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The Skinny on the Shemagh

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I feel like we haven’t given enough love to the shemagh, a.k.a. the keffiyeh. It was difficult! I’m not saying it wasn’t fashionable. It was for a second or two. A scarf with a cool pattern during the winter months made sense. And then it started gaining more and more steam. And once it becomes widespread, its popularity is dead by association. Meaning, the hipsters killed it.

But I still think it deserves some context. Our friend dapperkid, who gives excellent historical context to the fashion that affects our lives, gives us a history lesson on the origins of the scarf that took the nation by storm.

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Thought I’d give a little history of the scarf, given as most people merely know them as ‘that Arab scarf’, or a fashion trend. The traditional keffiyeh is a square piece of cloth with a distinctive pattern design worn by men in the Arab region. It is actually worn by the vast majority as a head wrap, keeping the wearer cool in the arid conditions of the desert and keeping sand from blowing in the face. Seeing that many Arabs still actually live in the desert and rural areas, alongside the modern nomads, the necessity for this garment can not be overlooked. Although many of us would probably wear less in the heat, those living in the desert actually wear thin layers of cotton/wool, along with head wraps. This may seem rather dichotomous when thinking about the heat, however they actually help to keep the body cool through making the wearer sweat, which then evaporates on the cloth and gives a refreshing sensation. The material is therefore important as a cotton/wool blend will actually facilitate for a faster evaporation, keeping the wearer cooler and being more practical.

The scarf design sold in the West, is actually only one of literally dozens of designs. Each design actually differs according to geographic region and respective localities. The main colours are either a black and white (with either colour being the dominant one depending on the locality) or red and white, which is most strongly associated with Jordan. The varying patterns and wearing of the scarf in Bedouin society actually acts as a symbol of status and signifies the hierarchy of importance.

Most recently in their history, the shemagh has been associated with the Palestinians, acting as a national symbol of pride and solidarity against the Israeli Occupation. Although the scarf’s association was with the rural and desert dwellers, the 1960s saw the adoption of the scarf by those living in the city. Its media image was cemented through the wearing of the scarf by Yasser Arafat, who actually had a specific personal method of wearing it. It has since become synonymous with ‘terrorism’, due to its deep historical, and therefore identifiable, connections with the Middle East in general. A rather narrow minded media view I find, given its embedded place in the history, traditions and cultures of a a number of countries or regions in the Middle East and Africa. Oddly enough, the scarf has actually been employed, in camoflauge colours, by the US Army in the region due to its practicality for the everyday soldier. Indeed its use in the army actually finds its roots in Vietnam, a time during the Cold War, when relations with the Middle East were made close to avoid them falling into the Communist sphere.

[Courtesy of Dapper Kid]

There you have it. Some keffiyeh love for a change.

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3 Comments

  1. Posted July 11, 2008 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

    wow, this is actually really interesting. i appreciate this post.
    i feel one step ahead of the hipsters.

  2. Posted July 11, 2008 at 9:09 pm | Permalink

    I love those t shirts! and its good your giving the history on these scarves

  3. Posted July 12, 2008 at 3:42 am | Permalink

    Thanks for linking my post!! I actually really like those t-shirts lol, but I may have to wait for the ‘trend’ to die down before wearing one!


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