Nancy, a young and attractive Arab woman with long flowing hair, blue eyes and fluttering eyelashes, is serving the drinks in a cafe where all the customers are young men. She flits among the tables, smiling and wearing a skimpy dress. Then she looks into the camera and sings: “Yes, I might be angry with you. But no, I won’t leave you.”
Music videos featuring young, feisty women might be common elsewhere. But in the Arab world, videos - or “video clips”, as they are known locally - of female singers dancing and flirting in an apparently liberated way are indicators of a social and artistic revolution at the heart of society. And Nancy Ajram, the Lebanese performer in this particular video, is just one of a growing number of a new kind of Arab female star.
One only has to consider the legendary Egyptian singer Um Kalthoum to see how much things have changed. Until her death in 1975 - when four million mourners gathered for her funeral - Kalthoum typified the acceptable, traditional face of the Arab chanteuse. In her live shows, which were extraordinarily popular with cultured middle and upper-middle classes across the various Arab states, a stately, dignified Kalthoum would wear conservative, long-sleeved dresses and sing for a couple of hours at a time with her band meekly sitting behind her.
While music videos are ubiquitous from London to Bollywood, only since the 1990s have they emerged in the Arab world as a new art form - and industry - that provides an alternative to this type of traditional act. The stars of these video clips are mostly attractive young women whose narrative-heavy videos are like mini-movies demonstrating the latest trends in fashion, cars and interiors. It is rumoured that these singers secretly compete to see who can produce the sexiest, most provocative videos; some even admit that they have had cosmetic surgery, a trend that would have been quite alien to the likes of the homely Kalthoum. These new stars are trendsetters in Arab society; their videos act as handbooks for young Arab women unsure of what to wear, which make-up to buy, which colour to dye their hair. And they have proved so popular that even older, more traditional performers in their forties are following suit.
But do these videos, with their seductive female performers, challenge the cultural status quo, or are they actually perpetuating the traditional Arab idea of women as submissive to men?
“The stereotypical image of the Arab woman is that she is simply a ‘body’, with less intellectual and spiritual capabilities than a man - and video clips in fact support that perception,” says Amina al-Dhaheri, professor of mass communications at United Arab Emirates University, and one of the harshest critics of video clips. She says that their impressionable audience comes from across the social spectrum, but is uniformly young: “It is not a matter of class, but of age. What strikes me now is that children would rather watch video clips” - which are, arguably, designed with an adult audience in mind - “than television programmes that are actually aimed at children.”
At the moment, the Arab music market is dominated by female stars from Lebanon and Egypt. The Lebanese 35-year-old Haifa Wehbe is not only a best-selling singer, but also considered by Arab youth - no doubt influenced by the fact that she was crowned Miss Lebanon in 1995 - to be the ultimate sex symbol. A recent survey published in a Cairo newspaper revealed that its young readers voted an Egyptian singer called Ruby the most popular personality in the country, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that her videos have attracted condemnation for being too explicit.
However, Lebanese and Egyptian dominance may weaken as the pop market expands, says Faisal Abbas, an editor at the pan-Arab newspaper Al Sharq Al Awsat. “The last decade has witnessed an increase in the number of performers from the Gulf. But this is not particularly a sign of change in Gulf society. Rather, it shows that the video industry is dominated by market forces: the largest producer of these clips now is Rotana, which is a Gulf-based company.”
Music videos are the dominant source of entertainment for large sectors of Arab youth - the new “Generation X” - particularly those living in poorer countries, which have few facilities for the young and where unemployment is high. But while attracting a mass youth following, music videos and their stars have come in for criticism from the older generation. Muslim religious leaders scorn them in their Friday sermons, while members of parliament in Egypt have openly discussed banning some clips from the Egyptian public-service television channels. The accusation here is that the entertainment industry is despoiling the cultural traditions of Arab society. These critics point to scenes of “promiscuity” - they also call them soft porn - as simply being a bad imitation of western products and values.
The videos are also decried for their commercial purpose. The newer Arab satellite channels have endorsed music programmes, in a clear effort to attract the 125 million Arabs who are 18 or under. They have only one goal, says Faisal Abbas: to make money. “There are channels that consider these video clips a means to attract young people and hence advertising money. The purpose then is not simply to sell CDs, but to sell other products, such as mobile phones and ring tones, as well.” Profit thus becomes a value that competes with tradition. And the outcome is predictable, says Amina al-Dhaheri: “When money competes with custom and tradition, money prevails.”
