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The last keffiyeh factory in Palestine

The Herbawi family has kept their keffiyeh business afloat despite the challenges they face under occupation and globalisation
A view of the Herbawi keffiyeh factory in Hebron (MEE/Silvia Boarini)

HEBRON, West Bank - The unforgettable thing about the Herbawi’s textile factory in Hebron is the noise; the deafening noise of mechanical looms working at high speed. These ancient machines resemble steam locomotives and so does their constant ‘clunk-clunk-clunk-clunk’.

Then there is the lint, mixed with dust. Thick and fluffy, the lint rests on the looms’ mechanisms. It makes the place look as if it is waking up following decades of inactivity, after an evil spell was cast on it. And, in some sense, it is.

On this day, 14 looms are at work, all weaving a powerful Palestinian symbol: the keffiyeh. “Alhamdulillah,” smiled Abed Herbawi, one of three brothers running the factory. With this phrase, he thanks God for the increased demand for keffiyehs. It wasn’t long ago that the looms had stood silent.

The mechanisms of the looms resemble old locomotives (MEE/Silvia Boarini)

The keffiyeh in Palestine

The Herbawi Textile Factory has been weaving keffiyehs, now widely recognised as a symbol of Palestinian nationalism, since 1961. Since then, it has remained the only keffiyeh factory in Palestine. Before setting up shop in his native Hebron, Abed’s father Yasser, now in his 80s, had been importing the traditional headdresses from Syria.

Yasser Herbawi, factory founder and father of Judah and Abed, still spends his days at the factory (MEE/Silvia Boarini)

Business-wise, it was good timing. Following the establishment of the state of Israel, the period between the late '50s and the '90s was a time of heightened activity for the Palestinian national movement. It was also a period of heightened popularity for its adopted symbol, the keffiyeh. The chequered scarf made it onto newspapers, magazines and TV screens across the world.

It was undoubtedly a young fighter named Yasser Arafat, founder of the political party Fatah and later leader of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), who more than any other person familiarised the non-Arab public with the keffiyeh and the agal – the black round rope placed on the top of the head to hold the keffiyeh in place. If through the years Arafat’s face became the one people associated with Palestine, his trademark headdress quickly became Palestine’s unofficial emblem.

But pre-mass-media, the keffiyeh had already played a unifying role in the face of another occupier, the British. During what has become known as the Arab revolts of 1936-39, the traditional headdress was adopted by fighters who went on to push the urban classes to drop the traditional Ottoman tarbush or fez (the crimson short cylinder hat topped with a black tassel) in favour of the keffiyeh.

In his research, Ted Swedenburg of the University of Arkansas points out that prior to the revolts, the keffiyeh was traditionally worn by Palestinian peasants, the fellah. Its main purpose was, after all, to shield head and face from the sun in summer and from the wind in winter. Its adoption by the urban classes marked a moment of "inversion of social hierarchy," Swedenburg explained. The warrior fellah successfully dictated the dress-code that signified national unity.

Manufacturing under occupation

Throughout the '70s and '80s, the Herbawi family produced black and white keffiyehs in large quantities, over 100,000 a year, Abed told Middle East Eye. “Business was good then. We bought the looms from Japan and we had them running all the time; we couldn’t make enough.”

The red and white pattern was soon added to production. In Palestine, it was sometimes preferred by supporters of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), Herbawi explains, but it is also a colour that remains common in Jordan and other Arab countries.

Judah Herbawi marks the end of each keffiyeh by cutting the extra thread as the textile exits the loom mechanisms (MEE/Silvia Boarini)

The factory ran smoothly through wars, occupation and the First Intifada, but finally hit a wall in the early '90s. The decline began following the Paris Protocol of 1994 - the economic relations agreement between Israel and the PLO signed after the Oslo Accords. More than ever, the protocol sealed the interdependence between the two economies but ignored the skewed balance of power characterising that relationship. 

It is widely agreed amongst many Palestinian and international economists that between 1967, the beginning of the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, and the Paris Protocol of 1994, Israel had had plenty of time to ensure that Palestinian economic development remain stunted and dependant.

In particular, destruction of infrastructure and recurrent rejection of applications for licenses to begin new industrial projects are widely cited as some of the obstacles blocking Palestinian industrial development since 1967. In some sense, the Paris Protocol ensured that little changed.

Globalisation and occupation

“Manufacturing contributes to roughly 12 percent of our GDP,” Wajih Amer, economics lecturer at An-Najah University in the northern West Bank city of Nablus, told MEE. “Small-scale establishments are needed to build a strong base for economic development in Palestine.” 

But destruction of industrial infrastructure continues to this day. The most evident episode was the bombing of over 250 factories in Gaza in the 2014 war. And the policy of refusing construction permits is also continuing, a practice that is of particular concern to Area C, the 60 percent of the West Bank still under full Israeli control.  

