Saturday, December 06, 2008

New kufiyaspotting: rappers in Iran

Here's yet another kufiya manifestation, this time in Iran, from Monday's Guardian (thanks, Laleh!). The nub of the report--that Iranian rappers are wearing kufiya (for some reason, spelled here "chafiyeh") and, apparently in imitation, by yound men and women. This is ironic because rap has been condemned in official circles and the kufiya is associated with the Iranian revolution, worn routinely by Ayatollah Khamenei and by the Basij. (The article is reproduced in full below.)

While Tait's report on Iranian rappers taking up the kufiya is interesting, I think he gets the history of the kufiya's use in Iran all wrong. I have posted about this previously, and I quote once again from Roxanne Varzi's ethnography, Warring Souls: Youth, Media, and Martyrdom in Post-Revolutionary Iran:

The qafiyeh [why this spelling, I don't know] was first donned by Islamic revolutionaries to show support for Palestine and resistance to Westernization. Later, it became a symbol of the volunteer soldiers fighting for Islam in the Iran-Iraq war.

Tait, then, leaves out the fact that the kufiya was originally worn as a sign of solidarity with Palestine, and then took on additional meanings, associated with Iranian nationalism and the Islamic republic.

A report by Mohammed Memarian for Mideast Youth comments on Iranian President Ahmedinejad's use of the kufiya (again, spelled chafiyeh here):

In the visits he [Ahmedinejad] paid to different provinces before elections, he used to meet war casualties [some of them with severe condition, for example those who were affected by chemical weapons, still live in special wards] as well as graves of the martyrs of Iran-Iraq war. Wearing Chafiyeh [i.e. an originally Arabian cloth, similar to a scarf, which people use to cover head and neck in summer in southern provinces of Iran; for the same reason, Iranian soldiers extensively used it during war. After 8 years of Iran-Iraq war, Chefyeh turned into an important symbol of those who had sympathy with the values of war, especially martyrdom] was a straightforward message to all. Whatever the rationale of his election, Ahmadinejad marked a significant breakthrough for fanatic supporters of (original values of) revolution.

As I also note in another kufiya post, the Iranian government has cracked down on those who wear red kufiyas as an insignia of Arab identity in Khuzestan (Arabistan), Iran's southern, Arab-majority province.

Why are Iranian rappers putting on kufiya? Not, I think, out of solidarity with Arab ethnic minority struggles in southern Iran. Could it be the fact that it's so hip in the West, including among US rappers, like Lupe Fiasco, Chamillionaire, The Cool Kids, Kanye West and Jay-Z? Are they trying to shift the meanings of the kufiya away from an association with the Iranian revolution and toward Palestine? (I'm pretty sure Iranian rappers are hip to the Palestine struggle.)

I with Tait's article named names, so I could find videos and photos of the Iranian rappers in question. I'm not terribly conversant with Iranian hip-hop, but I really like Hich Kas, who I've posted about previously. For more general info, music and vids, check out the website Pars Hip Hop. And a decent article.

Iran's underground rap artists take to wearing symbol of Islamic revolution

* Robert Tait in Istanbul
* The Guardian, Monday December 1 2008

For nearly 30 years its distinctive chequered pattern has been a sacrosanct symbol of Iran's Islamic revolution and an essential garment for its most committed adherents.

But now the chafiyeh, the black-and-white scarf proudly worn by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his loyal followers, has become an unlikely fashion item for young Iranians drawn to the same western pop culture that country's leaders disdain.

The scarf has become a craze among Iran's emerging crop of underground rap artists, who have taken to wearing it in concerts and video clips, according to Jahan News, a website considered close to Iran's intelligence ministry.

It has also become a trend among young men, who wear it along with T-shirts incongruously bearing the names of famous western bands. Young women have also been seen with the scarf, Jahan News reported.

Its new-found acceptability was demonstrated in a recent edition of a popular cinema magazine, which carried an advert placed by an Iranian leatherwear company showing a model wearing a bomber jacket with a chafiyeh tucked underneath.

The scarf's popularity with rappers is particularly ironic. Last year, Iran's culture and Islamic guidance ministry announced a campaign against rap music, which it deemed vulgar and obscene. Rap has become increasingly popular with young Iranians, who have been inspired by the work of artists among the large Iranian exile community in Los Angeles. The genre has been used to express concerns about drugs, street gangs and even western pressure on Iran over its nuclear programme.

The links with rap are far removed from the chafiyeh's origins. After being worn by many Iranian soldiers in the 1980-88 war with Iraq, it was adopted as the symbol of "the sacred defence", as the war effort is officially called. Volunteers used the garments as prayer mats and to protect their faces from chemical attacks. They were also deployed as burial shrouds and sometimes to tie the hands of captured enemy soldiers.

Nowadays, Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, wears it in all his public appearances. It is also worn by members of the hardline Basij militia.

Visiting foreign dignitaries, including the Venezuelan president, Hugo Chávez, have also donned the scarf. Last year, Nicaragua's president, Daniel Ortega, was greeted with shouts of "Allahu Akbar" when he put on a chafiyeh during a ceremony at Tehran University.


Alexander said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ted Swedenburg said...

Thanks so much for this very insightful and informative comment!

ColnelDecker said...

Very interesting comment from Alexander.

When I was living in Iran the pattern and fabric used in the garments worn by Basij were quite different to the kufiyah that has been appropraited by popular fashion and is widely associated with the Palestinian cause.

The garment worn by Basij is strongly associated with the sacred defense/imposed war/iran-iraq war (whichever name you subscribe to)

The item that has been banned in southern Iran is the red and white chequered garment, known as shamagh around the littoral states of the gulf.

Either way, from the Guardian story it is not clear which type of garment these rappers are wearing.

If I think you could determine that then it would perhaps be possible to glean greater insight into any inherent symbolism.