Bedouin couture

Observations on fashion

You've just attended Glastonbury in the worst June since records began and could have done with your grandmother's shawl. A pashmina might have helped - but you're not Kate Middleton or Sienna Miller. Besides, you've got some rubber wristbands left over from last year and know that we live in political times. You opt for the shemagh.

The shemagh is the headcloth worn by Arab peasants for centuries, which now features in the autumn collection of the haute couture fashion house Balenciaga. That really is rags to riches. Something Yasser Arafat spent an hour intricately folding around his head each morning so that its tail formed the shape of Palestine, has spent most of 2007 as a fashion accessory.

Readers of Grazia magazine will have seen David Beckham in, variously, an orange and a green shemagh. Sienna and Kate were there at its beginning; one has even been seen round the neck of Jade Goody.

The main purveyor of the reinvented shemagh is the high-street chain Urban Outfitters. Black-and-white in Palestine as a symbol of nationalism, plain white in the Gulf, red and white in the Jordanian army. At Urban Outfitters, you can buy your shemagh in any colour as long as it's nu-rave fluorescent. In pink and purple, with added hearts against the classic checks, it has become the £18 Heart Woven Desert Scarf. "It won't provide you with much camouflage in the desert," says the catalogue, "but it sure is pretty."

Pretty? The Jewish and Palestinian lobbies united in fighting what they saw as trivialisation and the product was pulled from American shelves in January due to what the company acknowledged was its "sensitive nature". An inkling of this may have been why the store chose to name its scarves by the obscure name of the shemagh - something British soldiers called them when posted in North Africa during the Second World War - rather than what Arabs call them, keffiyehs.

In London's Urban Outfitters, the shemagh remains a bestseller. At the Covent Garden branch, a place so glibly political the male mannequin in the forecourt wears a T-shirt slogan, "Drop Acid Not Bombs", I ask one assistant why they're still selling shemaghs. "What, because of the whole Afghan thing?" she asks, making rabbit ear shapes with her fingers. Another assistant wore her shemagh on holiday to America. "Like Iranians, or whatever, would come up to me and say, 'I'm really proud of you for supporting us.'" Close, but not quite.

Centuries ago, shemaghs were a means for Arabs to protect themselves from the wind, sun and storms of the Middle East. Only latterly have they morphed into symbols of Arab nationalism. If the weather continues like this, the bedouin look could spread still further and return to its practical use in northern Europe.

This article first appeared in the 23 July 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Pink Planet

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Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.