Video clips and the masses: 2 worlds apart

June 10, 2004 12:00 AM

It is almost impossible to find a square millimeter of contemporary Arab life where defeat has not expressed itself. By defeat I mean the sum of the native-colonial interaction in the last two centuries. Music was traditionally seen as a domain more immune of colonial redefinition and appropriation than other domains of the native culture. In one of his essays, the historian Bernard Lewis wrote, with a grin, that European costumes, architecture, bureaucracy and cuisine were adopted by the conquered societies of the Middle East, but not European music. Lord Cromer of Egypt frowned at the Egyptian's fascination with oriental music, which to him sounded monotonous and altogether meaningless. But, Cromer never spoke Arabic, had he; he would have understood that the repetitive melodies in classical Arabic and Turkish music were designed as carriers of poetry. The listener's attention is supposed to be drawn to the poetry, and he would reach ecstasy when the poem, not the melody, reaches its peak.

Throughout its 15 centuries of history, Arabic music never existed without poetry. Taqaseem, or improvisation, most commonly on instruments like the harp-like qanoun and oud, were preludes to singing a poem or part of a poem. More than one article in this series has discussed how poetry formed the Arab collective imagination. They have also discussed how the words umma (nation) and qaseeda (poem) come from the synonymous roots amm and qasad.

Singers were thus makers of identity, treated with the same respect and dignity as poets, some of the princes and even caliphs were singers; Ibrahim son of Mehdi, brother of the famous Haroun al-Rashid, was one of the craftiest singers.

Some accounts go, that as the civil war between his two nephews Amin and Maamoun was approaching its end, after Amin was defeated and before Maamoun entered Baghdad, people came to him and decided to make him a caliph. While Amin and Maamoun paid much money to form their armies, the people of Baghdad allegedly elected Ibrahim on one condition: that he sing to them.

But this is not an essay on pre-colonial Arabic music; rather it is about video clips on Arab entertainment satellite channels.

Video clips are full of half-naked, lovely women, and rich, young, handsome men driving convertibles, flirting in backgrounds of European green, or extravagant mansions. When the poor streets and the clumsy clothes are the theme, they are there as relics, folklore, or exotic eye-catcher, and the music, the choreography and the lyrics are as foreign to the background and its meaning as a Victorian orientalist is to a mosque.

Of course, the vast majority of Arab women do not look like those on television, nor do they dress, walk, talk, live or die like them. Nor do the vast majority of Arab men own those kinds of cars and mansions. The green background is something Arabs only hear about. The culture that is produced by the television is of the young Arab elite, a depoliticized, disengaged elite that seems to be coming from outer space. It could be argued that there is nothing wrong with that. After all, much of human art has been created within the domain of the elite. It is not the function of art to be expressive of or responsive to the feelings and needs of the masses.

But this argument is flawed for two reasons. First, the culture produced by this Arab elite, like everything this elite produces these days, is of an extremely low value. Second, the so-called art produced by this elite, does not belong to it. More often than not, it is a misfortunate, distorted imitation of American pop culture and secular European man-woman relations. If it is not expressive of its creator and if it is plain ugly, it is not art anymore.

The average Arab young woman living in the crammed districts of Cairo or Marrakesh would watch the guy with a convertible Porsche and a gothic mansion with great admiration and she would identify with the model he is courting, though she knows that that model is everything she is not and visa-versa.

Similarly, the Syrian or Sudanese man, sitting in a coffee shop, too poor to get married, and who might have not been able to hold a woman's hand in the street until the age of 40, would identify with the guy singing in the middle of a dozen half-naked belly dancers, but he knows he cannot ever be like him. And he will like him precisely because that handsome singer represents a socio-political system that oppresses and deprives his spectator. Seldom do the men and women watching television in the slums make the casual connection between their own poverty and the singer's extravagance. In essence, the elite's culture produced by our media performs the same colonial function of the cowboy comics given to Caribbean children, about which Franz Fanon wrote his thesis in "Black Skin and White Masks."

In glorifying the white cowboys, the comics cause the black Caribbean children to identify with a hero they can never be. Moreover, they are identifying with their colonial master and enslaver. Instead of forming and reforming identity and imagination, and redefining what beauty means, the video clips on Arab channels make Arab youth want to become what they can never be, and make them want to become an image of their colonial masters. While the masses try hopelessly to imitate the elite and become it, despite the socio-economic barriers that would insure the impossibility of that dream, the elite is hopelessly trying to imitate the American model and become it.

It is the essence of the colonial scheme to make the African want to become white but at the same time prevent him form being so. The French wanted the Algerians to embrace French culture but not enjoy French rights, the Americans would be happy to see Iraqis queuing at the doors of McDonalds and dancing to American music, but they would feel alarmed if the Iraqis demanded self-determination, the end of occupation, and real elections.

While the current television culture makes men and women want to have fancy cars and mansions, it depoliticizes their minds, and prevents them from asking questions about their misery and impotence. Many decent Arabs direct their anger against the dancers and singers as individuals. But those are insignificant creatures that make money off showing their bodies, some sort of public concubines, both males and females. They are not the disease, but the symptoms. They are tools of princes and businessmen who own star-making corporations and television channels, in producing a colonial culture that consolidates a colonial reality.

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