Arab Appropriation


Hummus, Falafel, the Kaffieh and the ‘Hamsa hand’ are but some of the most common cases of Arab cultural appropriation. Fashion houses are regular culprits and you only have to spend five minutes in one of Paris’ quarters to find Israeli Hummus and Falafel for sale.

Cultural appropriation is the adoption of elements from one culture by another in an ill-informed or offensive manner. The adoption and appropriation of symbols, practices, music or food has a negative effect, which belittles, sexualises and or fetishizes a practice or peoples, blurring or removing the original meaning behind the subject in question. Cultural appropriation is additionally a contextual issue and therefore varies in severity.

Paying homage in an educated manner to a culture is never negative and a positive sign of assimilation and cohesion within an ever globalised world.  To some, there is a blurred line between paying homage and appropriation, resulting in the least offensive of cases being called out in confusion. Non-Arabs partaking in belly dancing should not be attacked as appropriators of Arab culture. Those who partake in raqs baladi (native/country dance) in a respectful manner should be free to do so, until they mockingly dress up in ‘Arab drag’ therefore perpetuating a stereotype and demeaning an age old tradition.  If not for this logic, all those that practice yoga for health benefits, without the hollow chants of ‘om’, are also appropriating Indian culture in some way – which is just untrue.

Arabic food is regularly appropriated; hummus, falafel, kibbeh, and cous cous are but a few examples of foods that have been relabelled as Israeli creations. The Kaffieh became a fashion statement a few years ago and is still commonly worn today as an accessory. Such a symbolic piece of resistance in Palestinian history so flippantly worn by others, proved to be an insult to many. To see this repeatedly wrapped jokingly around young faces is a cause for irritation. I chose not to be insulted by this, as having the streets bespeckled with Kaffiehs was a mini affront, in my own mind, to occupation from the UK and I used this opportunity to educate when possible.  My choice not to express my anger or be offended was a manner of controlling myself in an uncontrollable situation. As with other cultural garments, wearing the Kaffieh with sensitivity and understanding is no crime, but choosing to adorn it in a disrespectful manner because one doesn’t believe that it should cause distress, frees no one from being a perpetrator of cultural appropriation. Leggings adorned with the Christian cross, covering the crotch area may be just as insulting as the glib use of any Native American headdress (2). On a more sinister level of cultural appropriation, came the ‘Israeli’ Kaffieh.

A coloniser will often make clear attempts at either claiming an object as its own and diluting or confusing the original meaning of traditional practice with the intent of mixing its message for future generations, increasing their vulnerability to the invader. The most violently offensive forms of appropriation are usually employed by a representative of a colonising nation and its effects are far more detrimental.

The Kaffieh, the Khamsa (Hamsa hand) and the Bindi have all met a similar fate, yet the only difference between these three, is that the meaning of the Kaffieh and the Khamsa are still widely understood in Middle Eastern culture, whereas the Bindi (according to this article) has lost much of its meaning in the society described by Anjali Joshi(1). If the true meaning of a cultural symbol has been forgotten by many in the modern age, does this still justify its misuse?

When a nation wages war on another, it is often that that culture becomes appropriated. After the Iraq war, the Orient became cool. Urban culture and specifically Hip Hop, in reference to America, is often cited as a victim of appropriation by ‘white rappers’. Once more, the problem is nestled in the nature of its use and exactly who is using it. Initially a form of rebellion and a medium of expression for the disaffected, white singers such as Macklemore are often accused of appropriating Urban culture, yet Jay Z, who no longer lives the life he once led and who is consistently praised by Obama, has not been labelled as doing so. When exploited for the benefit of the ‘white and rich’, it becomes appropriation, but when used by the ‘black and rich’, despite songs pertaining to little more than guns and sex, rappers like Big Sean see less resistance.

It is up to every individual belonging to the culture in question to decide whether or not they see the use of their traditions as appropriation or justifiable, never the choice of the artist or consumer. Tattooing a sugar skull on one’s arm with full understanding of its meaning without mockery or disrespect, is likely to be seen as more acceptable than the hollow use of native traditions at events to add a touch of ‘exoticism’. Take this Mayan wedding ceremony as an example:

The theft of ideas is uncontrollable, but ensuring you contribute to the education, rather than sole vilification of others for using cultures in an insensitive way, is the only suitable form of resistance. Constantly expressing indignation without providing knowledge will change nothing.  There will forever be a purposeful attempt at appropriating a culture to erase it and display dominion and once more, educating yourself and others is the only solution.

