THE WORD(S) OF THE MONTH: KEFFIYEH…AND SHEMAGH!
14 March 2018
Here we are, back for the word of
the week the month. In order to let you calmly digest the last word of the month (the fabulous story of the hashemites ! ) , today we will focus on the local popular clothing accessories : the keffieh , and its twin the shemagh !
The keffiyeh…thanks to Yasser Arafat, everybody knows it..The shemagh, though, is much less known . A google pic test doesn”t really clarify the situation:
from left to the right : search of thekey words “Keffiyeh”, then “Shemagh”, and finally “شماغ” (arabic writing of shemagh).
What we want here is to get into the local bedouin and arab culture. What conclusion could we draw from this express search? that, in the western countries (at least on google.fr) , the terms “Keffiyeh” and “shemagh” are mostly associated to green, black, beige headscarfs…and mostly in a militant or even a fighting way : have a close look at the pictures if you are not convinced. Where as when we directly go into the arabic language ((شماغ), we immediately find this red and white proudly worn by almost every man here in Jordan !
BUT WHERE DOES IT COME FROM EXACTLY?
How to solve this unfathomable mystery? like often: partly by going into big History, partly by studying the current situation. Let’s do here a simple Q&A game. The winner will get a brand new shemagh FOR FREE (we don’t deliver yet but you still can get it by visiting us 🙂 ).
Keffiyeh, Shemagh….same thing?
The words “keffiyeh” and “Shemagh” stand for pieces of fabric (mostly cotton and wool), designed to be worn by MALES in the middle East. Headscarves for women have other names, but don’t worry, we’ll most likely write a dedicated article in a near future (hidjab, niqab, abbaya, jilbab, etc, etc… There is pretty much of a choice here..! ).
For women or men, the fact of wearing a headdress brings us back to the far pre-islamic era, into what was called Mesopotamia, which would be roughly now Iraq, the East of Syria, a part of Jordan, the North of Saudi, South-East Turkey…The premises of this civilization last to 4000 years BC. Sumerians, acadians..Does it ring a bell? yes? perfect. Do you know Sargon and Gudea? No? No worries. Here are Sargon and Gudea. French people, and parisians especially, can admire them in the Musée du Louvre.
Sargon was the first “semite” king (that is to say, speaking a semitic language, such as arabic, hebrew, maltese, and so on… ) , where as Gudea was a “priest-king”. Both of them lived around 2300-2200 BC. Now, why I am telling you their story? Only to show you that the fact of carrying a headdress in what we now call “middle east” brings us back to the dawn of times. And now, keffiyeh and shemagh are just remote artefacts of symbols that, 4000 years before the Bitcoin, were already related with respectability and power. By the way, you may notice that their headdresses alredy look familiar compared to what is worn now by the locals (see below _ and don’t pay attention to the guy on the right, he understands zilch to the proper way of wearing his shemagh).
Later on, the islamic civilization, born on the same soil, got back into this traditionnal attributes. And by the way, even if this blog is focused on Levant and Jordan, the islamic world is swarming with mutliple types of headdresses : the “ghutra” in the Gulf, the “hatta” in Saudi, the “muzzar” in Oman/Yemen…
And why do keffiyeh and shemagh both display a pattern quite similar to a fishing net or a ear of a wheat? Simply because it symbolizes… a fishing net or an ear of wheat, thanks for asking :-)! Well, just “maybe”, because this explanation is not totaly corroborated with facts and sources. Still , the most likely explanation of the pattern brings us back to the sumerian era, where the headdress worn by the notables was a symbole of wealthness and abondance and power.
Finally, shemagh and keffiyeh are supposedly maintained of the head with a double cord lace called “igal” (or “aqal”, depending of the country), originally made of goat hair. Wanna some far-west atmosphere? Here’s a story : it appears that the main role of this igal was, first, to whip the camel in order to make it walk faster, but also, when needed, to tie together the two front legs of the camel when its owner wants it to stay around while drinking
his whisky his mint tea at the local saloon.
Today, this accessory is the equivalent of a social flag. Its price can vary up to a factor 10, whether it is made with plain synthetic hair, or braided with wool and woven with gold wires.
What does a Kefffieh stand for?
The Keffiyeh (“كوفية” in arabic , pronounced “KOUFIYYA”) is the traditionnal headdress in the Levant, of course in Palestine, but also in some places in Syria, Kurdistan, Turkey….Some etymologists actually thinkg that the origins of this word come from “Kuffa”, an old city located in Irak. There isn’t any consensus on this explanation, but not matter, you could still look clever by telling your friends this story.