"Interdependence" usually means that it is the Israeli economy that will benefit both in terms of access to cheap Palestinian labour and to the Palestinian market. A straightforward example is that of Palestinians employed in Israel in industry, agriculture or construction. Their work contributes to Israel’s economic growth and their remittances are often reinvested into the Israeli economy, when they buy products that could, in theory, be produced by Palestinian industries or agro-businesses.

“A strong industrial sector would help create much-needed employment opportunities,” continued Amer, thus eventually breaking the cycle of dependence.

Add globalisation and a free-market policy adopted often too liberally by the Palestinian Authority (PA), and it is no surprise that Palestinian manufactures have been left with a very small local market indeed. In this climate, cheap Chinese goods flooding into the West Bank and Gaza have been singled out as the most obvious culprit. And thus the keffiyeh became a victim of its own fame.

“When keffiyehs made in China began arriving,” Herbawi told MEE, “our looms fell silent.” As demand for Palestinian-made keffiyehs shrunk, so did production. It took another 15 years for it to pick up again.

Only recently, in 2013, the PA, lobbied by local industrialists, opted to curb some of its neoliberal economic policies by adding a 35 percent tariff on Chinese and other imports.

One of the traditional black and white keffiyehs made by the Herbawi factory. The label comes with a Palestinian mobile number (MEE/Silvia Boarini)

Surviving globalisation

These are dynamics that are unfolding worldwide and pitting global traders against a growing movement pushing for individuals to "buy local" and sustain "local businesses". But in Palestine, local businesses also struggle against a myriad of restrictions imposed by Israel’s military occupation. With the same creativity and resilience that are part and parcel of life under occupation, the Herbawi family required a global reach for their business under globalisation.

Above the factory, where three workers constantly run between the noisy looms to add spools of thread or prod at the mechanisms of stubborn machines, there is a quiet workshop. Judah Herbawi and his son cut individual scarves from large rolls of textile piled in a corner.

Five women sitting at sewing machines add the finishing touches and the tassels. “These days, we finish 300 to 400 keffiyehs [a day] on average,” explained Herbawi. A far cry from the numbers produced in the '70s and '80s but still a sizeable improvement from the early 2000s.

In a workshop above the factory, women take care of the finishing by sewing the edges of each keffiyeh and by adding the tassels (MEE/Silvia Boarini)

In order to remain open and competitive, the Herbawi bet it all on the artisan quality, originality and uniqueness of their product. The Herbawis' keffiyeh is something niche buyers everywhere are beginning to appreciate. E-commerce and a campaign to save the last keffiyeh factory in Palestine have proven successful initiatives.

A number of dedicated websites make it easy for customers all over the world to buy an original Herbawi keffiyeh. “We now make keffiyehs in many different patterns and colours,” explains Herbawi. “They are for tourists,” he stressed, “Palestinians still prefer the traditional patterns.”

The keffiyeh outside the Arab world

In parallel to its history in Palestine, the keffiyeh developed a life of its own in Europe and the USA. If throughout the '60s, its wearers were associated as being a fighting minority representing anti-war or social justice battles, since the '70s, politically aware audiences everywhere have been associating the keffiyeh with the Palestinian cause.

But the '90s and early 2000s - from the Second Intifada to the successive Gulf Wars and the "war on terrorism" - have seen right-wing, often American, commentators go to great length to attack keffiyeh wearers as supporters of "terrorism" generally.

This happened in particular when the keffiyeh made it from street stalls to high fashion stores. If some denounced this as a glamorisation of "terrorism," others saw it rather as the ultimate depoliticisation of a symbol, while others still as an occasion to raise awareness about Palestine and Israel’s ongoing military occupation.

As Swedenburg puts it, maybe the keffiyeh need not choose between being a political or a fashion item; it can be both and it can be educational, a conversation starter.

Despite the frenzy surrounding the interpretations of this symbol, for Angeles Rodenas, a Spanish tourist in Hebron, the black and white keffiyeh undoubtedly spells Palestine. “I see it as a traditional garment that now has political connotations as a symbol of resistance,” she told MEE. “I connect it to images of Arafat and political unrest in the area.”

The Herbawi strategy of adding colours to the pattern takes some weight off political associations and makes the keffiyeh an item that can be worn a bit more lightly, even by politically aware customers. “I have bought a colourful one as a fashion item, for a gift,” Rodenas explained.

One of the looms weaving a coloured version of the keffiyeh (MEE/Silvia Boarini)

With colours, maybe the Herbawi family has struck the right balance for business. For sure, the keffiyeh is in Hebron to stay, and the younger generations still see it as a tradition worth maintaining.

“I wear the keffiyeh around my neck,” Mohammad Herbawi, a 14-year-old son of Judah Herbawi, told MEE. “And when I am older I will wear it on my head with the agal,” he added. “I love to see older Palestinians wearing it. To me, it means that they love Palestine.”

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