One may ask whether these music videos could be a positive influence on the young in some way. Why should the popular necessarily be debased and vulgar? For many, videos are a window on to an exciting new world. And perhaps provocative female behaviour can challenge male domination, rather than confirm it - or at least, that is the professed hope of Nadine Labaki, director of some of Nancy Ajram’s most controversial videos. Labaki defends her video of Ajram dancing for a group of men in a public cafe: “As Arab women, we used to live in fear of the Other’s gaze; we were imprisoned in our own bodies. So I wanted to create a new female character that is not afraid and has no problem with her body. She can dance in front of many men freely and spontaneously.”
Certainly the lyrics of many of these new stars’ songs openly challenge the idea of male dominance - hardly radical to the west but a marked change from the submissive message of more traditional song-writing in the Arab world, which typically depicted weak, passive women waiting loyally for the man of their dreams to notice their desire and shower them with attention. For instance, “You Are the Love”, sung by Um Kalthoum, expresses a woman’s total surrender and dedication to her lover even as he ignores her: “So many hearts are flying around you wishing to reach happiness…My heart belongs to you, and you make me happy. Deprive me as you wish.”
This is in stark contrast to many new female video stars, whose challenging style is more along the lines of “be a good boy, or get lost”. The Egyptian star Shereen rose to fame a couple of years ago with a song about gaining confidence: “And so what that your love ended? And so what that you went away? Why do you think life after you is meaningless? With or without you, I am still here, and, as you can see, I am still singing.”
The same generation gap is apparent in many Lebanese lyrics. Fairouz, a popular Lebanese singer of the old generation - she is now in her seventies - is well-known for a song that includes the lines: “I loved you in the summer, and in the winter; I waited for you all summer, and all the winter”. The 22-year-old Nancy Ajram, on the other hand, tells her beau: “If you are still angry, please do not overdo it, or I’ll leave you, And it’ll be your loss.” Meanwhile, in Tunisia, the singer Latifa is clear: “I cannot be forgotten. Stay away if you want, I don’t care - for I am in your dreams and wishes.”
Such lyrics send a message to the Arab world: there’s a newly empowered superwoman on the block who, even though she may still have some of the trappings of the old “made for pleasure” female, has become more confident about her abilities to attract any man and get her own way. Not every new female star goes down this path, it’s true - some still prefer more traditional lyrics extolling submission and weakness - but even these performers dress and move in a way that challenges the old image of the Arab woman hidden behind a veil.
It certainly seems that the once-in-a-lifetime-love, so often celebrated in the old songs, is now dead. For male singers have responded to this new female promiscuity with a rival set of lyrics showing that they too are capable of finding a new type of love. A love as convenient, quick - and disposable - as American fast food.
Perhaps because of this, Amina al-Dhaheri thinks the video clips will not help Arab women become more liberated: “They are not a challenge; the real challenge is to use the brain, not the body.” For Nadine Labaki, on the other hand, these videos reflect the need of Arab women to emphasise their femininity as a source of power: “Arab women always live by the way a man looks at her, and she dies when her ability to seduce withers.”
In the end, even if these videos are, as critics claim, merely imitations of western culture, they still clearly reflect the desires of a new generation that is demanding change. They seem to say to these young men and women that life is for living and that, amid violence and darkness, youthful hopes for a brighter tomorrow are growing. Looked at this way, the new genre is not so much a break from reality into a world of fantasies as a break from the restraints and traditions that have long surrounded Arab youth, and so offers a new way for these young people to prove themselves.
Yet music videos do not, after all, reflect reality: they are peopled by manicured stars living in luxurious homes and driving fashionable cars. With even Egypt’s annual GDP as low as $4,200 per capita, this is a lifestyle way beyond the means of the average Arab teenager. So the message of the music videos could instead be interpreted as meaning that freedom from present restrictions, whether social, political or economic, is attainable only for the rich.
For Faisal Abbas, this is an understandable fixation on wealth endemic in the world of entertainment: “In Hollywood films too, you see only the glamorous parts of the US, hardly ever the poor areas,” he says. But for al-Dhaheri, such concentration on wealth is only a further sign of how far these videos are from reflecting their audience’s real lives: “These beautiful places shown in these videos are far removed from everyday Arab life. It makes people want to get to this luxury by any means possible.” And if they cannot reach it, there is only one thing they can do, she says: “Dream on.”
Noha Mellor is a producer at the BBC World Service and author of “The Making of Arab News”.
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