Palestinian keffiyeh resists . . . Chinese competition

Published April 26th, 2015 - 05:55 GMT

Thanks to the business sense of two brothers from the southern West Bank city of Hebron, the traditional black-and-white keffiyeh headscarf has discovered a new lease of life.

In 1961, their father Yasser Hirbawi, who sold keffiyehs he brought from Syria and Jordan, decided to set up his own production line.

When the factory began, two employees managed two looms to produce the famous black-and-white patterned headscarf.

Today, his sons are at the head of a business which employs 15 people and exports keffiyehs worldwide, all of them bearing the logo: Made in Palestine.

Each year, they sell around 30,000 scarves, of which two or three percent are sold locally while the rest go overseas with the main markets in Italy, France and Germany, most of which are ordered online, according to Juda Hirbawi.

Paradoxically, it was the British who turned the keffiyeh into a widespread symbol of resistance during the time of Palestine under their mandate (1920-1948), says Abdelaziz al-Karaki, 61, who has spent more than four decades working in the Hirbawi factory.

"They said that anyone who wore the Bedouin scarf was an opponent and suddenly everyone started wearing them," he said.

But the keffiyeh's appearance on the international scene can be put down to the influence of one man: Yasser Arafat, the late Palestinian leader and icon of the resistance who was hardly ever pictured without his trademark headscarf.

MODELLED BY ARAFAT

Thanks to him, the headscarf was pictured at the United Nations, on the White House lawn and in Oslo when Arafat was jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize along with Israel's Shimon Peres and the late Yitzhak Rabin for their Middle East peace efforts.

And it is a portrait of the late leader in his keffiyeh which greets visitors at the entrance to Hirbawi's factory.

"Arafat used to offer a keffiyeh to all his distinguished visitors and today, keffiyehs from our factory are still offered by his successor Mahmud Abbas," said Juda, speaking over the roar of the looms, which are now automated.

His factory has made a big comeback.

At the start of the last decade, in the face of strong competition from China and India who were selling keffiyehs at a third of the price, he decided to shut down the factory.

"They literally flooded the market. With their prices, we just couldn't compete," he told AFP.

It was a tough decision for a family whose production line had lived through decades of conflict and the first Palestinian uprising (1987-1993) and had survived the rigours of daily life in the Israeli-occupied territories.


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