Thursday, June 5, 2008

The chic of Araby

To Palestinian-American designer Nemi Jamal, the controversy surrounding the kaffiyeh, a traditional Arab headdress, worn by television celebrity cook Rachael Ray in an ad for iced coffee, is just a disgrace.
Dunkin' Donuts pulled the ad last week after critics said the kaffiyeh worn by the Food Network star symbolized Muslim extremism and terrorism.
Not to Jamal, born in Jericho and now living in New City, New York, who said the kaffiyeh is no fashion faux pas but a symbol of nationalism. She is among the Arab-Americans who say the comments are inaccurate and show prejudice.
"The Palestinian people consider this their flag," said Jamal, who has designed jeans, pocketbooks and neck ties with kaffiyehs. "People often have these in their cars and on key rings. It is about pride and class struggle and nothing else. To say it stands for what they've said is just a disgrace."
Once the trademark headwear of former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, the hatta, as the kaffiyeh is also called, dates back centuries and is used to shield those who live in the desert from the relentless sun and dust storms. Some wear the cotton cloth as a turban, while others wear it draped against their back and shoulders.
The traditional headdress became symbolic during the Palestinian uprising
against the British occupation from 1936 to 1939, and has been a symbol of nationalism ever since, according to Rochelle Davis, an assistant professor of culture and society at Georgetown University's Center for Contemporary Arab Studies.
Ray's scarf had a paisley design and was selected by a stylist intending
absolutely no symbolism, according to a statement issued by Canton,
Massachusetts-based Dunkin' Brands Inc.
Laila Al-Qatami, communications director for the American-Arab
Anti-Discrimination Committee, said that while she thought it was wrong of Dunkin' Donuts to cave under the pressure, she understood the franchise did not want the issue to detract from its marketing campaign to sell coffee.
She added that the recent controversy is the strongest backlash she has seen regarding a cultural article of clothing or an accessory.
"The only thing I can possibly liken to this is if someone were to say that anyone who wears a sombrero is a supporter of illegal immigration," she said. "It's ridiculous."
Zead Ramadan, vice president of the Council on American-Islamic Relations in New York, said he was outraged by what bloggers and critics alluded to.
"People are trying to label Arabs, and are trying to do so with clothing items," Ramadan said. "It's intentional propaganda that has been created to mislead unknowing people about a cultural item. Terrorism is not something you wear; it's a state of mind."
Despite the controversy, Jamal said she does not expect any type of backlash to her own business. Determined to make the kaffiyeh the new bandanna, Jamal has transformed them into flowing skirts and low-cut halter-tops that have been worn by a beauty queen in a Miss USA pageant, a popular stand-up comedian, and Sarah Jessica Parker on an episode of Sex and the City.
"People will always say things, but you just have to ignore it and keep doing what you're doing," she said. "There are enough people that respect it for what it is."

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