Thursday, June 18, 2009

Um... Let the Funky Arabs Turn You On?

This is the video for a new song by Lebanese pop singer and video director Jad Shwery, which seems to be marketed toward the West, with lyrics like: "We're not what you see/ On CNN or on the BBC/Take a look at us/...We've got sexy girls/Arab beauty that will rock your world" And images of shiny, waxed, botoxed and surgeried girls and boys twisting and writhing around. So, pretty much like a Christina Aguilera video from 5-6 years ago. But the ethnic and racial politics on display here are causing a fuss, with Arabs taking offense either on religious or progressive political grounds (or both, since they aren't necessarily mutually exclusive). The objections, that the video is blatantly sexist and hyper sexualized, consumer-driven, Westernized and not representative of all Arabs, are not wrong. But I have a more complicated reaction to this song and video, that I'd like to unpack.

1) This is a song by a Lebanese Pop singer and Lebanon IS westernized. Some of that is due to colonization by the French but Lebanon has a loooong pre-colonial history as a cosmopolitan center since the ancient world. In our contemporary moment, Beirut has been reduced to rubble by US and Israeli imperialism twice, so its Western image is tied to the struggle for a free Palestine, but the image of Lebanon as an international (and therefore more secular, with all of the stuff that goes along with that) place persists in the Arab world. Many Lebanese pop singers are famous throughout the Arab world for portraying a more Westernized version of sex and beauty and they are paradoxically disapproved of and celebrated for it.

2) The subtext of the video and the objections to it–which is mostly invisible to a Western audience–is the tension between Lebanese Christians and Muslims. Despite being a minority, Christians ran Lebanon and Lebanese culture reflects that. And like Italy, which is also run by Catholics, there is a cultural preoccupation with sensuality, beauty (both feminine and masculine), love and temporal pleasure in Lebanese culture. And, like our neighbors on the Western side of the Mediterranean, the Lebanese also have little gift for government… preferring to drink coffee and watch girls walk down the street. I am saying this with a smile on my face, because these are my people. Israeli aggression, which has pushed Palestinian refugees across the border and led to the political ascension of Hezbollah in Lebanon, has created a shift in Lebanon wherein it is increasingly characterized by the contentious relationship of its Muslim population toward Israel. While many Maronites (like me) are sympathetic to the Palestinians and Islam in general, many blame them for ruining the country. Just to be clear: this is not an attitude I espouse, or excuse–but I do think it is an underlying factor in this silly pop song.

Jad Shwery (and I’m gonna guess everyone else in this video) are Christians. Shwery is a Maronite Catholic (like me). According to his website he attended private French Schools in Lebanon and the Sorbonne in Paris so he is presumably, like many upper middle class Lebanese Catholics, on friendlier terms with the colonial (ie Western) elements of Lebanese culture than Lebanese Muslims might be.

So, while I understand the arguments some Muslims are making against these representations, I’d argue Shwery is representing an element of his culture, for better or worse. The major flaw here is that he is totalizing that by singing "we"... when it seems pretty clear that the "we" he refernces are Arab Christians/Catholics.That makes the subtext of this song Islamophobic and Orientalist, in that it reproduces the false Good Arab/Bad Arab binary along religious lines. And that, for me, is the biggest offense on display here.


There are definitely Arabs who look and act just like this in the Middle East… and the West and that doesn't necessarily break down along religious lines. My first thought when I saw this video was that it looked less like a wild Dubai consumer orgy than an Arab night at a tacky Brooklyn dance club. (I am saying that with a smile too, FYI. Brooklyn holla.)

3) The folks in the video are silly, but also ridiculously hot and that makes me happy. Maybe that is pathetic, but we are so often portrayed as ugly and crazy that part of me likes seeing this, I admit it.

4) Arab Pop music–like its European analogues (again I would refer you to the Italians)– is sooo corny. These beats are at least five years out of date. And it will take some enterprising ethno-racist about five seconds to make the Funky = bad-smelling analogy. Sigh.



