Joudeh Hirbawi is not sure why young Palestinians do not want to wear the iconic black-and-white keffiyeh scarves his factory makes. But he has found another way to stay afloat.
Instead of selling to a dwindling local market of old men and young activists, he is working with a group of Palestinians overseas to market the scarves abroad, even harnessing social media to connect with customers.
For decades, the keffiyeh has been an international symbol of the Palestinian people and their cause.
It was most famously worn by the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, whose carefully-styled headdress served as both a fashion statement and a political one.
At one time, the factory that Hirbawi’s father started in the southern West Bank city of Hebron in the 1960s was churning out around 500 keffiyehs a day to meet demand.
During the first intifada, or uprising, between 1987 and 1993, the scarf was the garb of choice for the thousands of Palestinians who took part in demonstrations across the occupied territories.
“Everyone was in the streets protesting. We were the only people in the country who were staying in doors because we were making the keffiyehs,” Hirbawi said.
But the factory, the only one in the Palestinian territories to make the scarves, found sales waning as younger Palestinians turned away from traditional garb in favour of modern fashions, and as cheaper Chinese products flooded the market.
“In the old days, everyone used to wear them, especially in winter when it gets cold here and they kept people warm,” Hirbawi said, seated in a small office in the factory.
“But now it’s really something that you only see older Palestinians wearing,” he said. “And the competition from Chinese products is simply more than we can take on.”
Chinese-made keffiyehs began flooding into the Palestinian territories after the Oslo peace agreement was signed with Israel in 1993, lifting trade barriers.
The scarves are thin and lower quality, the Hirbawis say, but they also cost a lot less than their home-grown counterparts. At wholesale, the Hirbawis sell their keffiyehs for around 11 shekels ($3/2.10 euros) a piece, while the Chinese ones sell for seven ($1.9/1.35 euros).
In the past, the factory’s competition came primarily from Syria, but the prices and quality was comparable, meaning the Hirbawis were able to compete.
But with demand down and competition on the rise, the factory has cut staff from four people to one part-timer, and most of its 15 Japanese automatic looms lie dormant, some covered in years’ worth of dust and cobwebs.
Inside the dark warehouse, the almost-deafening clack of the few machines in operation bounces off the walls as threads are thrown across scarves in an array of different colours and patterns.
Several machines are hard at work churning out the traditional black-and-white keffiyehs, while others weave the red-and-white version associated with Jordan.
A few work on strictly non-traditional keffiyehs — some multicoloured, others in blue, burgundy and white intended to appeal to the firm’s foreign clients.
Hirbawi and his lone employee dart from loom to loom, manually untangling threads and slicing off loose ends with a pocket knife.
Each scarf is finished in a second warehouse across the street, where three women add tassels and a label showing the scarf is “Made in Palestine.”
It is a method of manufacture that cannot compete with Chinese mass-production, so the family approached the Palestinian Authority for help.
“We’re not asking them to ban imports, we’re not asking them for money, we’re just looking for them to impose some kind of tax on imports so we can compete,” he says.
“We make a product that is a symbol of Palestine. More than that, we could provide revenue for the government, we could employ people,” he says. “But they aren’t interested.”
Instead, the factory has found a lifeline from outside, in the form of a group of activists of Palestinian origin who reached out to the family, fearing the family-run business was on the brink of closure.
“This is something that we’re doing for the keffiyeh itself,” said Noora Kassem, one of the Young Professionals for Palestine group.
“The Palestinian keffiyeh is a really strong political symbol and that’s one of the reasons that we decided to focus on it,” she told AFP by telephone from Amman where she is based.
“It would be a real tragedy if the keffiyeh itself is no longer made in Palestine.”
The group reached out to online retailers, setting up a website and eventually a Facebook group called “The Last Keffiyeh” where customers from Europe, the United States, Latin America and elsewhere can place their orders.
The Hirbawis were “hesitant at first,” she admits.
“What they want to do is focus on making their scarves, that’s their business and that’s fine,” she said. “We are doing what we can from out here, which is the marketing side.”
So far, the collaboration has been a success, with Hirbawi saying the factory has seen its overseas business grow steadily, now accounting for hundreds of keffiyehs each month.
Kassem and her colleagues are now working to locate wholesalers who will buy the keffiyehs in bulk, to streamline the delivery process, and to ensure the factory is not overwhelmed by large orders.
“We’re trying to slowly bring them into the fold of global marketing tools but at the same time not overwhelm them,” she says.