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Political faux pas or fashionable fad?

(Shortened version of article printed in ALO Hayati Magazine, an international Arab arts and culture publication, in Spring 2010 issue)

By: Carmel Delshad

University of South Florida student Will Ottaviani never thought his bold fashion statement would incite anger. On the contrary, Ottaviani believed his colorful Urban Outfitters scarf was a fashionable way to keep warm in New York City; that is, until an Iraq war veteran told him the scarf, a kaffiyeh, was a symbol of terrorism.

 “I didn’t know the scarf had a Middle Eastern background until I was verbally assaulted by an Iraq war veteran while in New York City,” said Ottaviani. “He said that I was a liberal terrorist for wearing it because it supported terrorism.”

The kaffiyeh is an Arab headdress most notably seen on the heads of foreign dignitaries in the Middle East.

Once popularized by the likes of former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, tweens, rockers, actors and music artists now sport the scarf all in the name of “fashion.”

The kaffiyeh is normally of a black and white checked pattern, worn by men in the Middle East. According to an article published on, Assistant Professor Rochelle Davis of Georgetown University stated the kaffiyeh became “symbolic during the Palestinian uprising against the British occupation from 1936 to 1939, and has been a symbol of nationalism ever since.”      

Chances are Balenciaga fashion designer Nicholas Ghesquiere did not mean to make a political statement when he featured a kaffiyeh in his Fall 2007 ready-to-wear collection.

USF student Harrison Reed received a kaffiyeh from a friend studying abroad in Syria.

“I didn't really think it was a fashion statement, its just really practical. When it's 30 degrees out it’s nice to have your head completely wrapped up. The fact that it looks pretty cool doesn't hurt,” said Reed.

Assu Etsubuneh wears her scarf primarily for fashion reasons.

“I wear them to accessorize my clothing. I have one in plaid, black and magenta. I don’t know the specifics behind the Middle Eastern-inspired fashion or their name,” said Etsubuneh.

Arab American Ahmad Mando views the trend as a catalyst for dialogue between Arabs and non-Arabs.

“I do not get offended at all when people wear it; in fact I get excited because it's becoming a household item,” said Mando. “The more popular it is, the more it is acceptable to wear it, the more I get a chance to be myself without having to worry.”

The popularity of the kaffiyeh and kaffiyeh-inspired scarves is evident in virtually every shopping mall. These scarves can be found in Urban Outfitters (who removed the scarf temporarily), Marshall’s, Hot Topic and Forever21.  

Robin Hatel, sales associate at Forever21 in Wesley Chapel’s Wiregrass Mall, said the scarf’s popularity was evident.

“It definitely is a hot seller. The minute we put them out on the floor they’re gone by the end of night. Even guys were rocking them,” said Hatel.

Local Arab food markets that sell Middle Eastern clothing were even touched by the fad. 

Sales associate in Tampa’s Java Food Market Youssef Bassoumi said that the 15 kaffiyehs in the store sold out quickly, especially after the recent Israeli airstrike in Gaza.

“Most of the people that bought them were Arab girls, showing their support for Palestine,” said Bassoumi.

But the question still lingers: at what point does fashion become a political symbol?

Dr. Ted Swedenburg, a professor at the University of Arkansas anthropology department, has noted the growth of the kaffiyeh in his blog.

“A few months after I started blogging I started collecting images of people wearing kaffiyehs and then it escalated from there. I’m obsessive about it,” said Swedenburg.

“I wish people did know more about the history of the kaffiyeh,” said Swedenburg. “On the other hand, as with anything that circulates in American popular culture that’s with Middle Eastern prominence, it does give people with more knowledge an opportunity to say ‘Hey, this is what it’s about.’” 

The scarf fad garnered major attention from national media outlets in Summer 2008. Dunkin’ Donuts aired a commercial featuring Rachel Ray, holding her chilled cup of coffee sporting—what else—a kaffiyeh-like scarf.

