Look Who's Rocking the Casbah

The revolutionary implications of Arab music videos.


One of the more interesting music videos released last year features an attractive brunette who, according to the video's narrative, is involved in a liaison taking place in a Paris hotel room. The visual narrative seems to offer the woman's often disconnected impressions of this apparently illicit relationship: Sometimes a man with a calculating smile is in the room with her; sometimes she's there alone, as if waiting for him. Naturally, the video is drenched in images of desire, especially the woman's erotic perceptions of the liaison and of herself.

For example, in one imagined sequence she isn't wearing much more than a skimpy bustier; in another she's lying suggestively prone, apparently thinking about the mysterious smiling man (who is seen in the background but not really present). Several times the camera invites the viewer to assume the role of the man, with the woman gazing at us with all the erotic intensity she can muster. As is usual in music videos, many shots feature the same woman in the role of singer, appearing onstage and performing the song we are hearing. But there are shots where she is both the singer and the character, including a curious shadowy sequence where several makeup women are busily applying powder to her exposed cleavage.

Eroticism like this, which seems to emerge from the pages of a Victoria's Secret catalog, isn't usually very noteworthy. Indeed, the video's assumption that there's something "forbidden" about its subject matter that must be approached in an "artistic" fashion may seem outdated. But in this case it is exactly such elements that make the production compelling. The reason is the video's cultural context: This is not an American or European or Japanese video; it is an Arab artifact. The woman is a singer named Elissa; her song, which has made her a leading celebrity in the Mideast, is entitled "Aychaylak" ("I Live for You"); and both her song and her video were among last year's biggest music hits in the Arabic-speaking world.

Elissa's video appears to establish a new extreme of what is visually permissible in Arab media; she herself has said that some of its sequences embarrassed her, though as the video was embraced by an enthusiastic audience she has also taken credit for what she calls her "daring."

While Elissa's imagery may be especially bold, the suggestiveness of her video is increasingly typical of what is happening in the contemporary Middle Eastern music scene. More and more Arab women singers are presenting themselves in provocative terms, as figures who express and assert themselves erotically through fashion, movement, expression, and voice. Nawal Zoghby, one of the region's biggest stars (she's been Pepsi's spokeswoman there), appeared in a hip-shaking video last year dressed in a tight and, by Mideastern standards, revealing leather outfit. She was backed up by a trio of black women singers in leather who were even more provocative. Suzanne Tamim offered a video (set partly in an American-style drive-in theater) in which she spent most of the running time striking a series of cheesecake poses in a tight outfit. This year's most notorious video thus far features a woman named Haifa Wehbe whom nobody in the region takes seriously as a singer at all. (She claims only to be an "entertainer.") The whole point of Wehbe's video is to show her dancing in a rain-soaked outfit (inspired perhaps by the "wet sari" sequences of popular Bollywood movies) while staring into the camera with her sultriest expression.

Many of these women singers, it should be noted, are Christians, and their videos are set in an obviously secular context that is sometimes specifically Western. But this new world of Arab videos is a pan-Arab project. The recording label for all these acts, Rotana, is based in Dubai, the Gulf state with the region's most open economy. Rotana's acts can be seen throughout the Arab world but are showcased via ART-TV, a multiformat Arabic-language satellite service established by Saudi investors, based in Jordan, and with studios in Cairo, Beirut, and elsewhere in the region. Most of the video production houses are in Lebanon, and the videos' credits (often in English) reflect diverse crews of Muslim and Christian Arabs, along with a smattering of Turkish names. The most notable director of these videos is Said El-Marouk, a Muslim filmmaker based in Germany whose work stands out because of its scale, spectacle, and excess. (He's the Ken Russell of the genre.)

Muslim women singers are also starting to bring erotic provocation to traditional, even specifically Muslim, contexts. A singer named Samr, for example, has released a video in which she appears dressed as the bride in a traditional Mahgrebian wedding celebration, complete with intricately decorative henna. Although she is clothed modestly and moves with decorum, her song is about her happy anticipation of her wedding night. Samr winks repeatedly at the audience even as she adopts an expression of mock modesty, rolls her eyes happily, and invites the audience to share in her anticipation of pleasure. Given that a woman's enthusiasm for sex is often considered suspect by traditionalists, Samr's performance is astonishing.

