Old Symbol New Identity

The word ‘Arab’ can cause an uproar anywhere around the world. Without proper identifiers or clear definition, Arab identity is very controversial. The Arab World groups people together of diverse ancestral heritage, religious backgrounds and distinct historic characteristics. A vast region that spans from Morocco in the West to Oman on the Eastern edge of the Gulf, encompassing some nineteen countries and over 300 million people, the social and cultural differences within the different Arab countries and among Arab people are often underestimated. It is only plausible that the issue of identity always be a struggle for Arabs and the Arab World. The Arabs are more a community of nations rather than a national community - an Egyptian will always be an Egyptian first, a Lebanese may not feel or associate with being primarily ‘Arab” in terms of interests, aspirations or ideals. The historical local and international influences in each country are very distinctive; Architecture is rather individual to each area; Social, political and religious behaviors are very diverse; and even aesthetics and visual appreciation are considerably divergent if you compare the visible trends of each country. Arab states have one thing in common: Arabic is their official language. The common Arabic denominator is just what is know as ‘Literal Arabic’ used for writing and reading, spoken dialects are very different and unique to each country.

Arab countries tend to be lumped together by the West and Arab stereotypes have tainted Western culture for years – bombers, belly dancers and billionaires and more recently terrorists. Add on to that image the confusion and non-dissociation between Arab and Muslim, the former denoting an ethnicity and the latter a religion. While many Arabs follow the Muslim faith, both these terms are not synonymous, although we can’t deny that religion plays a fundamental role in the Arab World both socially and politically. The Arab identity polemic is both internal and external – Arabs already are dealing with their own identity confusion add on to that the Western stereotypes.

Arab identity is very hard to define and often misconstrued, so finding contemporary un-stereotypical visual clues to classify Arab or Arabs is virtually impossible. They don’t exist. Well at least a common one doesn’t yet. An example would be to look at the symbol for Arabic language on the Mac computer, which is a “Helal” or crescent. The crescent is a Muslim connotation and not Arab at all. Minimal knowledge about the Arab countries and their culture in the West is one thing but wrong knowledge is frightening, especially in this day and age. More so, the whole Arab diverse region is often lumped together and dealt with the same judgment of the unknown, fear.

This complexity makes the search for an Arab identity a rather challenging one. While most Arab countries are undergoing considerable changes - social, economical and political – there is a strong urge to define this contemporary Arab identity. A branding and re-branding boom swamped the Arab world over the last decade. Every brief for a new needed "visual identity" asked for the same: developing a "very Arab" image. Everyone's definition however of the term Arabic, particularly in a design context, seemed to be very dissimilar, reflecting the dilemma of lack of a defined overall Arab identity.

This was the starting point of our work at Kaflab, a foundation dedicated to re-defining Arab identity through a creative lens by re-questioning issues relating to design, iconography, symbolism and identity. We embarked on a journey to discover and try and find a strong Arab symbol - understand how it became what is it, define what it stands for, analyze what it means today and discover the opportunities for taking it forward.

The Kafiye - the traditional male Arab headwear - is the strongest symbol to come out of the contemporary Arab World. The story of this powerful symbol, accessory and design detail has played many parts in diverse phases and keeps adapting with globalization and time. Treading the realms of street, politics, traditional garb, trends and catwalks, this object has transcended form and various functions to become more than just a simple item, but an experience even. The core item still exists in a relatively constant variant and yet numerous distortions have popped up simultaneously. Has it retained any of its original significance along the way? What has it become?

The Kafiye’s influence lies in its power to adapt, evolve and change significance while maintaining a constant design. As traditions are appropriated and transformed, representations and meanings adjust accordingly. The challenge and simultaneous contradictory messages – cool, street, trendy, terrorist, revolutionary, political, positive, negative – is what makes the Kafiye out of the ordinary. It does not pass unnoticed, drawing controversies through its variations, some intentional, others not.

The Kafiye’s original design can be traced back to Ancient Mesopotamian times when High priests wore white from head to toe, and due to society’s proximity to water and reliance on fishing for survival, these high priests would place black fishing net-like pieces made from wool for hopes of an abundant fishing season. Those separate pieces with time evolved into one, merged together to create a woven fishnet-derived pattern, similar in fashion to the one recognized today.

