Thinking Aloud: A Brief Guide to Keffiyehs

Mar. 3, 2015 by Darius

When I was in Jordan, I couldn’t help but pick up a few keffiyehs, or traditional Arab scarves—everyone was wearing them.  Keffiyehs are very versatile, serving as both sun-protecting headgear in summer and protection from the cold in winter, as well as just a fashion accessory.

In Jordan, I was told that different keffiyeh designs are traditionally worn in different places.  I thought I would share some photos and explanations to help readers “decode” keffiyehs.

The traditional Jordanian keffiyeh features a red and white pattern with a sort of stretched-out hexagonal shape repeating perpendicular to itself (see below, on Jordan’s King Abdullah II).  Supposedly, red and white keffiyehs are traditional in monarchies.  Red and white keffiyahs are common in Saudi Arabia too, for example, but the Jordanian pattern is different than the Saudi pattern.  Jordanian keffiyehs also might have elaborate fringes hanging off the cloth.  These fringes supposedly indicate the social status of the wearer, which is why I bought a simple one :-).

king abdullah

The keffiyeh first rose to public consciousness in the West as a symbol of Palestinian nationalism.  PLO leader Yasser Arafat almost never appeared in public without wearing a traditional Palestinian keffiyeh with a distinctive black and white fishnet pattern (see below).  Black and white keffiyehs supposedly indicate that the wearer is from a republic, or at least not a monarchy.  The keffiyeh became a symbol of Palestinian nationalism in the 1930s, during the British Mandate, because it represented rural, Bedouin culture instead of citified Palestinians, who were more likely to wear the Ottoman fez.

arafat

My last keffiyeh is supposed to be a traditional Iraqi pattern.  Like the Palestinian keffiyeh, the Iraqi pattern is black and white, but the pattern itself is pretty much identical to the Jordanian pattern.  I don’t really know anything about its significance, but you can see a photo below.

iraqi keffiyeh

To people buying them for comfort or fashion, keffiyeh seem interchangeable.  But to Arabs, they can indicate something more than that.

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