Saturday, April 17, 2021

Made in Palestine: Hirbawi factory continues to produce kufiyah

By Elizabeth Jenkins - March 07, 2018
Section: [Main News] [Features]
Tags: [Palestinians] [Yasser Arafat] [Hebron] [Kuffiyeh]

When walking into the only kufiyah factory in Palestine, the noise hits you rather violently. On Thurs. 1 March, only ten out of 24 machines in total are working, but it’s enough to create a memorable racket which, after a while, begins to sound like a very fast train ploughing ahead with little regard for obstacles that may lie in its way.

Obstacles there have been, but today it is undeniable the Hirbawi factory is famous. Abed Al Azaeem, son of Yasser Hirbawi who founded the factory in 1961, told Palestine Monitor with pride that groups from all over the world come to visit the factory.
So why the fascination? What is it that draws people to this unimposing factory tucked into a corner of a street in Hebron?
Arguably, the draw lies in the intense symbolism of the kufiyah itself. The original meaning of the pattern is debated, with some claiming that it represents a fishing net, others a honeycomb. Still others interpret the black lines as symbolising the joining of hands, or the marks of dirt and sweat wiped off a worker’s brow.
Indeed, it was originally worn by men to protect themselves from dust and sand, who would wrap it up around their faces. When working in the fields, it was also a useful garment to keep heads cool and protected from the heat of the burning sun.
Today, however, in Palestine it is mostly regarded as a nationalist emblem. Popularised by Yasser Arafat in the 1960s, it has become an instantly recognisable symbol of the Palestinian struggle for liberation.
In the 1930s, Palestinians adopted the kufiyah as a national symbol during the period known as the Arab Revolt, when Palestinians rose up against British colonial rule and an ever-increasing Zionist presence.
Despite being so widely associated with Arab culture and the Palestinian cause, this has not stopped Israelis from recently attempting to appropriate it. In 2016, Palestinians reacted with outrage at the use of the kufiyah patterns by an Israeli fashion designer. Jordanian photographer, Tanya Habjouqa denounced the design on her Facebook as, “cultural appropriation to an extreme… (…) No sign or explanation of where this material came from.” Similarly, the website 'The Semetic’ sells kufiyahs patterned with blue stars of David.   
In this context, the work of Hirwabi factory appears all the more important.
Abed Al Azeem told Palestine Monitor that business, on the whole, is good. A couple of years ago, things weren’t looking quite so bright. From the mid 1990s, in the aftermath of the Paris Protocol determining economic relations between Palestine and Israel, business went downhill. In the context of free-market policies promoted by the Palestinian Authority (PA) and the Protocol which ensured Palestinian dependence on the Israeli economy, the markets became flooded with kufiyahs made in China.
However, tables have turned and the factory that once faced the threat of closure, today thrives. In 2013, the PA added a 35 percent tariff on Chinese and other import products.
“China used to be a problem, but we fight back. Our material is much better,” Abed Al Azeem quipped.
The machines work from 7am to 5pm five days a week, producing both the traditional black and white plus red and white kufiyahs, but also making a wide range of brightly coloured kufiyahs, offering a range of choice that makes it hard for tourists. “A good problem for me,” Abed Al Azeem chuckled.
While 30% of the kufiyahs produced are sold in the Palestinian market, the remaining 70% are packed – with a special notice thanking the buyer for their support of the Palestinian factory – and sent off around the world. Germany orders 2000 kufiyahs a month and France 1000.
Abed Al Azeem happily explained the workings of the factory, but was much less willing to expand on political subjects, exclaiming; “What [do] I win when I talk about politics? Always more talking without any changes. Halas ('enough’ in Arabic). We talk about our business.”
He reiterated, “We go straight.”

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