Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Pop culture and the Middle East

I was last in Turkey during the winter of 1997, visiting Istanbul for the first time in nearly fifteen years: it was immediately evident that the metropolis had radically changed. In the early 1980s, the city was under martial law and a nightly curfew; summers in the old city were sleepy, with few tourists and little economic activity. Taxicabs and dolmuş—vintage American automobiles from the late 1940s and early 1950s—would ride on unpaved roads, and residents from the countryside would make their way into the city during the day to sell vegetables or shine shoes. Every place of business would feature a framed photograph of Kemal Atatürk, the father of modern Turkey—Atatürk westernized the country after its defeat in the Great War, elevating Western culture by permitting women to work, mandating business hours to a Monday-through-Friday schedule, banishing Arabic script in favor of Roman, and banning the fez; grainy black-and-white film of the great leader would run in the evenings on the single state-run television channel.

But, at the threshold of the 21st century, Istanbul was resolutely European: there was a tram running down the center of Divan Yolu, the main drag of Sultanahmet, the oldest (and most touristic) part of the city. Satellite television was piped in to the tea shops, the pudding shops, and the lokantas; music videos in Turkish were now broadcast over several channels (look! the Turkish Madonna! the Turkish Jewel!) as well as other Platonic genres: talk shows (the Turkish Regis and Kathy Lee!). Girls at Taksim Square wore miniskirts, and there were bars and art galleries that wouldn't look out of place in Manhattan.

Star Academy 2 logo

Abdel Rahman
Abdel Rahman

So it’s kind of surprising that we don't hear much about pop culture in the Middle East, especially at this juncture: the war in Iraq has piqued public interest, and satellite television and the internet is conspiring towards rapid change in the region, even faster than in our own hyper-consumptive culture. Apart from two serious pieces in fairly marginal journals—more on these in a moment—the first mention of the Lebanon Broadcasting Corporation's “Star Academy,” an Arab version of the tremendously popular “American Idol,” appeared in the news two weeks ago when Abdel Rahman, the Saudi winner of the just-completed second season, was detained after arguing with Saudi Arabia's religious police: young men and women converged on the 24-year-old in the Riyadh’s Kingdom Tower Mall, shaking his hand and offering “congratulatory kisses.” This negative story, highlighting the country's conservative nature over the popular sway of the show is unfortunate: suggestive video “clips” (i.e., music videos) and reality television, rather than armed force, seem poised to nudge the underdeveloped Middle Eastern political economy towards first world status.

(From Hussein Chalayan's fall 1998
ready-to-wear collection.)

I've gathered up some scraps that I couldn’t find a place for—including the “Star Academy” links and fashion by Turkish Cypriot Hussein Chalayan (as well as several Iranian designers)—and knitted them with “Cultural Theory,” a recent online-only article by Joseph Braude at TNR (subscription required, alas, but well worth it), as well Charles Paul Freund's “Look Who’s Rocking the Casbah” (2003) published in Reason. The result is a picture of Turkish, Arab, Iranian, and Maghreb culture that suggests something interesting is going on in the Islamic world that is little noticed in the West.


Braude opens up his piece with the rumors—apparently false—of the entry of Egyptian vocalist Amr Diab (he of the duet with JLo) into electoral politics. The rumor, however, is powerful enough to animate the fantasies of the under-thirty demographic, who have incorporated a Western-style fashioning of identity based, in part, on entertainment, musical style, and sport: Iranians learn about fashion and music at websites like Bodazey, and young Arabs chat at Waleg. Poking around is instructive, too: a penetrating question [in clumsy English, but one gets the idea] posed at Waleg asks, “Do we have to be either with 100% Bin Laden or 100% ‘Star Academy’?”

Star Academy 2 logo
Nancy Ajram
Williams College associate professor Mark Lynch (AKA Abu Aardvark) tracks the phenomenon, which he has dubbed the Nancy-Haifa Culture Wars, after two curvaceous Lebanese singers and video-clip stars; Braude observes that, in contrast to repression in the Nasser years, “Arab governments are either ill-equipped to suppress the medium or simply have too many other things to worry about.”

Of course, as indicated by the Riyadh incident, there is no easy place for secular impulses in contemporary Islamic culture, but there is certainly a yearning; young adults are comfortable with the coexistence of religion and secular entertainment, particularly in those parts of the Middle East that are more affluent and have a history of exposure to the West (hence, the relatively progressive character of Lebanon, with its Christian heritage; Turkey, with its longstanding Western orientation; and Iran, with its exposure under the Shah's regime). But the scantily-clad singers’ videos are broadcast in the mainstream media, and endlessly deconstructed: Haifa Wehbe (also Lebanese) is said to be dominating male superstar Raghib Alama; satellite television's sexy singers are said to captivate the eyes and enthrall the minds of Arab viewers.

(From Hussein Chalayan's fall 1998 ready-to-wear collection.)

(It’s not that the working classes are even aware of, say, Chalayan's sacrilegious shock of nudity conflated with religion, but the middle classes are familiar with the secular culture, much as the creative classes in the West are.) Interestingly, there is evidence that a contributing reason for the story’s reduced profile is middle-class shame on both sides of the fence: ambivalence for responding to low culture in the Islamic world, and mixed feelings regarding the power of entertainment [such as reality TV] in the West, too.


I'll close with a quote from the Freund piece, one that is reproduced in Braude’s conclusion as well, after he notes that a succession of political and religious ideals have failed to staunch the prevailing turmoil and malaise in the Middle East:

These all have failed, sometimes disastrously. What may yet work in the region is what has worked elsewhere for centuries: commercialism that does not transmit a regime’s utopian dreams but addresses the personal dreams of the audience.

Postscript: Tolo has infiltrated Afghanistan and is catching flack from its Islamic scholars, according to the Christian Science Monitor, from a piece by Ben Arnoldy,

Tolo has already drawn significant criticism for airing Indian music videos and Western films, as well as presenting shows with young hipsters who wear baseball caps sideways, talk and laugh freely with the opposite sex, and otherwise break the mold of stiff public propriety here.

[cws::10 May]

More: From the kindred and scholarly Mr. John K. at J's Theater: "The Young Moroccans," an amazing picture, with a short discussion plus links, from a Christian rock concert in Morocco. [cws::10 May]

Even more: From a piece in Saturday's New York Times, a story of Laleh Seddigh, a young woman who won the national auto racing championship in March. "'I like competition in everything,' the striking 28-year-old said after parking the car and going for tiramisù in a cafe in North Tehran." [cws::17 May]


Blogger John K said...

What an amazing run-through of this topic! My colleague Brian Edwards at Northwestern University is conducting interesting research on the nexus of Maghrebi/North African and American pop culture.

2:10 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i am glad that chalayan has made a stand for women's rights ! - Women all around the world, of all religions should have the same rights as men and each other.

4:17 PM  

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