In recent years, kufiyas have become fashionable across the globe. How does an object like a scarf become a world-wide phenomenon?
For students: We hope this guide sharpens your reading skills and deepens your understanding.
For teachers: We encourage reproduction and adaptation of these ideas, freely and without further permission from AramcoWorld, by teachers at any level.
Common Core Standards met in this lesson: RI9-10.2/SL9-10.1 (see details below).

—The Editors
Do you have comments? I'd be pleased to hear from you at 
[email protected].
—Julie Weiss


Kufiya Nouveau

Kufiyas are headscarves, originally worn by people in the Arab world. In recent years, kufiyas have become fashionable among many people from elsewhere. How does an object like a scarf become a world-wide phenomenon? And what about it—if anything—changes in the process? These activities give you a chance to explore the uses and meanings of the kufiya. By the time you finish, you will be able to:
  • Identify the original purposes of the kufiya.
  • Explain what the kufiya has come to mean among people in the Arab world.
  • Compare that meaning with the meaning of kufiyas as fashion statements.
  • Define cultural appropriation.
  • Evaluate the relationship between the conditions of kufiya production and cultural appropriation.

One way to get more from what you read is practice some pre-reading skills. Begin with the headline. If you don't know what nouveau means, look it up. Discuss with a partner what you think the headline means. What do you think might be nouveau about the kufiya? Hold that thoughts as you look at the photographs and read the captions that accompany them. Based on the photos and captions, as well as your thoughts about the headline, what do you predict will be the main ideas in this article? Write them down so that you can compare with what you read to see if you're right.
Layers of Meaning

For the purpose of these activities, you can think about the kufiya as having many meanings, starting the practical, including the political, and finally the esthetic. Let's look at each of these in turn.
1. Uses

Before it was anything else, the kufiya was an item that people used for specific purposes. Who were the people who first used kufiyas? What did they use them for? What qualities did kufiyas have that made them well suited to these purposes?

2. A Sign of Arab Identity

But objects often take on meanings apart from their intended uses. Think about how this happens. Take motor vehicles as an example. The purpose of a passenger vehicle is to get people from one place to another. But different vehicles can express different meanings, including different driver identities. Consider these different kinds of vehicles:
  • hybrid cars
  • trucks (the kinds for passengers, not 18-wheelers)
  • limousines
When you see each of these types of vehicles, what kinds of assumptions do you make about the people driving? Quite likely that the people driving the vehicles have those same associations, and they chose their vehicles only in part to get from one place to another. In part, the car becomes a sign of the driver's identity.

Kufiyas, too, have come to be more than just objects used for specific purposes. People attached meaning to them, and so they become signs. Think of signs that show a place is handicapped accessible. Instead of signs on walls, kufiyas become signs that people wear. Find and highlight places in the article that talk about what the kufiya signifies. Write a sentence that explains what kufiyas are signs of. (Here's a hint: Consider museum curator Paola Antonelli's statement that the kufiya "has become imbued with deep political significance." What might she mean?)

3. Fashion

In recent years kufiyas have become fashionable. People wear them for reasons other than protection from elements or as statements of identity. Find and mark the parts of the article that address kufiyas as fashion. Write a sentence that summarizes kufiyas as fashion statements.

You may notice that the discussion about kufiyas and fashion includes the subject of cultural appropriation. Understanding what cultural appropriation means enables you to engage in the debate that's touched on in "Kufiya Nouveau." How do others define the concept of cultural appropriation? The Oxford Dictionary defines it this way:
The unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, etc. of one people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society.
The keys to the definition are the parts about "unacknowledged" and especially "more dominant"—the power imbalance between the people who adopt a custom and the people whose custom is being adopted, generally without giving credit for the idea. Do some research online to see the types of situations that are criticized for being instances of cultural appropriation. It's rarely clear-cut, and in your exploration, you will no doubt come across cases where people disagree about what should be considered cultural appropriation and what should be considered simply cultural mixing. As you read these examples, compare them to the Oxford definition, and see what you think. You can do this activity on your own, with a partner, or with a small group. Then have volunteers share with the class examples that they found they believe are or are not cultural appropriation and share why they think so. Then go back through "Kufiya Nouveau," and find the parts that address cultural appropriation. Notice how different people cited in the article discuss the issue.

The article also includes information about how and where kufiyas are produced. Read about the Social Enterprise Project and about the Hirbawi family's production. Discuss with your group if or how this information changes your sense of whether or not kufiyas as fashion is an example of cultural appropriation.

Layers of Understanding Kufiyas: Culminating Activities

Choose one of the two following activities to pull together what you've learned:
  1. Find a way to show others what you have learned about kufiyas—what they're used for, what they signify, and what it means for them to be fashion items. Be creative. Here's an example. You could think of nesting dolls—the dolls that fit inside other dolls. The uses of kufiyas could be the smallest doll, representing the actual purpose of the items. That doll could rest inside a bigger doll that represents the kufiya in a more abstract way—as a signifier of Arab identity. That doll, in turn, could rest in an even bigger doll, which would stand for kufiyas as fashion—arguably the purpose for which kufiyas reach the most people. Come up with your own idea and present it to the class.
  2. Hold a class debate about this question: When people make kufiyas into fashion accessories, are they engaging in cultural appropriation? To hold the debate, divide the class into three groups. Two of the groups will debate the question. The third group will evaluate their arguments.

Common Core Standards met in this lesson:

RI9-10.2 Determine a central idea of a text and analyze its development over the course of the text, including how it emerges, and is shaped and refined by specific details; provide an objective summary of the text.

 SL9-10.1 Initiate and participate effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one on one, in groups, and teacher led) with diverse partners on grades 9–10 topics, texts and issues, building on the ideas of others and expressing them clearly and persuasively.