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Global demand increases for headscarves most closely tied to Palestinian identity

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

The war between Israel and Hamas has taken a toll on the economy of the Israeli-occupied West Bank. But at one family-owned factory in Hebron, there's been brisk business since the war began. That's because there's new international demand for a symbol closely tied to Palestinian identity. Here's NPR's Nina Kravinsky.

NINA KRAVINSKY, BYLINE: Abdel Aziz stands in front of a dark, cavernous room filled with 15 mechanical looms. He's worked here at the Hirbawi kaffiyeh factory since he was 16 - 54 years. The scarves he makes come in many colors, although the traditional Palestinian ones are white with black embroidery and a fishnet pattern.

ABDEL AZIZ: (Through interpreter) This is kaffiyeh. This is the culture of Palestine. This is the heritage of Palestine.

KRAVINSKY: For much of the past century, these headscarves have been associated with Palestinian identity throughout the world. Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was rarely seen without a kaffiyeh, some of which were made right here at the Hirbawi factory. Judeh Hirbawi is one of the three brothers who own and run the factory that their father started. He says through an interpreter, sales have skyrocketed in the last few months.

JUDEH HIRBAWI: (Through interpreter) Usually we have leftovers. Usually we have stuff that's always stored. We don't have one kaffiyeh in storage.

KRAVINSKY: Meanwhile, all their machines are running. Everything is on backorder. Hirbawi says he and his brothers have expanded the business over the years, and he says it's the only factory in the West Bank that makes kaffiyeh. Most of their competition is from China.

HIRBAWI: (Through interpreter) The difference is that my father used to sell only locally. When we came, we start change the way of selling. We started selling online, imports, exports.

KRAVINSKY: Right now, those exports are driving sales. The company has more than 200,000 followers on Instagram. Many of their international customers say they bought from the factory to support a family owned business in the West Bank, in order to show support for Palestinians during the ongoing Israeli offensive in Gaza.

(SOUNDBITE OF VEHICLE ZOOMING)

KRAVINSKY: Murad Mohammed is parked outside the factory store, where he hopes to buy a hundred kaffiyehs to ship abroad. He's been trying for a month to make this purchase, but the factory has had so many orders recently that he hasn't been able to get them yet. Murad works for a nonprofit advocating for nonviolent resistance to Jewish settlements in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, and he wants to ship the kaffiyehs to friends in Europe.

MURAD MOHAMMED: It's new conditions for the Palestinians. Now the world is changing, you know, to support the basic rights of the Palestinians. So they are proud to get our kaffiyehs. They are interested to know more about Palestine and to know the history of Palestine, the traditions of the Palestinian people.

KRAVINSKY: Murad didn't want to give his full name because he fears speaking publicly could make him a target of the Israeli military. And even as he waits to buy dozens of the scarves, Murad doesn't wear a kaffiyeh himself. He lives in Hebron, a city where Palestinians and Jewish settlers live in close quarters, and tensions are high.

MOHAMMED: It's part of our traditional wearing, you know, clothes, and it's a symbol of Palestine. So they are not, you know, only fighting us. They fighting us, our history, our land, our tradition, our food, everything. They are trying to destroy everything to the Palestinian people, unfortunately.

KRAVINSKY: Judeh Hirbawi wouldn't speak to us about the kaffiyeh as a symbol of national identity, but he knows what drive sales.

HIRBAWI: (Through interpreter) People wish to buy a kaffiyeh made in Palestine. That's what distinguishes us from other kaffiyehs.

KRAVINSKY: And for now, the Hirbawis keep their focus on the bottom line.

Nina Kravinsky, NPR News, Hebron.

(SOUNDBITE OF SLOWHEAL'S "EVENFALL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Nina Kravinsky