The Postwar Arab Blues

How the Mideast's cultural politics have fallen into disarray


Earlier this month, an Arabic dance track called "Longing Brought You to Me" hit Number 1 for the sixth consecutive week on one of the region's leading music countdowns, the Beirut-based Top 20. The song is a slickly produced disco throwback, a kind of track that often does well in the region's music market. What makes its continued success noteworthy, however, is that the woman who performs it, a Kuwaiti singer named Nawal, had recently taken an interesting political risk.

Even as nearly every other popular Arab singer was still bewailing U.S. "aggression"—the inevitable term—against the Iraqi people, Nawal had publicly congratulated Iraqis on getting rid of Saddam Hussein and his murderous regime. She was able to break with the Pan-Arabist line on the war —that the whole Arab world had been under attack by Western imperialism— which had totally subsumed the region's pop culture, while not paying any price in popularity.

Does that have any meaning? Thanks to the manner in which the Iraq war ended, the Pan-Arabist paradigm is in apparent disarray at the top of the cultural ladder among journalists, essayists, and political reformers who are offering alternative narratives. If the same thing is true at the cultural bottom as well, it might actually matter more.

According to a Kuwaiti newspaper, "Nawal said that when she watched the joy in the eyes of the Iraqis after they broke free of Saddam Hussein's regime, she realized how much in need they were of freedom and a chance to live in a democratic country." She wished Iraqis the chance to live in peace, and hoped their new beginning is one that will prove to be prosperous and happy.

The pop context in which Nawal sent her congratulatory message to Iraqis is worth pausing over. When the war began in March, it brought much Middle Eastern entertainment activity to a standstill. Those singers who were touring, such as the Lebanese star Nawal Zoughby—who was actually in the middle of a North American tour—quickly cancelled their concerts. Others, like the leading star Najwa Karam, announced that they could not conceive of performing in public while their Iraqi brothers and sisters were under attack, and cancelled all appearances of any kind anywhere. Some performers, like the Egyptian Ehab Tawfiq, announced that under the terrible circumstances they would be unable to do any work on their scheduled future albums, and even ceased recording. At least one singer announced that she would spend the war in isolation in her home documenting American atrocities against Iraqi women and children.

In brief, many performers decided that it would be the better part of professional valor to make a public point of their sympathy with Iraq and then to disappear for the duration. Of those songs that were released during the war, quite a few seem to have been about the war, and were harsh in their criticism of the U.S. and its allies. Such wartime releases demanded to know by what right the U.S. was making war in the region, portrayed Americans as the murderers of Iraqi children, and asked if there was no limit to the American appetite for global aggression.

One such singer, Shaaban Abdel-Rahim, received serious attention in the American press; his anti-U.S. song, "The Attack on Iraq," was featured in The Washington Post as a marker of Arab outrage at America, and Abdel-Rahim himself was placed in a tradition of cultural activism stretching back to the revered Nasserist, Umm Kalthoum. He went to record such war songs as "I'm Going to Take Out My Gun," in which he portrayed himself as a warrior-protector of Iraq.

That's the context in which Nawal addressed the Iraqis not as victims of bloodthirsty American aggression, but as beneficiaries of a war that eliminated the Ba'thist regime. Of course, the fact that Nawal is a Kuwaiti national is a factor in her action, but not a deciding one. As the victims of Saddam's brutal 1990 invasion, many Kuwaitis were strongly behind the recent war, and the nation's press and cultural establishments intentionally removed themselves from the Pan-Arabist discourse so critical of the U.S. In the end, however, Nawal is not a Kuwaiti star; she's an Arab star with a career dependent on continued acceptance by audiences, the celebrity press, and even her fellow performers throughout the Arab world.

Of course, given that the war ended in scenes of Iraqi jubilation, very few of the Arab world's previously outspoken cultural figures hazarded much of any postwar comment at all. Performers who had abided strictly by the Pan-Arabist line, and who had expressed a literally immobilizing personal grief at the war, quietly resumed their careers. To her considerable credit, the Moroccan singer Samira Sayeed (who had also interrupted her career) did suggest publicly in mid-April that certain singers could now shelve their anti-American music and do something useful, such as "sign up with medical aid groups and give support where it is really needed." In general, however, while the spectacle of the wartime Arab culture industry was a testament to the power of the Pan-Arabist idea, the behavior of the postwar culture industry suggests Pan-Arabism's shortcomings.

