OK, I have to be honest with you: I am not the ideal person to write this diary, since I'm not a big fan of pop music in any language. Punk music, African music, jazz music, sure, but pop music is just not my thing. As female singers go, I'm more inclined to listen to Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone and Miriam Makeba than I am to, um...
Crap. Quite honestly, I have blanked on the names of any Western pop tarts. Hang on a second, I'll think of some... Britney Spears? Do people still listen to her? That's about all I can come up with, and I don't have time for another Google search.
Anyway, a lot of "Westerners" seem to have this idea that Arab women are all covered up and hidden from view. And in some places, yeah, they are. Saudi Arabia always leaps to mind. Here's a lady from Yemen:
But even in the most conservative, Islamist parts of the Arab world, there is this newfangled thing called television, and with satellite television comes the Rotana network, owned by a very wealthy member of the Saudi royal family. Rotana is one of a growing number of hugely popular MTV-like Arabic pop music video stations, populated largely by beeeeyuuuutiiifuul scantily clad women, which Abu Aardvark (otherwise known as Professor Marc Lynch) has dubbed Pop Tarts, aka the Nancy-Haifa Culture Wars. (Some recent posts in that list are actually about Julia Boutros, who IMV doesn't even count as a pop tart, and who I was planning to write about here someday... but she gets her own diary.)
Ag... it really does me no good to try to explain this to you. Have a look. Here's Haifa Wehbe:
The other biggest name in the Culture War is Nancy Ajram:
Even got you some English subtitles on that one. It's actually a very pretty, sad song, as pop songs go...
Anyway, Haifa and Nancy are both Lebanese (well, Haifa's half-Egyptian), which means those outfits you see in the video is probably just something they had lying around in their closets. Everyone looks like that in Beirut.
Most of the big female names in Arabic pop are Lebanese, but not all of them... Ruby is Egyptian, and Najla is Tunisian. (Najla appears to have very little in the way of actual singing talent but, hey, if she's willing to dress like that, who needs talent?) I hear there's a Bahraini pop star out there somewhere, but I dunno who she is.
Here's Ruby, reminding us where belly dancing came from...
The song's title, Enta Arif Leih, means "You Know Why," and the lyrics are standard pop fare: "You know why, why I love you..." etc.
OK, so now you have a rough idea what I'm talking about. On to the discussion.
Hey... guys? I'm over here. Yoo-hooo... Wipe the drool off your chins and pay attention. To me.
Now, as you'd expect, these ladies are hardly uncontroversial in the Arab world. Islamists in Bahrain's parliament tried to ban Nancy Ajram from performing in 2003, but the measure was voted down. The show went on... with a little rioting outside. Um... well, it was Ramadan. I think that was the excuse. Whatever.
Anyway, the next time Nancy played Bahrain, in 2006, things were calmer. No rioting. I guess that's progress.
But the pop tarts don't just inspire hand-wringing and controversy among the conservatives. There are also Arab feminists and progressive Arab women who -- like many others who'd call themselves neither feminist nor progressive -- are deeply divided about whether these "video clips" are helping or hurting.
Because, you know, there's also that whole Orientalism thing, and as Ruby reminded us above, the Middle East is no stranger to that painful stereotype of the exotic, seductive female. And this centuries-old image has not brought with it much in the way of liberation.
As the Christian Science Monitor pointed out:
But more-liberal Arabs are deeply divided over the videos' long-term influence. On one end are those who, like Haddad, hope the videos will help erode conservative attitudes toward dress and sex. On the opposite end are those who see yet another culprit that promotes women as physical objects. Beneath these different views lie mixed feelings about the benefits of Western influence on Arab culture.
That CSM article is really quite good, and it gets at some of the discomfort and conflict that many people feel over the videos and "Western" influence in general. Liberating? Objectifying? Both?
What's missing, some say, is a really genuine Arab voice, such as lyrics that explore taboo topics and more storytelling, in place of haphazard shots of exposed arms and legs. But other critics say the videos have definitely affected public thinking. After all, they're everywhere, from Damascus cafes and restaurants to hotel lounges. The cumulative effect, they charge, is that women have been turned into commodities. It's a sentiment some religious leaders agree with.
Seated around a lunch table at the Higher Institute of Music in Damascus, Maya Yousef and twins Nadia and Hala Muhamna - members of an all-girl's classical music ensemble - offer vociferous protest. "[These music videos are] not about being openminded," says Nadia, whose trendy skirt and top would easily blend in on any American campus. "It's only about the body, about appearance.... [These videos] really affect the way men think about women. [They] focus men's attention on the body."
Al Amin Merhe takes a more sinister view. "It's a marriage between technology and tradition," she says in a phone interview from Beirut, Lebanon. Arab tradition, according to Dr. Merhe, already pressures a woman to play the seductress for her husband at home. Music videos only intensify that, offering plastic-surgery enhanced women as role models.
And of course, satellite television has changed and challenged much more about attitudes toward women in the Arab world
than just through music videos and scantily clad women alone.
This article (which bizarrely contrasts the writings of Islamist Sayyid Qutb with images of the bustier-busting singer Elissa) raises some very interesting questions:
Indeed, it is the political implications of these videos that make them so interesting. What these videos offer their audience is an imagined world in which Arabs can shape and assert their identities in any way they please. The question is whether the videos are a leading cultural indicator of social and political change that enables Arabs to do the same in the real world.
What this low, "vulgar" genre is offering, in sum, is a glimpse of a latent Arab world that is both liberal and "modernized." Why? Because the foundation of cultural modernity is the freedom to achieve a self-fashioned and fluid identity, the freedom to imagine yourself on your own terms, and the videos offer a route to that process. By contrast, much of Arab culture remains a place of constricted, traditional, and narrowly defined identities, often subsumed in group identities that hinge on differences with, and antagonism toward, other groups.
For nearly a century, a series of utopian political systems has been advanced in the region to attempt to break this cycle of conflict and stagnation: Pan-Arabism, Ba'athism, Nasserism, Islamism, etc. These have all failed, sometimes disastrously. What may yet work in the region is what has worked elsewhere for centuries: commercialism that does not transmit a regime's utopian dreams but addresses the personal dreams of the audience.
If the audience for these videos uses them to foment a long-term cultural revolution, it would hardly be the first time that "vulgar" forms were at the center of significant social change.
Can such a model be applied to the Arab world? If Arab pop culture does indeed reflect latent Arab liberalism, it would be historically fitting. After all, modern puritanical Islamism emerged, in part, from a reaction to the West's supposed cultural degeneracy. Secular Arabs using their own cultural artifacts to assert personal liberty would only be striking back on a familiar front.
I have no answers. Is Nancy Ajram good or evil? Is Haifa Wehbe a force for change in the Arab world, or just the latest iteration of a longstanding history of subjugation and objectification of women generally, and especially in this part of the world? If it is the latter, will that give rise to a more liberal reaction that might help? I honestly don't know.
But since we've spent so much of this diary looking at pictures and videos of pop tarts, I thought I'd close with something a bit more to my taste.
Here, with a hat tip to Hatshepsut, is the poetry of Suheir Hammad:
If you watch only one video in this diary, make sure it's that one.