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Militant fashion? A Palestinian scarf becomes hip-hop chic

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Lucky Cerino of Underground Sportswear in Harlem, New York City, holds a Kaffiyeh poster in front of the store's display case for the scarves. (Photo by Lawrence Delevingne)

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Kaffiyehs on display at Aria, a clothing shop in Greenwich Village, New York City. (Photo by Lawrence Delevingne)

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A Kaffiyeh on display at Connection One Fashion in Harlem, New York City. (Photo by Lawrence Delevingne)

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A "Houndstooth Desert Scarf" on display at Urban Outfitters in New York City. (Photo by Lawrence Delevingne)

Tracy Thompson noticed the scarves early this year.

Young people in her neighborhood, Harlem, were wearing a checker-pattern cloth with tassels around their necks, like a bandana pulled down off the face.

A few even came into her clothing store, Connection One Fashion, which specializes in urban apparel, to ask if she carried them. No one knew their name, and several asked for “A-rab,” “Taliban” or “Bin Laden” scarves.

The epithets gave Thompson a hint of political connotations, but she decided to give them a try anyway. She bought the traditional black and white colors, plus purple, pink, green, red and a few other patterns and displayed them beginning last month for $10 apiece next to jeans, belts and sneakers. They almost sold out immediately.

“Everybody is wearing them on the street,” said Thompson, 41, whose main display in the storefront window is a female mannequin wearing a stylized purple hooded sweatshirt, a matching baseball hat, and a black and white kaffiyeh, the scarf’s traditional name. “They wear anything in style; they don’t even know the meaning.”

The kaffiyeh, traditionally a symbol of Palestinian nationalism, is gaining popularity in hip-hop fashion in New York, Washington, D.C., San Francisco and other cities--and losing its potent symbolism in the process. Mainstream artists like Kanye West, Justin Timberlake and Chris Brown have sported the checkered Middle Eastern scarf in recent months, fueling a long-running debate on the commercial adoption of the politically charged square fabric popularized by Yasser Arafat, Hamas militants and others.

“People like Jay-Z, Jermaine Dupri and other mainstream hip-hop guys wearing it is the new development,” said Ted Swedenburg, a professor of anthropology at the University of Arkansas who has studied the kaffiyeh and its place in American fashion. “The tendency is towards diluting the political message.”

The kaffiyeh’s political message took shape when Palestinian peasants wore the utilitarian cloth over their heads in solidarity against British rule in the 1930s. Its place in Palestinian identity was solidified in the 1960s when Arafat and his resistance movement adopted it in its fight against Israel.

Today, the kaffiyeh is the most recognizable symbol of the Palestinian independence movement, provoking both admiration and anger, depending on one’s political beliefs. Palestinian militant groups such as Fatah and Hamas often wrap themselves in kaffiyehs, black and white or red and white, respectively.

The kaffiyeh’s political roots are often lost as the fashion grows in hip-hop style.

“I always liked the style--it doesn’t really have any meaning for me,” said Messai Belayneh, a 19-year-old student at the University of Maryland at College Park, who has worn a black and white kaffiyeh around his neck on-and-off since December. “I don’t like sounding ignorant, but I don’t know much about the history of soldiers wearing it. I just like that particular style of scarf.”

Others see significance beyond fashion, but not one tied to the Palestinian cause specifically.

“I’m not into pop culture and all that fashion stuff,” said Adam Ababiya, a 20-year-old student at College Park, who for a year has had a black and white checkered kaffiyeh that he considers a symbol of Islam. “I wear it to show that I’m a Muslim and proud of it.”

Regardless, the kaffiyeh is readily available in stores that specialize in urban apparel.

Underground Sportswear, a hip-hop clothing chain with four stores in the Bronx and Harlem, has stocked Jordanian-made kaffiyehs since March, and has sold several hundred a week at $20 each.

“The kids now, they don’t even know what it’s for,” said Raslan Mohamad, 36, a Palestinian native who works at the Harlem store. But “it’s what the people want, I guess.”

Aria, a small store in Greenwich Village, has at least 16 different colored iterations of the kaffiyeh on display for $10 each, and has sold an average of 25 Chinese-made scarves a day for the last six months.

“It’s just fashion,” said Mohammed Jacob, 24, an employee at Aria, which is on St. Mark’s Place, a street where the kaffiyeh is as ubiquitous as the latest imitations of designer sunglasses. “They don’t even know the name; they just say ‘scarf.’”

The kaffiyeh did not appear in hip-hop style overnight.

Americans have worn kaffiyehs since the late 1980s to show either direct support for Palestinian nationalism or as a general countercultural statement, but they were typically young activists and its reach was limited in black communities.

The kaffiyeh fashion hit in 2007 among young, fashion-conscious urbanites, sometimes called “hipsters” and celebrities like David Beckham, Mary-Kate Olsen and Kirsten Dunst. Teen Vogue called Dunst’s kaffiyeh “breezy, global chic” and the “it” accessory in 2007.

Urban Outfitters, a trend-setting U.S.-based clothing chain with more than 119 stores in North America and Europe, sold “anti-war woven scarves” as part of its spring 2007 line. But after criticism from Jewish and Arab groups online, alternatively for implying support for terrorism or trivializing a freedom struggle, the item was pulled from shelves in January 2007.

Now, the trend has spread to urban style. BET and MTV R&B favorites like Omarion and Chris Brown have worn kaffiyehs in recent months, its political meaning less and less apparent.

Politically minded rappers have worn kaffiyehs in the past, but their political leanings indicated an understanding of the symbolism. Mos Def, for example, has been seen in a kaffiyeh, but he has been vocal about Palestinian issues in his music.

“Politically conscious rappers like Common and Mos Def are hip to the Palestinian cause,” said Swedenburg, the Arkansas professor. “It doesn’t lose its political significance altogether. If Lupe Fiasco is promoting it, I don’t think he is just being fashionable.”

It’s clear the kaffiyeh is increasingly commercial in hip-hop fashion, even if some rappers understand its Palestinian symbolism. Urban Outfitters quietly put an $18 black and white, tasseled item in its Spring 2008 line.

This time, it’s called a “Houndstooth Desert Scarf.”

E-mail: lpd2104@columbia.edu