"Weapons of Singing Destruction"

The escalating storm over Arabic pop videos


Ramadan began this week, which means that Arab TV services will interrupt their usual schedules in favor of a month of special programming, and that could mean a break in the ever-escalating regional storm over Arabic pop videos.

Instead of a schedule that includes the often-sexy music productions that have been challenging the Arab world's cultural and social strictures, Arab TV will be offering such fare as religious instruction, cooking shows (focusing on the preparation of "iftar," the meal that breaks Ramadan's daylight fast), and the intensely popular month-long serial melodramas that have become a part of the Arab calendar.

The conflict that has been developing over Arabic pop videos—and the singers they showcase—could certainly use some de-escalation: It has begun to feature violent confrontations between fans of the singers and the region's moral absolutists. According to an AP wire last week, people trying to attend a concert in Bahrain featuring the controversial singer Nancy Ajram were confronted by "a few hundred protesters" who "threw rocks, set fires and smashed car windows." Conservative lawmakers in the island nation had tried unsuccessfully to ban the event. The Nancy Ajram riot is a disturbing echo of the "Rai Wars" that erupted in Algeria during the 1990s, where religious opponents of the burgeoning rai-music scene also attacked concert-goers, and on at least one occasion attempted to burn down a building filled with rai fans.

Even if Ramadan lowers the temperature for a few weeks, however, the stakes in the music-video debate will remain high. This argument may often focus on eroticism and censorship, but that's its most superficial dimension. This is ultimately a struggle over the Arab world's nascent liberal impulses.

Much of the noise inspired by the videos centers on the performances of a few women singers. Among them, Elissa, who has had one recent video banned even by comparatively libertine programs in Beirut; Haifa Wehbe, whose video dance in a rain-soaked dress has achieved legendary status; and Nancy Ajram, whose most notorious video actually portrays her sexy dancing as contributing to a riot (the name of that song is "I Will Disturb You"). According to a source cited by AP reporter Donna Abu-Nasr, enraged "women in Egypt go to the shrine of Zeinab, the Prophet Muhammad's granddaughter, to pray that Allah take Haifa, Roubi [an Egyptian dancer] and Nancy." That is, some women are supposedly praying for these performers' deaths.

I've written at length about the Arab video scene elsewhere, arguing that while sex may be the most immediately striking aspect of these productions, it is the least important aspect of their revolutionary potential. Rather, it is the political implications of these videos that make them so interesting. What these videos offer their audience is a series of unprecedented fantasy worlds that go far afield from mere eroticism: In these musical narratives, Arabs can shape and assert their identities in any way they please. Thus, while the videos 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 numerous other sources. If 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, then it is these videos that have emerged as the primary cultural route to that process.

This is a direct challenge to the forces of traditional Arab culture, which in many places remains an environment of constricted, traditional, and narrowly defined identities, often subsumed in group identities that hinge on differences with, and antagonism toward, other groups. Many Arab observers of these videos recognize the nature of that challenge, which is why one critic calls these videos "weapons of singing destruction."

Unsurprisingly, some Arab observers think they see a conspiracy at work. The AP account of the anti-video backlash offers an assortment of critical observers claiming that, for example, the music scene is "an attempt to divert the attention of youths away from the political and financial frustrations at home," or that, "It's part of an American policy to strip Arab cultures of their values." In fact, the videos feature very little apparent "American" influence; there's a far more powerful Latin influence on the music, and even a notable non-Western influence (from Bollywood, the Indian film industry). Although there are Western-influenced rock bands of various genres throughout the region (there was even a heavy metal band in Baathist Baghdad), these acts are rarely featured in the popular commercial videos.

If anything, the videos are, by and large, remarkably "Arab" in character (far more than Japanese and South Korean videos, for example, can be said to be "Asian"). The rhythms, instrumentation, locales, and even the often-controversial choreography frequently draw on powerful Arab traditions of music and dance. (Much of the eroticism is thus entirely "Arab," although it is now being used to assert power.) It is the characterization and narratives of these productions that are providing the challenge to Arab social and cultural traditions. Not because these characters or stories are in any way essentially "foreign"; rather, in their celebration of personal choice, they are modern.

It is that modernizing influence that is showing signs of spreading. The controversial eroticism of the videos may well have helped prepare the way for this year's biggest Arab movie sensation, Sleepless Nights. That path-breaking film about marital conflict was, like the videos, dogged by charges that it was intolerably vulgar. But what is far more important is that Egypt's commercial film industry, which for years has produced little besides predictable family melodrama, finally made a film that had demonstrable personal meaning for its surprised and delighted audience.

For that matter, this year's Ramadan serials may well be echoing the modernizing influence of the videos as well. These lavishly mounted, month-long programs garner close attention from Arab audiences, as families gather to break the Ramadan fast together, and often become hooked on a well-scripted series. This year's series include some notable leading characters, including a woman business executive who is ruthless in her career and immodest in her dress, and a highly independent woman painter living in 1930s Cairo who cuts her hair short. One probably would not have seen many such characters during Ramadan years ago.

True, by the time Ramadan ends, the ruthless woman executive will probably have repented of her business practices as well as her slit skirts and low cleavage, but what matters most are the nature of the stories that audiences throughout the Arab world will be seeing, and the issues at stake in those tales. Most videos may well be missing during the coming month, but the changes in the Arab imagination that these videos have helped facilitate remain on display.