I was amused, to say the least. Knowing full well that she was going to continue, I just rested my arm on the bench rail and smiled at her. She stared back at me deadpan.
“It's the symbol of Hamas, you know.” She glanced around to make sure people were listening. “You know, the group that bombs Israeli civilians?”
Well, at least I now knew how far this conversation had to go.
“Actually, no, it's not,” I replied. “Hamas has many symbols: A green or black field with an inscription from the Qur'an on it or crossed swords in front of the Dome of the Rock. But, generally it’s not the keffiyeh.”
“You seem to know a lot about it,” she smiled back. Clearly, she was ready for me to add fuel to her argument. “So, which terrorist group is it a symbol of, the PLO, or somebody like that?”
There was a palpable silence around us now. “Well,” I continued, “The scarf itself is not actually a symbol of anything. It's just a scarf. History has assigned it some symbolism, and more often than not, it is recognized as a symbol of Palestinian resistance to occupation.”
She opened her mouth to continue, but I kept my place on the soapbox. “Most people mistakenly assume that it is, or was, the symbol of the PLO, because Yasser Arafat was always wearing one. He, however, was merely adopting a long existing symbol of his people.”
I could feel my teacher voice coming out, but let it go. “People like Leila Khaled made the keffiyeh somewhat more of a symbol because she was wearing one when she took part in the hijacking of a TWA flight in the sixties. But, the keffiyeh as a symbol predates either the PLO, the PFLP, or really even Israel itself.”
She was not to be deterred. “Ah, so it's a symbol of a non-existent country?”
I was reminded of another conversation, on a subway about two months ago. A man who had pushed his way through a crowd of people to point at my scarf told me, “Palestine is not really a country, you know.” That train was at my stop, so I simply replied, “Then why are you so afraid of it?” It wasn’t my best, but his facial reaction was priceless.
Back on the train, I foolishly thought I could summarize a complex history. “Well, again, you’re thinking of the keffiyeh as only a Palestinian symbol,” I again told the girl. “But, it predates that. Some historians track the design back to Mesopotamia or possibly Phoenicia, that the netting design is symbolic of fishing nets, with the border design representing waves. Kurds are known to wear the scarf, as are some Persians, so it’s not even just an Arab symbol. But, it became a symbol of Palestinian resistance to British rule during the Arab Revolt in the 1930s.”
I paused. She sneered. “So,” she said, “You just bought that particular scarf in some store?”
“No,” I said, “Mine was gift from a family I was staying with in Gaza.”
She leaped at the opening she thought I had given her. Smiling broadly, she practically yelled “So! Yours is a symbol of Palestine!”
I smiled. “Yes. I never said mine wasn’t a symbol of Palestine. I am an ardent supporter of Palestinian rights and I wear this scarf as a reminder of my time there.” She opened her mouth, but I plunged on, “What I told you was that my scarf was not a terrorist symbol, that it was not warm from the ‘blood of innocent Israelis,’ or any other short-sighted, ill-educated idea you might have about it or me.”
I was getting fired up at this point, but fate would cut that short. We arrived at her station and she got up and walked off the train without another word. I was left with some uncomfortable stares, a wink from a woman in the row ahead of me, and an oddly silent section of a commuter train. I pulled my scarf a bit tighter around my neck and returned to my Twitter stream.
At any rate, I am proud to wear my keffiyeh and am undeterred by events like these. In fact, I recently ordered two new ones from Hirbawi Textiles in Hebron.By Ted Graham, Aslan Media Columnist