Palestine, made in China

Posted on 11 August 2010

Today, I visited the last keffiyeh factory in Palestine. Owned by the Herbawi family, it is located in al-Khalil (Hebron). The story has attracted media interest from Ha’aretz to Monocle. But this attention is irrelevant. Yesterday they received an order for 300 keffiyehs from a French solidarity group. But what good does this do if Palestinians won’t buy locally produced goods? After all, the largest market is right here, in the West Bank.

The patriarch of the family established the business in 1961. Since then it has provided the Palestinian people, and tourists, with the black and white “hatta” made famous, or infamous, by Yasser Arafat, and the red “hatta” favoured by elders. The Herbawi factory’s looms, all 16 of them, used to run 24 hours a day. All the equipment in the relatively small shed wouldn’t look out of place in a textile museum. We kept R back at a safe distance when Izzat turned on a couple of the machines to show us how they work.

Now, just four looms are used regularly, producing what orders they still receive. The small storeroom, which doubles as the office, was a rather forlorn sight. Packaged and half-finished keffiyehs were stacked up on the shelves and the sofa. Of course, it isn’t just the Herbawi business that suffers. They send out everything to local women to finish by hand, so there’s a real knock-on effect in the community from the lack of trade.

I bought a couple of keffiyehs, to add to my collection, happy at least that these are the real deal. And they were just 20NIS each. Izzat told us that the wholesale cost of a Herbawi keffiyeh is 5NIS more expensive than the Chinese imports. They’ve tried to get support from the Sulta, but it seems the taxes levied on Chinese imports are more important than supporting local businesses. Along with the keffiyehs, nearly everything in Palestine that isn’t food is made in China. (And most of the food is from Israel.)

Before we arrived, a TV crew from a German station had pitched up and filmed the factory for yet another piece on the last keffiyeh factory in Palestine. Yesterday we walked through the souk in Bethlehem’s old city, and scoured the shops around Bab-il-der. We couldn’t find a single keffiyeh from the Herbawi factory. All the scarves are from China. One young man tried to convince me that his stock was local and pure cotton. I pointed out the label, printed in Hebrew, which indicated the cloth was 70% polyester.

I wondered, who would come to Palestine and buy a Chinese keffiyeh? Given the choice, I expect nearly nobody. Many visitors are coming here explicitly as a form of solidarity, whether religious pilgrims or political activists. No matter the reason for choosing Palestine as a destination, I am sure all who come would like to support local producers. The handicraft industry is booming now, and that is certainly 100% Palestinian. But the one symbol, more than any other, that is globally and instantly recognised as Palestinian, isn’t any longer.

To contact the Herbawi textile factory please call +972 222 0512, +972 599 297 028, +972 599 557 735

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