It's really just a way to keep the sun off one's face and neck, yet became, for some, a symbol of Palestinian nationalism.
Climate, history, and religion conspired to turn a small square piece of cloth into a powerful symbol. But at its core, the kaffiyeh – the square head scarf commonly worn by Arab men – was and remains simply a way to protect the head and neck from the blazing desert sun.
The word itself simply means "from the city of Kufa,"on Iraqi town on the Euphrates River.
The earliest kaffiyehs were likely made of wool. Later, when cotton arrived from the east in the second half of the first millennium BCE, their manufacture shifted to softer cotton.
This is probably the most profound change that the kaffiyeh has undergone since its advent at some unknown point in prehistory.
Though it is the fashion to wear kaffiyeh with checkered patterns, many, especially in the Gulf and Saudi Arabia (where they are of a thinner fabric and are called shemaghs) use a white cloth, which is probably indistinguishable from those the ancients wore before the rise of Islam.
As for coloring, kaffiyeh come in many designs. In Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian territories, most are black and white checkered, while the norm in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states is red and white checkers.
Keeping one’s head covered was been a sign of respect in the Middle East well before Mohammad founded Islam. It was and remains a common practice among the region's peoples of all types.
But fashion played a role. While the nomadic Bedouin clung to the traditional kaffiyeh, cosmopolitan city and town dwellers changed fashions over the ages, influenced by the Persians, the Greeks, the Turks and the West.
The Quran doesn’t make it clear with what Mohammed covered his head, though it does state that he did. Hadiths, which are traditions written by people who knew the Prophet, say he wore a turban called al-sib (“The Cloud”), though this is probably an anachronism from the later Middle Ages, when the turban came to be seen as the “mark of Islam.”
But even then, when the turban reigned supreme in the cities, and later, when the Ottomans dominated the region and the fez came to dominate the heads of city dwellers - the kaffiyeh remained popular among those who lived traditional lifestyles, such as the Bedouin, and farmers. Possibly because these were simply the people who actually needed to keep the sun off their heads and necks.
The British kill off the fez
In the 20th century, World War I brought Great Britain into conflict with the Ottoman rulers of the Middle East.
The Turks wanted to rid North Africa of the British. They in turn were keen to wrest the region from the Turks.
Mainly, the British wanted control of the holy sites in Palestine and of the recently discovered oil in Iran, and also, to secure the Suez Canal that connected England to its oversea colonies – especially India. To this end, they took measures to foment revolt in the Ottoman Empire. The man chosen for this job was Thomas Edward Lawrence.
Evidently based on his preconceived concepts of what Arabs should be, T.E. Lawrence preferred the noble kaffiyeh-wearing Bedouin to the Westernized Arab elites in the cities. In no small part due to this predilection, in 1916 the Bedouins revolted against the Turks.
When that war ended in 1918, Bedouins were placed at the head of puppet regimes the British set up in the place of the dismembered Ottoman Empire.
Thus at the end of World War I, the Turkish fez-wearing rulers departed, and were succeeded by kaffiyeh-wearing Bedouin kings. These new rulers – the Hashemites - came from the family of Sharif Hussein bin Ali, the patriarch of the family who led the Arab Revolt.
Each son got a kingdom: one in Syria, one in Jordan, another in Iraq, and Sharif Hussein bin Ali himself was proclaimed King of the Hijaz (the western part of what modern-day Saudi Arabia) and all the Arabs.
In these places, kaffiyehs remained popular. In Jordan and Saudi Arabia, which are still controlled by Bedouins (albeit of different clans), kaffiyehs remain the standard to this day. In Arabia for example, a shemagh (as they call their kaffiyehs) is mandatory when visiting government offices and when attending formal events.
Elsewhere hatless western fashions took hold, for instance in Iraq and Syria, where the Hashemites were deposed by revolution.
Meanwhile, in British Palestine, Palestinians – especially the urban classes that came in contact with the British and Jews - were adopting hatless western garb. And as always, on the margins of society, rural farmers continued to cover their heads with a black and white kaffiyeh.
Suddenly, a nationalist symbol
But come the 1930s, it was these traditionalist Palestinians from the countryside who revolted against the British, and their kaffiyeh became a shibboleth distinguishing nationalist Palestinians from hatless pragmatists, who did not support violent conflict with the British Empire.
Suddenly, the kaffiyeh became a symbol of resistance and of nationalism. Later, in the 1960s, PLO leader Yasser Arafat would coopt its past symbolism: he was nearly never seen without his kaffiyeh, which influenced another generation of Palestinians to adopt the headgear as a symbol of solidarity with the nationalist movement.
At about that same time, the kaffiyeh started becoming a fashion accessory among young European leftists, who wore it in solidarity with the Palestinians. In the 1990s it became trendy in Japan and by now the headscarves are worldwide, though arguably, most wearers aren't expressing solidarity with the Palestinian cause. Some westerners just like it; many Arabs wear them because that's the custom; and even when a Palestinian wears a kaffiyeh it doesn’t necessarily mean anything.
Still, the kaffiyeh is viewed with hostility by the Israeli right. Urban Outfitters was forced to pull kaffiyehs off their shelves in 2007 due to pressure from the pro-Israel lobby.
More recently, Knesset member Basel Ghattas (Balad) drew arrows from the Israeli right for wearing a kaffiyeh when addressing the Knesset. But although the kaffiyeh remains a symbol of Palestinian nationalism - just as Arabs are not a threat to Israelis per se, so too, kaffiyehs aren’t a threat and shouldn’t be seen as such.