The Shemagh: Should You Wear This Uber Cool Accessory?

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What’s in a piece of garment?

Throughout history, people have used clothing or accessories to say something or stand for something. In the 19th century, rioters put on party-colored sashes to symbolize their campaign against agrarian capitalists. Some political leaders wore fustian jackets to symbolize their connection with the working class. And in the 20th century the shemagh was worn as a mark of resistance against an occupation.

What the Shemagh Represents

Guy wearing keffiyeh
The shemagh scarf has gone from symbolizing a high position in society to a mark of revolt against the British Mandate to a connection with suicide bombers. Photo by Mostafameraji on Wikimedia Commons

The shemagh’s history can be traced back to the Sumerians in Mesopotamia. Early civilization also referred to this garment as the yamegh. But today, its other, more recognizable name is the keffiyeh. The traditional garment is a big scarf or head covering that, during the Sumerians time, was worn with honor by priests as a symbol of their lofty position in society.

In the 1930s, the traditional scarf turned into a political symbol as Palestinian men began wearing it as part of their revolt against the British Mandate. The British Mandate, called the Balfour Declaration, was created on November 2, 1917. It declared support for a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine, and emigration of Jews began in 1922. In opposition to the establishment of a Jewish state, riots, political violence and a slew of clashes — which continues to this day — followed. By 1948, 2,500 Jews died and 750,00 Palestinian Arabs were displaced during the conflict.

In the 1960s, the black-and-white shemagh scarf symbolized the Palestinian national movement, and a few key personalities were associated with it. There was Yasser Arafat, who was rarely seen without the garment on his head. There was also Palestinian militant Leila Khaled of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, who also wore the printed scarf as a headpiece.

Shemaghs or keffiyehs come in different colors, and for some they come with meaning. The black-and-white represent the national liberation group whereas the red-and-white have been associated with the Palestinian Marxists. Photo by Florian Prischl on Wikimedia Commons

Later on, the shemagh took on various symbols, depending on which regions wore it. Palestinian Marxists in Jordan, for example, started wearing a red-and-white print of the keffiyeh. It was a move to set themselves apart from the national liberation group, or the Fatah.

From a symbol of revolt against occupation, the traditional garment fell into notoriety when suicide bombers or terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan used it to conceal their faces. Like some vicious tattoos meant jail time, the shemagh scarf became mistakenly associated exclusively with radical activity. A Michigan representative wearing the black and white keffiyeh even had to clarify that her scarf was not a representation of the Hamas.

But this storied garment has seen a revival — of the chic kind.

Is it OK to Wear a Shemagh?

Zac Efron wearing keffiyeh

No one knows how or when the politically-charged scarf turned into a stylish choice for the hip. Celebs like Colin Ferrell and David Beckham have been seen wearing shemaghs as a scarf and headwear. Zac Efron, on a visit to Dubai, wore the red-and-white version in a much more “racy” fashion.

It’s not just celebs who’ve decided that it’s OK to wear the traditional garment.

Popular brands, from Urban Outfitter to Topshop started selling the suddenly hip garment. But after receiving backlash, both brands pulled the product from its collection in response to protests and criticisms of cultural appropriation. Many on social media took offense to Topshop using the keffiyeh for a playsuit. Other brands have used the print for blouses and prairie-type dresses; some of these have been styled and worn by influencers, fueling the trend further.

With such a background and effect on people, should you just steer clear of the traditional scarf?

There is a “wrong” and “right” way to use the shemagh, beyond knowing how to tie it or wear it.

Don’t

  • Devalue its deep meaning and history by using it as a mere accessory
  • Wear it without knowing what it means

Do

  • Use it for protection against the environment when traveling to the desert or areas with temperate climates
  • Prepare yourself for comments or questions about wearing the keffiyeh

Most men wear a black-and-white shemagh when bushcrafting or making like Bear Grylls in the great outdoors. Political meaning aside, this traditional scarf does serve a practical purpose to shield you from harsh wind, sand and sun. It’s for this sole reason that soldiers, mostly by U.S. and British troops, use the shemagh as a tactical scarf.

The green-and-black (or olive and khaki) version even functions as a kind of camouflage. Military units aren’t the only ones who wear the traditional scarf; police units across the Middle East region, such as the Palestine Police Force and Arab Legion, also use it. The Australian armed forces reportedly have used the keffiyeh as a military scarf during the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.

So yes, wear it when you need it.

But How Do You Wear a Shemagh?

Male with Shemagh
Wearing a keffiyeh depends on how you’ll use it, to protect your face or as a scarf. Photo by Diego Lema on Wikimedia Commons

Now if you don’t want to get on the FBI’s Most Wanted List or suddenly get questioned by patrol cops, do not go around with a keffiyeh covering your face. Reserve this way of wearing the scarf when bushcrafting, driving over sand dunes for fun or when you’re on a mission somewhere in the desert.

You wear the traditional garment as a scarf, headgear or face protection. How you tie the shemagh will depend on how you want to wear it.

As face protection:

  • Fold the garment into a triangle
  • Place the folded scarf onto your head, arranging it so the middle sits between your hairline and browline
  • Take one end of the scarf and wrap it under your chin
  • Pull on the other end toward your face, covering it so that only your eyes show
  • Tie both ends behind your head
  • Adjust according to your comfort; make sure it’s not too lose or tight

As a scarf:

Version 1

  • Fold the shemagh into a triangle
  • Place the garment around your neck in an inverted triangle
  • Pull both ends around your neck
  • Let both tassels dangle

Version 2

  • Fold the garment into a triangle
  • Roll it up
  • Place the rolled up garment around your neck, with the ends toward the back of your neck
  • Tie one end up and under the shemagh, pull the end back tight
  • Tie the other end down and over the shemagh, pull the end back tight

Where to Get a Shemagh

A Talit Keffiyeh and Palestinian scarf
Keffiyehs or shemaghs are found on most online retail stores. You’ll have a selection of the modern with cool designs and the traditional with the typical accompaniment. Photo by Michael Plutchok on Wikimedia Commons

Plenty of online stores offer a slew of shemaghs in different colors. Some are even updated with designs like a skull and sword, skull and bones, stars; most of these scarves will come in 43” x 43”, enough fabric for you to work with. Other keffiyehs come with the traditional rope for when you wear it as a headgear.

From a symbol of revolt and solidarity to a cool accessory for the hip, the shemagh is more than your typical scarf. Learn its history along with the many symbolisms it has, and you’ll wear this traditional garment better.

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