Home / Arts & Entertainment / The Other Face of the Video Clip: Sami Yusuf and the Call for al-Fann al-Hadif

The Other Face of the Video Clip: Sami Yusuf and the Call for al-Fann al-Hadif

In the ongoing debate about Arabic music video clips that currently engulfs the cafés and newspapers of Egypt and the rest of the Arab world, one frequently comes across critics who decry the apparent lack of diversity and meaningful messages contained in this pop culture genre. According to this argument, unlike a true form of artistic expression, the video clip is divorced from political and social realities, artistically tafih (vapid) or habit (vulgar), and its only aim is the generation of profit for the producers and satellite television stations that broadcast them.

Thus, a recent, fairly typical, critique by the Egyptian political analyst Abdel-Wahab M Elmessiri entitled "Ruby and the Chequered Heart" begins with the definition, "A video clip is a short movie comprising a jingle, a dance, and a dramatic theme. A far cry from the world of song as we once knew it, it must be said at the outset, for this is all a video clip comprises."(1) Further along in the piece, in a section entitled "Outside History," the author asserts that "[t]he video clip is disassociated from current events," citing the assassination of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin as a historical moment during which "the entire nation was enraged, yet [the] video clip churned out cheerful songs as if nothing had happened."(2) The conclusion of the article unequivocally condemns the video clip as a disreputable cultural genre, with Elmessiri warning that "[t]hrough satellite stations, video clips reach into our homes, mingle with our dreams, reshape the way we see others and ourselves. Their goal is not to enlighten us or deepen our understanding of our surroundings -- it's profit. They are parasitical capitalist enterprises that compete with each other to make more money, and the end result, rather than enhancing our sense of beauty or improving our ability to appreciate the arts, is simply vulgarity and alienation -- the flesh parade."(3)

Most viewers would agree that the majority of Arabic music video clips, as Elmessiri notes, do not aim at lecturing or morally uplifting their audiences, but rather exist simply for entertainment. A point of clarification is in order, however, because although Elmessiri refers to the video clip in such sweeping terms, he is no doubt aware that a degree of diversity and recognition of social and political realities does in fact exist in the video clip genre. Numerous examples come to mind, including the commemorative videos that flooded satellite television screens after the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri and the death of Egyptian actor Ahmed Zaki. Similarly, on Mother's Day and National Orphan's Day in Egypt this year, satellite channels made a point of screening videos honoring mothers and children. During Ramadan of 2004, the sound and sight of Sami Yusuf's popular religious video clip al-Mu'allim (the Teacher) filled the airwaves. Nor are the grim and heartbreaking circumstances of the Palestinians and the Iraqis completely absent, with video clips such as Ahibbini (Love Me) from Kazem al-Saher's latest album, set against the backdrop of the 2003 war in Iraq.

Yet when Elmessiri and other critics speak of the video clip in such general terms, they and their audiences know exactly what kind of video clip they are talking about, for the term "video clip," or "porno clip" as it is sometimes referred to, has without doubt become a symbol of access via satellite television stations and the Internet to the previously inaccessible sexually explicit material that state-controlled television channels in the Middle East censored and continue to censor. During an evening seminar organized by the Cairo Opera house in April 2005 entitled "The Culture of the Video Clip" and featuring the singer Anoushka, the chairman of the Association of Egyptian Musicians Hassan Abu al-Sa'ud, and sociologist Dr. 'Azza Karim, discussion in fact revolved solely around those video clips and female artists who are widely considered to have crossed the line of public propriety and respectable artistic presentation in Egypt.(4)

In addition to the Egyptian intelligentsia of the kind present at the Opera-sponsored event, a good number of Egyptian viewers are quite sympathetic to Elmessiri's line of thinking, and it is not the intention of this article to disagree with his analysis. Rather, my aim is to juxtapose the discourse of critique surrounding the certain kind of racy video clip that Elmessiri and most critics are referring to when they make sweeping condemnations of "the video clip" as a genre, with reactions to a recent figure -- Sami Yusuf -- who successfully presents video clips that break out of the mold of "a jingle, a dance, and a dramatic theme." Through this comparative analysis, I argue that the wave of critical attacks directed against the video clip genre in recent years in fact forms part of a larger cultural debate in Egypt, and indeed in much of the Middle East and the postcolonial world, as to the proper relationship between art and society, the mass media and the nation-state, ethics and technology, the "foreign" and the "authentic." These debates are not new, but the satellite revolution in the Middle East is once again bringing these issues to the forefront of public discussion and concern.

