The last kaffiyeh

For nearly 50 years, Yasser Hirbawi has been producing kaffiyehs in his family-owned factory in Hebron. Now the looms are nearly silent.
By Gideon Levy

One's eyes have a difficult time at first adjusting to the dim light. A few old neon bulbs spread a pale light in the large, windowless production hall. Most of the bulbs don't work anymore. The walls are unplastered. Air conditioning? Never. A Dickensian scene. Machine after machine, standing in rows, automatic looms, some of them already scrap-iron wrecks, standing silent in their desolation. Milling around in the darkness, among the machines, are a few sad figures, their faces drooping, going this way or that with nothing to do. They cast melancholy, loving glances at the paralyzed machines, which collect dust like stones that have no use.

Lying on a faded couch in the nearby manager's office is the elderly owner, wearing traditional garb, a kaffiyeh and galabiya, themselves tattered. For nearly 50 years he has been producing the national symbol, the kaffiyeh, and now his machinery has ground to a near halt. The looms stand still; there are no buyers for his kaffiyehs. He, too, shoots silent, sad looks at his life's work, at the dying production hall.

The factory's splendid output is displayed on the walls of the office: shelves full of kaffiyehs in plastic packages - for which there are no buyers. Kaffiyehs in many colors to be sold as souvenirs to tourists, as well as the traditional black-and-white ones for the locals, and no one is buying. There's tea and rice in China, and now kaffiyehs, too. Who will buy a Palestinian kaffiyeh for NIS 20 when there is a Chinese model for NIS 10? The market, which has actually flourished in recent years - the kaffiyeh has become a political symbol in Europe, where it is worn carelessly thrown across the shoulders - is flooded. But none are manufactured in Hebron. Globalization, as the reader knows, has its victims all over the world, and now it has arrived at the last kaffiyeh factory in Palestine, on a quiet street in Hebron, not far from Abu Mazen's restaurant, known for its grilled chicken, which has opened its second branch here.

The factory has been around for half a century, and now the time has come to close shop. Some final signs of life: The last worker, Abd al-Aziz al-Taraki, who has worked here for 43 years straight and doesn't miss a single day, throws the switch and turns on one of the machines, a presentation for the guests. The loom roars a deafening tak-tak-tak, the automatic needle moves rapidly from side to side, weaving the threads, which are themselves made in China and India, not in Israel, as was once the case. After half an hour, the threads have become a kaffiyeh. One mustn't rush the process, so as not to spoil the texture and color. In the meantime, the beat of the looms reverberates through the hall as in the good old days, raising cheerless smiles on the faces of the owner and his two sons.

Hirbawi Textile's personnel roster: Yasser Hirbawi, 76, the owner; his two sons, Jouda and Abd al-Azim, the partners; and the sole factory worker, Taraki. Machinery: 15 looms from Japan, manufactured by Hiranu Loom and Suzuki Loom, all bearing their date of manufacture on a tiny metal plate. We wipe away the dust from the inscriptions: the first was built in 1961, the last in the '90s. Current production: 70 kaffiyehs a day, most of which are placed on the shelves. Production capacity: in its glory days, Hirbawi Textile manufactured 500 kaffiyehs a day, in three shifts.

The founding father, Yasser Hirbawi, sporting a stylish kaffiyeh that seems to be engraved on his head, looks out from two large posters on the wall. He was a cloth merchant who established the factory in 1961. Yasser started with two machines - they're over there - which were assembled by an expert from Syria, and as demand increased in the 1970s, seven more machines were added. The looms purchased in the 1990s were electronic - the cutting edge of technology.

Here, too, blame is laid at the feet of the Oslo process: Hirbawi explains that until the agreement, it was forbidden to import kaffiyehs into the territories through Jordan. Once the obstacles were removed, tragedy ensued. The tragedy of dumping. Now the shoemaker has no shoes: the sole employee, Taraki, is bareheaded. He says apologetically that he only wears a kaffiyeh in the winter. "We're on the verge of closing, everything is against us. Based on the situation, we should have closed already," says the elder Hirbawi. "But we won't give up, even if we continue to lose money. I hope that my sons won't close down, either, that our factory will stay open forever."

Jouda and Abd al-Aziz Hirbawi don't say a word. They are already in their fifties, and do not view their factory as a great blessing. They cannot imagine retrofitting the factory and manufacturing some other product. "Kaffiyehs are what we know how to make," says Jouda. "If there's no market for our profession, what do you want us to manufacture? If I left kaffiyehs and began to produce shirts, well, there's competition with China in shirts, too. Look, all of the textile factories in Israel no longer exist; everyone has gone over to Jordan or China, so how would we survive?"

His father blames the avarice of the merchants, who "in order to earn another few shekels are prepared to destroy our industry." Hunched over, he escorts us to the production hall.

Hidden from view, concealed behind a faded green divider at the far end of the production hall, is the Hirbawi family car, a yellow 1982 VW Transporter. They bought it new during the years of plenty, and would drive it every day to Tel Aviv, to buy thread and sell merchandise. They haven't been in Tel Aviv for at least 10 years, and the Transporter is parked in the production hall, also dusty and silent. They can't bring themselves to part from it, but don't have the money to maintain it, and so it gathers dust here, like the Japanese looms. Their dream: to start the Transporter one day, drive to Tel Aviv, buy thread and sell kaffiyehs, just as they used to. In the meantime, the photographer, Nir Kafri, buys two kaffiyehs and receives a celebrity discount: NIS 15 per kaffiyeh, straight out of the box. Written on it in English: "Safety instructions: danger of strangulation. Keep away from babies and children," a memento of the days when they would sell kaffiyehs with a European standard.

The worker has in the meantime shut down the only machine. There's no longer any need. Arrayed on Hirbawi's shelves are a few display window mannequins wearing kaffiyehs. The mannequins smile is plastic, as if frozen long ago.

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