Malak Al-Khatib and her black and white chequered keffiyeh

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Scene I: It is November 2014 and we are approaching the finale of a Marcel Khalife concert. Arrays of loyal fans occupy the hundreds of chairs that adorn the heart of Cairo’s Al-Azhar Park. When Khalife’s two sons start playing the melodies of a favourite mantra in accompaniment to Marcel’s oud, hordes of attendees hastily put up black and white chequered keffiyehs and dance to a dabke-infused song of resistance.

The song opens with Marcel’s call on fishermen to “work hard” as they pursue their daily vocation. While there is no sole anecdote regarding the protagonists of the song, many have linked it to the fishermen of Sidon, in Lebanon’s south. The song, however, also came to be associated with the Palestinian cause.

I hear omnipresent “hela hela – translating into “go ahead, do it” as Khalife calls on fishermen to work hard.

“Shedo al hemma, el hemma aweyyi, markab yendah ‘al bahareyya, ya bahareyya hela hela” (shake a leg, you can do it, your boats await you, go ahead!)

“Shedo el hemma el hemma aweyyi, jarh beyendah ‘al horeyya, ya bahareyya hela hela” (shake a leg, you can do it, despite your pain, you call for freedom, do it!)

Throngs of men and women perform the Palestinian dabke movements, all the while twirling their keffiyehs up in the air; their steps and hand movements are juxtaposed in faultless harmony.

The keffiyeh – or hatta as it is dubbed in Palestinian colloquial – is a traditional headdress that originated in the historic Al Sham – namely Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Palestine.

The garment was traditionally worn by the Palestinian fallah (peasant) or Bedouin who treated their keffiyehs as protective garments while being in the fields. Some attribute its chequered pattern to its representation of trading in historic Palestine by taking the form of fishing webs.

But the roots of the keffiyeh’s propagation as a cultural and historical garment and its development into a symbol of Palestinian nationalism were first introduced during the 1930s Arab Revolt.

It is believed that as Palestinians undertook their fighting against foreign theft of their land, they waged a campaign to enforce national unity and pressure members of the middle class, namely the effendiya, to put their tarbushes aside and don the keffiyehs instead.

At this historical juncture, Palestinians hence wore the keffiyeh as a sartorial symbol of their armed struggle against British rule and Zionist settler-colonialism.

Yasser Arafat

It was another historical moment, however, that assigned the garment to the legacy it continues to carry until this very day. When the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) was founded in the 1960s, the keffiyeh gradually came to symbolise Palestinian resistance. Towards the end of the first intifada (1987-1991), Israel banned the Palestinian flag and punished Palestinians who still dared to carry it. Palestinians creatively sought refuge in the black and white chequered keffiyeh, and the garment became their own concealed symbol of resistance. In a documentary entitled Made in Palestine, Yasser Mohammed Jood Hirbawi – a 76-year-old Palestinian at the time and the owner of the last keffiyeh factory in Palestine – legitimises this symbolism by saying that during the first intifada, his textile factory used to produce “1,000 keffiyehs a day.”

This is then how the garment came to be recognised as the informal flag of Palestine. Leader of the PLO Yasser Arafat, who never appeared without a keffiyeh, would reportedly place part of his keffiyeh over his right shoulder to make it resemble the map of Palestine. Black and white chequered keffiyehs hence came to be associated with Arafat and the Fatah group – or the fathaweya as they were called.

Other colours of the keffiyeh came to be associated with certain political affiliations. The red and white keffiyeh, originally worn by members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), came to be associated with Hamas. The green keffiyeh was also linked to Hamas, while the coloured one was known to be worn by tourists. But these associations continue to be rejected by many Palestinians who insist on the keffiyeh’s symbolism as a manifestation of Palestine’s unity.

These cultural and political underpinnings of the keffiyeh are what overwhelm me as Marcel addresses the fishermen and the keffiyeh-holders respond with moves steeped in passion. I am not inspired because Arab youth are correlating Palestinian resistance with the keffiyeh, and are proudly communicating this association, for both actions are anything but new. I am however surprised by how cultural resistance keeps reproducing itself; how the youth have made it a point to bring their keffiyehs to a music concert, how they have come to weave a subtle yet vibrant connection between political solidarity and cultural practices, how the very act of attending a cultural production can be, at heart, a bold act of activism.

