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The Last Palestinian Kufiyehs: Survival in a Globalised World

February 10, 2014 at 11:49 am


The first documented mass use of the kufiyeh within Palestinian resistance was during the First Revolution in the late 1930’s when peasants who led the struggle against Zionist colonisation and British imperial rule wore it to hide their faces. Soon, Palestinians across the country began to wear the kufiyeh in solidarity and to confuse the British forces as they sought out members of the resistance, and the popularisation of the kufiyeh as a national symbol had begun.

With the development of the Palestinian resistance movement against Zionism that began to take shape from the mid-1960’s the kufiyeh saw another surge in popularity. Palestinian leaders such as Yasser Arafat and Leila Khaled were rarely seen without a kufiyeh, and the iconic images that have survived until today of such people invariably picture them adorning the traditional arabic headscarf. These practices have continued ever since, and throughout the First and Second Intifada’s images of Palestinian youth facing down tanks armed only with stones and wearing kufiyehs again became iconic images of the Palestinian struggle.

For Palestinians the kufiyeh is a national symbol of resistance, but its popularity has also been globalised. Much of this is tied in to the international rise in grassroots solidarity with Palestine, but popularity as a ‘fashion statement’ has also developed amongst people not necessarily wearing them as an act of solidarity and in some cases possibly even unaware of the associated symbolism.

Yasser Arafat wore a black and white kufiyeh, and it was this model that was traditionally associated with the Palestinian nationalist movement. The PFLP and other leftist factions often wore a red and white version. Today, kufiyehs are produced in a variety of colours with the traditional colours still usually seen as badges of solidarity, whilst brightly coloured versions address more fashion conscious wearers.

Although the symbolism of the kufiyeh lives on today, only one production factory survives in Palestine. For many visitors to the country, the kufiyeh is still the must-have Palestinian purchase of choice, but 90% of the kufiyehs in Palestine’s markets are today mass-produced low-quality imports that are mainly Chinese. Globalisation has shaped this market and the PA’s economic policies have developed it.

Judah Herbawi and his brothers manage the family-run Herbawi factory that was established in 1961 by their father, Yasser. Judah has seen the buisness drop by more than 60% since the mid-1990s, and particularly over the last 15 years as the PA opened its doors to imports:

“Every kufiyeh needs four or five people to work on it. This includes the factory workers and also the finishers. I am a ‘son of this city’, so any money generated by the factory is spent here in Palestine – I buy all my food here, raise my family here – all of this money remains in the country. But today as 90% of all kufiyehs in Palestine’s markets are imported, all of that work is given to people abroad and taken away from Palestinians, and all of the money goes outside and is spent outside. As Palestinians, we all suffer from these policies…”

This photo-essay looks at the work of the Herbawi kufiyeh factory and includes quotes from Judah Herbawi describing the work and struggles of Palestine’s last kufiyeh factory.

Images and text by Rich Wiles

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