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.
*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?