In short, there is a revolution going on in popular Arabic music videos (known in the Mideast as "clips"), and it suggests a larger upheaval that may be taking place among their consumers. Although dramatic social and cultural changes are particularly visible in songs and videos by women, they involve the songs and performances of Arab men too. Sex may be the most immediately striking aspect of these productions, but it is the least important aspect of their revolutionary potential.

After all, eroticism, even blatant eroticism, is not new in contemporary Arab culture; it is a well-known element of the region's feminist fiction and is used by such authors as Hanan Al-Shaykh and Nawal Saawadi. But avant-garde fiction like theirs tends to remain within a limited, sympathetic subculture. Arabic pop videos, on the other hand, are produced for pleasure (not to speak of profit) and consumed by an immense audience that can turn such works into political artifacts on a grand scale.

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.

The imagined Arabs in these often handsomely mounted productions stretch from the plausible to the fantastic: not only Arab femmes fatales in designer lingerie but cool Arab race car drivers, Arab cowboys, and Arab motorcyclists decked out in Harley-Davidson paraphernalia. There are Arab football players; Arab lovers driving a pickup truck through the American desert; Arab heroes of Gothic vampire melodramas being stalked by beautiful ghouls; veiled Arab women of the Islamic golden age; Arab couples searching for each other in a chromed, retro 1950s universe; Arabs haunted by mysterious desert symbols that hold the key to forgotten identities; medieval Arab countesses in their Spanish castles; and even science fiction Arabs confronted by mustachioed alien children from outer space.

Some of these subgenres, such as the Gothic and science fiction, have until now made little headway in Arabic popular culture, so the videos may even be stretching pop cultural boundaries. Their greater value, however, lies in their power to stretch the boundaries of their viewers' imagined selves.

Certainly one reason to take the videos seriously is the intensity with which their audience has embraced them. The first Arab TV show to showcase them in any important way was ART-TV's Top 20 (the title is in English), a weekly countdown program hosted by a young Beirut VJ named Nadeen Falah. Each show begins with a musical intro featuring an English-language rap theme song performed by a white American male. Falah, who is dressed and made up in a totally different style each week, reads fan mail, offers music biz gossip, and counts down the week's 20 biggest video hits.

The show has spawned numerous regional imitators, if not an entire alternate entertainment universe. No less than BBC's famous Top of the Pops is planning an Arabic-language version of its long-running format. There are whole 24-hour cable services, like Lebanon's Dream Machine, that program only pop videos. ART-TV itself has a separate all-music service that showcases pop stars in various interview and performance formats. When the United States, in the wake of September 11, wanted to grab the Arab world's attention and offer its interpretation of the news to the region, it didn't start a new information service; it established Radio Sawa. That service programs the pop hits visualized in these videos, burying a few minutes of news and commentary in each half-hour.

If you add the voluminous press and publicity machine that has grown around this scene, it begins to take on the proportions of a cultural frenzy. Such phenomena have a long and fascinating history; they occur when a cultural form becomes available to an audience that uses it to assert and validate its quickly shifting sense of itself. The Netherlands famously experienced such a phenomenon in the 17th century, when members of its suddenly enriched middle class latched onto paintings of themselves and their world as a way to express and validate their new social power. At the time, such subject matter was a departure for painters; indeed, it was the first time that anyone outside the aristocracy had owned paintings. The emerging British middle class of the 18th and 19th centuries went through a fiction-reading frenzy (of Grub Street "trash," mostly) as it sought models for its emerging social opportunities and identified with characters grappling with an industrializing, urbanizing world. Similarly, movies and rock music were powerful forms for different generations of 20th-century Americans. They used such forms to play with the new possibilities of identity that were coming within their grasp.

Can that be what is happening with Arabic videos? While they are entertaining and titillating viewers, they are also transmitting new ways of being to an apparently receptive audience, new and multiplying approaches to being an "Arab" that combine traditional forms of cultural self-presentation with forms borrowed from an array of other sources. The combinations that promise to emerge would not be mere copies of borrowed foreign models; they would be new and indigenous cultural creations, just as is the case in cultures around the world. This syncretism is already true of the music itself, which not only uses traditional Arabic instrumentation (nye, oud, qanoon, etc.) in new ways but also borrows instruments and rhythms from the Caribbean, Europe, India, rock, rap (including rap in Spanish), and numerous other sources.

