Arabian Idol

Reality TV tames nationalism


A different sort of conflict broke out this summer in the Middle East—one involving reality TV. While it offers more evidence that the region is in the grip of a liberationist pop culture frenzy (see "Look Who's Rocking the Casbah," June), it also demonstrates that even the region's pop fandom can fall prey to conspiracy theories and divisiveness.

Future TV, a satellite network based in Lebanon (and owned by Prime Minister Rafik Hariri) staged an Arab version of the American reality TV phenomenon American Idol. Called Superstar, the show gathered hopeful amateur singers from throughout the Arab world and, week by week, narrowed the competition based on audience reaction. The show attracted an enormous following from the Maghreb to the Persian Gulf.

The penultimate program, in mid-August, featured three remaining contestants: female singers from Syria and Jordan and a man named Melhem Zein from Lebanon. When Zein was eliminated, the Beirut audience exploded. Both women fainted amid a tumult of flying chairs and had to be rushed to the hospital. A crowd gathered in front of the studio and began a well-known Arabic chant that is usually heard in the context of far more serious strife. This time, instead of a political or religious leader, the chanters invoked Zein: "With our blood and souls, we sacrifice for you Melhem."

Conspiracy theories soon emerged to account for Zein's elimination. Supposedly, the entire Jordanian army had been ordered to vote for Jordan's contestant. Supposedly, Lebanese leaders had failed the nation by not mobilizing support for Zein. Supposedly, Syria, which controls Lebanon, had exerted itself to control Superstar as well.

In other words, as fan-based cultural identity grows in the region, it expresses itself in terms of the area's traditional nationalist or sectarian divisions, engendering group enmity and suspicion. The effect of commercial culture, however, is to dissipate conflict by lowering the stakes. Modernist identities (drawing on such influences as fandom) are fluid and changeable; the resulting communities of interest are numerous and temporary. Zein's fans have now contented themselves with creating a Web site in his honor.

Superstar's winner, by the way, was Diana Karazone, the singer from Jordan.