Paranoid Pop

Music and modernization in the Arab world


"Chechnya! Afghanistan! Palestine! Southern Lebanon! The Golan Heights! And now Iraq, too? And now Iraq, too? It's too much for people. Shame on you! Enough, enough, enough!"

Are those angry words from a political speech or a TV interview? Are they perhaps from an impassioned op-ed criticizing U.S. foreign policy? In fact, they're the opening words to a new song, "The Attack on Iraq," from the notorious Egyptian singer, Shaaban Abdel-Rahim. The song is deeply critical of the U.S. threat to invade Iraq, portraying Americans as warmongering agents of an expansionist Zionism. Washington Post reporter Anthony Shadid, writing from Amman this week, described it as "the Arab world's newest and most popular hit."

Abdel-Rahim is a curious figure, a product, according to reporter Shadid, of frustrated Arab populism. After spending 20 years as a laundry man and part-time singer at Egyptian weddings, the illiterate villager became a phenomenon in 2001 with his infamous song, "I Hate Israel." Shadid's piece suggests that Abdel-Rahim has earned street credibility by saying—or rather singing—things that no one else dares express (the story offers a lot of admiring quotes to this effect). According to the Post, Abdel-Rahim and his song represent "another sign of the emergence of Arabic pop music in recent years as an arena for dissent and protest over Israeli and U.S. policy."

Putting it that way makes Abdel-Rahim's material seem significant and courageous, if not actually respectable. But there's another way to look at the singer: as a pathetic cultural bottom feeder, one who puts to music the kind of paranoid sentiments that are only too commonly heard in the Mideast. The idea that neither Israel nor the U.S. would be harshly criticized out loud in the region were it not for Abdel-Rahim is on its face absurd; what makes the singer noteworthy is that he has cornered the subgenre of paranoid hate pop. If you want a glimpse into Abdel-Rahim's preposterous career, one that Shadid omits, try his follow-up record to "I Hate Israel." It was his first video, and it was called, "I Will Quit Smoking." He chose the subject, according to a paper in the Emirates, "for the important message the song delivers to his young listeners."

The fact is that Arab pop culture—including its celebrity stratum—is heavily politicized. The western media often focus on this element, probably because there are so many sensational story lines available. It's easy enough to play this game. Right now, for example, there's a public spat between a pair of women singers, an argument that's been highlighted in the gossipy Arabic celebrity press, and that has ended up including the personal character of Israelis. One of the singers, Shireen Ahmad, seems to have allowed in a public statement that among Israelis, there are "kind" people. A rival of hers, Shireen Wajdi, told a London-based magazine that, in a paraphrased translation, "any singer who has something good to say about Israel, does not deserve the love or support of their fans and is considered to be a fake."

Sometimes Western reports that focus on this sort of thing are legitimate; sometimes they're cheap shots. But the real problem is that stories about the bizarre aspects of Arab culture can be quite misleading.

It may well be accurate to assert, as the Post's Shadid does, that some Arabic pop songs express popular "dissent and protest over Israeli and U.S. policy." But Arabic pop music as a genre is probably less "political" than it has ever been in modern times. The recordings and videos are increasingly the product of a homemade cultural syncretism that combines traditional Arab music with influences from all over, especially the U.S., Europe, and India. It is more experimental, less nationalistic, more erotic, and more concerned with issues of personal desire and self-fashioning. In short, it is a great deal like all modern musical forms, including those in the West.

More importantly, because the music (and even more so the videos) reflects the desirability of personal fulfillment within a world of possible change, it carries within it the potential to transform its audience. The interchange between the music and its fans, taking place in the currently tumultuous Arabic music market, may yet do the work of "modernization" that a century of political movements (Pan-Arabism, Ba'thism, Arab Marxism, Nasserism, Kemalism, etc.) has failed to accomplish.

The music of Shaaban Abdel-Rahim is capable is selling a lot of copies quickly, like any novelty. But it's a cultural dead-end because it reinforces the tendency among Arabs to define their identities in terms of their foreign or domestic enemies, a central feature of cultural stagnation. Much of modern Arab pop actually encourages its listeners to define themselves based on their personal hopes and desires, rather than in contrast to others. That's what makes it a modernizing force.

As it happens, the actual number-one pop hit this week on Arab music charts is a song about heartbreak by none other than Shireen Ahmad, the woman who publicly allowed for the existence of "kind" Israelis. The likelihood is that commercial music like hers will have more "political" significance in the long run than will the screaming hate novelties of Abdel-Rahim, reports of the latter's street cred notwithstanding.