By the way, several names of fabric and clothes come from the arabic world, the local braiders being very skilled : mousseline (Mossoul), Alepine (Alep), baldaquin (Baghdad), caban… The role of the Keffiyeh is to protect its owner from the sun, the dust, the wind, the cold…It was mostly worn by peasans, who are exposed to the environnment. People living in the cities preferred to wear the “Fez” ( also called “Tarbouche”), itself an heritage from the Ottoman empire, itself an heritage from Ancient Greece…
Let’s break here a wrong idea: no, its isn’t written anywhere that the Keffiyeh has to be black and white, and no, double no, it isn’t originally a palestinian exclusivity. At least until the 1930s…. And here stops History…and begins contemporary geopolitics.
In 1936,in Palestine , Izzal-Din al-Qassam initiated the great arab revolt. Originally, the revolt was a nationalist and anti-colonialist movement against…the british empire. And this is how, in order to avoid their faces to be identified, the palestinian insurgents were encouraged to wear the Keffiyeh instead of the Tarbouche.
And also, even in the 30s, the Keffiyeh was already considered as a arabic heritage, where as the tarbouche was still linked to the Ottoman invaders…And here is how a folkloric accessory becames a national symbol. From then, no wonder that 30 yers after, a young man called Yasser Arafat decided in turn to adopt the keffiyeh and its agal : a palestinian national symbol was born. And, more than the willingness of the palestinians to have their own state, it was also the symbol of the contestation against an established order.
All in all, the keffiyeh is not “just” palestinian, even it is now associated with some palestinians…And Arafat chose to wear the black and white version of the Keffiyeh, but other palestinian movements chose other colors : Hamas and al Qassam brigades in green and white, FPLP in red and white…
For the anecdote, please be aware that there has also been many attempts for changing the symbolic power of this headdress or for converting it into a financing tool for the palestinian cause, as shown in the this blog (french language, sorry). This is how one can now find quite easily israeli keffiyehs with the David star, or, on the contrary, “made in Palestine” in order to re-develop the local economy. Now, it is very likely that most of the keffiyehs displayed in your local store are “100% viscose, made in China”. And from 16 weavers in 1990, there is now only 1 in Palestine. On this issue, please have a look at this very good article found in the Middle East Eye website,http://www.middleeasteye.net/in-depth/features/last-keffiyah-factory-palestine-47037488 dedicated to the last keffiyeh factory existing in Palestine. …
Finally, the Keffiyeh has also become a, now a fashion trade symbol, was also reinvented…and it makes some people grind teeth ! I’ll let you discover the article and its pictures.
So, pretty much agitation around the Keffiyeh…Which proves that, much more than a headdress, it has become in a way one of the symbols of the struggle, whatever struggle it is !
Now what is a Shemagh?
The Shemagh (you pronounce it “SHMAAR” in arabic) is the traditionnal bedouin headdress. Its functions are quite the same as for the Keffiyeh. However, it is made by a much thicker cotton and wool is sometimes braided in it also to reinforce its structure.
The traditionnal shemagh is white, sand, green…anything but red, even red dye existed for immemorial times also. Actually, it is
because of thanks to the British Empire that the red&white shemagh has become a national emblem. How come? Does Lawrence of Arabia ring a bell? Here we are ! in order to identify the sympathizers of the Arabe Revolt (the first one of 1916, not the “great one” of 1936 ! ) , the government of his Majesty decided to produce in Manchester a massive amount of red&white shemaghs, withbthe purpose of giving them to the insurgents supported by UK…Some time after, at least in Jordan and in the North of Saudi, this new artefact has “brewed” among the local heritage…to such an extent that it now represents the nation itself, at the uppest level: .
The history of the Shemagh is less “politicized” than the one of the Keffiyeh. it is also less known. The object itself looks torn bteween local reality (to make it short, everybody has a red&white shemagh around, even the expats..), and the militarized image carried by the term “shemagh” in western countries.
Want a evidence? This brings us back to the introduction of this post : please type “shemagh” on your browset. What will the result show? Dozens of olive green, black, grey headresses, most of them worn in a fighting way, with the face hidden. Why that? because in the wake of the arab revolts, this accessory has continued to be used by western soldiers -mostly british- during the war episodes in th region all along the XXth century..
AND MOST OF ALL…HOW SHOULD I WEAR IT?
Any jordanian or palestinian shopkeeper would be very happy to teach you the right way of tying a shemagh. You’ll find on internet dozens of tutorials showing you dozens of way of wearing the shemagh and the keffiyeh.
So let’s limit it to 2 easy videos .
For you guys, here’s a good video made by an muslim indin living the the UAE. simple, nice, easy. They do exactly the same way in Wadi Rum and Petra.
For you ladies, here’s the n# 1 of the palestinian fashion. Mohavy, whose internet site is really nice, is a californian business, managed by 2 palestinians. You can find on the website multiple articles on the keffiyeh heritage. Please check it out !
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