Old Symbol New Identity
by Hala A.Malak and Tarek Atrissi
The Arab world, a vast region that stretches from Morocco in the west to Oman on the
eastern edge of the Gulf, covers 19 countries and over 300 million people. The social
and cultural differences among them are often underestimated. Arabs are more a
community of nations than a national community—an Egyptian will always be an
Egyptian first; a Lebanese may not feel primarily Arab in terms of interests or ideals.
Arab states have one thing in common: Arabic is their official language.
But Arab countries tend to be lumped together by the West, and Arab stereotypes have
tainted Western culture for years—“bombers, belly dancers, or billionaires,” according to
one formulation, and more recently terrorists. Add to that the confusion between Arab
and Muslim. The former denotes an ethnicity; the latter, a religion. Though many Arabs
follow the Muslim faith, the terms are not synonymous.
Arab identity is so hard to define, and so often misconstrued, that finding unifying
visual elements to represent it is virtually impossible. It doesn’t exist yet. Take the
symbol for Arabic on the Mac, which is a hilal, or crescent moon. The crescent is a
symbol associated to Muslims and not to Arabs.
With most Arab countries undergoing large social, economic, and political changes,
there is a strong urge to define contemporary Arab identity. A rebranding boom has
swept the Arab world over the last decade. Every brief for a new visual identity asks for
the same thing: Develop a “very Arab” image. But no one seems to be able to decide
what that means.
This was the starting point of our work at Kaflab, a foundation dedicated to redefining
Arab identity through a creative lens by examining design, iconography, symbolism, and
identity. Our task was to try to find a strong Arab icon as a starting point.
The Kafiye—the traditional male Arab headwear—is the strongest symbol to come out
of the contemporary Arab world. Whether a political symbol or a fashion accessory, it
has changed faces over time, and it keeps adapting with globalization. Crossing from the
street to politics, from traditional clothing to catwalks, the Kafiye has transcended form
and function to become something larger than itself.
The Kafiye's influence lies in its ability to transform its meaning while remaining
visually consistent. It originated in ancient Mesopotamia, where high priests wore pieces
of black wool (representing fishing nets) over their traditional head-to-toe white to
encourage an abundant haul. Over time, those separate pieces merged into a single
pattern similar to the one seen today.
Contrary to popular belief, the Kafiye is not a Muslim design, but it took its name from
the Iraqi city of al-Kufa during the rise of Islam. It spread through the region on the
strength of its non-representative geometric pattern, one of the purest distinctive
designs. It was popular in the Gulf as a male headdress, particularly among Bedouins.
Variations in color, weaving techniques, and materials were used to represent different
regions and social class. Men chose from a wide selection of Kafiyes and even had them
In the 1939 Palestinian rebellion against the British colonial power, the resistance
forces used Kafiyes to hide their identities. Palestinians eventually began wearing them
en masse, making it impossible for the British to tell rebels from civilians. This was a
turning point for the Kafiye, as its meaning shifted toward unity and nationalism, first for
the Palestinians but also for the broader Arab world.
In the 1960s, Yasser Arafat adopted the black-and-white Kafiye as a symbol of the
Palestinian struggle. He was famous for wrapping it around his head to look like a map
of Palestine. At the same time, the Kafiye started infiltrating political graffiti, art,
posters, and postcards globally. Like another fashionable icon, the famous portrait of
Che Guevara, the Kafiye spread across the world an anti-war, pro-green, or antiglobalization
symbol. The Kafiye moved from street wear to the runway in 2007, when
the French designer Nicolas Ghesquière put one in his line for Balenciaga; it retailed for
570 British pounds. Soon, kafiye-wearing movie stars could be spotted all over America
and Europe, and young designers started including it in their collections.
We believe that the Kafiye today is still an untapped resource; it should be the face of
the contemporary Arab. It can be appropriated, stereotyped, or attacked, and yet it
maintains its heritage. This is an opportunity for Arab designers to step up and reclaim a
This is where the al-Kafiye project, initiated under the umbrella of Kaflab, comes in.
We hope to provide a place for designers to exchange ideas on Arab identity, starting
with the Kafiye and opening to a wider conversation about representation and social
change. A group of nine exceptional Arab visual artists and designers have been invited
to participate later this year in an exhibition in New York about the Kafiye. Each of them
will interpret it according to their own creative vision. (One more participant will join the
initiative through an open call for entries.) The exhibition will also mark the launch of a
book, Al-Kafiye: A Potent Symbol Uncovered, which will trace the history of the Kafiye
and collect the output from the exhibition.
Because Arab identity is muddled from the outside by Western influence, stereotypes
and projection; and from the inside by Islam and national difference, it is vital for us to
act now. The most prominent voices on the subject of Arab identity are usually the most
extreme. It’s 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. We hope we
can provide an alternative to the negative stereotypes, if not replace them altogether.
It’s time for change. It’s time for a Plan B—or, rather, a Plan Kaf.