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. In fact, "low" culture has almost certainly done more to transform the modern world than has "high" culture. That is because, as communications professor Joli Jensen argues in the recent Is Art Good For Us?, it is the low, "expressive" forms of art that people use to engage with and understand the world around them, and not the high, "instrumental" cultural forms that are collected in museums because they are supposed to be good for a public in need of uplifting.

Cultural history is replete with examples of this process, despite critics' traditional focus on aesthetic achievement. The most influential Russian novel, for example, was written not by Tolstoy or Turgenev but by the forgotten journalist Nikolai Chernyshevsky. His wooden 19th-century tale, What Is to Be Done?, was one of a series of popular novels at the center of an intense late-czarist reading frenzy that accompanied liberalization, and the one that set the stage for the Leninist enterprise that was to follow. Tolstoy's own most influential work was not War and Peace but a populist spiritual tract entitled The Kingdom of God Is Within You. Its lesson of returning good for evil was to inspire Gandhi and, eventually, Martin Luther King.

The most effective literary expressions of 18th-century British feminism were not the period's eloquent tracts but the "cheap" Gothic novels that dramatized virtue in distress. The modern American character was shaped far less by celebrated transcendentalist and realist works than by such yarns as Owen Wister's The Virginian, which offered a powerful model of quiet masculine strength. And mid-century Eastern Europeans living under communism who sought cultural expressions of personal liberty found them in jazz, jeans, rock music, and Hollywood.

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.

Islamism has spread through the region via a series of classic and modern works, and by far the most important of the 20th-century writers has been an Egyptian named Sayyid Qutb, who was executed by Nasser in 1966. The most important of Qutb's works is a tract titled Signs Along the Path.

The book argues that the modern world is imbued with the same moral evil that existed at the time of the prophet Mohammed. What is required today is a purifying global jihad. Signs is this jihad's manifesto, and Qutb is in many ways its intellectual architect. The jihad he sought must take place in both senses of the term: as an outer struggle against the unbelieving and sinful enemy, and as an inner, spiritual struggle. In short, life must be lived within Islamic strictures. For many, that has meant women once again in hijab; for some it has even meant the prohibition of secular music.

Qutb concluded that a return to Islam was necessary because he equated liberalization with moral corruption. This is especially apparent in the observations he made during a sojourn in the United States between 1948 and 1950. Americans, he decided, were crass and ignorant because they led secular lives. Qutb wrote an often-quoted letter home from Washington, D.C., that described a tattooed man seated near him in a coffee shop; the gaudy colors of the man's tattoo disgusted him, and symbolized the lack of taste and spirituality that pervaded American culture.

Qutb's most notorious reaction to American life was occasioned by, of all things, a church social in Greeley, Colorado, a community originally organized along utopian lines and one that had maintained a tradition of temperance and moral rigor. Qutb found it a black hole of degeneracy. He had been invited to a dance in Greeley's church basement, where the pastor was playing dance records for the congregation. At one point, the pastor lowered the lights and cued a 78-rpm version of the flirtatious but otherwise innocent tune, "Baby, It's Cold Outside," then popular because it had been used in a 1949 Esther Williams movie. Qutb was scandalized. "The dancing intensified," he wrote. "The hall swarmed with legs….Arms circled arms, lips met lips, chests met chests, and the atmosphere was full of love."

It is as a result of such encounters that Qutb's Islamism was to intensify. Oddly, the whole of the Western, liberalized world sometimes seems to have presented a sexual threat to Qutb, a threat that began aboard the ship that brought him to the U.S. There, a "drunken, semi-naked" woman knocked at his cabin door; he believed the woman could only have been sent to corrupt him by the CIA. It would be interesting to know just why women and sex represented threat and corruption to Qutb; there may be clues in his 1947 novel, Thorns, an autobiographical tale of romance and heartbreak, but the work is untranslated. In any event, two years after he returned from the U.S., Qutb joined Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, the fountainhead of modern Islamism, and became its leading theorist.

Whatever the source of Qutb's concerns, it isn't hard to imagine his reaction to the sight of Elissa's substantial cleavage looming out of her bustier, never mind the idea of importing Gothic vampires, drive-in theaters, and mustachioed alien children invaders into the Arab imagination. Yet Elissa in her hotel room and Samr anticipating her wedding night could hardly be more apt responses to the Islamist moral constrictions that have been advanced, in part, as a result of Qutb's work. The Arab world will eventually achieve its long-delayed goal of liberalized modernity; it might just as well dance itself there.