Noora Ismail


(2) A Letter to Non-Natives in headdresses

*To read more about the origins of the Khamsa, click here.

Add your thoughts, what other parts of Arab culture have you seen appropriated? Are you insulted when you see symbols from your own culture used in fashion? Do you agree that  politically, appropriation in fashion and art is a threat to your own culture/peoples?





  1. Yes and most white women are wearing the Hamzah hand while going on their Islamophobic ranting on a daily basis in the EU, as well as France thinks Arab migrants are scum, but they sell these items in their designer outlets.

    1. I have seen slippers with a Khamsa imprint – very disrespectful. I agree, there is a hypocrisy in some communities regarding racism and wearing symbols belonging to the people they are being racist against.

  2. Yes, this is also my point because I hate hypocritical people and unfortuntely east or west, many people are this way. I had this bizarre western colleague who used to take digs at me for being a brown Muslim, questioned my work as a Muslim feminists all this while sporting a tattoo on her shoulder written in Arabic. It was so funny, because she asked if I could tell her the written text, I am not fluent in Arabic because am Pakistani and our language is Urdu, yes we study basic Arabic for reading the Quran though, so I explained her all this and can you imagine what was her response. She said, oh so you are not Arab, your worse off with your illiteracy and my response was pretty hard on her. I also asked her if she hates us so much, why did she get an Arabic tattoo, she was so blatant is saying its so exotic. I think you are getting my point here.. 😉

  3. Except the Hamsa isn’t originally Islamic and like almost everything else in Arabic culture, was appropriated from the people they conquered. At least pick and choose appropriation offends you more sensibly?

  4. This article is definitely on point. I’ve been seeing the hamza sign everywhere and decided to look it up. I as a Jamaican have been witnessing the destruction and utterly gross disrespect of my cultures Rastafarian movement by rich, lazy drug addicts of European descent. They’ve stolen and sexualized a movement created to spiritually uplift, soothe and educate Africans in the Caribbean and elsewhere and also unite them, and move away from colonialist culture (the irony!). I’m now seeing bikinis called Rasta, and thongs called Rasta, and “one love” everywhere. I know how you feel. They manage to erase our faces from our own creations meant to unify and empower us. In the process ot belittles, demeans and erases us. Same happened with Haitian culture. Zombies, voodoo (actually called Vodou/Vodun) being stolen for use as Halloween costumes and scary movies, when it is a peaceful religion with a rich mythology like any other. And as a Christian, of Jamaican and Haitian background, it is difficult for me because these cultures unify and strengthen my tribes, so to see them used a s costumes and fads destroys us. Suddenly schools began to ban dreadlocks, even though dreadlocks, braids and twists are re only way our hair lays flat. This hurts us because the culture thieves associated our hair our “knotty roots” with drugs, suburban delinquency and mindlessness, when they represent strength, embracing our ethnic beauty, and our spiritual or emotional journey of healing from the traumas of slavery. People don’t realize this because they only see what appropriators and “token ethnics” (like a Jay-Z, in the case of hip hop) that serve the dominant culture have presented to the world. How many people know that Vodun vévés are the modified form of an ancient (5000BC) writing system called Nsibidi that was used by the Efik, Igbo etc indigenes of Nigeria?

    1. Thank you for your comment, I’m glad we agree! It is true that appropriation comes with conditions – what is yours is taken, repackaged and given a new ‘more acceptable’ face. I can unfortunately agree with you that many don’t know about the Vodun vévés, including myself (something I shall now be researching). One must always be careful when ‘paying homage’ to another culture, but sadly where there is an opportunity to make money, even those with good intentions seem to forsake them. The only way out is to know yourself, know your history and tell it to the world – that way no one can define or redefine you.

