Yemeni Arab man wearing a keffiyeh in turban-style and a shal on his shoulder
Saudi man wearing the shemagh as part of traditional Saudi Arab attire.

The keffiyeh or kufiyya (Arabic: كُوفِيَّة, romanizedkūfīyya, lit.'coif'),[1] also known in Arabic as a ghutrah (غُترَة), shemagh (شُمَاغ šumāġ), or ḥaṭṭah (حَطَّة), is a traditional headdress worn by men from parts of the Middle East.

It is fashioned from a square scarf, and is usually made of cotton.[2] The keffiyeh is commonly found in arid regions, as it provides protection from sunburn, dust and sand. An agal is often used by Arabs to keep it in place.


The keffiyeh originated amongst Bedouins as a practical and protective covering for the head and face, especially in the arid desert climate in which they have traditionally lived,[3][4][5] before adaptation as a symbol of Wahhabism and then Palestinian nationalism. The term itself is a loan from Italian (cuffia) and shares its etymology with English "coif".[1]

Varieties and variations

In Palestine, the red variety, usually with patterns which differ slightly from that of the common black and white, is often worn by Palestinian Marxists.[6] Red keffiyeh are also commonly worn in Jordan and the greater Gulf region.

During his sojourn with the Marsh Arabs of Iraq, Gavin Young noted that the local sayyids—"venerated men accepted [...] as descendants of the Prophet Muhammad and Ali ibn Abi Talib"—wore dark green keffiyeh (cheffiyeh) in contrast to the black-and-white checkered examples typical of the area's inhabitants.[7]

Palestinian national symbol

Main article: Palestinian keffiyeh

Yasser Arafat wearing his iconic fishnet pattern keffiyeh in 2001

Prior to the 1930s, Arab villagers and peasants wore the white keffiyeh and ‘agal (rope) while city residents and the educated elite wore the Ottoman tarbush (fez).[8] During the 1936–1939 Arab revolt in Palestine, Arab rebel commanders ordered all Arabs to don the keffiyeh. In 1938, British Mandatory High Commissioner in Palestine, Harold MacMichael, reported to the Foreign Office: "This ‘order’ has been obeyed with surprising docility and it is not an exaggeration to say that in a month eight out of every ten tarbushes in the country had been replaced by the [keffiyeh and] ‘agal’."[9] Following the end of the revolt, most residents either reverted to wearing the tarbush or elected to go hatless.[10]

The black and white chequered keffiyeh dates to the 1950s when Glubb Pasha, a British officer, wanted to distinguish his Palestinian soldiers (black and white keffiyeh) from his Jordanian forces (red and white keffiyeh).[11] The black and white keffiyeh’s prominence increased during the 1960s with the beginning of the Palestinian resistance movement and its adoption by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.[12]

The black-and-white fishnet pattern keffiyeh would later become Arafat's iconic symbol, and he would rarely be seen without it; only occasionally would he wear a military cap, or, in colder climates, a Russian-style ushanka hat. Arafat would wear his keffiyeh in a semi-traditional way, wrapped around his head via an agal. He also wore a similarly patterned piece of cloth in the neckline of his military fatigues. Early on, he had made it his personal trademark to drape the scarf over his right shoulder only, arranging it in the rough shape of a triangle. This way of wearing the keffiyeh became a symbol of Arafat as a person and political leader, and it has not been imitated by other Palestinian leaders.

Another Palestinian figure associated with the keffiyeh is Leila Khaled, a female member of the armed wing of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Several photographs of Khaled circulated in the Western newspapers after the hijacking of TWA Flight 840 and the Dawson's Field hijackings. These photos often included Khaled wearing a keffiyeh in the style of a Muslim woman's hijab, wrapped around the head and shoulders. This was unusual, as the keffiyeh is associated with Arab masculinity, and many believe this to be something of a fashion statement by Khaled, denoting her equality with men in the Palestinian armed struggle.

The colors of the stitching in a keffiyeh are also vaguely associated with Palestinians' political sympathies. Traditional black and white keffiyehs became associated with Fatah. Later, red and white keffiyehs were adopted by Palestinian Marxists, such as the PFLP.[13]

Symbol of Palestinian solidarity

The black and white chequered keffiyeh has become a symbol of Palestinian nationalism, beginning with the plain white keffiyeh's use during the 1936–1939 Arab revolt in Palestine and followed by the chequered pattern's use in the 1950s (see above). Outside of the Middle East and North Africa, the keffiyeh first gained popularity among activists supporting the Palestinians in the conflict with Israel.[citation needed]

European activists have also worn the keffiyeh.[14][15]

In Indonesia, some of the people used the keffiyeh to show their solidarity with the Palestinians.[16]

