Almost anytime the topic of keffiyuhs is brought up, someone mentions Chinese keffiyuh production as the cause of the shutdown of Palestinian keffiyuh factories, and the precarious situation of the last remaining plant: the Hirbawi textile factory in Hebron.
The argument runs something like this: Chinese keffiyehs, which have printed patterns rather than woven ones, are cheaper and therefore tourists buy them instead of the traditional Palestinian headscarves. Thus putting the plant out of business.
And it’s true, the printed scarves are cheaper – in Hebron you can buy Chinese printed keffiyuhs for 10 shekels, and real woven keffiyuhs from Hirbawi cost 25 shekel. But after that, the argument starts to fall apart. The chinese keffiyehs are nothing like the woven keffiyehs – the fabric is much lighter, and the patterns are not the same. The scarves from Hirbawi come in the various politically significant patterns, and the Chinese scarves do not. And the multicoloured fashion scarves from Hirbawi are much more beautiful, delicate and complex than the Chinese Keffiyuhs. I know this because I brought back many of them, and people here absolutely adore them, whereas the Chinese printed scarves are really just hipster chick.
Moreover, the Chinese scarves are not sold as pervasively throughout the West Bank and Arab areas of the state of Israel as you might expect. Everywhere you go in Palestine you see Keffiyehs, but usually you see the red checker pattern and the black and white pattern made famous by Arafat. These are woven keffiyuhs, and they are not made in China. However, they are usually not made in Hebron either – the reality is most woven keffiyuhs sold in Palestine are produced in the surrounding Arab countries: Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Saudi. You can learn this from the shopkeepers, or if your arabic is good you can read the label. The keffiyehs from Arab countries are of good quality, sometimes better than the ones made in Hebron. For instance, my arafat-patterned keffiyuh, a precious gift from a friend in the Kalandia camp, is not from Hebron but Jordan – and it is a much softer and richer scarf than the arafat patterned keffiyehs I bought at Hebron.
The key here is to see that the printed keffiyuhs and woven keffiyuhs are not goods which are in competition with each other. If someone buys a printed keffiyuh for 10 shekel, they are not buying it instead of a 25 shekel woven keffiyuh. They are bought by different people for different reasons. Or, sometimes by the same people for different reasons. For instance, while I bought about woven keffiyuhs in Palestine, nearly all from Hirbawi, I also bought a single red and black printed keffiyuh – because sometimes, just sometimes, I don’t want to wear something political. Most people are the opposite of me – they never want to wear something which will cause others to scowl and call you a terrorist behind your back. If these people buy printed keffiyuhs, they are not hurting the Palestinian economy, because they wouldn’t have bought a real keffiyuh anyway.
Don’t think that because I’m opposing the “it’s all China’s fault” analysis that I don’t support Hirbawi textiles. I do – I’m currently working on importing a large quantity of scarves from Hebron, which I will sell at cost to individuals and Palestinian solidarity groups in Toronto (I’m not interested in making a return). There are various groups in North America doing this, trying to help keep the factory open. And this is a good thing to do – I want the people I met there, and had coffee with, to be able to keep their jobs. But it doesn’t help them to spread the idea that the Chinese are putting them out of business – if they had a larger chunk of the Keffiyuh sales, even just in the West Bank (mostly selling to tourists in Ramallah), they would be in a fine position. The fact is, they are being out competed by production in Jordan and Syria – not China.