Talisman Gate

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Let the Sunshine In

Copyright 2005 The New York Sun, One SL, LLC
All Rights Reserved
The New York Sun

April 7, 2005 Thursday


LENGTH: 1453 words

HEADLINE: Let the Sunshine In

BYLINE: Nibras Kazimi


The old order in the Arab Middle East is doomed and it shall be vanquished by the power of cleavage; specifically, the power of the commercially overexposed cleavage of a certain Middle Eastern sex siren with the name of Heifa Wehbe.

Heifa Wehbe

If one were to canvass young Arab Middle Easterners between the ages of 15 and 25, and ask them about the most prominent Lebanese personality of their times, they would not cite the melancholy-faced opposition politician Walid Jumbulat, but rather the buxom bomb of foxy sexuality and mediocre pop singer Heifa Wehbe. What about the most prominent Egyptian national? Mubarak who? No, it's got to be Ruby, or her upstart challenger, Maria.

This young generation accounts for more than half of the population of the Middle East. Their TV viewing habits, according to studies and anecdotal evidence, would have them allocating five minutes a day to Al Jazeera and news outlets, and five hours daily to Rotana, Mazzika, Melody Arabia and other MTV-like satellite channels. Instead of news tickers on the bottom of these screens, young Middle Easterners send love notes to each other via cellular text messaging.

The populist consumption of pop culture with icons such as Heifa, Nancy Ajram, Mai Hariri, and many, many others, is so ubiquitous, that if young Iraqi Shias were to discover that Heifa is a Shia coreligionist then I'd bet that Sistani's posters would go down to make way for her pin-ups.

Teenage fads may seem a given fact of life in the West, but in the Middle East it is a potent new force doing away with many taboos in a new age of technological dissemination and commercialism. My eyebrows are in a state of permanent arching when I watch these new music clips;

some of the stuff that is beaming into millions of Arab homes and is being indigenously produced and marketed in Beirut and Dubai would have America's FCC in an uproar.

I am closely following the career of Jad Choueiri, a director of music videos who also does a bit of singing. This young fellow is pushing the envelope in ways the Middle East has never been exposed to before. His latest video clip features Egypt's Maria, and the storyline is that of a teenager's crush on her high school teacher. It has a playful and incredibly provocative scene whereby Maria gets a spanking from the handsome teacher. Shocking! Yet it is one of the most popular chart toppers in the Arab world.

It may not be high art, but these music videos are setting the parameters of what counts for stylish and hip: how to cut your hair, how to dress, how to have fun, and how to flirt. Nothing new in all that, for it is essentially a marketing gimmick like its forerunners in the West. However, a new fashion trend is setting in: how to think, and ditzy Heifa is rising to the occasion.

Right after the assassination of Lebanon's Rafiq Al-Hariri, Heifa and a gaggle of other pop stars came out with a stern, martial ditty basically telling the Syrian occupiers "The Story Is Not Over Yet," and that is just the title of the song. Heifa's next album is called "I Want to Live," and she plugs her new collection as music with a message for individual freedom.

This phenomenon took on further gravity when the cameras captured the massive anti-Syrian demonstrations in Beirut's streets. Political activism suddenly looked hip. The spirit of that demonstration was captured in a photo of a young Lebanese woman who had painted her national flag across her cleavage. Jordan's talented cartoonist Imad Hajjaj seized on this and had his principal character, Abu Mahjoub, watch the youngsters of Lebanon defy the old order, which got him excited about political activism only to turn away in horror from a gathering of dour faced Muslim Brotherhood oppositionists huddled around discussing politics in his hometown of Amman.

Another director to watch is Nadine Lebeki. This Lebanese woman put out a video where she choreographed the stars of a hugely popular hit TV contestant show called "Star Academy," with a 24-hour channel dedicated to showing the young contestants, men and women, living and working together. The music in Lebeki's video clip is set to the tune of Hair's "Let the Sunshine In," while the Arab words of this song proclaim that "truth is coming" in search of a touch of tenderness, and that freedom will shine out onto the people.

This is not the music and message of the parents and grandparents of these youngsters. The stars of bygone eras, the earlier ones like Umm Kulthom and later ones like Fairuz, produced music whose listeners would lounge around and savor the beautiful words of neoclassical Arab poetry. Some of the best tunes and words were set to herald Arab nationalism and the liberation of Palestine. Those genres are so passe: the first post-Saddam hit coming from Iraq was not about fighting American occupation, but was rather called "The Orange." The song soars on the African-influenced dance rhythms of southern Iraq and the words are quite silly but it was so popular that it came out in three versions. In one such version the words are literally "call and leave a missed call, I'll call you back so that you don't have to pay for the call, my sweetheart." Don't get me started on the accompanying racy video clip!

Naturally, the Islamist radicals are unhappy about all of this. They are right to argue that dressing, behaving, and gyrating like the infidel West, is a step away from thinking like the infidel West. They warn the parents and grandparents that these satellite channels are introducing their youth to freedoms that were once taboo, including those of a sexual nature. But their stance is incredibly hypocritical, for Islamists induce young suicide bombers to kill themselves and others in the name of jihad in return for the sexual compensation of 72 virgins in heaven. May the best marketing strategy win: the caves of Kandahar and ravines of Chechnya versus Heifa's cleavage. Let me state again: The old order is doomed.

Some would argue that the blatant commercialism of pop culture would create a spiritual vacuum that these Islamists can exploit to expand their message and find a recruitment pool among disenchanted and disoriented youths. Maybe, but the satellite channels are timidly coming up with their own pop spirituality: pop Sufism. The ancient mystical branch of Islam is being reincarnated in beautifully choreographed devotional songs of a religious nature. One of these even has a female chorus where only half are wearing the religiously mandated headdress. Arab pop culture is helping the youth find religion, but a form of Islam that lets you sing and dance your love for the Almighty.

The regimes of the region should also be very worried: their draconian measures are going to be questioned along with all the other mores and taboos. Last week, the Kuwaiti government locked up and fined a citizen for writing an article denouncing the cancellation of music classes in elementary schools in order to extend those that teach the proper intonation of the Koran. Last January, young Saudis were banned from using their cell phones to vote in the second season of "Star Academy" because the hit show was

deemed to be a threat to youth morality by the Wahhabi establishment. Last week, the contest was down to two, a young Egyptian woman, and a young Saudi man. Whether he wins or loses, that Saudi singer is destined to enrapture the youth of Saudi Arabia for many years to come.

During the late 1980s, the British reggae band UB40 toured the Soviet Union. In one memorable concert, a communist apparatchik took the microphone and informed the audience "You are allowed to stand up and move with the music." Much has been said about the influence of bootlegged MTV and its role in the crumbling of the Iron Curtain. Watch out for the next revolution of jiggling Arab hipsters that have been nourished on the wares of Rotana. The coup plotters are directors like Choueiri and Lebeki, and the ravishing Heifa is the standard bearer.

This phenomenon started in March 2002 with the American-funded Radio Sawa hitting the airwaves. The formula was quite simple and brilliant: one Western song followed by an Arab song, and very brief news cycles every hour. No neoclassical poetry, no speech-making; simply music. This was a paradigm shift in Arab entertainment, and the targeted audiences tuned in. So much of America's public diplomacy campaign is focused on opinion polls and the question, "Do they like us yet?" America should be self-confident in what it does best: marketing innovation, especially in style and entertainment. Innovation is born out of an atmosphere of freedom, and the world, including the Arab one, will emulate, follow, and then run with its own spin-offs.