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  • John Riceburg: Do cool kids wear a Palituch?


John Riceburg: Do cool kids wear a Palituch?

Lefty club ://about blank's refusal to allow the keffiyeh past its doors as part of its ban on "nationalist content" has led to accusations of racism in an open letter to the club. John Riceburg examines the facts behind the ruffled feathers.

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The Berlin club ://about blank refuses entry to visitors wearing a keffiyeh, the traditional checkered Arab headscarf. 

Now a group of anonymous Berliners from the Middle East calling themselves “Einige Berliner Aktivist_innen aus dem Nahen Osten” have called this policy racist in an open letter.

Last October, hip hop artists Sookee and Badkat threw a benefit concert to help refugees enter “protective marriages”. Left-wing party stronghold ://about blank, the run-down East German building behind Ostkreuz, played host to the event. But some refugees were denied entrance: they were wearing keffiyehs, and the club has a strict no-keffiyeh policy. Only after a long discussion were the refugees allowed to enter – as an exception.

This isn’t an isolated incident for ://about blank. A Spanish woman reports she was searched by a bouncer and forced to leave her keffiyeh in a plastic bag at the door. A young man from Syria was turned away after refusing to take off his scarf. Just last weekend an Israeli man was blocked from entering because of the dress code. Does a simple piece of cloth deserve so much attention?

The people behind ://about blank say that the keffiyeh falls under a general prohibition of national symbols in their establishment. “Our motive is to avoid the promotion of racist, sexist, anti-Semitic and (German) nationalist content in our venue”, they explain in a leaflet available at the door in English and German, while they also recognize a “huge grey area”.

It doesn’t take an eagle eye to notice that while black-red-golden German flags are in fact prohibited, one can find plenty of Union Jacks, Stars and Stripes and even Israeli army logos on t-shirts worn in the club. Some national symbols might be part of brands, others might be worn in a tongue-in-cheek way. So why should the keffiyeh be treated differently?

That’s what a group of Berlin activists from the Middle East – including Israelis and Palestinians – are asking. They called bullshit on the no-keffiyeh policy in an open letter to the club, explaining that the piece of clothing “connotes many different meanings in Arab and Kurdish societies”. It can be a protest symbol of secular nationalists in Palestine, but also of peasants in Kurdistan. And more often than not, it can be an unpolitical accessory. “Calling this a symbol of one nationality is like calling expensive hipster outfits a symbol of white German identity”, they write.

The keffiyeh became popular in West Germany in the 1980s as a symbol of solidarity with the Palestinian struggle for national liberation. Ten years ago, a flyer made its way through Germany’s left-wing scene arguing that “cool kids don’t wear a ‘Palituch” because it supposedly represents anti-Semitism: “Are you cold or do you just hate Jews?”, another flyer asks rhetorically.

These flyers claim that the mufti of Jerusalem, an ally of the Nazis, forced all Palestinians to wear the scarf in the late 1930s. But, critics point out, the mufti himself always chose a fez as headwear, and Jewish soldiers wore keffiyehs during the war of 1948. So it can’t simply be a symbol of anti-Semitism: some Nazis might have worn the scarf, but that doesn’t mean anyone who does is a Nazi.

In the last decade, the Palituch became mainstream fashion the world over; it’s been available at H&M for quite a while. But its prohibition remains in some niches where the radical left and the club scene intersect, niches like ://about blank. Most German leftists, even those who reject claims of a keffiyeh being anti-Semitic, have given up this particular accessory out of a desire to avoid the endless discussions. 

But problems arise when non-German activists want to access these spaces: even if the so-called antideutsche consider it a responsibility of Germans to not criticize Israel and avoid clothing that might be seen as anti-Semitic, can one really expect the resulting dress codes to be followed by Spaniards, Israelis, Syrians and others?

The flyer from ://about blank refers to a “controversial and conflict-ridden accessory” which is “perceived to be an anti-Israel expression” and is used by Nazis “to express an extremely aggressive anti-Semitic attitude”. Their conclusion is that the “highly problematic connotations cannot be ignored”, even if it’s only fashion.

The authors of the open letter argue that this practice is racist because it excludes people from the Middle East. They are demanding an apology from ://about blank, in all likelihood in futility, and, more rationally, a lifting of the ban. ://about blank themselves have chosen not to respond to the letter, they told Exberliner, instead referring us to the flyer they have at the door as their reasoning. It remains to be seen if the call to boycott this left-wing party spot will have any resonance.