Saturday, February 6, 2010


Keffieh, Mona Hatoum (2003-2009)

You would be hard pressed to find someone who cares less about fashion than I do. I live in New York, the fashion capital of the US, but my wardrobe is basically limited to ten different versions of black/gray v-neck pullovers, jeans and salt-stained combat boots. If you are one of those people poring over fashion blogs full of cruel pictures of unsuspecting saps who are dressed (presumably) worse than you are, you might run across a picture of me, say, during an early morning dog walk wearing sweatpants, mismatched socks and ancient sneakers, blinking at my dog while he decides where to pee. I figure as long as you can't see my nipples I am winning.

But when I was working in Oslo in '08 I bought a beautiful keffiyeh.

I bought it at a global arts fair in the center of the city. It is heavy, woven and very large when it is unfolded; completely unlike the made-in-china screen-printed hipster keffiyehs you can get on St. Marks (like those that Ted Swedenburg tracks in his funny, regular feature "keffiyeh-spotting" on his Hawgblawg). When I tried it on, twisting it like a regular scarf, the Arab vendor gently clucked his tongue and said "No. Wait. Here." And he folded it and arranged it softly around my neck so it spread across my chest. I walked back to meet my friend Namaa Alward, who'd been a leading actress on the Iraqi national stage before she and her children fled Saddam to Norway where she began her career over again. I walked back to the coffee shop where she was waiting and her face split in a giant smile when she saw me. "There! Now you look like a proper Arab!", she said laughing. That night we ate fat dates out of a deep bowl in her front yard and drank wine, with Oslo spread out beneath us, winking.

I brought my new scarf home in my suitcase and wondered if it would raise any questions if my luggage were searched... but I made it through two international airports with no incident. The winters since then have been fairly mild so I haven't had much need for it--it is very warm--but with the bitter cold of the last few months I have been wearing it a lot.

When I wear it in Soho no one blinks, I guess because they don't assume it means anything other than a slightly-out-of-date fashion statement, which I suppose it kind of is. But when I leave my apartment in Brooklyn the white people in my neighborhood scowl at me. They glare openly in my peripheral vision but if I let my glance slide across theirs they rearrange their faces into a tight approximation of normalcy; familiar but artificial, sort of like Mariah Carrey's breasts. One unshaven day a friend's mother opened his front door and, discovering me there said I looked "like a terrorist." When I said, "excuse me?" she looked away and pretended she hadn't said anything.

And I let her.

But it made me wonder, if someone who knows and likes me thinks I look like a terrorist when I wear my scarf, then what must be going on behind the narrowed eyes of strangers on the street?

I can feel the disturbance in the air when I move through it.


  1. reading this reminded me of the Dunkin' Donuts commercial controversy when that dumb bitch, Michelle Malkin, screamed about how Rachel Ray was supporting the terrorists cos she wore a fake keffiyeh.

    I am actually too scared to wear a keffiyeh in my area, because of the looks and comments I'll get. I don't feel like getting assaulted and I try my best to avoid drama.

    but yeah, I'd buy a REAL authentic keffiyeh like you did. Fuck those fake keffiyehs at H&M and Claire's!

  2. I remember when we walked in suburban neighborhoods in winter knocking on doors to raise money for a nonprofit. It was also freezing and you wore a long black trench coat and people then were afraid you were a sex offender waiting to expose yourself. As if you'd freeze your manly parts for them, but that was what they feared. I can only regrettably imagine what they might think, say or even do if they saw you with your black trench and an authentic keffiyeh walking your dog. What do they think if you called out to your dog. Rocket Stop! Rocket Down! Be careful out there my friend.

    The Hammer

  3. @DIMA
    It says a lot that a girl with a mohwak and a bad attitude is afraid of making herself a target by wearing a keffiyeh. I was also thinking about the Rachel Ray fiasco and the crazy objections to her faux-keffiyeh. Malkin (and the people who listen to her) are assholes.

    ...For the Hammer-challenged among you (which is basically everyone but she and I) I should explain: This comment is from a dear friend I met when we were canvassing for the environmental lobby PIRG in the early 90s. She is reminding me of the giant black trenchcoat I used to wear when I went door to door and the disturbance it caused as I moved through the suburban neighborhoods we used to canvass.

    ...I loved that coat. It was so punk rock.

  4. well, now you know how muslim women who wear the head scarf feel every second they're out in public!