I’ll never forget the first time I saw someone wearing a Koofiyyih, the traditional Middle Eastern headdress fashioned from a square scarf. It was a cold winter’s day in Amman, Jordan, and one my students was wearing this beautiful, traditional Palestinian black and white Koofiyyih around his neck.
“Wow, that’s a beautiful scarf,” I said. “Where did you get it?”
“Thanks, teacher. It’s a gift from my dad. He went to Palestine and brought it to me. It’s original, from one of the last Koofiyyih shops in Palestine. Not like those Chinese ones you can buy from the internet. The black and white means it’s Palestinian and my family is from there,” he said, quite proudly throughout.
“Well it sure is a nice scarf,” I repeated and then started our lesson.
The next day, after class, he presented me with a thin box.
“This is for you, teacher. I hope you like it.”
I opened and found a black and white scarf, similar to his, in black and white but with just the slightest hint of a silver thread sewn in around it.
“I..I don’t know what to say. I’m touched.”
“Don’t worry, teacher. It’s a gift for you from my father.”
I shook his hand and thanked him. Of course, the next day I was sporting it around my neck in the cold winter chill of Amman, honored to receive such a wonderful gift.
Most people associate the keffiyeh with the Palestinians and Yasir Arafat, but it’s actually been part of the Arab culture since the days that the area was known as the Fertile Crescent, worn by men to keep the sunburn off of their necks and dust and sand out of their ears, eyes and hair.
Different regions wear different colors – the Palestinians usually wear the black and white checkered patterned version, Jordanian’s wear red and white, Yemenis use both the black white, and red and white checkered patterns. Plain white is preferred by the people in eastern Iraq and the along the Arabian Peninsula where it is sometimes referred to as a ghutra.
Perhaps the most well known of these, of course, is the black and white checkered Koofiyyih, the symbol of Palestinian nationalism since the 1936–1939 Arab revolt in Palestine. It gained popularity during the Palestinian resistance thanks to Leila Khaled and Yasir Arafat who famously wore them and until today it has become a symbol of solidarity with Palestine among Arabic speaking countries and the rest of the world.
Of course, wearing the keffiyeh today does not come without its criticism from both sides of the political divide. I still wear mine however, not as a political or fashion statement, but because it not only warms my neck, but also serves as an affectionate reminder of a time when I was first shown the well-known Arab hospitality and kindness known throughout the Arab world.
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