Sami Yusuf

Sami Yusuf: Music as Message

If the video clips condemned by Elmessiri and others are consumeristic, artless, and devoid of moral and political consciousness, then Egyptian audiences and cultural establishment critics alike are embracing the video clips of the singer and composer Sami Yusuf, a British-born Muslim of Azeri origin, for their exactly opposite qualities.(5) The title track of al-Mu'allim, Yusuf's debut album of Islamic songs, was introduced to Egyptian audiences just before the beginning of Ramadan 2004 via FM radio stations and the popular satellite music video channel Melody Hits. This year, Yusuf released a less overtly religious video clip on the occasion of Mother's Day in Egypt that also met with the approval of audiences and the press, and his widespread popularity and respect earned him an invitation from the Cairo Opera House to perform as a guest artist at its annual concert of religious music held on the occasion of Mulid al-Nabi (the Prophet's birthday).

Yusuf is fast becoming one of the most popular religious singers among Muslims world-wide, and the particular reasons for his success in Egypt are many. Islamic religious singing, called inshad in Egypt, has a distinct cassette market, set of stars, and performance spaces of its own, and apart from a very few exceptions, the more recent generations of Egyptian pop singers rarely present religious material, nor do inshad singers make hip video clips. Sami Yusuf successfully bridged this gap, deliberately choosing to air his videos on mainstream Arabic satellite music channels, rather than religious satellite channels such as Iqra, in order to reach out to the youth and remind them, through music, of the relevance of the Prophetic message to their everyday lives. Similarly, stores in Cairo tend to stock his album next to pop stars like Amr Diab and Sherine, rather than in the "religious" section next to lectures of preachers and recordings of more traditional forms of inshad (6).

A trained musician but not a native Arabic speaker, Yusuf's songs blend English and Arabic lyrics with Middle Eastern rhythms and melodic themes, and his video clip al-Mu'allimjuxtaposes lyrics in praise of the Prophet Muhammad with images of a chic young photographer going about his daily life, working in his studio, behaving kindly to his mother and the people in his community, and teaching religious lessons to children. Sami Yusuf's art thus blends a religious worldview with a mainstream form of entertainment, and in doing so, Yusuf communicates a personable, accessible expression of the Islamic faith that is in harmony with the modern world and incorporated into the mundane activities of daily life. In this, more than one observer has noted his affinity with the Egyptian preacher Amr Khaled, who in fact aired Yusuf's videos on his popular show Sunnaa' al-Hayah (Life Makers).(7) Several tracks from the album, as well as an advertisement for purchasing the CD, appear on Khaled's website, and the two participated together in a joint lecture/concert in London in September 2004 entitled "An Evening of Reflection."

This collaboration is revealing, particularly in light of Khaled's views on the role of the artist in promoting cultural progress (see Amr Khaled's article on video clips in this issue). Each week on Sunnaa' al-Hayah, Khaled discusses a different aspect of social reform and encourages viewers to participate in development projects that will help bring about a nahda (revival or renaissance) in their communities, countries, and ultimately, the Islamic umma (nation) as a whole. In an episode entitled "Culture, Art, Media . . . and Making Life," Khaled called upon "gifted young artists to participate with us in the project of Sunnaa' al-Hayah, and in the project of progress. There is no rise or progress without you and your addition; your role, help and support is very important for the implementation of this progress."(8) Directly addressing the debate surrounding Arabic music television, Khaled explains that "the problem of video clips is not only the dissolute words and movements, but the biggest problem is, in fact, the import of something that has nothing to do with our own culture. The picture is Western and the voice is ours…What would the clip look like! It is useless and aimless. In this way, it is not art that will exalt the soul; it is directed to desire and impulse… this is the result of blind imitation."(9) The episode ends with the plea, "I ask all those who are with us today, please don't accept to wipe the identity of our nation, preserve our culture and our art."(10)

