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Wrap our heads around this

While dining recently with friends at a Tampa restaurant, a good-looking man noticed the oversized red and white scarf tied around my neck. Its significance had been lost on most others in the restaurant, but not him.

"Why are you wearing that?" he asked as I walked by. "It's dangerous!"

I later found out that he was Syrian. That explained it.

Most people in the Tampa Bay area are clueless about the kaffiyeh — even those who buy them in stores.

Last summer, I saw a man on the street in Ybor, wearing the scarf around his neck. "Nice kaffiyeh," I told him. He looked at me, confused, until I told him the history.

Then, a few weeks ago, I saw a young woman in a Tampa club wearing the kaffiyeh around her neck. She had bought it at Urban Outfitters but was unaware of its cultural significance.

This 54-by-54-inch cotton square with a herringbone pattern is the traditional Middle Eastern headdress for men. It became a symbol of class struggle and Palestinian nationalism during the 1936-39 Palestinian revolt against the British occupation and gained momentum when the late head of the Palestine Liberation Organization, Yasser Arafat, adopted it in the late 1960s, some Middle Eastern scholars say.

The scarf could be seen recently in local TV reports that showed hundreds who assembled near Raymond James Stadium in Tampa in opposition to Israel's military operation in the Gaza Strip in response to Hamas rocket attacks. Some of the protesters, many of Arab descent, were wearing kaffiyehs.

But the scarf has become a mere hip accessory to some in America, worn by people who have no clue of its political or cultural significance. To test whether or not Americans have any idea what a kaffiyeh is, I recently wore one around town for a while.

I'd worn it more than a decade ago, during high school in my native Italy. Back then, I and other students wore kaffiyehs to make a political statement, expressing support for Palestine.

I pulled it out of my closet for this column. In short, most people here had no idea what it was.

Knowing that the scarf has become a fashion accessory to some in America amuses me. We live in a post-Sept. 11 society that still often discriminates against individuals who have Arab names, yet Americans are casually sporting an object that symbolically supports the same culture they fear.

There can be consequences and controversy when significant symbols are worn in ignorance of their larger importance. For instance, a rosary beads craze spread in the United Kingdom after Britney Spears and David Beckham wore them as necklaces in 2004. At the time, the Roman Catholic Church expressed its concern about trivialization of the holy rosary.

Cameron Diaz apologized after carrying a bag emblazoned with a red star and the words "Serve the People" printed in Chinese while traveling in Peru last year. The political slogan was of Chinese communist leader Mao Zedong, evoking memories of the Maoist Shining Path insurgency in Peru, in which almost 70,000 people died.

Talk show host Rachael Ray caused a stir last May when she posed for a Dunkin' Donuts commercial wearing what looked like a kaffiyeh. That led to an online column by conservative commentator Michelle Malkin, who said the scarf symbolized "murderous Palestinian jihad" and added that it has been "mainstreamed by both ignorant (and not so ignorant) fashion designers, celebrities and left-wing icons."

Although Malkin improperly soaked the kaffiyeh in blood, she accurately described its position in the fashion industry.

Ray apparently didn't know the politics behind real kaffiyehs. Dunkin' Donuts later apologized and pulled the ad.

• • •

The name of this exotic scarf comes from Kufa, the Iraqi town where the kaffiyeh was first manufactured, according to British-American historian Bernard Lewis.

Each color is related to a specific area, according to Ihsan Bagby, professor of Islamic studies at the University of Kentucky. For instance, the black and white kaffiyeh is worn in Palestine; the red and white version is seen in east Saudi Arabia and Jordan; and the all-white version is found in Bahrain and Kuwait.

"During the late '80s and into the '90s, Americans also wore it to show solidarity with Palestine," said Bagby, referring to the first intifada, the 1987-1993 Palestinian uprising against the Israeli occupation.

It made a comeback at runway fashion shows and among soccer players and pop singers a couple of years ago. And in its latest revival, it has been stripped from its cultural and political connotations. But not always.

In 2007, Urban Outfitters interrupted the sale of the kaffiyeh — which had been advertised by the store as an antiwar woven scarf — after pictures of terrorists of Arab descent wrapped in kaffiyehs and holding AK-47s were posted on a Jewish blog.

Today, the national chain promotes it as a Shemagh Tactical Desert Scarf and can be purchased for $20 at the store in Ybor City. Shemagh is another name for kaffiyeh, which can be spelled in countless ways.

Store employees told me the same thing: It's the style now; it's supposed to be nothing more than a trend.

I have also seen scarves that look similar, in various colors, in Wet Seal and Hot Topic. The trend, however, doesn't seem to bother some Arabs.

"I myself, and most Arab Muslims, do not feel offended by it; there is not any bitterness," Bagby said.

Abdel Hamid Atiyeh, 58, who was born in Jerusalem and is the owner of Al-Aqsa Grocery and Restaurant in North Tampa, carried some kaffiyehs a few months ago at his store. They are all sold out now. He said that back home it is just a cultural symbol that reveals Arab Muslim pride.

What of the oblivious American buyers? "Maybe they like the colors," he said.

Alessandra Da Pra can be reached at or (813) 226-3434.

Wrap our heads around this 01/10/09 [Last modified: Sunday, January 11, 2009 7:19pm]
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