The “Jordanian” Keffiyah Redressed

January 4, 2015

Given the recent comments made by MP and Wehdat Manager Tariq Khoury and questions raised regarding the origin of the red and white keffiyah in Jordan, Identity Center’s Head of Research Ezra Karmel provides a concise overview of the scarf’s origins and implications drawing on the significant works of Joseph Massad, Adnan Abu-Odeh, and Laurie Brand as well as his own primary research in Jordan.

By Ezra Karmel*

Ask any one of the myriad vendors hawking keffiyahs in downtown Amman and he will inform you that the red and white checkered scarf is an age-old symbol of Jordanian culture. The pattern, the haberdashers seem to agree, is an embodiment of the territory’s tradition and primordial past.

The same idea is clearly conveyed by the countless images hanging from the Kingdom’s walls that portray keffiyah-clad members of the monarchy and army amidst scenes of Roman and Nebataean ruins. Draped in red and white, these photographic personifications of loyalty implicitly inform passersby that wearing the scarf is what true Jordanians do – and have always done.

But the red and white keffiyah wasn’t a common feature of the territory’s vestiary landscape before the colonial era (1920-1946), and it wasn’t until much later that it became a symbol of Jordanianness. The scarf only started to develop into a prominent article of clothing in Transjordan in the early 1930s after the British Officer John Bagot Glubb (more affectionately known to Transjordanians as “Glubb Pasha”) included it in the uniform of the Desert Patrol – a bedouin unit of the Arab Legion that he created in 1930.

Glubb, not a man to be hindered by modesty, claims that the red and white keffiyah didn’t even exist in the Transjordanian territory before he introduced it, stating that “previously only white headclothes had been worn in Transjordan or Palestine.” While this assertion is clearly hyperbolic, as even the briefest survey of pre-1930 photos reveals the presence of patterned keffiyahs, it is hard to tell from the existing pictures whether or not the patterns were embroidered in red or in black.1

However, regardless of whether or not the red and white keffiyah’s existence predates Glubb’s arrival in Transjordan, what’s clear from the pictorial remnants of the time is that the scarf wasn’t widely worn in Jordan before 1930, and it certainly wasn’t favored above other head coverings. Instead there appears to have been extensive sartorial heterogeneity. Transjordanians wore different types of keffiyahs, ranging from plain white versions to colorfully embroidered ones that resemble the kind now commonly toted in Sudan.

How then did the red and white keffiyah transform into the potent symbol of Jordanianness that it now represents? The answer to this question is directly related to the astounding effectiveness of Glubb’s Desert Patrol, and the role it played in both providing stability in the proto-state and nurturing a sense of commonality between the divided tribes. Glubb succeeded where his predecessors had failed because he relied upon a much different strategy. While his predecessors had fruitlessly attempted to end raiding by employing the settled hadari population to police the bedouin, Glubb enlisted the bedouin themselves2.

Though initially resistant to the idea of serving in the force, the tribes soon began to cooperate with Glubb when they realized that the alternative wasn’t the absence of a patrol, but one whose ranks would be filled by members of other tribes3. Not wanting to be controlled by others, the tribes began sending prominent young members to fight with the patrol. “Soon,” Glubb writes, “there was an ever-lengthening list of young men waiting to join us”[…]“The immense prestige and popularity of the Desert Patrol enabled us to select only the highest possible standard of recruits.”4

Benefiting from such extensive and broad bedouin buy-in, the Desert Patrol managed to nearly eradicate raiding within six months of its creation. Glubb boasted that the last raid ever to occur on the Transjordan-Saudi Arabia border occurred in July 1932, “and [it] came from Saudi Arabia.” Because of the success of the patrol and the instability next door in Palestine, the patrol was enlarged and transformed into the Desert Mechanized Force in 1936. This mechanized force was the embryo of Jordan’s army after independence.5

With the growing prestige and appeal associated with wearing the patrol’s uniforms, Glubb asserts that the red and white headcloth “since then (and from us) became a kind of Arab nationalist symbol.” Its powerful symbolism was not an accident; Glubb personally ensured that the scarf remained prominent and important. Not only did he himself wear it atop his standard Arab Legion uniform, but he also made sure that when the rest of the legion exchanged their former khaki coloured keffiyahs for pith helmets in 1933 an exception was made for the Desert Patrol6. Moreover, when Glubb took control of the Arab Legion in 1939, he spread the red and white keffiyah out beyond the limited ranks of the Desert Patrol to other units.