Right-winged bloggers like Michelle Malkin exploded on their blogosphere, calling the scarf a symbol of “murderous Palestinian jihad. Folks out there remain completely oblivious to the apparel’s violent symbolism and anti-Israel overtones.”

Dunkin’ Donuts quickly pulled the ad and stated, according to the Boston Globe, “‘[The scarf] was selected by [Ray’s] stylist for the advertising shoot. Absolutely no symbolism was intended. However, given the possibility of misperception, we are no longer using the commercial.’''

“To me the interesting question is, ‘What does it mean that Rachel Ray is wearing this scarf and that Michelle Malkin raises a fuss about it?’” said Swedenburg. “The point is that the kaffiyeh isn’t just a fashion statement; it reminds us that it means something. The raising of terrorism as an issue is just a way of not actually dealing with the issue, which is the occupation of Palestine.”

In a Newsweek article, Lorraine Ali wrote, “It's doubtful the ad would have been pulled if a handful of critics found Ray's garb too Hispanic or too African-American. The real danger here is not the girly scarf…it's that the cries of a few commentators indulging in the worst form of racial stereotyping—and their demonization of an entire culture—was enough to spook a giant corporation.”

Nonetheless, Malkin continued her support of Dunkin’ Donuts, writing, “It’s refreshing to see an American company show sensitivity to the concerns of Americans opposed to Islamic jihad and its apologists.”

“[The kuffiyeh] is a symbol of Palestinian nationalism. Overall, it’s about a struggle for national liberation, not terrorism,” said Swedenburg.

Though the trend may already be on its way out in these summer months, the cultural implications of the kaffiyeh still linger in the minds of Arabs and Americans alike.

“It’s not the end of the story. I don’t think it means the kaffiyeh is dead as a symbol for Palestine, and it’s a potent one,” said Swedenburg. 

Tourism hits the 21st century

By: Carmel Delshad

The iPod has a new gig: tour guide.

For tech-savvy mp3 owners who love to travel, Boston-based Audissey Guides provides audio tours for download. All you need is a sense of adventure, so put down your credit card because these tours are free.

Founder and Creative Director Rob Pyles started the company in 2005 and launched the first audio tour, set in Boston.

“The timing was perfect because iPods were just starting to get popular in 2006. So we started with Boston because we are from Boston,” Pyles said.

Users download the audio tours from iTunes or the Audissey Web site. From there tourists upload the tour onto their mp3 players and print out a map directing them to the various tour destinations. Tours are available for Boston, Miami Beach, Houston, Seattle, New Orleans, Chicago, Halifax, Nova Scotia and Hampton, Virginia.

Pyles’ love for traveling was the catalyst for his career venture with the Audissey Guides.

“I wanted to show the cities on an intimate level and give a unique view as to why they are special,” he said.

Pyles now has an armada of young tech specialists to help keep this internet-based company going, including Glenn Forsythe, a “soundscape architect” and Berklee College of Music graduate.

“Working with Glenn is great,” said Pyles. “We take history and reinvent it in an awesome way.”

Forsythe’s job is to bring out the flavor of each city through the music he composes.

“There is the literal end, with ambient recordings,” said Forsythe. “Then the music, I try to see the impression it gives me as a composer. For instance, in Houston, I gave the music a Southern, lush bayou feel.”

Pyles said his tours take you to places you cannot get to by bus or trolley. The tour, narrated by Pyles, takes followers to the notable areas of Boston and features guest narration by local Bostonians.

The sounds of footsteps and Pyles’ voice take you to Devonshire Street. Pyles narrates in a signature Bostonian accent:

Listen to a tale of James Michael Curley, the wildest politician in a city of wild politics…He was the most gifted speaker of his time, but sometimes he let his fists do the talking. Back in 1926 a newspaper editor wrote a scathing editorial about Curley. A couple of days later, up ahead on the left, by the sign for the National Park Visitor’s Center, the editor and Curley just happened to cross paths. Now stop here, check it out. Here, at about this spot, two of the highest profile men in Boston squared off. The editor went sprawling to the gutter. That’s right, on a crowded street, in the middle of the day, the mayor of Boston punched the editor in the face and knocked his ass out.