The Kafiye’s original design can be traced back to Ancient Mesopotamian times when High priests wore white from head to toe, and due to society’s proximity to water and reliance on fishing for survival, these high priests would place black fishing net-like pieces made from wool for hopes of an abundant fishing season. Those separate pieces with time evolved into one, merged together to create a woven fishnet-derived pattern, similar in fashion to the one recognized today.

Contrary to popular belief, the Kafiye is not a Muslim design, but it did prosper and gain its name from the city of al-Kufa in Iraq during the rise of Islam. It was adopted and spread through the region due to its non-representative geometric abstract pattern, one of the purest distinctive designs. It was a male headdress widespread in the Gulf area, Bedouins to be more precise. Variations in color, weaving techniques and materials used were representative of regions and social class. The concept of the Kafiye as a fashion accessory is not something new, for men at that time chose from a wide selection of Kafiyes or even had special ones custom designed.

In the 1939 Palestinian rebellion against their British colonizers, the Kafiye was used as the strategic weapon by resistance forces to hide their identities. Palestinians all over eventually all stood together in solidarity and shifted to wearing the Kafiye and cover their faces to protect their own – it was impossible to recognize the rebels from the civilians. The Kafiye started carving a path of national collective identity at the expense of eradicating personal identity.  This is an important turning point for the Kafiye, shifting its meaning to higher level representing unity and nationalism for the Palestinians first and Arabs in general second. Parallelism with Arab identity started to show.

Marking the Kafiye and its final configuration into a Palestinian visual marker and sign, was in the 1960s when Yasser Arafat adopted the black and white Kafiye as his symbol, representing the Palestinian struggle, referencing nationalistic fusion not only internally, but on an international level. He projected the creation of such a powerful icon because its rich heritage, history and connotation were so powerful, both related to Palestine and Arabs. Arafat was known never to appear without it and was famous for wrapping it around his head to look like the map of Palestine. An icon was born.

Deployed within a nationalistic narrative, the iconography and graphic symbolism of the Kafiye started infiltrating Political graffiti, art, posters and postcards to mention a few as early as the 60s and 70s. The Kafiye had become the official symbol representing the Palestinian struggle globally. Ideals and politics are fashionable, and so similar to the Che Guevara logo, the Kafiye spread all over the world to stand for anti-war, pro-green or anti-globalization. Quick to be spotted in rallies all over, the Kafiye grew to be the perfect accompaniment to causes, especially revolutionary and rebellious ones worldwide. Many felt it was controversial but did not really know why. The Kafiye moved from street wear to the catwalk when French Designer Nicholas Ghesquiere used it in his Fall 2007 fashion line for Balenciaga, retailing for 570 British pounds. This created a huge explosion of the Kafiye in the fashion world, making it trendy to wear. Stars were spotted in it all over America and Europe and consequently young designers started including it in their collections all over.

This is where the al-Kafiye project initiated under the umbrella of Kaflab. Our purpose for this project is to provide a platform for designers and open up interchange of ideas and creative process from the past, present and into the future. Starting from the story of this powerful design, al-Kafiye, we will share this journey in order to provide a wider context for conversations and implementation about identity and social change. A selection of ten exceptional Arab visual artists and designers are invited to participate in an exhibition about Al-Kafiye planned in New York, where each of them will interpret this item in his own creative vision. An open call for entry will allow one more participant to join this initiative, adding a rising talent to the list of selected established creative. The exhibition will mark as well the launch of the book. “Al-Kafiye: a potent symbol uncovered” which will trace the history of the Kafiye and the process and results of the exhibition artwork.

Because the word Arab today holds so much stigma and confusion – from Orientalism to terrorism to rejection and Arab identity is muddled with Western influence and projection, Islam, and a variety of mostly negative stereotypes, we want to act now. The coverage, voices and communication on the subject are usually the extreme ones that do not represent the majority. Its time we told our side of the story. By applying design thinking (deconstructing then reconstructing) to Arab identity, we hope to open up creative minds and provide them with a platform for expression free from religion, hopefully to match if not change eminent negative stereotypes. It’s time for change. It's time for plan Kaf.