Glubb’s prediction about the keffiyah’s becoming an Arab symbol, however, was only partly right. The scarf did evolve into a powerful symbol, but not one of Arab nationalism. It became an icon for Transjordanian nationalism.

Its prevalence and significance, however, hasn’t remained constant since the colonial era. In the period between Jordan’s capture of the West Bank in 1948 and the outbreak of the 1970 civil war, the government attempted to assert a hybrid Jordanian identity that emphasized the oneness of the Palestinian and Jordanian people7. Within such expressions of hybridity, there was no space for symbols that emphasized the uniqueness of the East Bank – and even less room for souvenirs of Jordan’s colonial past. Following on the heels of King Hussein’s sudden dismissal of Glubb from Jordan’s armed forces in March 1956, the Defense Minister Mohammed Ali Ajlouni announced on May 26, 1956 that the red and white keffiyah would be abolished from the army’s uniforms8. Evidently the Mandate era emblem of Transjordian nationalism had temporarily lost its usefulness.

A quarter century after Glubb was sent packing back to Britain and the keffiyahs were packed away, however, Jordan was shaken by a crisis of identity. In the wake of the paradigm shifting 1970 civil war, the government attempted to pick up the pieces of Jordanians’ fractured identities and weave together a new national narrative. Leaving behind its former focus on the synthesis between the peoples residing on the two banks of the River Jordan, the new identity focused on East Bank Jordanian culture9.

This was easier said than done. Articulating a cohesive Jordanian identity that was uniquely East Banker proved difficult because the Palestinian presence in Jordan dated back as far as Kingdom itself. Labouring to locate or produce traditions and artifacts capable of portraying the ethno-cultural distinctiveness of East Bankers, the government vested renewed importance in its vintage colonial accessory. Suddenly the monarchy began to don the headgear with greater frequency, and ceremonial proceedings found themselves covered in a red checkered patina.

Despite the fact that it was Glubb who had imbued it with such commanding significance, the keffiyah was adopted by the government as the visible apotheosis of Jordan’s new national identity10. Not only did the scarf seem to harken back to a pre-Palestinian, Transjordanian history and culture, but it also offered a powerful contrast to the black and white keffiyah that Yassir Arafat and Leila Khaled had coined as a metonymic representation of the Palestinian cause in the late 1960s.

The 1970 civil war has left a large mark on Jordan’s landscape. Its physical legacy isn’t limited to a handful of bullet pocks splattered across buildings in balad; the violence left a tinge of red on walls across the Kingdom. This isn’t the red of shed blood, but the rouge draped reassertion of Transjordanian nationalism.

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*Ezra Karmel is the Head of Research at the Jordan based NGO Identity Center. He wrote his Master’s thesis on identity politics in Jordan and their effects on the political participation of Palestinian-Jordanians.

[1] Much of the work on Glubb’s role in bringing the scarf to prominence in Jordan was done by Joseph Massad in his excellent book on colonial identities in Jordan. See Joseph A. Massad, Colonial Effects: The Making of National Identity in Jordan (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001).

[2] Claude S. Jarvis, Arab Command: The Bibliography of Lt. Col. F. G. Peake Pasha (London: Hutchingson, 1942), 57; and Jerasimof Vatikiotis, Politics and the Military in Jordan: A Study of the Arab Legion 1921-1957 (London: Frank Cass, 1967), 69, 72.

[3] John Bagot Glubb, The Story of the Arab Legion (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1948), 93.

[4] Glubb, The Changing Scenes of Life, 103.

[5] Massad, Colonial Effects, Ch. 3

[6] George S. Dragnich, “The Bedouin Warrior Ethic and the Transformation of Traditional Nomadic Warriors into Modern Soldiers within the Arab Legion, 1931-1948,” MA thesis (Washington, DC: Georgetown University, 1975), 89-91.

[7] Laurie A. Brand, “Palestinians and Jordanians: A Crisis of Identity,” Journal of Palestine Studies, Vol. 24, No. 4 (Summer 1995): 46-61.

[8] Peter Young, Bedouin Command: With the Arab Legion 1953-1956 (London: W. Kimber, 1956), 95.

[9] See Adnan Abu-Odeh, Jordanians, Palestinians, & the Hashemite Kingdom in the Middle East Peace Process (Washington: United States Institute of Peace Press, 1999); and Massad, Colonial Effects.

[10] The connection between the new assertion of an East Bank Jordanian identity and the reemergence of the red and white keffiyah was first made by Massad in Colonial Effects.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article did not include necessary citations and clearer references to the books it draws on. It has been amended to include them.