  1. Great comments Joseph. I just have a problem many have in the Middle East in thinking that the nastier you are, somehow you are more progressive, more modern. They also link it with being Westernised.

    You see this all over the Middle East. My step son has sent me pictures from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia of the lowered Hummers, jamming loud American gangster rap, the baggie jeans. I just wish the younger crowd in the Middle East would pick up more positive things that the West puts out. It is almost as if there is a second wave of colonialism going on where we ship the worst we have to offer instead of occupying a people.

    The fascination some segments of Lebanon have with Europe also bothers me. I have met Lebanese who have tried to convince me that they do not speak Arabic, only English, yet their French is comparable to the couple of classes I had in HS in the US. There is a sense of self loathing that goes along with this worship of Europe...that being an Arab is something to be avoided.

    I also completely agree about the looks of the people in the video. I dont know where people in the West got the idea that Middle Eastern women and men are not good looking.

    People in the Middle East have every sort of look you can imagine, and personally, the women are too gorgeous to mention. If was not already married to an Arab woman I might have gotten myself into a lot of trouble in my travels in the area.

    Anyway, to the very basics, it is crap music. Amr Diab is much better.....and someone like Natacha Atlas blows him away in taking Western influences and making it something distinctly Middle East, but with talent this guy lacks.

  2. Of course you are right when you talk about the worship of sexualized materialism--but that is a problem with youth culture all over the globe, isn't it? For me, the celebration of wealth is the most unappealing part of this video... much more than the sexy stuff (Hey, I am Lebanese, after all...)

    In my post I was just trying to link the representations in this video to the Lebanese love of sensuality and pleasure. You are also totally right when you point out that some (especially Lebanese Christians) have a kind of Stockholm Syndrome re: European colonialism. I have heard some of these sentiments expressed even in my own family and they make me sad. It is completely bizarre to hear some Lebanese Christians talk as if their faith (even if they are totally secular) creates a force field that keeps the "Arab" off. And they loooove to say "we aren't all like that (fill in unflattering stereotype here)". Or, as you said, deny their Arabness altogether. Its sad.

  3. Hi Joseph,

    It's always interesting to read an alternate perspective on things. I think you bring up some good points and I agree with you that we typically see Arabs portrayed as "ugly" and "crazy" people. However, I don't think a hyper-sexualized video is a positive way to counter those images. I admit that this video made me feel uneasy -- women bending over, dumping alcohol on themselves, men and women smoking, close-ups women's breasts and butts, and of course, half-naked men and women dancing in the rain.

    These sexually suggestive images are familiar to us because it's what we typically see in Western music videos. I have seen plenty of Arabic music videos as well as Bollywood music videos and it isn't hard to notice how they try to emulate western pop-singers. As we have seen with Western music videos, these kind of images are cultivated to standardize people's perceptions and attitudes towards the opposite gender (among other things). The lyrics are very problematic too: "We've got sexy girls, Arab beauty that will rock your world, loaded guys, you got to see them when they get their highs." I remember when there were protests in Lebanon against the Syrian military occupation and I saw so many comments and blog posts that read something like, "Hot Lebanese girls!" or "We need to liberate Lebanon, they're so hot!" Once, one of my White friends told me and my Lebanese friend, "dude, you guys have the best women." But what makes them "our women?" And are we cool of a sudden simply because there are hot women from where we come from? Should we just show off "our sexy girls" to break stereotypes? It just sounds very exploitative of Arab women to me.

    As you pointed out, there are Orientalist elements in here too (especially with the belly dancer and observant male hookah smoker). I wouldn't have a problem with Jad Shwery displaying a certain element of Arab culture (since you're right, there *are* Arabs like this in countries like Lebanon), but when he's saying "we," it seems like he's trying to represent all Arabs. Like you said, it's clear that he's referring to Arab Christians/Catholics, but then again, there *are* Arab Muslims who go to dance clubs, get high, drink, have sex, and so on; and there *are* Arab Christians who don't participate in these activities.