Scene II: Dozens of Palestinians gather at the Jubra checkpoint in the West Bank as they celebrate Palestinian prisoner Malak Al-Khatib’s release from prison on 13 February. Fourteen-year-old Malak served a six-week sentence in jail over convictions she held a knife and planned to throw stones at a transportation route.

Malak was fined 6,000 shekels (approx. $1,550) prior to her release because the act of stone-throwing to counter decades of injustice sponsored by Israel – as has been exhibited throughout the Palestinian-Israeli conflict – is humorously enough considered a crime.

Making it to the forefront in media, Malak’s story spurred a wave of anger at the continued imprisonment of children by the Israeli occupation.

Malak Al-Khatib

In a letter titled “Illegal Israeli actions in Occupied East Jerusalem and the rest of the Occupied Palestinian Territory”, which was sent from the Palestinian government to the UN General Assembly last month, Malak’s imprisonment is described as a “travesty of justice”.

“Here, we draw attention to the imprisonment of a Palestinian girl, Malak Al-Khatib, age 14, who was seized by Israeli occupying forces on 31 December 2014 while walking home from school in the village of Beitin near Ramallah. She is now the youngest Palestinian female held by Israel. The girl was handcuffed and blindfolded upon arrest and was interrogated without the presence of her family or legal counsel and was detained for three weeks prior to her trial, on 21 January, by an Israeli military court.”

“The court, which tried young Malak while her hands and feet were shackled, sentenced her to two months in prison and imposed a fine of $1,500 for allegedly ‘throwing stones’, ‘possessing a knife’ and ‘blocking a main road’, all charges that her family denies. This travesty of justice is but one example of such deplorable acts by Israel, the occupying Power, which is deliberately and directly targeting the Palestinian child population, gravely violating their human rights and denying them and their families the protections of international law.”

But Malak’s imprisonment is not a separate incident. As the letter reports, “Approximately 300 Palestinian children are now being held captive in Israeli jails, and a total of at least 1,266 Palestinian children were detained by the occupying forces in the West Bank, including in Occupied East Jerusalem, during 2014, with the majority between the ages of 12 and 15.”

The letter also cites a recent report by UNICEF, which confirmed that throughout the past decade, Israel has imprisoned “an average of two children per day.” It also added that 10,000 Palestinian children have been reportedly detained by Israel since the year 2000.

A photo of Malak upon her release, as she dons a black and white chequered keffiyeh, embodies the essence of this moment. Malak would have still looked beautiful had she been photographed throwing a stone, shouting a slogan of resistance or unshackling tears of joy over a reclaimed freedom. But still, these photos would have fell short of doing her strength any justice. As she chose to wear the keffiyeh in the immediate aftermath of her release, Malak weaved a message of inexplicable strength and resistance: not even the trauma of jail as a manifestation of an ongoing and grotesque theft of the right to life can break the Palestinian. Even if at 12 years old.

This is not to suggest that one should not be wary about calling the keffiyeh the symbol of Palestinian resistance. In fact, problematising this very assumption is crucially needed. It is true that the cultural commodification of the keffiyeh and its development as a fashion garment at times have meant that hippies, who do not necessarily recognise its symbolism, wear it. It is also true that globalisation has meant that more scarves are now produced in China than in Palestine, and that this development has crippled the local keffiyeh producers still remaining in Palestine. It is indeed true that the very act of acquiring a ‘made in China’ keffiyeh can come across as counter-revolutionary. But it is also true that the validity of such arguments cannot strip the keffiyeh of its inspiring symbolism. For many of its genuine wearers, this garment stands as a manifestation of their recognition that Palestine, the suffering of its people, their inexplicable strength and unfathomable talent at the very act of living are legitimate truths.

Between Marcel Khalife’s keffiyeh-accompanied dabke and Malak Al-Khatib’s resistance-inundated keffiyeh, one cannot help but see an array of possibilities and aspired renegotiations of realities.

No matter what the setting and the emotional response it triggers, even if the youth’s twirling of keffiyeha during Marcel’s concert was in essence, a joyous act, while Malak’s choice ensued as a result of a poignant encounter, one reality presents itself, audaciously and with pride, resistance is vibrant, resistance is an act of life.