Sami Yusuf's own public statements indicate that he shares Khaled's faith in the power of art to both preserve core cultural identity and promote spiritual and material progress. His production company is named Awakening (another common English translation for the word nahda), and his website describes him as "a devout practicing British Muslim who sees songs as a means of promoting the message of Islam and encouraging the youth to be proud of their religion and identity."(11) In an interview with Islam Online in March 2004, Yusuf stated that "Art (whether it is music, fine art, drawing, architecture, etc.) has always played a very important role in introducing the richness and wealth of Muslim civilizations. Muslims throughout history have been the pioneers of their time and explored the secrets and mysteries of this world. Among them were art, music, philosophy, architecture, mosaics, pottery, medicine, mathematics . . . the list goes on and on. Subhan Allah (Glory be to God), this is the contribution made to world civilization at large by the great Ummah(Nation) of Mohammed (peace and blessings be upon him)."(12)

Yusuf is not without his critics, some of whom love the music but object to its airing on "profane" channels such as Melody, and others who criticize the music itself, even though Yusuf purposefully limited the use of instruments to percussion on the al-Mu'allim album so as not to alienate Muslim audiences who consider the use of wind and string instruments illegal in the eyes of Islamic law.(13) The debate over the legal status of music in the Islamic tradition is a long and complicated one, and as a brief glance at the guestbook of Sami Yusuf's webpage demonstrates, it is still alive and well.(14) Yet the majority of Muslim Egyptian critics and viewers, who do not consider listening to music as something contrary to their faith, seem to welcome Sami Yusuf's voice, lyrics, and video clip images for their inspirational religious qualities and artistic merit, as well as for going against the grain. The popular entertainment weekly 'Ain, for example, featured the singer on its front page a week before the start of Ramadan in 2004 with the headline, "Sami Yusuf's Operation Against the 'Porno Clip' Devils" (15). The corresponding article by Mohammed Faruq described Yusuf's al-Mu'allim video, irrespective of its religious content, as an 'amaliyya fida'iyya (resistance operation) against the kind of performers and songs that usually fill the screens of Arab satellite music channels. Despite his dislike of censorship, he writes, "I can't deny the role of Maria, Tina, Negla, Ruby, and Jad Choueiri in insulting art as a message and a means for promoting society's morals . . . so the coming days (of Ramadan) have become the prerogative of stars whose art has a purpose (al-fann al-hadif), wholesome songs, and Sami Yusuf!"(16) Another Egyptian admirer, Aida, posted the following note on Yusuf's website, "I love youre music I think you are such an inspiration to all muslims an u are the one who got me to put on the hijab you and amr khaled thank you so much for being a good inspiration to my life."(17)

The Video Clip and al-Fann al-Hadif (Art with a Purpose)

Sami Yusuf's admirers, like Elmessiri and other critics of the video clip, all share an understanding of the role of art as ideally ideological, uplifting, and enlightening. In other words, art ought to convey a message, have a purpose, and be of use. Using this logic, critics of video clips attack the genre because its "goal is not to enlighten us or deepen our understanding of our surroundings-it's profit" (Elmessiri); it is "useless and aimless … not art that will exalt the soul" (Khaled); and it "insult(s) art as a message and a means for promoting society's morals" (Faruq). On the other hand, Sami Yusuf's videos are "an inspiration" (Aida); a "resistance operation" (Faruq); and "a means of promoting the message of Islam and encouraging the youth to be proud of their religion and identity" (Yusuf's website).

In the post-independence era in Egypt, as in much of the Arab World, state-run mass media -- radio, television, newspapers, and subsidized cinema -- became the mouthpiece for expressing the national aspirations of progress and development that characterized the 1950s and 1960s. Artists and artistic expression played a large role in articulating and disseminating these hopes for the building of a modern Egypt.(18) Yet the political, economic, and social disappointments since that time, as well as the role of state media institutions in circumscribing information made available to the public, have led many Egyptians to feel wary and disillusioned not only of the rhetoric of progress and development but also of the mouthpiece of that discourse -- state-run media.(19) The rapid spread of satellite television in Egyptian homes and public spaces in the past few years -- in part due to the illegal subscription companies that have sprouted up in lower-income neighborhoods, as well as to the decreasing prices of the receiving technology -- is enabling a substantial portion of the Egyptian public to access programs and subject matter previously unavailable during the past half century of state-controlled television. Consequently, the resulting heyday of remote control options has opened up a Pandora's Box of questions related to censorship, viewing ethics, and the proper role and goals of the mass media. Although we lack reliable, publicly available statistics that detail viewer preferences for certain channels and programs or for satellite channel profits from sources such as advertising, viewer calls, and SMS messages, it seems clear that after years of having little choice but to watch ideologically oriented broadcasts produced by government institutions, many audience members are basking in the opportunity to entertain themselves through viewing private satellite television channel programming -- be it political, religious, or sexually explicit -- that is not sanctioned by the state.

