x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Kaffiyehs are now 'as Palestinian as wonton soup'

The four Emirati grandmothers who have been so popular with Gulf television viewers are making inroads overseas

Textile factory owner Yasser Mohammad Herbawi.
Textile factory owner Yasser Mohammad Herbawi.

HEBRON // It is the ultimate Palestinian symbol, almost a global brand. Walk the narrow alleys of Hebron's old city and the white and black chequered kaffiyeh is everywhere, either hanging outside shops or draped around necks, old and young. But the likelihood is that the kaffiyehs on show here are now as Palestinian as won ton soup. Cheap imports, often from China, have had a devastating effect on traditional local Palestinian industries, with everything from soap factories to olive oil production adversely affected.

Not far up the hill from the shops of Hebron's old city lies the last Palestinian textile company to make kaffiyehs. The Herbawi Textile Factory, established in 1960, is an institution in Hebron, but Yasser Mohammed Herbawi, the factory's owner, said he was struggling in the face of cheap imports. "I was the first and now I am the last to make kaffiyehs in Palestine," he said shaking his kaffiyeh-wrapped head in mock disbelief. "I am trying to persuade the Palestinian Authority that they must do more to protect local businesses like mine."

Mr Herbawi, 76, estimated that he makes some 120 kaffiyehs a day, enough to make a living, he said, but nowhere near what it was in the heyday. He said he was trying to convince policymakers to raise taxes on imports that threaten local manufacturing. But it is not only import-export regulations that Mr Herbawi must contend with. Where he once used to sell his products across the West Bank and Gaza as well as Israel, Israeli-imposed restrictions on movements mean he can now sell only in the West Bank, more than halving his potential market.

And even in the West Bank, the situation is difficult. "The cost of distribution for local manufacturers is high because of the 600-plus checkpoints across the West Bank," said Nahed Freij, the project manager with InTajuna (Our Products), which seeks to promote and enhance the market for local products. Ms Freij said with the Palestinian economy ultimately dependent on the Israeli economy and unable to function independently, local industries have been hard hit by the past eight years of political instability.

Of 120 local manufacturers registered with the PA, InTajuna found that only about 79 are actually functioning. With Israeli restrictions on the movement of goods both within and outside the occupied territories as well as the high cost of production that comes with being tied to the more developed Israeli economy, imports, especially Chinese imports, are simply cheaper. And in the straitened economic circumstances of the occupied territories, price is king.

"Most people can't tell what is locally made and what is not," said Jamal Maraga, whose shop in the old city of Hebron specialises in local handicrafts. "And if a locally made pillow case costs 100 shekels [Dh320] and an import is 10, people will go for the cheaper one." Mr Maraga, however, said he believed proper labelling would be very effective. Mr Herbawi's kaffiyehs, for example, are unlabelled and to the untrained eye almost impossible to distinguish from cheaper imports. Mr Herbawi said he was working to remedy that and would start stamping his products from next month.

"People should buy locally and encourage local industries," said Mr Maraga. "I think enough people take pride in Palestinian products to be willing to pay a little more to do that." However, Ms Freij was not so sure. "Palestinian consumers tend to view Palestinian products as of inferior quality and tend to trust foreign or Israeli-made products more." In order to change consumer perception, said Ms Freij, local manufacturers needed help in both packaging and marketing.

"The quality is good, but consumers don't necessarily see that," she said. Perceptions matter. Mr Herbawi started with two mechanical looms in 1960. The 1960s saw the height of the popularity and activities of the fedayeen, the fighters of the PLO who traditionally wore the kaffiyeh, as did, most famously, their leader, Yasser Arafat. Mr Herbawi rode that wave and quickly expanded production until, in 1973, he bought his 16th loom.

Now, however, Abdel Aziz Karaki, 56, flits between the only four machines that are still operating to make sure the thread is straight and the looms are functioningº properly. Mr Karaki has worked for Mr Herbawi since he was 15 and seemed devastated at the factory's sinking fortunes. "I am very proud to do this work, I consider it a national duty. If people know nothing about Palestine, they will know the kaffiyeh."

The kaffiyeh has certainly flickered in and out of fashion across the world for decades. In the 1970s, it was a favoured accessory for left-wingers and students across Europe. In this decade, different-coloured kaffiyehs became a more mainstream fashion accessory, even if its roots still managed to cause controversy. In 2007, the US clothing store chain Urban Outfitters stopped selling its version of the scarf after protests by pro-Israel groups.

Dunkin' Donuts, improbably, also got embroiled in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict when it was forced to pull an ad that featured the US TV chef Rachel Ray wearing a paisley-patterned scarf that was too close to the kaffiyeh for the comfort of some. Shrill and rather ridiculous as such protests are, the traditional pattern on the black and white kaffiyeh does have a political subtext, said Mr Maraga. The middle pattern, reminiscent of a wire mesh fence, represents the Israeli occupation. The oval-shaped black patterns on the side of the kaffiyeh, meanwhile, represent the leaves of the olive tree, a traditional symbol of both Palestine and peace.

"It the saddest thing that kaffiyehs are now mostly made outside and in all these different colours," Ms Freij said. "This is our symbol. It's almost a trademark. To see something like the kaffiyeh being mainly an import is hard to bear." okarmi@thenational.ae