Nawal's situation is all the more noteworthy because of the long history of public "punishment" for those Arab cultural figures perceived as having transgressed the Pan-Arabist political line. The Egyptian playwright Ali Salem became a shunned figure after writing a book arguing that Israel should be judged as a normal nation; the work of Tunisian film director Khaled Ghorbal was thrown out of regional film festivals last year after he expressed the hope for a region-wide "normalization" of Arab-Israeli relations; the singer Shireen Ahmad was harshly attacked as a "fake" by a rival singer when Ahmad allowed for the existence of "kind" Israelis. All of these examples involve Israel, but for many in the Arab world, so did the U.S. war against Saddam Hussein. (According to the usual street conspiracists, U.S. actions were part of a long-term imperialist/Zionist plot aimed at Israel's enemies.)

The most spectacular recent case of public punishment involves Iraq's own biggest singing star, Kazem Al-Saher, whose career has tottered on the verge of ruin for several months. Al-Saher was touring the U.S. during the weeks prior to the war, and was widely criticized in the Middle East for traitorous behavior. In fact, Al-Saher had been planning a long-shot effort to break the Western market, and even recorded an English-language duet with Lenny Kravitz under the auspices of Rock the Vote. Under heavy criticism for being in the U.S., however, he returned to the Middle East (in fact, he'd been living in Europe for years), claimed he'd been teaching Americans the truth about Iraq, and that he'd angrily refused to sing any song that didn't express his loyalty and devotion to his native land. During the war, Al-Saher recorded songs about suffering Iraqi children, and led tearful anti-war demonstrations through the streets of Cairo.

When Iraqis celebrated the war's results, however, Al-Saher was stuck. Apparently deciding he couldn't switch directions yet again in such a short time, and under heavy pressure to react to the war's end, he threw in with the Pan-Arabist line. Among other things, he distanced himself from the anti-Ba'thist opposition, reportedly refused to sing any songs expressing a positive side to the fall of Saddam, and even suggested, in a now-disputed letter to a Jordanian newspaper, that the only possible response to the occupying Americans was "throwing an old shoe in their faces."

Al-Saher thus emerges, for the moment, as one of the last of the singing Pan-Arabists, a bizarre irony given that he had been nearly universally perceived by Arabs as an opponent of the Ba'thist regime and a secret supporter of the war against it. But even he is now softening his public line. Although he still refuses to perform publicly as long as Iraq is in turmoil, Al-Saher recently indicated to the magazine Laha that, in the magazine's words, "maybe later on he will rethink his decision."

Of course, there's always Shaaban Abdel-Rahim, the Egyptian singer singled out by The Washington Post as the authentically furious voice of the Arab street. But things haven't been going too well lately for Abdel-Rahim, either. He's been trying for some time to make a film version of his most notorious hit, "I Hate Israel," but he can't find an actress willing to appear with him. So far, he's reportedly been turned down by five such actresses. This probably has less to do with his politics than it does with his reputation as a classless slob, but it's hardly a tribute to the continuing power of Pan-Arabism that one of its best known pop proponents can't find a leading lady. More damaging to Abdel-Rahim than his movie problems, however, is a recent lawsuit brought by the singer Shireen Wajda. She's not suing Abdel-Rahim; she's suing a pair of journalists who compared her to Abdel-Rahim, thus, according to her, damaging her career. (Wajda, by the way, is the woman who called Shireen Ahmad a "fake" for saying there were some "nice" Israelis.)

There have always been free-thinking cultural figures in the Arab world who have been willing to risk their careers by expressing controversial political views, and there have even been some who have gotten away with it. One of them is the Egyptian movie comedian Adel Imam, whose successful career stretches back decades. Imam has been an outspoken critic of Islamists, and didn't hesitate to sneer at Saddam Hussein, either. Before the war, Imam was asked by a Kuwaiti paper what he thought Saddam should do in the face of American demands. Imam said he hoped there would be no war, but he suggested with obvious contempt that Saddam should resign as head of state and instead take up a career in the movies. Saddam, he told the paper, "would surely make a successful actor," and Hollywood would soon be angling to sign him.

As a pop proponent of secularist liberalism, Imam's been a relatively lonely figure in the Mideast. Perhaps, if the Pan-Arabist line continues to fade in Arab culture, he and figures like Nawal will soon have more outspoken company.