Dick Lehr, a Boston journalist and co-author of The Underboss: The Rise and Fall of a Mafia Family, takes tourists on a walk through the city’s infamous North End, known to locals as a former mafia hot spot.

“The North End is peaceful now,” says Lehr as he narrates. “Visitors identify the neighborhood with Paul Revere and the Old North Church. The streets of the North End were long a protective cover for a more sinister kind of rebel: the Boston mafia. You’re headed to 98 Prince Street, where one of the most daring chapters in Boston crime history took place back in 1981.”

With a young team of tech specialists, which Pyles notes was a stroke of fate and not a purposeful action, the tours cater to the young and young-at-heart. The tours last for roughly an hour.

Tourists and college students alike can appreciate the hands-on approach of the tours.

Tu-Phuong Tran, a student at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, said she would definitely go on the Boston Audissey tour while away from college for a weekend.

“It's a pretty creative approach to modern travel. Given the popular usage of iPods and mp3 players, I think this product is a great idea especially for those who backpack or prefer to travel alone. I would definitely go with friends,” Tran said.

Student Sean Karlen said the free tours are great for college students.

“If you like to travel that’s expensive enough. So this idea of a free tour that you can control is pretty awesome,” said Karlen.

His friend and classmate John Marc Wilson agreed.

“Anything that’s free will be bound to attract students. And I think that’s what the tourism industry really needs. People can’t afford to go anywhere on vacation now, so these free tours are great,” said Wilson.

Pyles said the tours were not free previously, but with the recent boom in business, he decided to make the tours as cost efficient as possible.

“Now, we have cities contacting us and hiring us, so that’s how we are able to give the tours for free,” said Pyles.

Tran sees one major downside with this portable tour guide.

“I worry whether the iPod tours would present distractions, via surround sound, that could put a user in danger,” said Tran. “Having traveled by myself in foreign countries, I think it’s important to be aware of your surroundings for safety reasons. But it is all about personal responsibility in the end.”

While these dangers exist anywhere, Pyles’ team stresses that their destinations are just as safe as any other tour.

What is next for these tours that claim to “create hip, entertaining audio and video walking tours that launch travelers off the beaten path – and into the soul of a city?” Pyles said he plans to stick to the same formula for success.

“We are just having fun the way it is; all of us enjoy our jobs. But we are lining up new cities for the future and expanding overseas,” said Pyles. “We will look for cities that have a bittersweet story, like Belfast or Sarajevo, a place that you might not think of when you hear the word tourism.”

The Audissey Guides team is also tinkering with GPS technology to create customized GPS-based tours for clients, cell phone tours and online virtual tours.

Such interactive tours are just a sign of the times, where technology meets recreation for a unique twist on travel.

2008 election goes well into the morning in Hillsborough County, many glitches in voting software

By: Carmel Delshad

TAMPA—Results at the Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections Office moved at a sluggish pace on election night until 3:30 a.m. when vote counting officially stopped because of numerous technical difficulties.

Issues arose early on with the optical scanning machines. According to Judge James Dominguez, Chairman of the Hillsborough County Canvassing Board, issues began when the ballots cast during early voting clogged up the system and delayed the transmission of preliminary results.

“The system slowed during the uploading of early votes, so we just had to move on to today’s votes. And as far as I know, there never was any intention of counting the absentee ballots that we received today during today’s hours because the deadline was at 7 p.m. It would be a very labor-intensive process to do that at once with the other tabulations. From what I gather, later on tonight, we will shut the systems down and start the early voting count again. It will probably take two and a half hours to clean this up,” Dominguez said at roughly 2:30 a.m.

Poll workers struggled with the new optical scanning machines, address changes, provisional ballots and a large influx of voters at the University of South Florida precinct. Many voters were not given the second page of the ballot.

Rose Ferlita, District 1 County Commissioner and canvassing board member, spoke of the voting calculations during the onset of the issues at 8:45 p.m.

