than white, while the Palestinian keffiyeh has more white than black. The keffiyeh reached Palestine during the British Mandate, when there were no borders or barriers between the countries.”

The keffiyeh has also gained popularity among activists in solidarity with the Palestinians, among individuals and politicians – especially in international forums

Dr. Yahya Al-Agha Ambassador for Cultural and Educational Affairs at the Palestinian Embassy in Qatar, and Vice-Chairman of the Palestinian Schools Board

According to Dr. Al-Agha, the Palestinian keffiyeh is usually placed around the neck, or with the headband on the head. It is square in shape – 120 cm x 120 cm – and is decorated with fringes. It is usually made of silk, cotton, or wool. The only factory that produces the Palestinian keffiyeh is in the city of Al-Khalil, in Palestine, at the Hirbawi Textile Factory.

“Some people assume that the shape of the embroidery represents the fishing net, which in turn signifies cohesion between individuals, while the lines on the other side characterize the olive leaf – a symbol of Palestinian authenticity. For Palestinians, the olive tree is a matter of life and death – it is their treasure – so this interpretation may be correct.”

The Palestinian keffiyeh has been linked to the history of the country’s struggle, especially since the Arab Revolt in Palestine in 1936. According to Dr. Al-Agha, the Palestinian keffiyeh helped the guerrillas avoid being arrested, and protected the revolution.

“A fedayeen carried out an assault that resulted in the killing and wounding of several British soldiers,” he explains. “But one soldier escaped and informed his commander that the man who carried out the assault was wearing a keffiyeh as a veil, so they started searching for him.

“The commander of the fedayeen asked everyone to abandon the fez, which was worn as protection from the sun, and to wear the keffiyeh instead so that the soldiers would not recognize the attacker.”

According to Dr. Al-Agha, the importance of the keffiyeh then increased in 1974 when the Former President of the Palestinian Authority, Yasser Arafat, addressed the world at the United Nations. And it has since become more popular among the militant groups.

“The Palestinian keffiyeh has become an important national symbol in opposing the occupier, as well as to challenge and reject injustice, oppression, and persecution. Palestinians wear it for social and political reasons.

Given the great importance of the keffiyeh, its meanings and connotations, there have been several attempts to rob the content of its symbolism. The occupiers worked to steal it

Dr. Yahya Al-Agha

“The keffiyeh has also gained popularity among activists in solidarity with the Palestinians, among individuals and politicians – especially in international forums – and it has turned from being simply a head covering to a symbol of struggle and strife. It has become part of the Palestinian heritage, equal to the knitting needle used to sew the Palestinian dress.” 

However, because of the national value that the Palestinian keffiyeh holds, there have been many attempts to destroy the patriotic symbolism associated with it.

Dr. Al-Agha says: “Given the great importance of the keffiyeh, its meanings and connotations, there have been several attempts to rob the content of its symbolism. The occupiers worked to steal it – the same way they stole, and still are, the land and the heritage – by destroying its features, by changing its colors, and by relating it to the world of fashion. But all these attempts failed to undermine it and its original form.”

There are two places that the keffiyeh should be worn – on the head or the chest. Dr. Al-Agha explains that it should not be placed on platforms or tables to deliver words or speeches, nor should it be worn below the waist to perform the popular Palestinian dance known as “Dabke”. It has also been used to wrap the heads of Palestinian martyrs.

“The keffiyeh has become a widespread trend in Palestinian society, for both genders, and they wear it in different ways. Some of them put it on their heads, their shoulders, or their chests. Some wrap it around the necks. And regardless of the way they wear it, it is a national symbol for them.”

The keffiyeh remains a symbol of sovereignty, identity, existence, and revolution. It is the unifying language of the Palestinian people

Dr. Yahya Al-Agha

The keffiyeh is popular in villages and Bedouin communities, especially in the Negev region in Palestine, as well as in the villages of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, specifically among farmers. According to Dr. Al-Agha, an elder once said that the keffiyeh and the headband are a symbol of a man’s pride, and the utmost humiliation is to remove someone’s headband and throw it to the ground – that to be hit with the sword would be less painful and humiliating. And the penance for such action was the payment of great compensation and conciliation ceremonies.

Image source: Chedly Ben Ibrahim, via Reuters

Given the keffiyeh's status and its symbolism of struggle, the Ministry of Education and Higher Education of the Palestinian National Authority set a national keffiyeh day to coincide with the anniversary of the Declaration of Independence in November. On this day, the Palestinians wear the keffiyeh as a unifying symbol, and a link to the struggles of the two intifadas. It is a day in which the Palestinians sense freedom – a day that aims to help strengthen awareness among the new generations. 

“The keffiyeh remains a symbol of sovereignty, identity, existence, and revolution. It is the unifying language of the Palestinian people, at home and abroad, and a symbol of revolution and struggle,” Dr. Al-Agha says.

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