Inside Hirbawi, Palestine’s last remaining keffiyeh factory

On a quiet street in Hebron, West Bank, down a short driveway and through an inconspicuous door, I discover the final outpost of a priceless piece of Palestinian culture.

I’m at the Hirbawi Factory, the last remaining maker of authentic Palestinian keffiyeh, founded in 1961 by Yasser Hirbawi. Today I meet Abed, one of his three sons. Pleased, if a little surprised, to have an unannounced visitor, he leads me onto the factory floor past several shelves full of scarves. “Welcome, welcome,” he says, waving me inside.

Amidst a deafening rattle – the looms have many, many moving parts – the smell of grease and the air full of cotton fluff, I am presented with an amazing sight. Huge machines are slowly making Palestinian keffiyehs, one row at a time. As a self-confessed textile nerd, I find the experience almost overwhelming. Shelves are covered with industrial-size spools of thread and one wall is filled with neatly displayed rectangular patterns – inexplicably lit in neon purple. A poster of Yasser Arafat is taped to one of the pillars.

As I move cautiously between the machines, the men operating them look up and smile, undisturbed by this random tourist standing in the way. I’m the only one here. An Austrian woman places an order in the office, but nobody else seems keen to experience this little piece of history.

It takes more than a year to master one of the giant looms in the Hirbawi factory.  Sarah Maisey / The National

Though known as the unofficial Palestinian flag, it is a sign that the future of the keffiyeh is far from secure, despite the efforts of a few dedicated individuals.

The distinctive square headscarf, with its distinctive fishnet pattern, is a cornerstone of Arab culture, from Turkey to Yemen to Saudi Arabia. When the Hirbawi factory opened in the West Bank’s largest city, it was one of 30 such factories producing the distinctive keffiyeh.

Scarves, shawls and even jackets were shipped across Palestine and the wider region, with the Hirbawi factory alone weaving 1,000 shawls a day – its machines running 18 hours a day just to keep up with demand.

However, by 2008 Hirbawi was the only site still in business and production had dropped to just 100 scarves a day. So what happened?

While today the keffiyeh is indelibly linked to Palestinian nationalism, it can be traced back to Mesopotamia around 3100 BC. when it was worn by Sumerian men to denote high status and priesthood. Over the centuries it has always been a male domain, but during the Ottoman rule (1517-1917) its use in Palestine became the domain of peasants.

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During the 1936 Arab revolt against British rule, the keffiyeh began to shift to something more rebellious when it was used by protesters to cover their faces. When the British banned it to stop the protests, the Palestinians responded by picking up the scarf en masse – including women – making it impossible to single out the protesters.

During the 1948 Nakba — the forced expulsion of Palestinians from their homes after the creation of Israel — the Scarf’s dissent grew when Mohammed Abdel Rahman Abdel Raouf al-Qudwa al-Husseini, better known as Yasser Arafat, took over the leadership of the Palestine Liberation Organization in the late 1960s he made the keffiyeh his signature, folded and draped in the shape of Palestine.

At the Hirbawi factory.  Sarah Maisey / The National

Over the next three decades, the scarf became increasingly politicized in Palestine, as the Fatah party claimed the black-and-white version and Hamas adopted the red-and-white version. Overseas, however, these distinctions were less significant, and with its activist tingle, the scarf was increasingly adopted by those eager to display political credentials and sympathy.

In the mid-1990s, the popularity of the keffiyeh continued to spread and, thanks to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, fell victim to its own success. The Gatt aimed to open trade barriers around the world and allowed foreign market access. Asian factories saw an opportunity and started making their own keffiyehs at a lower price and in larger quantities. These flooded the market and were snapped up by those who either didn’t know or didn’t care that they were buying a cheap facsimile.

In the 2000s, the keffiyeh was co-opted as a fashion accessory. For Fall/Winter 2007, Balenciaga released a $3,000 checkered scarf of her own that shed all meaning and tradition. The high street quickly followed, with American Apparel and Topshop releasing their own black and white versions.

