14 September 2008

Scarves: Political Chic

In June, after nine months of Cassie and Nate living there, I finally set out to visit them in Dekalb, IL. Both of them are attending grad school now: Cassie for Painting, Nate for Media-?(something or another). I had not seen their place yet, and our Chicago gallery day (and bitch session) was long overdue.

After gallery hoping and complaining about the amount of quality work, we of course had to go shopping, where we both picked out the same scarf to buy. We of course made our purchases and afterwards, even though we must be twins separated at birth, vowed never to wear our matching scarves at the same time when around the other. It didn’t even work for the Olsen twins. (The American ideology of individualism is always at war with the experience of a shared culture.)

I know the cold stares that unwelcome the (summer) scarf as an accessory, as a piece of clothing that helps to regulate white body temperature in all situations. America's deep puritanical strain is evident in our questioning of ‘fashion’ comes the question, “Why do white people like scarves so much?”

White peoples’ body temperatures do not operate on logical or consistent levels, and because of this white people are often wear clothing combinations that might seem strange or illogical. A common combination is wearing shorts with a sweatshirt that helps bring about comfort when your upper body is chilly but your lower half is sweltering.

During winter months, it’s no surprise to find white people all bundled up with scarves around their necks – it just makes sense. But even as the weather warms up and the other layers start to fall off, the scarf remains.

Not all white people wear scarves for temperature reasons. In fact, it’s not a rare occurrence to see a white person in a t-shirt, jeans, and a scarf. A scarf can be an essential part of an ensemble, allowing for important differentiation from other white people wearing the exact same clothes as them, thus allowing them to be picked out of the crowd for any number of purposes:

(Puritans distrust the efficacy of fashion. Art. Theatre.)

The Globe Theatre was officially closed by order of the dominant Puritan religious faction in 1642 and demolished in 1644.

In the last thirty or so years, Westerners who wear the keffiyeh have done so for at least one of two reasons: increased sympathy and activism by Westerners toward Palestinians in the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian Conflict have lead to the wearing of keffiyehs around the neck like a neckerchief as a political/fashion statement, as a sign of their solidarity with the Palestinian people; or simply because it looks kind of hip slung around the neck.

Traditionally worn by rural Palestinian peasants, the keffiyeh became a symbol of Palestinian nationalism in the 1930s. Its prominence resurfaced in the 1960s with the beginning of the Palestinian resistance movement and its adoption by Arafat.

Ironically, this symbol of Palestinian identity is now largely imported from China. Let us consider the effect of American culture on civilization. In 2008, Yasser Hirbawi, who for five decades had been the only Palestinian manufacturer of keffieyehs told Reuters that “Two years ago I had to close down my factory because I couldn’t compete with Chinese-made keffiyehs that sell for less.”

As with other articles of clothing worn in wartime, such as the T-shirt and khaki pants, the keffiyeh has been seen as chic among non-Arabs in the West. The scarf has been in and out of style in Europe for the last couple of decades, but in the past few years, Americans have sported it as a fashion accessory, usually worn as a scarf around the neck – as often oblivious of its “political meaning” as not. Urban Outfitters started selling “anti-war keffiyehs” in 2007, but then pulled the keffiyehs after “a pro-Israeli activist… complained about the items” and issued a statement that “the company had not intended ‘to imply any sympathy for or support of terrorists or terrorism.’”

So let’s briefly rewind for the benefit of those who from sheer lack of knowledge contend that the keffiyeh offers symbolic support for “Islamic extremism”, has come to symbolize murderous Palestinian jihad, and is a regular adornment of Muslim terrorists appearing in beheading and hostage-taking videos. 

It is interesting to note the keffiyeh was adopted by British soldiers during World War II, after which its utility made it an essential part of the wardrobes of not only European forces, but Australian, and indeed, American troops in the Middle East. For the most part, soldiers wear the keffiyeh in arid climates to provide protection from direct sun exposure, as well as for in protecting the mouth and eyes from blown dust and sand.

What happens when a nation or people readily absorb a foreign culture? One would assume that because the keffiyeh has been worn by peace activists, terrorists, Saudis, US troops, and hipsters, its expression of iconography would begin to lose its political significance. How, then, shall we describe Americanization, except as loss? America is the country where one stops being Italian or Chinese or German. If we want to all don our own keffiyehs since when does that necessitate Islamic extremism and anti-Semitism? America represents the freedom to re-create the world.

American’s lustily devour what they say they fear to become. (We learn to eat with chopsticks. We swing at piƱatas for our 5 year-old birthday party. We wear keffiyehs.)

Donning my scarf at Arches National Park during the Dog Days of August (read: dreaded heat; not to mention the aridity of the desert).

America is a dynamic society. Cultures are inducted into the American textbook, not merely as symbols of diversity, but as cultures that implicate our entire society. Without doubt, a multi-ethnic society and blurring of social boundaries that accompanies it doesn’t come without a sense of anxiety; imaginings of the exotic – the cultural ‘other’ – is at once glamour and dangerous. Difference is dangerous; dangerous is sexy, chic.