In this regard, the current proliferation of satellite television in Egypt invites comparison with the spread of cassette tape technology in the 1970s, which allowed audiences to listen to music and religious sermons not broadcast over officially sanctioned radio or television. Then as now, Egyptian establishment critics labeled the brash new music and lyrics of certain singers, such as Ahmad Adawiyya, that did not conform to the artistic standards and modernist ideology of previous generations as "vulgar," "meaningless," and "all about making money."(20) Yet despite the invisibility of Adawiyya on state-run radio and television, he become enormously popular through the sale of cassette tapes, and as Walter Armbrust points out in his book Mass Culture and Modernism in Egypt, "It is Adawiya's frank appeal to the masses -- without any of the rhetoric of "raising their cultural standards" -- that sets him apart from singers backed by the cultural establishment in print and on television."(21) (See Walter Armbrust's article on video clips in this issue.)

Are Ruby, Maria, Jad, and others of their ilk the Adawiyas of today? Perhaps, yet as the example of Sami Yusuf demonstrates, a substantial audience exists that agrees with the critics in their call for art that does not merely entertain but that does so with a respectable purpose. The intensity of attacks on the video clip appears to be influencing the genre, and it seems that a new trend in Arabic pop music is emerging in which artists are consciously responding to these criticisms and promoting their songs as respectful of society's values, message-oriented, and more in tune with their audience's everyday social circumstances. Thus the Arabic daily Al-Hayat recently reported that the Lebanese singer Haifa Wahbi, one of the favorite targets of video clip critics, intends for her upcoming video clip "to include a 'message' that says to the audience that her songs are not necessarily without civilized content (madmun insani) and that her presence in a clip not only conveys physical arousal and seduction but the communication of a particular message."(22)

As I write in mid-April 2005, the video clip that is the talk of Cairo these days is not the latest "porno clip" from Boosy Samir but the Bouchra/Mahmoud El Esseily duet Tabat wi-Nabat (Happily Ever After), a love song that features a "family-values" oriented story of a new couple journeying through life together and raising their children. Another recent song that has sparked a good deal of interest is Haytham Sa'id's Humma Malhum Bina Ya Leel (What Have They To Do with Us?) (directed, interestingly, by Sherif Sabri, the director of Ruby's clips), whose video is the first one in recent Egyptian pop music memory to feature a chic young love interest wearing the veil. Set on the Qasr al-Nil bridge, one of Cairo's favorite spots for young lovers to stroll, the video reflects the socio-economic realities of the majority of the city's youth far more than the typical disco-theme videos that are set in fancy nightclubs, villas, or tourist resorts and feature crowds of dancing, scantily clad models.(23) The press is responding enthusiastically to these new developments, with a recent issue of 'Ain, for example, publishing an article entitled "The CVs of Respectable Video Clip Singers."(24) As the novelty of racy material aired on satellite music channels fades, observers of the cultural politics of the video clip might very well witness in the coming months a new trajectory in Arabic pop music towards al-fann al-hadif.