“In terms of what we have been doing with the canvassing board in the days leading to today, there have been no big blunders. I think the disappointment right now is that although we have given out the absentee vote results for the ones that have been counted, the early voting is lagging behind a bit. I understand they have tabulated each specific precinct but it has not been merged into the main system to be able to give you one big number,” Ferlita said.

One of the races held up during Tuesday night’s voting mishap was the Supervisor of Elections position, where Republican incumbent Johnson held a slim lead over Democrat Phyllis Busansky.

Poll workers scrambled to fix transmission errors at the onset of the night. Delays in precinct votes due to electronic problems were of a major concern. Any remaining precincts whose votes did not transmit correctly were forced to bring November 4th’s ballots to the Falkenburg location physically, which greatly stalled the reporting process.

Hillsborough was one of the many counties along the coveted I-4 Corridor that decided the fate of Florida in the general election. Barack Obama’s win in the state was projected early on; however, results for the local races were slow at best.

With the 2000 and 2004 elections still a fresh wound in Florida, many felt it was even more important to ensure voter accuracy with the new electronic machinery in this major swing state. Missing and uncounted ballots and machine malfunctions marred both presidential races in Florida, making the 2008 election the perfect time to revamp voting equipment.

The Board of County Commissioners unanimously approved new optical scan voting equipment, furnished by Premier Elections Solutions, as their choice for the 2008 election. After extensive research, this system proved to have the best performance and price in comparison to other voting machines. The new system provides a “voter verifiable paper trail and a ballot-on-demand system for early voting,” according to a media kit issued by the elections office.

Tabulations of votes started around 7 p.m. at the Falkenburg elections location. Hillsborough Supervisor of Elections Buddy Johnson was at the University of South Florida voting precinct in the early evening, aiding poll workers and speaking to local media. Issues began surfacing as early as 8 p.m.

“I cannot tell you how happy I am and how proud I am of the office. But as for the delay tonight from our vendor, whom we will partner with and continue to work with, this is a brand new system, presidential year, the second brand new system in the second presidential election that Buddy Johnson has administered, and I’m proud of what we are doing here. The issues are what they are. But we are reporting,” Johnson said.

Johnson stated that the county saw a record number of phone calls in the weeks leading up to the election. Office staffer Geneva Prevatt noted that the phone lines shut down about four times the day before the election due to the high volume of calls.

“The phone system itself has just been flooded. The non-stop phone calls probably started two weeks ago and have gotten heavier and heavier as time went by. This is the main headquarters, everything gets routed here,” Prevatt said.

The USF precinct experienced many delays in the meantime, and backup poll staff were sent there to alleviate the mass congestion in the voter lines. Some of the 1,000 voters at USF waited as long as four hours to cast their ballots, according to the St. Petersburg Times. Many people in the line were able to change their addresses while they were at the voting precinct, thanks to a new law allowing them to do so.

Johnson said that the congestion caused at USF was mainly due to an underestimation of voter turnout.

“Polling clerks processed about 200 to 300 students in the last hour, most of them with address changes, which the law now allows. If you are in line at 7 p.m., you get to vote. I think Premier is writing a statement as to why their system is a little slow tonight, it is not the same issue as in the primary, but I don’t know exactly what they determined. I think we are at about 70 percent of the total now,” Johnson said.

By 3 a.m., Premier Elections Solutions had not released any statements clarifying the mechanical issues facing Hillsborough and other counties.

Poll workers and staff struggled to get the results out as fast as possible, but the technology seemed far less committed.

“For the second time in a row, the vendor has failed to produce the uploaded results; the [machines] are all right there, and you can see them. We will remedy the situation as soon as we get the results, and it means exactly what it means,” Johnson said.

As of 2:39 a.m., 377 out of 384 voting precincts reported results at a 59 percent voter turnout rate. Johnson said that the contract with Premier would be remedied as soon voting calculations are finalized.

“This is a situation where [Premier] was unable to perform, they did not deliver tonight, they did not deliver in the primary. But we are reporting; this is not another 2004,” Johnson said.