SVA MA Design Research

SVA MA Design Research, Writing & Criticism1 is a one-year graduate program2
devoted to the study of design, its contexts & consequences.
Our graduates have gone on to pursue research-related careers in publishing, education, museums, institutes, design practice, entrepreneurship, & more.3

  1. Formerly known as D-Crit
  2. About the program
  3. Applications accepted on a rolling basis. All successful candidates awarded a significant scholarship!
SVA MA Design Research

136 W 21st St, 2nd Floor

New York, NY 10011

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[email protected]

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@dcrit

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(212) 592-2228

al-Kafiye: A Potent Symbol Uncovered–Design, Identity, Icon, Concept – SVA MA Design Research

Hala Abdul Malak

al-Kafiye: A Potent Symbol Uncovered–Design, Identity, Icon, Concept

Hala Abdul Malak

The Kafiye today is the face of the new young contemporary Arab. Just like this person, it may have moments of identity crisis, but it always knows where it came from. It may be appropriated, stereotyped, and attacked at times. To maintain its core, it needs to set new rules.

Al Kafiye: A Potent Symbol Uncovered” traces back the origins and narrates the path of a design that is synonymous with one of the foremost global political issues, the Palestinian dilemma, and yet has managed to infiltrate high fashion and street wear all around the globe. Arab at its core, the Kafiye manages to be a multitude of things at the same time—traditional, ethnic, practical, stylish, trendy, scary, and revolutionary. Adopted by various fashion designers, commercialized and cheaply produced in China, one would expect the Kafiye of today to have lost any meaning or depth. That is far from the case, as this extraordinary item is still reinventing itself.


The Kafiye (the traditional Arab headscarf) is the strongest symbol to come out of the contemporary Arab World. Treading the realms of street, politics, traditional garb, trends, and catwalks, this object has transcended its form and various functions to become more than just a simple item—an experience, even. Its influence lies in its power to adapt and evolve. As traditions are appropriated and transformed, representations and meanings adjust accordingly. The Kafiye contains contradictory messages—it can be cool, street, trendy, terrorist, political, positive or negative depending on context. Through its modifications, it draws controversies, some intentional, others not.

The attempt to define the Kafiye, what it stands for and what it means today, is not meant to be limiting; quite the contrary. Only by looking at the elements that have made this an icon, can we really understand its role. With its roots in Ancient Mesopotamia, the Kafiye constitutes an opportunity for a rich study of identity, design and material culture.

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Terrorism And The New Arab Other

Arab stereotypes have tainted American popular culture for more than a century. According to Dr. Jack Chahin, “Arabs are the most maligned group in the history of Hollywood. They are portrayed basically as sub-humans.” In his book Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People, Dr. Chahin goes on to explain that after looking at more than a thousand films with Arabs in them he could draw a dangerously consistent pattern of hateful Arab stereotypes that have been so normalized that most people in the United States don’t even notice them or see them anymore. He goes on to emphasize that a few images have been repeated over again and again—those of the Arab villain.

In films, historically and until present day, Arabs have been portrayed as “others” in American pop culture. The Arab world has been consistently shown as inferior to the West, with Arabs portrayed as hostile and a hazard to Western values. In Hollywood, the Arab world was introduced in old black and white films, and always represented with some recurrent basic elements including menacing tunes, intimidating desert, harem women dancing for a sultan, long swords, flying carpets, snake charmers to name a few—a classic “Ali Baba” kit.

100 Years of Anti-Arab and Anti-Muslim Stereotyping by Mazin B. Qumsiyeh talks about what he terms the 3-B syndrome: “Arabs in TV and movies are portrayed as either bombers, belly dancers, or billionaires.” The trend has shifted over the years starting with a lot of exotic, skimpily clad dancers in the early days and then the billionaires’ stereotype prevailed in the 1970s, fueled especially by the oil crisis. Today, especially after September 11, 2001, Arabs are portrayed as terrorists.

Add to that image the confusion between Arab and Muslim, the former denoting an ethnicity and the latter a religion. Although many Arabs follow the Muslim faith, these terms are not synonymous. Arabs constitute only twenty percent of Muslims in the world, the majority found in Asia in countries like Indonesia. These two different concepts sometimes become synonymous both historically and culturally, as religion plays a fundamental role in the Arab World both socially and politically. The identity polemic multiplies with the involvement of the Western World—Arabs are dealing with their own identity confusion along with Western stereotyping and misinformation. Arab identity is very hard to define and often misconstrued, so finding contemporary non-stereotypical visual cues to classify Arab or Arabs is virtually impossible.

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Defining The Kafiye: The New Rules

The Kafiye today is the face of the new young contemporary Arab. Just like this person, it may have moments of identity crisis, but it always knows where it came from. It may be appropriated, stereotyped, and attacked at times. To maintain its core, it needs to set new rules.  Reclaiming the Kafiyeis all about knowledge, education, and discourse. Beyond a mere object, the Kafiyerepresents a phenomenon, one that keeps on growing.  It is the new generation’s responsibility to keep it alive through education and conversation.

In a society where consumption has become disposable, and items are being thrown out, the Kafiye has still managed to infiltrate various levels of culture. The key to its future is in its preservation; that doesn’t mean keeping it exactly the way it is.

A Kafiye stops being a Kafiye when the misappropriation is louder than its message. So far this has not happened, yet there is confusion and noise. It is a crucial time moving forward with opportunities for tomorrows to come. There are so many experts on the Arab world, yet little interaction and information flow, both regionally and globally.  French philosopher Jean Baudrillard rightfully said:

Only an analysis that emphasizes the logic of symbolic obligation can make sense of this confrontation between the global and the singular. To understand the hatred of the rest of the world against the West, perspectives must be reversed. The hatred of non‐Western people is not based on the fact that the West stole everything from them and never gave anything back. Rather, it is based on the fact that they received everything, but were never allowed to give anything back. This hatred is not caused by dispossession or exploitation, but rather by humiliation.

The Kafiye offers that chance, if anyone is willing to take it.