Down a quiet street in Hebron, West Bank, down a short alley and through an unremarkable doorway, I discover the last outpost of an invaluable piece of Palestinian culture.

I am at the Herbawi factory, the last manufacturer of the authentic Palestinian keffiyeh, founded in 1961 by Yasser Herbawi. Today I meet Abed, one of his three sons. Delighted, if a little surprised, to have an unexpected visitor, he shows me the floor of the factory, in front of several shelves filled with scarves. “Welcome, welcome,” he said, motioning me inside.

Amid a deafening crash – looms have very many moving parts – the smell of grease and the air filled with cotton lint, I am greeted by an amazing sight. Huge machines slowly create Palestinian keffiyehs, one row at a time. A self-confessed textile nerd, I find the experience almost overwhelming. Shelves are covered with industrial-size spools of wire, and one wall is filled with neatly displayed rectangular swatches — inexplicably lit in purple neon. A poster of Yasser Arafat is stuck on one of the pillars.

As I move cautiously between the machines, the men looking after them look up and smile, oblivious to this random tourist getting in the way. I’m the only one here. At the office, an Austrian woman places an order, but no one else seems keen on discovering this little piece of history.

It is a sign of the fact, although known as the unofficial Palestinian flag, and despite the best efforts of a dedicated few, the future of the keffiyeh is by no means certain.

The distinctive square scarf, with its striking fishing net pattern, is a cornerstone of Arab culture, from Turkey and Yemen to Saudi Arabia. When the Herbawi factory opened in the West Bank’s largest city, it was one of 30 such factories producing the distinctive keffiyeh.

Scarves, thobes and even jackets were shipped across Palestine and the wider region, with the Herbawi factory alone weaving 1,000 scarves a day – its machines running 18 hours a day just to keep up with demand .

By 2008, however, Herbawi was the only site still in operation and production had fallen to just 100 scarves a day. So what happened?

Although now indelibly linked to Palestinian nationalism, the keffiyeh dates back to Mesopotamia around 3100 BC. AD, when worn by Sumerian men to denote high status and priesthood. Over the centuries, it has always been the prerogative of men, but under the Ottoman rule (1517-1917), its use in Palestine became the prerogative of farmers.

During the 1936 Arab Revolt against British rule, the keffiyeh began its turn towards something more rebellious when it was used by protesters to cover their faces. When the British banned it in an attempt to stop the protests, Palestinians responded by taking the headscarf en masse – including women – making the protesters indistinguishable.

During the Nakba of 1948 – the forced eviction of Palestinians from their homes after the formation of Israel – the air of headscarf dissent grew, so when Mohammed Abdel Rahman Abdel Raouf al-Qudwa al-Husseini, better known as Yasser Arafat, took over the leadership of the Palestine Liberation Organization in the late 1960s, he made the keffiyeh his signature, folded and draped in the shape of Palestine.

Inside the Herbawi factory.  Sarah Maisey/The National

Over the next three decades, the headscarf became increasingly politicized in Palestine, with the Fatah party claiming the black and white version as its own and Hamas adopting red and white. Abroad, however, these accolades were less significant and, with its thrill of activism, the headscarf was increasingly embraced by those wishing to display their credentials and political sympathies.

By the mid-1990s, the keffiyeh’s popularity became widespread, and thanks to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, it became a victim of its own success. Aiming to open trade barriers around the world, the Gatt has allowed foreigners to access markets. Asian factories sensed an opportunity and started producing their own keffiyehs at a lower price and in larger quantities. Flooding the market, these were purchased by those who did not know, or cared, that they were buying a cheap facsimile.

In the 2000s, the keffiyeh was co-opted as a fashion accessory. For Fall/Winter 2007, stripped of all meaning and heritage, Balenciaga is releasing its own plaid scarf, priced at $3,000. The high street quickly followed suit, with American Apparel and Topshop releasing their own black and white versions.

Urban Outfitters found themselves the target of significant backlash, after naming their version “anti-war woven scarves”. Forced to pull it off the shelves, the company also had to issue an apology. “We apologize if we have offended anyone, that was in no way our intention,” he said.

