Ah, the inscrutable East. Or in this case, Middle East. In Baghdad, I'd often go down to my hotel lobby to find men seated before the television set smoking cigarettes and drinking tea, watching with rapt attention as some dark-eyed houri shimmied in come-and-get-me lasciviousness to the strains of an Arabic pop song. Fifty feet past the lobby and its luxurious canopy of air conditioning, Iraqi women trudged down the street in blinding sun and 130-degree-heat, their bodies encased in stifling head-to-toe black robes. The only bumps-and-grinds they were going to experience were from the bundles in their hands, the kids on their arms and the grit in their eyes from the noisome Baghdad smog.
The contrast between fantasy and reality seemed lost on the men, enthralled as they were by the latest music video from Lebanon or Egypt. And they weren't the only ones, it seems. These erotic--highly erotic, when you consider the puritanism of the surrounding Muslim society--images of female pop stars are becoming increasingly popular. So much so, in fact, that in an article in Tuesday's Financial Times, Cairo-based reporter Heba Saleh notes a backlash is forming. Or, as she quotes Mohammed Mursi, a Muslim Brotherhood member of the Egyptian parliament:
Music videos are a tool for moral destruction. There is no doubt about that. They are against our religion and our morals.
Seeing--but not often, I assure you--the nihilistic dreck that passes for "entertainment" on MTV, I'm not disinclined to agree with Mr. Mursi.
But we've already gone through our sexual revolution, and are now in our Thermidor phase. The Middle East has yet to storm the Bastille of sexual repression and tribal-religious domination of women; this is one reason (besides the obvious) why the coarsely named "babe revolution" in Lebanon has seized the world's attention. Encoded in those images of attractive, laughing women, arms outstretched in gestures of freedom, is a visual language that spells more than just political freedom--but sexual liberation, as well.
Cairo University student Mohammed Wagdi explains his fascination with images of performers like Lebanon's Nancy Ajram, Elissa and Haifa Wahby, in addition to the Egyptian star Ruby.
I like music vidoes, because they introduce me to fashion. Not all of them are indecent. I like watching the spectacle, though the music is not always that good. But there should be no censorship, whoever wants to watch should be able to. Just like on the internet.
That last line is interesting. Someday, an enterprising scholar will have to research the impact of online pornography on the socio-political thinking of young Arab males (hint: check the bookmarked sites on any Middle Eastern internet cafe that doesn't have blockers.) But I digress...
Notes Khaled Agha, marketing director for Rotana, the region's largest music producer,
The success of the music video industry is a kind of reaction against sexual repression in the Arab world. But the degree of openness that exists now has allowed some people who have no musical talents, but who look good, to become singers.
The same might be said of all the cookie-cutter bubbleheads who prance across the collective pop culture screen of America, but it's different in the Middle East. Here, Ashlee Simpson exists mainly to introduce young girls into the soft-core delights of Capitalist society; there, Ruby and Nancy Ajram are awakening young men and women to the revolutionary power of women, sexual freedom and democracy. There, the video is the political; the revolution is being televised.
But then there's the aforementioned backlash. Apparently, a video of Ruby performing on an exercise bike created such outrage in Egypt that the country's musicians union tried to ban her from singing; Egyptian TV does not broadcast the singer's songs. And one video was pulled from circulation, Ms. Saleh writes, for depicting "what was considered an indecent image of a horse." One can only wonder...
Ms. Saleh closes her interesting piece with a quote from Amina Khairy, a "social commentator" for Egypt's Al-Hayat newspaper.
Music videos present an ideal world full of beautiful girls. Most of them are shot in fantastic houses with wonderful gardens. It's a virtual world, which fascinates just like American movies used to fascinate, but this one is closer because it is peopled by Arabs.
Today, however, with images of real women--many of them "beautiful girls"--seeming to blossom in the massive pro-democracy rallies in real-life downtown Beirut, this fascinating world of feminity, fashion, eroticism, excitement, a quickening of the pulse and spirit is moving from the video screen into real life. As in the West during the 1960s, pop culture is becoming political. We can only hope that they avoid the mistakes that we made, and that women in the region can someday feel free to throw off those obscene abiyas, chadors, burkhas and what have you, and finally feel the sun and breeze on their uncovered skin.