The Middle East Channel
The raging questions about America’s role in Iraq came to a boil earlier this year with “Arqoub’s Promise,” a controversial music video which captured public debate. Invoking Arqoub, a legendary character infamous for his unfulfilled promises, the Iraqi singer Shadha Hassoun bemoans both her affair with a U.S. soldier and the U.S. invasion of her war-torn ...
The raging questions about America’s role in Iraq came to a boil earlier this year with “Arqoub’s Promise,” a controversial music video which captured public debate. Invoking Arqoub, a legendary character infamous for his unfulfilled promises, the Iraqi singer Shadha Hassoun bemoans both her affair with a U.S. soldier and the U.S. invasion of her war-torn country. Double-entendre lyrics about love and betrayal combine with images of the singer crossing wind and sand-swept streets to end up in a poignant post-lovemaking confrontation with her lover in the back of a U.S. military truck, with a large screen playing images of military hardware, explosions and torn bodies. As the U.S. soldier walks away, the video concludes in black and white, with a street strewn with dozens of shoes — in homage to Bush shoe thrower Muntazher al-Zhaidi — and a haunting close-up of a fright-stricken baby face encircled with barbed wire. The release of the video in mid-January, 2010 set the Iraqi and Arab press ablaze: “Shadha Hassoun glorifies the occupation of Iraq!” accused one columnist; “A political or romantic message?” wondered another; “Shadha Hassoun expels occupier,” wrote a third, reflecting multiple and contrary readings of the video.
In the polemic spawned by the video, fans and critics opined and rebutted each other in mosque sermons, political speeches, op-ed pages, and social media, fuelled by rival campaigns in the March, 2010 Iraqi elections, against the backdrop of the ongoing Arab trauma over Iraq’s tragedy. Eight weeks after the video’s release, an Arabic Google search yielded more than 4000 hits, ranging from adulation on fan blogs to invective by Iraqi insurgents, showing that various publics — young and old, secular and religious, pro-and anti-U.S. — found in the video an invitation to argue and advance competing visions of Iraqi womanhood, patriotism, and identity.
“Arqoub’s Promise” epitomizes the combination of features that have made music videos so consequential in Arab public life over the past decade: sensory exuberance, symbolic richness, affective potency, social or political resonance, openness to interpretation, and heavy circulation in public discourse. Arab music videos, perhaps best known as the playground for Lebanese “pop tarts”, have evolved into a lucrative staple for a 500-channel strong pan-Arab commercial television industry, enabled by the shared Arabic language and cultural heritage. Most news and entertainment channels play music videos to fill empty time between programs, and fans access various kinds of video — commercial, patriotic, religious, institutional, propaganda — on mobile phones, YouTube and countless blogs and Facebook pages.
Arab music videos are interesting not only because of their provocative aesthetics, but also because they spotlight controversial issues and elicit wide-ranging public debates about a variety of social and political issues. More than elsewhere, in the Arab world music videos have been embroiled in long-standing culture wars focusing on the contested impact of modernity on Arab and Muslim societies. With Arab societies in the throes of intense ideological clashes, rival camps strive to recruit publics — especially young people — to their causes. Music videos are potent tools of mobilization at a time when Arab public discourse suffers from media saturation and attention scarcity: teeming with stylistic devices, some music videos cut through the larger chatter.
There are several types of Arab music videos. Commercial pop videos feature male or female stars crooning the latest Arab ballads and pop hits. Martial videos, aired by Iraqi insurgents since 2003 and by Hezbollah during the party’s 2006 war with Israel, package nationalism and religion in sounds and imagery of armed struggle. Companies self-promote through institutional music videos with social or political themes. There are also many videos showcasing Arab singers performing in English, reflecting the twin desire to broaden the music video market beyond the Arab world and to challenge Western audiences’ assumed stereotypes of Arabs.
Some videos affirm conservative social norms, but many others are socially progressive: many feature strong women challenging men in public spaces, and several depict positive gay and lesbian characters, putting music videos at the liberal vanguard of Arab public culture; women’s bodies are omnipresent, in commercial videos that feature sexy performers, in patriotic videos where women are symbols of nations, or in Islamist videos where women symbolically mark social boundaries between the permissible and the forbidden.
“America” is a recurring motif in various types of Arab music videos, some criticizing its policies in the Middle East, other celebrating its way of life or paying homage to its icons. This reflects tensions and aspirations emerging from Arab-Islamic experiences with the United States and the Western powers more broadly, resulting on the one hand in Islamist music videos that combine piety and pleasure, and on the other hand in secular videos of various kinds.
These music videos have much in common with advertisements because they always promote something, be it a music album, a social cause, or a political viewpoint. Some music videos publicize ideological struggles. But by packing numerous sounds, images and ideas in a brief audio-visual package, music videos brim with an excess of meaning, opening them to multiple, often antagonistic, interpretations. Music videos have helped express emerging national identities in post-colonial and post-Soviet countries, by promoting national unity, popularizing national symbols and myths, and showing various strategies to resist or adapt to the forces of globalization. Because they attract attention and engagement, and because they do not shy away from grappling with hot button social and political issues, Arab music videos provide a fascinating perspective on the transformation of Arab societies.
Marwan M. Kraidy is Associate Professor at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania.
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