During the 2023 Israel–Hamas war, pro-Palestinian protests around the world saw people wearing keffiyeh.[17] As a part of a restrictions on pro-Palestinian protest in Germany, schools in Berlin banned the wearing of keffiyeh[18] and an individual said that he had been "forbidden to walk inside the city for 24 hours because [he] was wearing a keffiyeh".[18] Similar bans on pro-Palestinian protest across France[19] saw a protestor fined €135 for wearing a keffiyeh.[19] Likewise, legal observers at protests in London described "targeting by riot police of people wearing a Palestinian keffiyeh" and threats of arrest for doing so.[20][21][22] Protestors in Canada,[23] Lebanon,[17] Malaysia,[24] Morocco,[25] Pakistan,[17] the Netherlands,[26] and the United States[27][28] were also wearing keffiyeh and Lidia Thorpe wore a keffiyeh when speaking in the Australian Senate to condemn Australian support for "an oppressive occupation" and "likening the struggle of Palestinians with Indigenous Australians".[29]


A loom at work making a traditional Palestinian keffiyeh in the Hirbawi factory, Hebron, West Bank

Today, this symbol of Palestinian identity is now largely imported from China. With the scarf's growing popularity in the 2000s, Chinese manufacturers entered the market, driving Palestinians out of the business.[30] Mother Jones wrote, "Ironically, global support for Palestinian-statehood-as-fashion-accessory has put yet another nail in the coffin of the Occupied Territories' beleaguered economy."[30]

In 2008, Yasser Hirbawi, who for five decades had been the only Palestinian manufacturer of keffiyehs, was struggling with sales and has reported that sales had fallen "from 150,000 units per year in 1993 to a mere 10,000 units in 2010",[31] before transitioning from local to global online sales.[31] In the wake of the 2023 Israel–Hamas war, Hirbawi announced that the company, run by Yasser's sons since his death in 2018,[31] would donate profits from keffiyeh sold in October 2023 to the Palestine American Medical Association,[32] selling over 20,000 keffiyeh that month.[32]

Other cultural symbolisms

Up until the 2000s, Turkey banned the keffiyeh because it was considered a symbol of solidarity with the PKK.[33]

Westerners in keffiyeh

T. E. Lawrence at Rabegh, north of Jeddah, in 1917

British Colonel T. E. Lawrence (better known as Lawrence of Arabia) was probably the best-known Western wearer of the keffiyeh and agal during his involvement in the Arab Revolt in World War I. This image of Lawrence was later popularized by the film epic about him, Lawrence of Arabia, in which he was played by Peter O'Toole.

The 1920s silent-film era of American cinema saw studios take to Orientalist themes of the exotic Middle East, possibly due to the view of Arabs as part of the Allies of World War I, and keffiyehs became a standard part of the theatrical wardrobe. These films and their male leads typically had Western actors in the role of an Arab, often wearing the keffiyeh with the agal (as with The Sheik and The Son of the Sheik, starring actor Rudolph Valentino).

Fashion trend

As with other articles of clothing worn in wartime, such as the T-shirt, fatigues and khaki pants, the keffiyeh has been seen as chic among non-Arabs in the West. Keffiyehs became popular in the UK in the 1970s, and then in the United States in the late 1980s at the start of the First Intifada, when bohemian girls and punks wore keffiyehs as scarves around their necks.[34][35] In the early 2000s keffiyehs were very popular among youths in Tokyo, who often wore them with camouflage clothing.[34] The trend recurred in the mid-2000s in the United States,[34][35] Europe,[35] Canada and Australia,[36][37] when the keffiyeh became popular as a fashion accessory, usually worn as a scarf around the neck in hipster circles.[34][35] Stores such as Urban Outfitters and TopShop stocked the item (however, after some controversy over the retailer's decision to label the item "anti-war scarves" Urban Outfitters pulled it).[35] In spring 2008, keffiyehs in colors like purple and mauve were given away in issues of fashion magazines in Spain and France. In the UAE, males are inclining towards more Western headgear while the women are developing preferences for dupatta—the traditional head cover of South Asia.[38] The appropriation of the keffiyeh as a fashion statement by non-Arab wearers separate from its political and historical meaning has been the subject of controversy in recent years.[39] While it is worn often as a symbol of solidarity with the Palestinian struggle, the fashion industry has disregarded its significance by using its pattern and style in day-to-day clothing design. For example, in 2016 Topshop released a romper with the Keffiyeh print, calling it a "scarf playsuit". This led to accusations of cultural appropriation and Topshop eventually pulled the item from their website.[40] The Gulf style keffiyeh became popular during the 2022 FIFA World Cup, which was held in Qatar, with many variations featuring participating team colors selling out quickly.