  5. I am not of any Arab or Muslim descent or anything (black American teen) but as a child my next door neighbor and first best friend was Persian, and he’d always invite me over for dinner and share a lot of his culture with me. His mother gave me a hamza necklace and explained all of the meaning and everything to me, and I thought it was beautiful and would keep me safe. As I grew up I accumulated many more jewelry pieces featuring the hamza (from various shops though because the family moved back to Iran), and recently I was confronted by a white Christian girl at school saying that I was problematic and appropriating. I wanted to know if this is seen as offensive from someone who is actually apart of the culture and not just a white tumblr girl complaining? Thanks xx

    1. Hello,

      It’s great that you got to learn about the Iranian culture with a friend of yours and I’m happy you find the meaning behind the Khamsa beautiful. I think anyone who does not belong to another culture must be careful whenever they wear/employ a symbol or tradition of another. It seems your friend at school is acutely aware of this and it will hopefully mean that she never becomes a perpetrator of cultural appropriation. As long as you are not wearing the Khamsa in a manner that is inappropriate or disrespectful (which I’m sure you wouldn’t, as you understand the meanings behind it), then I think you’re safe. However, each individual will have their own interpretations of your actions without even speaking to you first, unfortunately.

      I have written another article on the Khamsa, it might be of interest to you if you would like to know more about its history.

      All the best!

  6. hello. I recently read the book The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho and came across the term ‘maktub’ which is Arabic for “it is written” reading the book further I became attached to it and I found healing from it. I wish to have the word tattooed in Arabic text but I’m afraid it might offend as I am a black South African person. is it cultural appropriation if I do?

    1. Hi Rea,

      What an excellent book! I doubt it would offend anyone. It is not a sacred or culturally significant word or symbol that you will be disrespecting. I am happy to see that a word in Arabic has touched you so profoundly. Best of luck.

  7. Hello! I think what Jay meant, and that you apparently don’t know, is that what you put as part of MENA and that many call the Maghreb was colonized and that the populations to whom the khamsa or the couscous belonged to in the first place were the Imazighen. Also, I’d like to remind you of the presence of Berber Jews who cohabited with us, and adopted some of our traditions. You can’t ignore that Israel is a pretty young state and that people came with their traditions, and their culture, that they had brought from North Africa. So yes, the khamsa is amazigh, the couscous is amazigh, and as an amazigh woman, I think that they have a right to it as much as arabs do.

  8. Hey loved your article! As a Moroccan Arab I feel that cultural appropriation from Israelis and to a certain extent white people. But when I think about it, we arabs did also a lot of that in the past. In the Maghreb, our famous couscous which is originally amazigh, we took it over and enhanced it with our eastern spices, but the basic thing is amazigh. Same in the Mashreq, with for example the Dabke which is probably an old canaanite and phoenician fertility dance that the arabs took over but became THE symbol of mashreqi arabs. And we can go on and on (the Khaleej took probably lots over from Indians, Pakistanis,…) So I think we should take a step back and think about it: if they (whoever they are) take over our culture (food, dances (like our belly dance), symbols,…) but in a honorable way: is there really something wrong with that? I think as long as you pay hommage to the people you took it from, it’s all good 🙂

    1. Thank you very much. I certainly agree with you that symbols pervade time and multiple traditions have been adopted by the Arabs. I also agree with you that it must be done with respect and understanding for that tradition/symbol and/or peoples who first invented it. The power balance between peoples must also be considered in appropriation and the reason behind a symbol’s adoption by another.

    2. Sorry but I doubt that you are genetically 100% Arabs but Arabized berbers. More than 80% of Moroccans are actually Imazighen. So pretentious from you saying that you took the couscous from Imazighen and enhanced it while it was Imazighen who enhanced it. Shall I remind you that the biggest Moroccan Islamic Empires were Imazighen? There is NO appropriation since Couscous and other culture has been arabized same as some population (still 60% of Moroccan talks one dialect of Amazigh).
      Imazighen were arabized by culture even if they are still speaking their language. So we cant talk about cultural appropriation here from Arabs because there are no real arabs in Moroccan except the Doukkala people who descend from Banu Hilal and Maqil.
      By the way, i am an Arabized berber and my husband is Berber.
      Berbers are part of Arab culture and civilization and we are very proud of it

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