A Palestinian Take on Occupy Wall Street
by Helga Tawil-Souri — New York University
December 08, 2011 – 00:00
An OWS protestor wears a Guy Fawkes mask and a kuffiyeh. Another holds up a sign: “Occupy Wall Street. Not Palestine.” Flattery, naivete, or solidarity?
Used differently across the Middle East for decades, it was Arafat – who wore his to trace the territory of Palestine – that donned the kuffiyeh global visibility in the 1960s. But kuffiyehs also became (often de-politicized) fashion accessories in 1980s. So, is the OWS protestor’s scarf related, if at all, to Palestine? And so what? Is it any different than a sign of “coolness” as worn by Sting, Kanye West and David Beckham? Or than the American Marine – occupying Iraq – wearing one to shield him from sandstorms and surveillance cameras? Or than Hasidic rapper Matisyahu, credited as popularizing the Israeli “kuffi”? Despite a call by a pro-Palestinian group to “wear your kuffiyeh” for an OWS march in October, the scarf seems more closely associated with hipster aesthetics than political solidarity. As urbandictionary.com summarizes, “who the fuck cares what it’s called? You look like a badass rebel!” Who cares about its politics: you can buy one in fuscia, tie-dye, Israeli- or American-flag colors.
If the kuffiyeh increasingly seems a symbol of the de-politicization of Palestinian culture, then the posters attempt more explicit connections. But these underscore pitfalls in the semantics of OWS. The conflict is turned upside-down: occupation is what the Israeli military does, wearing kuffiyehs and demonstrating in the streets is what Palestinians do. Second, the term’s colonial-military roots denotes control of territory by a hostile army (think Nazi occupation of Poland, Soviet Occupation of Afghanistan, US occupation of Iraq). In OWS terminology, it is the reverse. Yet, OWS draws on another aspect of Palestinian politics: mobilization onto streets, attempting to gain public attention, using space in defiance of authority (whether governmental, military, or economic) also defined the First Intifada.
The Palestinian connection of these symbols and words however highlights a more problematic political-cultural quagmire. As Rachel Ray discovered when an advertisement in which she wore a “terrorist scarf” was never aired: anything to do with Palestinians and Arabs is often hounded on as “anti-Israeli” and subsequently (often faultily) deligitimized as anti-Semitic. Second, coopting from the less-powerful seldom changes the realities on the ground for those very people. Palestinians have known this for decades: there is a contradiction that comes with visibility. The more traction symbols get, the less they mean.