An article recently published on the BBC’s website told of a recent controversy regarding a Dunkin’ Donuts online commercial in which an American celebrity chef appeared wearing something that resembled the traditional kuffiyeh checkered scarf. The article stated that:
“This fashion choice incensed at least one prominent conservative blogger, who said it evoked extremist videos.
The blogger, Michelle Malkin, called the garment ‘a regular adornment of Muslim terrorists appearing in beheading and hostage-taking videos.’”
Admittedly, this is not a surprising reaction to come from a conservative American blogger, but it nevertheless sounds alarm bells in the minds of those who are aware of the increasing tendency to collapse everything Arab, especially Palestinian, into the category “terrorist.” Moreover, the fact that the BBC offered no alternative analysis to Malkin’s comments indicates that it implicitly accepts them, another blow to representation of elements of Arab identity in the Western mainstream media. The visceral reaction of Malkin and her supporters, who succeeded in getting the Dunkin’ Donuts commercial removed from the web, should be shown for what it really is: another attempt at denying symbols of Palestinian resistance their history, and hence their legitimacy, and thereby relegating them to the category of irrational, violent incitements to terrorism.
An important factor in the interpretation of any symbol is that symbols have no fixed meaning. Across ages, within different contexts and through various intentions, the meaning of an inanimate object will change. This is no less true for the kuffiyeh than for other symbols whose meanings have changed drastically over space and time, such as the swastika, which was initially a Hindu, Buddhist and Janist sign for well-being and then became the logo for the Nazi party; “Easter” eggs, which can be traced back 2,500 years to ancient Persian and European pagan spring festivals and then became an image of the resurrection of Christ; and the hijab, the donning of which was a symbol of resistance in the Shah’s Iran and in contemporary Turkey or France, while its removal and stylistic modification was an act of dissidence in turn of the century Egypt and still is in today’s Iran.
As anyone with the slightest idea about Arab history and culture would know, the kuffiyeh was initially worn in the Middle East in order to protect the head from the harsh sun of the desert, and then became a symbol of Palestinian nationalism in the 1960s; it was, quite literally, Yasser Arafat’s piece de resistance. The fact that the kuffiyeh has been used in the past seven or eight years in the videos broadcast by “terrorists” could be explained by the widening perception in the Arab popular consciousness that American policies are aimed against them as a group, an ethnicity, a religion. That the symbol of Palestinian resistance has been adopted by contemporary Islamist groups can be explained by the notion that the plight of the Palestinians is considered to be the epitomization of oppression perpetuated by the West; that the destruction of homes, families, livelihoods in Iraq, Afghanistan or Lebanon is perpetrated by the same entity that sanctioned the creation of the state of Israel, whose initial displacement of hundreds of thousands of people from their homes continues to this day, in terms of ever-increasing settlements and the land grabs achieved by the monstrosity that is the wall.
The sustained violence, dispossession and destruction that is the manifestation of American foreign policy in the region perpetuate the homogenization and the othering of Arabs, an ethnicity whose lives are framed to be less valuable than those in the West, in the minds of the American political elite, while, reciprocally, it solidifies pan-Arab solidarity in the region. Therefore, it is to be expected that individuals or groups who seek to counter such aggression appropriate symbols from a traditional identity or historical struggle, namely, the kuffiyeh as something both quintessentially Arab and discursively anti-imperialist.
However, that does not mean that the new appropriation by contemporary Islamists should have a monopoly on the meaning of the kuffiyeh. Rather, it is one of a plurality of contingent meanings, and any responsible analysis of the kuffiyeh should reflect that. The drive to immediately associate the kuffiyeh with terrorism betrays the deep-set bigotry that fuels the othering necessary to pursue aggressive foreign policies that place in hierarchy the value of human life.
Furthermore, in keeping with the view of the shifting quality of symbols, one must also acknowledge that the kuffiyeh has become a very popular fashion accessory in the West over the past couple of years. Indeed, just as the floating face of Che Guevara, eyes fixed on an ever-approaching horizon, has been massively commodified and abused by the very exploitative system against which he sacrificed his life fighting, so the popularization of multi-colored kuffiyehs as sold in stores like Top Shop or Urban Outfitters serves to mainstream, and hence dilute, the kuffiyeh’s message of resistance.
Popularization yields banality. Something that was once revolutionary becomes just another frivolous morsel for our relentless appetite of consumption.
But that does not mean that the kuffiyeh is devoid of any political significance. It depends where it is being worn, and why. To say that the popularization of the scarf in the high streets of London and New York renders the Palestinian who bears it in Gaza, the third generation refugee who dons it in Jordan, or the many people around the world who wear it in solidarity with the Palestinian cause insignificant or futile is to prioritize one contextually contingent meaning of the kuffiyeh over all others.
The aforementioned furor over the use of the kuffiyeh in a Dunkin’ Donut’s commercial can be viewed as revealing more about the eye of the beholder than the actual object of consternation. What is most worrying is that by heeding to the complaints of the conservative blogger and others, the company is allowing one selective, biased and prejudiced interpretation of the kuffiyeh to dominate over the others, thereby invalidating both its meanings of resistance and fashion trend. Moreover, as a result of this case, that prejudiced interpretation will no doubt become more predominant in the popular Western imagination of what the kuffiyeh means, and will continue to exacerbate the stigma that surrounds anything Palestinian or Arab.
Lilith Hope lives in Beirut. She divides her time between working as a translator and developing her fledgling music and writing careers, while volunteering in the Shatila refugee camp with the Palestinian non-governmental organization Najde and partaking in the Nahr al-Bared Relief Campaign. She was born in the Caribbean but grew up in France, and studied Arabic and Politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, UK, and at the University of Alexandria, Egypt.