See also


  1. ^ a b Brill, E. J. (1993). E.J. Brill's First Encyclopaedia of Islam: 1913-1936. Ṭāʻif - Zūrkhāna. BRILL. ISBN 978-90-04-09794-0.
  2. ^ J. R. Bartlett (19 July 1973). The First and Second Books of the Maccabees. CUP Archive. p. 246. ISBN 978-0-521-09749-9. Retrieved 17 April 2013. traditional Jewish head-dress was either something like the Arab's Keffiyeh (a cotton square folded and wound around a head) or like a turban or stocking cap
  3. ^ Donica, Joseph (10 November 2020), "Head Coverings, Arab Identity, and New Materialism", All Things Arabia, Brill, pp. 163–176, ISBN 978-90-04-43592-6, retrieved 18 October 2023
  4. ^ Bramley, Ellie Violet (9 August 2019). "The keffiyeh: symbol of Palestinian struggle falls victim to fashion". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 18 October 2023.
  5. ^ "Ghutrah — who designed it?". Arab News. 7 August 2013. Retrieved 18 October 2023.
  6. ^ "Colors of Keffiyeh".
  7. ^ Young, Gavin (1978) [First published by William Collins & Sons in 1977]. Return to the Marshes. Photography by Nik Wheeler. Great Britain: Futura Publications. pp. 15–16. ISBN 0-7088-1354-2. There was a difference here for nearly all of them wore dark green kefiyahs (or cheffiyeh) (headcloths) instead of the customary black and white check ones. By that sign we could tell that they were sayyids, like the sallow-faced man at Falih's.
  8. ^ Swedenburg, Ted (1995). Memories of Revolt: The 1936–1939 Rebellion and the Palestinian National Past. University of Minnesota Press. p. 30–31. ISBN 978-1-557-28763-2.
  9. ^ Report on the situation in Palestine, Part 1, CO 935/21. Confidential Print: Middle East, 1839–1969 (Report). p. 47 – via Adam Matthew Digital.
  10. ^ Swedenburg, Ted (1995). Memories of Revolt: The 1936–1939 Rebellion and the Palestinian National Past. University of Minnesota Press. p. 34. ISBN 978-1-557-28763-2.
  11. ^ Swedenburg, Ted (1995). Memories of Revolt: The 1936–1939 Rebellion and the Palestinian National Past. University of Minnesota Press. p. 35. ISBN 978-1-557-28763-2.
  12. ^ Torstrick, Rebecca (2004). Culture and Customs of Israel. Greenwood. p. 117. ISBN 978-0-313-32091-0.
  13. ^ Binur, Yoram (1990). My Enemy, My Self. Penguin. p. xv.
  14. ^ Tipton, Frank B. (2003). A History of Modern Germany Since 1815. Continuum International Publishing Group. p. 598. ISBN 0-8264-4910-7.
  15. ^ Mudde, Cas (2005). Racist Extremism in Central and Eastern Europe. Routledge. p. 34. ISBN 0-415-35594-X.
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  21. ^ Lanchin, Jude (20 October 2023). "Suella Braverman and the Government continue to come down hard on the right to protest and freedom of expression". Bindmans. Retrieved 2 November 2023.
  22. ^ Hunter, Benny (16 October 2023). "The UK establishment is using war to attack protest at home". openDemocracy. Retrieved 2 November 2023.
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  24. ^ Azmi, Hadi; Joseph Sipalan (20 October 2023). "Israel–Gaza war: Malaysia's pro-Palestinian protesters call for US to take responsibility for enabling Israel". South China Morning Post. Retrieved 2 November 2023.
  25. ^ Kasraoui, Safaa (20 October 2023). "Police Deny Preventing Woman From Carrying Keffiyeh in Wydad AC Match". Morocco World News. Retrieved 2 November 2023.
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  28. ^ Karam, Esha; Sarah Huddleston; Sabrina Ticer-Wurr (2 November 2023). "'We're the ones being targeted': Pro-Palestinian affiliates report harrassment, threats". Columbia Daily Spectator. Retrieved 2 November 2023.
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  30. ^ a b Sonja Sharp (22 June 2009). "Your Intifada: Now Made in China!". Mother Jones.
  31. ^ a b c "About Us". Hirbawi. 25 October 2023. Retrieved 2 November 2023.
  32. ^ a b "Save the Children of Gaza, Hirbawi Donating Profits". Hirbawi. 23 October 2023. Retrieved 2 November 2023.
  33. ^ Uche, Onyebadi (14 February 2017). Music as a Platform for Political Communication. IGI Global. p. 214. ISBN 9781522519874.
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  35. ^ a b c d e Kim, Kibum (11 February 2007). "Where Some See Fashion, Others See Politics". The New York Times. New York, New York.
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  37. ^ Ramachandran, Arjun (29 May 2008). "Celebrity chef under fire for 'jihadi chic'". The Sydney Morning Herald. Sydney, New South Wales, Australia. Archived from the original on 21 September 2011. Retrieved 24 September 2013.
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  39. ^ Swedenburg, Ted (2021). "The Kufiya". In Bayat, Asef (ed.). Global Middle East: Into the Twenty-First Century. Berkeley, California: University of California Press. pp. 162–173. ISBN 978-0-520-96812-7. Retrieved 13 May 2021.
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Further reading