    I do understand the frustration with the way western media depicts Arabs, Persians, South Asians, and/or Muslims. I admit that when I make films about Arabs and/or Muslims, I want non-Arab/Muslim audiences to see that we *are* beautiful and attractive people. But hypersexualizing ourselves just crosses the line for me. Similar to my attitudes on Bollywood movies, I think emulating western pop-culture takes away the uniqueness of other cultures. In other words, instead of inventing their own style, they're just copying what they see in Western music videos.

    Anyway, just my 2 cents.

    ~ Jehanzeb

  4. I kinda feel you about yearning to see positive popular images of yourself and your culture presented. I also feel you on the typical, monolithic presentations of Arab-ness (<-- I think I made up a word just now, I gotta cut that shit out!) and how they obscure various diverse facets of Arab culture that are JUST as authentic, even if they are not touted as such. Finally, having spent a significant period of time in a West African Muslim country with substantial Lebanese Christian and Arab Muslim populations, I can testify that a lot of Muslim Arabs DO look down on the Lebanese and Lebanese culture as not being authentic. So it's kinda interesting and subversive to see someone be all, "I'm a sexy Arab dude, proud of my heritage and poppin' Cris at the club while I show off my chest wax - WHAAAAT!" (I like masculine bravado. It's a weakness.)

    Having said all that...sigh. You know how the food at a strip club's buffet is the nastiest, grimiest grub that only a starving person would even CONSIDER eating? I kinda feel like that about this. Self-exoticization is...well, it's kinda not good. In the absence of a happy (and healthy) medium between the Exoticized Grotesque Other and the Exoticized Desired Other, I guess it's better to be desired - since, let's face it, that whole human need to feel desirable is a hard-wired bio function and as such, IS NO JOKE.

    Well, here's to wider, more nuanced positive popular representations of modern Arab culture...and maybe less, uh, silicone.

  5. Also, um, this:

    "My step son has sent me pictures from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia of the lowered Hummers, jamming loud American gangster rap, the baggie jeans. I just wish the younger crowd in the Middle East would pick up more positive things that the West puts out. It is almost as if there is a second wave of colonialism going on where we ship the worst we have to offer instead of occupying a people."

    ::: raises eyebrows :::

    "The worst we have to offer"? Really? Please suss this out for me. Globalized Western consumer culture is one thing. Hip-hop culture is quite another. They are not the same. Conflating them is extemely problematic. So let's not, hm?

  6. @Jehanzeb
    I really appreciate your point of view on this... I don't disagree with you (or Abu Sinan) I just think we are looking at the same thing in different ways.

    Hm. totally missed that hip-hop culture = worst of the West conflation first time around. Have to think on that, although one thing that occurs to me is that Hip-Hop culture IS globalized Western consumer culture at this point. Abu Sinan, want to expand/clarify your thought in the context of the video?

    "Self-exoticization"... that is deep. Because it is always about performing yourself for the outside gaze (white/male/western/you name it)? Hm. Yes, that is definitely a fair analysis of this. Sigh, so much nasty in my sexy.

    And yes, I do know how the food at strip clubs is gross... how do you? (By the way, this is now my new favorite metaphor for anything you have to talk yourself into that comes along with the thing you think you want)

  7. You know, now that I think about it, most of imported "hip-hop" culture IS first processed through the imperialist consumer machine before it's shipped abroad. Duh. It's not raw grass, Fiqah; it's cud. (I know. Euw.) And don't worry about the nasty in your sexy. Just, you know, pick out the yucky bits. It's still perfectly good sexy, so chow down! :o) Finally...strip club food. Oh, dear.I may have inadvertantly allowed you a scary glimpse into my (sometimes) debauched life. SIGH. So much for the "good girl" front.