Ayman al-Aathar, Superstar


Libya, of all places, has been in the throes of celebrity fan culture. A young singer named Ayman al-Aathar has won this year's Superstar competition, a variation on American multi-week talent contests that in its two years has become a major TV event in the Arab world.

The BBC reports that during the contest, posters of the singer were displayed throughout the capital. When al-Aathar and his last remaining competitor, a Palestinian singer, visited Libya to promote the final program, they were met at the airport by crowds of excited fans. Yet more swarms of fans surrounded the hotel where they stayed, and al-Aathar was met by autograph seekers wherever he went.

Even Gaddafi greeted the two singers, though he was concerned "that such events were distracting people from the on-going conflicts in Iraq and the Palestinian territories." The BBC notes that "This is the first time that Libyans have expressed a keen interest in an area that deviates from the norms of the country's traditional and conservative lifestyle."

The Palestinian finalist, Ammar Hassan, also faced political objections to his popularity. "Some militants," reported the Beeb, "have frowned on what they see as frivolous activity and the singer had been criticized at the local mosque. But his father said: 'To each his own. Some fight for Palestine. My son sings for Palestine.'" Much of the Arab world's high culture has been subject to restriction within politically acceptable limits on the theory that nothing should be allowed to distract people from the Arabist agenda. It's noteworthy that in the Arab world, as elsewhere, it is low, "vulgar" culture that is out of political control.

Superstar is a Lebanese program that starts with a large number of contestants, and relies on audience reaction to determine whether singers stay or go. It is one of the most popular entertainment shows on Arabic-language TV; 3.2 million votes were reportedly cast in the show's final week. Many votes are cast at Internet cafes, and apparently Libyan caf? operators required their customers to vote for al-Aathar. On the other hand, a Palestinian computer whiz created a program that allowed Ammar Hassan's fans to cast multiple votes for his cause.

Last year's Superstar competition erupted in a studio riot when Lebanese favorite Melhem Zein was eliminated amid accusations of conspiracy. (Zein is currently enjoying a big hit with a strange, dreamy video that features sequences suggesting bondage.) Some of the social implications of the exploding Arab pop video scene are considered here.