As the world’s media rush from one Middle-East upheaval to the next, the necks, journalists are sticking out with to get us the story, are becoming adorned with signs of the how briskly the winds of change are blowing.
Scarves, it seems, are now the must-have fashion accessory for the latest generation of correspondents.
Whether chequered Arab cloth or long strips distinguishing Afghanistan’s tribes, these mementos of conflicts, past and present, are worn with all the pride of soldiers showing off their medals.
In Libya, the wardrobe is growing yet again. Inside the Uzu Hotel, which serves as the journalists’ headquarters in the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, scarves worn by the dozens of scribes filling the lobby each day provide a visual shorthand of experience: veteran reporters sporting well-worn Palestinian or Pashtun neck-warmers; correspondents fresh from Egypt arriving with their revolutionary wraps worn in Cairo‘s Tahir Square; and eager freelancers wearing Libyan purchases just picked up in city markets.
Local street vendors who started out flogging plastic “Free Libya” pens and flags on Benghazi’s waterfront have been quick to detect the market opportunity. Media workers exiting the rebellion’s administrative building in a former courthouse there are now offered a wide selection of scarves.
“I am thinking about getting one because everybody is wearing it and you feel like it is a token of Libya,” said a correspondent for a major US daily who declined to be named.
Indeed, while journalists often pride themselves on their individuality, throwing a traditional scarf over their regular outfit is often an attempt to not stand out too much in a strange land, even as they bring an outsider’s viewpoint to bear.
“It helps you blend in and sometimes you need to cover your face from any kind of gas. Also you use it sometimes to hide your face so some people don’t recognize you,” explained Michael Brown, an American freelance photographer who brought his Afghan scarf from Kabul.
Of course, being a Westerner in an Arab country, it can be difficult to blend in.
As Gert Van Langendonck, a journalist from Belgium, said of his time in Baghdad: “Some journalists cover their faces completely with a scarf so they won’t be recognized as foreigners. But then after a while the people got used to seeing foreigners doing that. So whenever a car went along with someone covered by a scarf they knew immediately that there were foreigners in that car.”
Oftentimes, the garb comes also from the simple need to cover up against the desert winds. Several reporters, for instance, overestimated the average temperature this time of year in eastern Libya. Chilly gales strong enough to rip portable satellite transmitters from hotel balconies were reason enough to seek out extra layers in the local markets.
But many of the news personnel were aware of the political sympathies wearing such accessories represented. For some, that was irrelevant. For others, it was deliberate, even useful.
Pooyan Tabatabaei, a photographer, bought a Palestinian scarf in his native Iran because, he said, he supported the Palestinian people’s cause.
Ty Cacek, an American freelance photographer, also had a black-and-white Palestinian scarf around his neck. He had bought it in Libya.
“I think it is stupid to wear it in America. But people here in Libya come to me and tell me how happy they are about me supporting the Palestinian cause. It kinda helps,” he said.
In Benghazi’s economy, hungry for hard cash, the souvenir scarf trend is proving a boon for those making and selling them.
Massoud Ali Awad, a 16-year-old selling scarves in a shop, explained that they were part of Bedouin life, providing protection from the desert. Rebel fighters now spending their days in the same arid landscape adopted them, and now “lots of journalists covering the conflict are buying the scarves” too, he said.
Sales are surging, too, as the Libyan population in rebel areas purchase them out of revolutionary zeal.
“There weren’t lots of people buying scarves before, but since the revolution started lots of people are buying them because they represent fighting and victory. Some people are buying the scarves to give to the fighters on the frontline,” said one 25-year-old scarf-maker, Abdullah Mohamed.
Although the scarves came in several colours, only the black-and-white sort carried true revolutionary meaning, he said.
Libya’s scarves, then, are the latest mode on the conflict catwalk, a with-the-times addition to the modern reporter’s attire.
In a few weeks or months, though, it’s possible — and, judging by events in Syria or Yemen, even probable — that they will be joined by other varieties from other countries.
For the media types sporting them, they will be yet another badge of experience, a memento to add to the growing pile that in its way represents the transformation of an entire region.
As Nick Meo, The Sunday Telegraph’s foreign correspondent, said wryly while wearing a scarf bought in Cairo while covering the Egyptian revolution: “This is a scarf that says I’ve lived.”
*Dina Sadek is an Egyptian freelance journalist currently based in Cairo. She can be contacted at SadekDM@gmail.com