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In Europe the keffiyah – the popular Arab headscarf that became a political icon – has now turned into a fashion accessory, and can be found at exorbitant prices in luxury boutiques across the continent. In the West Bank area, on the other hand, it is increasingly becoming a rarity, at least among locally produced products, as opposed to the Chinese-made versions which flood the tourist souvenir shops in the old city of Jerusalem and in Bethlehem.
In 2000 there were over one hundred Palestinian keffiyah manufacturers, but today the city of Hebron is one of the few places they can be found. The last keffiyah factory in the West Bank is in Hebron, and bears the name of the Herbawi Textile company, founded in 1961 by Yasser Herbawi, who today, at the age of 81, leaves the running of the factory to his sons.
Close by the old city, the factory is inside a large warehouse-type building containing 15 units of machinery, of which only 4 are currently in use: “On average we produce only about 3,600 keffiyahs a month now,” explains one of the sons, Abd-Alazzeem, “thanks to the Chinese, who produce many more at much lower prices.” Against the deafening noise of the machinery, Abd-Alazzeem described how during the 1990s their production was far larger, but how today they are unable to compete with the Chinese products, and how their export market is simply not significant enough to compensate for the collapse of sales at home: the United States and France are the two principal importers of his keffiyahs, but the numbers involved are extremely modest.
Yet the difference between the versions made locally and made in China are extremely evident: one has only to touch the fabric to feel the compactness of a Herbawi Textile keffiyah, made of 70% cotton and 30% polyester. From a European viewpoint, the factory’s prices appear extremely reasonable, at just five Euros each, but in the shops in Hebron the prices vary according to the retailer and the gullibility of passing tourists and overseas buyers.
The best-selling model is the white version with large black squares, thanks to the photos of Arafat who was never seen without one and made it an iconic symbol of the Palestinian struggle for liberation. The red version is geographically connected with Jordan and with the Palestinian political movement called the Popular Front, while other variants fluctuate according to passing trends, especially abroad, where the keffiyah has lost its political significance and is often worn by people totally unaware of its history or that of the Palestinian people. The most popular version in the West Bank is still the black and white one, with either large or small squares, but this is worn almost exclusively by men, and generally by elderly men: it’s rare to see them worn by women, except occasionally by youthful activists at political assemblies or demonstrations.