Friday, January 29, 2010

Shereen El Feki: Pop culture in the Arab world

My colleague Hazem Azmy forwarded the link to this video of a short talk by Shereen El Feki on "Pop culture in the Arab world". Although she seems to be concentrating primarily on the Islamic Arab world... Arab Christians only appear in her talk as a too-sexy pop-culture counter-example, something I am still thinking about (I am a Maronite Catholic and, in my particularly Mediterranean brand of Christianity there nothing wrong with a hot Lebanese Pin-up girl) But of course I understand the potential Islamic objections to this sort of entertainment and perhaps the need for alternatives.

So, for me at least, there are more questions here that need to be unpacked... especially in terms of the way that religious paradigms shape cultural expressions. But I really love her point about the "mesh 0f civilizations", which is a much more realistic description of the way culture actually flows back and forth irrespective of national borders, religious proscriptions and/or political expediencies. I wish she'd included a historical element to this point, especially since Arab and Islamic innovation, which bled into Europe through trade helped pull Europe out of its Dark Ages...

I have included the transcript below.


"Hello everyone. Because this is my first time at TED, I've decided to bring along an old friend to help break the ice a bit. Yes. That's right. This is Barbie. She's 50 years old. And she's looking as young as ever. (Laughter) But I'd also like to introduce you to what may be an unfamiliar face. This is Fulla. Fulla is the Arab world's answer to Barbie. Now, according the proponents of the clash of civilizations, both Barbie and Fulla occupy these completely separate spheres. They have different interests. They have divergent values. And should they ever come in contact ... well, I've got to tell you, it's just not going to be pretty. My experience however, in the Islamic world is very different. Where I work, in the Arab region, people are busy taking up Western innovations and changing them into things which are neither conventionally Western, nor are they traditionally Islamic. I want to show you two examples. The first is 4Shbab. It means "for youth" and it's a new Arab TV channel.

(Video): Video clips from across the globe. The USA. ♫ I am not afraid to stand alone ♫ ♫ I am not afraid to stand alone, if Allah is by my side ♫ ♫ I am not afraid to stand alone ♫ ♫ Everything will be all right ♫ ♫ I am not afraid to stand alone ♫ The Arab world. (Music) ♫ (Urdu) ♫

Shereen El Feki: 4Shbab has been dubbed Islamic MTV. Its creator, who is an Egyptian TV producer called Ahmed Abou Haïba, wants young people to be inspired by Islam to lead better lives. He reckons the best way to get that message across is to use the enormously popular medium of music videos. 4Shbab was set up as an alternative to existing Arab music channels. And they look something like this.

(Music Video featuring sexy girl writhing)

That, by the way is Haifa Wehbe. She's a Lebanese pop star and pan-Arab pin-up girl. In the world of 4Shbab, it's not about bump and grind. But it's not about fire and brimstone either. It's videos are intended to show a kinder, gentler face of Islam, for young people to deal with life's challenges. Now, my second example is for a slightly younger crowd. And it's called "The 99." Now, these are the world's first Islamic superheros. They were created by a Kuwaiti psychologist called Nayef Al Mutawa. And his desire is to rescue Islam from images of intolerance, all in a child-friendly format. "The 99," the characters are meant to embody the 99 attributes of Allah, justice, wisdom, mercy, among others. So, for example, there is the character of Noora. She is meant to have the power to look inside people and see the good and bad in everyone. Another character called Jami has the ability to create fantastic inventions. Now, "The 99" is not just a comic book. It's now a theme park. There is an animated series in the works. And by this time next year the likes of Superman and Wonder Woman will have joined forces with "The 99" to beat injustice wherever they find it. "The 99" and 4Shbab are just two of many examples of this sort of Islamic cross-cultural hybridization. We're not talking here about a clash of civilizations. Nor is it some sort of indistinguishable mash. I like to think of it as a mesh of civilizations, in which the strands of different cultures are intertwined (emphasis mine).

Now, while 4Shbab and "The 99" may look new and shiny, there is actually a very long tradition of this. Throughout its history has borrowed and adapted from other civilizations both ancient and modern. After all it's the Quran which encourages us to do this. "We made you into nations and tribes so that you could learn from one another." And to my mind, those are pretty wise words, no matter what your creed. Thank you. (Applause)"

"Shereen El Feki is based in Cairo, where she works on issues related to health and social welfare in the Arab region. Half-Egyptian, half-Welsh, Shereen was brought up in Canada. She started her professional life in medical science, with a PhD in molecular immunology from the University of Cambridge, and later worked as Healthcare Correspondent at The Economist magazine.

In recent years, Shereen has re-oriented her career towards the Arab world. While she has worked in regional media, as a presenter with the Al Jazeera Network, and continues to write on social issues in the Arab world, her passion lies in the many projects in which she is involved which aim to better understand, and surmount, the social challenges facing Arabs, particularly young people."

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