Urban Outfitters found itself at the end of a significant backlash after it dubbed its version “anti-war woven scarves.” Forced to take it off the shelves, the company also had to apologize. “We apologize if we offended anyone, it wasn’t our intention at all,” it said.

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While all the ensuing controversies helped boost the shawl’s popularity, they rang death for the Hebron factories, unable to compete with a flood of cheap copies. After the market was saturated, the foreign copies even reached Jerusalem, only 28 kilometers away.

Today, entering the Hirbawi factory is like stepping back in time. It’s the only factory of its kind still in operation, with huge Suzuki looms that are half a century old and rattle loudly.

Notoriously complicated to operate – it takes more than a year to master one – each machine weaves scarves as one continuous web that must be cut by hand. However, not all machines run here. Of the original 15, half are now idle as sales plummeted two decades ago and have never recovered.

Hirbawi creates scarves in an ever-increasing variety of colors.  Photo: Hirbawi USA

Still, there is room for hope. In 2008, Hirbawi was forced to lay off all but one employee as sales plummeted. Now a handful of men move between the machines, carefully tending to the emerging fabric. While still falling short of the numbers from its heyday, it bodes well that Hirbawi is once again looking to the future. Salvation, it seems, is coming from outside Palestine, particularly Germany and the United States.

Upon hearing of the factory’s plight, Palestinians living in Germany set up a website to advertise and sell keffiyehs and olive oil to offer support and a financial lifeline.

Under the name, it merged with the factory, becoming their European representative and leading them into the digital age in the process. In 2015, the site was seen by Azar Aghayev who was spurred on to launch a US version called Hirbawi USA.

Seeing the German side was an aha moment for him, Aghayev explains. “They sold keffiyehs and some other Palestinian products like olive oil and spices. We contacted them and told them we would like to sell the keffiyehs from the US.”

Today, Aghayev, as the American subsidiary of Hirbawi, sells 36 color variations on its website. This is a far cry from the early days when he only ordered four colors. “We shipped our first box of keffiyehs from Palestine to the States. Just black and white, red and white, pure black and gaza.”

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Featuring many scarves named after Palestinian cities, the Gaza design is a vibrant mix of orange, red and green. Having previously visited Palestine and witnessed the situation of its people firsthand, Aghayev knew that long-term support was badly needed. “I wanted to help the Palestinian cause as much as possible and this seemed like a sustainable path to me.”

Fans can now buy Hirbawi scarves at select locations and websites around the world.  Photo: Hirbawi USA

The aim, he explains, is to reclaim ownership of the keffiyeh for Hirbawi and Palestine and protect the future of the scarf and the factory that makes it. “My goal is brand recognition. And the creation of sustainable jobs and operations in Palestine, where stability is somewhat difficult to achieve. And of course raising awareness of the Palestinian cause. This is of course.”

As the shawl’s colors are now charged with political meaning in Palestine, Hirbawi has expanded his color palette to circumvent the problem and created many new variations.

Visitors can purchase a keffiyeh in colors such as chocolate, taupe, deep blue and even the green and orange of the Irish flag.

Called Saoirse, it is, the factory explains, a tribute to the similar struggles faced by Ireland and Palestine and is dedicated to “liberty and liberty” and the “people of Ireland”.

Inevitably, as Hirbawi USA has grown, others have been trying to make money. However, Aghayev remains unfazed and commits to the long game. “Other people rushed to unofficially sell Hirbawi keffiyehs online. Without the knowledge of the factory and the sale of versions that were not intended for export,” he says. Though pragmatic, he does not hide his disdain for those who peddle copies.

But despite aid from Europe and America, the Hirbawi factory is being offered little support from Palestine. The population has far greater worries than keeping a factory running.

The taxi driver who took me from Bethlehem to the Hirbawi factory was unaffected by his fate. More concerned that he would never be able to afford to get married, he gave him – and me – a questioning look as I gave him a scarf as a gift. Explaining that this was for the son he would one day have, I pointed out that by the time the child arrived, the Hirbawi factory might be a thing of the past.

Updated September 19, 2022 3:43 am

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