If all the ensuing controversy contributed to increasing the popularity of the headscarf, it sounded the death knell for the Hebron factories, which could not compete with a flood of cheap copies. Having saturated the market, foreign copies have even reached Jerusalem, only 28 kilometers away.

Today, entering the Herbawi factory is like stepping back in time. It’s the only factory of its kind still in operation, with towering, half-century-old Suzuki looms clanking loudly.

Notoriously complicated to use – it takes over a year to master one – each machine weaves scarves into a single continuous length, which must be cut by hand. However, not all machines here are working. Of the original 15, half are now inactive, closed as sales slowed two decades ago and have never recovered.

Herbawi creates scarves in an increasingly wide variety of colors.  Photo: Herbawi USA

Yet despite this, there is room for hope. In 2008, Herbawi was forced to lay off all but one staff member as sales plummeted. Now a handful of men move between the machines, carefully tending to the emerging tissue. Although it is still down on its peak numbers, it bodes well that Herbawi is starting to look to the future again. Salvation, it seems, comes from outside Palestine, especially from Germany and the United States.

Hearing about the plant’s plight, Palestinians living in Germany set up a website to promote and sell keffiyehs and olive oil, to offer support and a financial lifeline.

Baptized Paliroots.com, it joined forces with the factory, becoming its European representative, thus bringing it into the digital age. In 2015, the site was seen by Azar Aghayev, who was prompted to launch an American version, called Herbawi USA.

Seeing the German site was a moment of enlightenment for him, says Aghayev. “They were selling keffiyehs and other Palestinian products like olive oil and spices. We got in touch and told them that we would like to sell the keffiyehs in the United States. »

Today, as a US subsidiary of Herbawi, Aghayev sells 36 color variations on its site. We are far from the first days, when he only ordered four colors. “We shipped our first box of keffiyehs from Palestine to the United States. Only black and white, red and white, pure black and Gaza.

With many scarves named after Palestinian towns, the Gaza design is a bright mix of orange, red and green. Having previously visited Palestine and witnessed first-hand the situation facing his people, Aghayev knew that long-term support was desperately needed. “I wanted to help the Palestinian cause as much as possible, and this seemed like a sustainable way to do it.”

Fans can now purchase Herbawi scarves at select locations and websites around the world.  Photo: HerbawiUSA

The goal, he explains, is to reclaim ownership of the keffiyeh for Herbawi and Palestine, and to protect the future of the scarf and the factory that makes it. “My goal is brand recognition. And create sustainable jobs and a sustainable operation in Palestine, where stability is a bit hard to come by. And raise awareness of the Palestinian cause, of course. That goes without saying.”

With the colors of the headscarf now loaded with political significance in Palestine, Herbawi expanded his color palette to get around the problem, creating many new variations.

Visitors can pick up a keffiyeh in colors such as chocolate, taupe, deep blue and even one in the green and orange of the Irish flag.

Called the Saoirse, it is, the factory states, an acknowledgment of the similar struggles facing Ireland and Palestine, and is dedicated to “freedom and freedom” and the “people of Ireland”.

Inevitably, as Herbawi USA grew, others tried to take advantage. However, Aghayev remains unflappable and committed to the long term. “Other people rushed to sell Herbawi keffiyehs online, unofficially. Without the knowledge of the factory and the sale of versions that were not intended for export,” he says. Although pragmatic, he does not hide his contempt for the peddlers of copies.

However, despite the help coming from Europe and America, little support is offered to the Herbawi factory from Palestine. The population has far bigger issues to worry about than keeping a single factory going.

For example, the taxi driver who took me to the Herbawi factory from Bethlehem was unmoved by his fate. More concerned that he could never afford to get married, when I gave him a scarf as a present, he looked at him – and me – quizzically. Explaining that it was for the son he would one day have, I pointed out that by the time the child arrives, the Herbawi factory may well be a thing of the past.

Updated: September 19, 2022, 03:43

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