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.