1. Elmessiri, Abdel-Wahab M. “Ruby and the chequered heart.” Al-Ahram Weekly, 17-23 March 2005. http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/2005/734/feature.htm. Originally published in Arabic in the Egyptian government daily Al-Ahram, the article was translated for publication in the English Al-Ahram Weekly, from which this quote is taken.
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid.
4. Critics of the video clip almost always focus on the bodies of female, rather than male, entertainers. Readers interested in a historical and anthropological perspective on the gendered nature of the discourse surrounding performers in Egypt are referred to Karin van Nieuwkerk’s book A Trade Like Any Other: Female Singers and Dancers in Egypt, published by the University of Texas Press in 1995. 
5. For readers interested in further information in English on Sami Yusuf, Al Ahram Weeklypublished an article on the singer by Dena Rashed in the November 4-10 2004 edition of the paper (http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/2004/715/feature.htm). Yusuf’s own official website is http://www.samiyusuf.com. 
6. This information was shared with me by Sharif Hasan Al-Banna, one of Sami Yusuf’s team of producers at the Awakening company, during an interview in Cairo on April 12, 2005.
7. See for example, Dena Rashed’s article mentioned in note 5, as well as Lindsay Wise’s article, “Amr Khaled: Broadcasting the Nahda,” from the Fall/Winter 2004 issue of TBS (TBS 13). Amr Khaled’s own official website is http://www.amrkhaled.net. 
8. The Arabic recordings of these lectures are posted on Amr Khaled’s website, along with translations into English and several other languages. The website for the English translation of this particular episode of the Sunna’ al-Hayah program, from which this quote is taken, is http://www.amrkhaled.net/articles/articles406.html. 
9. Ibid.
10. Ibid.
11. http://www.samiyusuf.com/biog/index.htm
12. Elsaman, Soha. “Sami Yusuf: Breaking the Shackles of Bigotry Through Inshad.” Islam Online, March 16, 2004.http://www.islamonline.net/English/ArtCulture/2004/03/article07.shtml
13. According to al-Banna, Yusuf is planning to release two versions of his upcoming album, one of which will include orchestral instruments, while the other will utilize only voice and percussion in order to meet the listening needs of multiple audiences.
14. An excellent summary of this debate is found in the third chapter, “The Sama’ Polemic,” of Kristina Nelson’s book The Art of Reciting the Qur’an, published by the American University in Cairo Press in 2001. An example of an entry that speaks directly to this debate includes Asmaa from Morocco, who posted the following comment in the guestbook on April 7, 2005, “we like you so much you have a great voice but do you know the opinion of islam about music?” Entry #13032, http://www.samiyusuf.com/guestbook/guestbook.php
15. ‘Ain, October 7, 2004, no.65. 
16. Faruq, Muhammad. “‘Amaliyyat Sami Yusuf didd najamat al-burnu klib.” ‘Ain, October 7, 2004, no.65. All of the singers (Maria, Tina, etc.) mentioned here are frequently invoked by critics of the video clip as examples of dissolute and vulgar performers. The translation into English is my own.
17. Aida Arafat, April 8, 2005, #13098, http://www.samiyusuf.com/guestbook/guestbook.php. 
18. For a discussion of the role of one artist, Umm Kulthum, the most widely acclaimed Egyptian and Arab singer of the 20th century, in symbolizing nationalist aspirations and supporting its causes, see Virginia Danielson’s book The Voice of Egypt: Umm Kulthum, Arabic song, and Egyptian society in the twentieth century, published by the University of Chicago Press in 1997.
19. One example of an article on satellite television than contains this line of thinking is Yasir Abdel Hafez’s piece “Sariq Al-Ka’aba” (“The Thief of Dejection”) in the September 2004 edition of the monthly Egyptian magazine Sutur.
20. Armbrust, Walter. Mass Culture and Modernism in Egypt. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996. In particular, see Chapter 7, “Vulgarity.”
21. Ibid, p. 184.
22. “Haifa Wahbi Sahibat Qadiya.” Al-Hayat, April 6, 2004. http://www.daralhayat.com/culture/ music/04-2005/Item-20050405-137da42c-c0a8-10ed-0045-60cf730bef75/story.html. The translation is my own.
23. Not everyone is enthusiastic about this video. During my conversion with al-Banna, he mentioned that Egyptian friends of his wondered if the video’s producers were attempting to capitalize on Sami Yusuf’s success at attracting mainstream audiences with Muslim themes by exploiting the figure of the veiled young woman. These young men objected to what they viewed as the video’s commodification of the veil and its trivial use to attract viewers despite the lack of any religious message or content in the song, whose lyrics and melody resemble those of any number of romantic video clips.
24. Al-‘Ishsh, Abd al-Hamid. “CV mutribi al-Kilibat al-Muhtarama.” ‘Ain, April 14, 2005, no. 92.

About Patricia Kubala

Patricia Kubala is a graduate student in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She currently lives in Cairo, where she is studying Arabic at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad and conducting research for her master's thesis on the public debate in Egypt surrounding Arabic music video clips. She may be reached at pkubala@umail.ucsb.edu.

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