Howard Johnson
BBC News
August 8, 2011 - 12:00am

Hirbawi Textiles is located on a nondescript road on the outskirts of the Palestinian city Hebron.

To the outsider it looks like any other ageing factory. In the dank, strip-light lit interior there are rows of disused machines with cogs wrapped in cobwebs.

But three years ago the factory became the focus of the world's media, when it became apparent it was the last in the Palestinian Territories to produce the keffiyeh, the traditional Arab headdress and favourite of former leader Yasser Arafat.

The Palestinian keffiyeh industry had suffered a slump following market liberalisation measures under the 1993 Oslo Accords.

Wholesalers in the Palestinian Territories increasingly bought cheaper versions of the scarf from China, Jordan and Syria. A Hirbawi Textiles scarf costs around $6, while a Chinese keffiyeh costs as little as $3.

For loom worker Abdel Aziz El Taraki the move signalled the demise of the family run business.

Set up in 1961, the factory started with just two weaving machines, but as the headscarf became synonymous with Palestinian nationalism, demand quickly rose.

"Of course business used to be much better. We used to have 15 machines working and it wasn't enough, we sometimes had to work for 24 hours to cover the demand," says El Taraki.

"In the 1980s, during the first intifada, production was covering everywhere from Gaza to Jerusalem and Ramallah. Every imported keffiyeh sold here means one less sold for us.

"In the past we were doing very well, it then deteriorated until we only had two machines working in the factory."

Following the media attention came a flood of inquiries about the factory.

Capitalising on the public's interest, the Hirbawi family set up an web page so orders from foreign countries could be placed.

Around the same time the story had caught the eye of the 'Young Professionals for Palestine', a group of internet activists based at the time in Kuwait.

Group founder Noora Kassem says they were concerned foreign imports were destroying the meaning of the Palestinian scarf.

"Globalisation has allowed cheaper products to be made in other countries that actually care nothing about the identity of the product itself and one of the things we were worried about was the fact that that mass production would take away from the authenticity of the product by ensuring it's not made in Palestine anymore," says Kassem.

"We felt like we had to mobilise to help the factory get more customers, and to get a larger client base and perhaps maybe improve its own capacities and its ability to get more machines.

"So what we did is we we made some sales by buying some keffiyehs, and sold them to people in Kuwait and tried to get more people to buy from the factory themselves."

But despite the group's best efforts, the logistics of buying and selling the keffiyehs from Kuwait became problematic.

"We ended up setting up the Facebook page so that people could directly deal with the factory. The owner is very old and is a little bit resistant to changes in technology taking place and so hopefully adapting to those changes will take them into the new fold," she says.

"Of course we can't intervene and take their books and tell them how to do their business but we can help through marketing, through PR, through contacts and connectivity."

With more than 1,000 members the Facebook page is proving very popular.

"We've got people all over the world from Australia to India to South Africa," says Kassem.

"All over the Middle East, Arabs and non-Arabs alike, interested in the message and exactly what the keffiyeh stands for.

"A lot of people associate it with a fashion accessory, but they were interested to find out what the history of it is and that this is the last factory and it came from Palestine."

Jouda Hirbawi, one of two sons who looks after the day-to-day running of the factory, welcomes the Facebook page.

He says the site has had a direct impact on sales with up to 1,500 orders a month, mostly from America and Europe. But despite its success he says the Palestinian Authorities should do more to help domestic industries.

"The Chinese use cheap materials and cheap labour, so the product that comes here is very cheap and there is no way to compete with it honestly," explains Jouda.

"Of course no country can ban imports, but there are ways to control them, for example, they should impose taxes on imported products. This way they will support local producers who employ a lot of people. This will help the local economy as well."

Production is currently up at the factory with eight machines producing more than 70 keffiyehs a day.

But with ageing technology and little evidence of investment in the factory's infrastructure, the Hirbawis will be aware they must do more or face the day when their looms fall silent.


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