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Video Venom Must Stop!

Juha once remarked, as he sat on the beach and looked at the incoming waves, "There are more coming in than there are going out."

Critics of Arabic music video clips may wish to ponder this wisdom and bow to the inevitable, since their efforts to stem the tide are sure to fail. Indeed, a historical perspective on such matters reveals that their criticism is not only pointless but banal: everywhere and always the older generations have grumbled about the tastes of the young in music (and clothes, hairstyles, etc., etc.) and in much the same terms, grousing that it all sounds the same, that the words don't mean anything, and that there's too much sex. In the West, it was the walz (a shameful pandering to the illicit desire to embrace while dancing); in Egypt, even Umm Kalthum was attacked, at the beginning of her career, for "immorality."

And then there's class. The Egyptian bourgeoisie, in all its bedizened Louis Farouk glory, has never achieved a sufficient degree of self-knowledge to question its assumption that it is Egypt's cultural gatekeeper and blithely dispenses accusations of "vulgarity" against whatever the majority of Egyptians actually enjoy. Who else would have the sublime self-confidence to label the entire Egyptian baladi musical output from Adawiya to Shaaban Abd El Rahim as habta (vulgar)? Who else would sneer at Shaaban for his lack of education while failing to notice that the ironic ironer articulates the views of most Egyptians better than they do? Who else would be so out of step with their own society as to thunder against Ruby at the very time when young Egyptians see her as one of the two "most interesting people" in their country (see Ruby: Making of a Star in this issue)?

Just for a moment, however, let's pretend we are not dealing here with the age-old song of the grinches, and look at their arguments.

First, the blanket categorization of video clips as a single undifferentiated phenomenon (semi-naked women gyrating to music). A quick surf of the channels should serve to dismiss this as fantasy. In fact, what must strike the fair-minded is the diversity of content and form of modern Arabic popular music. Leaving aside the fact that there are at least as many male singers (none in a state of undress) as females, video clips cover a gamut of themes and emotions, arguably more so in fact than their Western equivalents. Of course there's a lot about love, but not all of even that is "sultry" or "steamy." As of my last private survey, soulful romance, lost love, and ethereal adolescent longing account for at least 90 percent of all songs, but there are celebrations of wedded bliss, of home life, of children, and of motherhood too. Nor do video clips duck the big issues. Shaaban has taken to politics and, of course, there's Sami Yousef and the sugar-coated joys of religious balladry -- not an inch of bare flesh there (see also in this issue The Other Face of the Video Clip: Sami Yusuf and the Call for al-Fann al-Hadif).

And where do the critics get off asserting that "the music all sounds the same"? Can't they tell the difference between Egyptian, Lebanese, and Gulfi pop music, not to mention Algerian rai, and the odd Bollywood-style extravaganza from India? And to stick just to Egypt, does Sherine's spunky quasi-traditional sound really seem to them like Amr Diyab's smoothly crafted pop? Or Shaaban's funky baladisme like either of those? Does Abdallah Bal Kheir and his troop of goofy Fujairan bag-pipe players sound even remotely like Abbas Ibrahim and his Saudi cellists? Or . . . I rest my case.

And even if we stick to clips that feature young pretty singers (and since when was it a sin to be young and pretty?) by what Alzheimer-style aberration of obliviousness can they lump Nancy Agram - to mention only the most obvious case -- in with others? This is serious cultural sabotage. Nancy Agram is obviously the best thing to happen to Arab popular culture since shawerma. Consider the following. In Akhasmak ah and Ah wi-nuss, Nancy makes fun of po-faced machismo-ridden men-whom she leaves punching one another or falling off their bikes in their hard-breathing pursuit of a pretty face. In Ma-adri keef, Nancy is a working girl (at a hairdresser's) who falls in love with a young hunk who (get this) makes his living digging trenches and clearly does not and never will own a sports car. She then tells her mother, who instead of slapping her across the face with a dish towel and sending her to her room for thirty years, rolls her eyes in affectionate exasperation and leaves her to lark around the living room with her kid sister (lots of family values here). Back at the hairdresser's, Nancy shares her bubbling enthusiasm with her buddy, who's gay and -- for a wonder -- not a figure of fun; and finally mother and buddy make it all come right for her. The next video shows her getting married to her heart throb. So much for those who say that video clips condone immorality (and they can make what they will of the fact that the gay guy catches the bridal bouquet). Nancy, in short, is funny, intelligent, and -- with a light touch -- subversive; which, no doubt, is the real reason why our self-appointed moral guardians don't like her. And, throughout, she makes more use of persona than of body parts.

That's leaves us with Ruby, Haifa, and all the other ingénues. So they waggle their butts and busts -- so what? What is belly dancing -- Egypt's national dance -- if not butt-and-bust-waggling, and of an overtly erotic kind? From the outset of the film industry, the belly dance scene has been a fixture of the Egyptian mass entertainment movie, and people watched Samia Gamal and her ilk for exactly the same reasons they watch Ruby. If you object to the "reification of the female body" bury your fangs in the last eighty years of Egyptian film-making as well, not just the last couple of years of video clips.

In addition, there is a curious and seemingly willful blindness at work among the critics that makes them talk as though only (slavering, lecherous, libidinous) men enjoy watching Ruby and friends, a supposition as unlikely as claiming that only men enjoy belly dancing, and quickly disproved by taking a look at the adoring female fans in Ruby's concert videos. If all it is about is catering to men's vile instincts, what are the girls doing there?

Finally, these same critics illogically assume that, while on the one hand these songs are welcomed by all those drooling males, someone at the same time is imposing them on a helpless public, which is the victim of a campaign to undermine its morals and integrate it, against its will, into the terrible grinder of cultural globalization. The opposite is in fact the case. Egyptians (and Lebanese and Moroccans and Jordanians, etc.) actively participate in their fate by making song requests, sending SMS messages, purchasing mobile phone ring tones and video images, and contacting the channels and demanding to hear and see them. Clearly the public is complicit in this plan for its own destruction, and if the artist is to be blamed, then everyone else should be too. Better in the end that the critics climb down from their high horses and acknowledge that if they find these productions vulgar, one man's (or woman's) sleaziness is another's high art, and the only credentials anyone carries as a cultural arbiter are the ones they award themselves.

In the end, of course, it's all a lot of fuss over nothing. The anti-clip lobby's fears of cultural hegemony are, according the best-accepted research, wildly exaggerated. Like Chinese whispers, what comes out of one society ends up as something very different when it's been processed by another. Egyptian audiences are as likely to interpret Dallas as a celebration of the paternalistic family as they are to see in it a condemnation of materialism. People take what they need from what they see and leave what they don't and they don't change their behavior in response to a single stimulus, especially when it comes from a box rather than another human being.

So relax, old fogies, the sky isn't going to fall (or if it does, it won't be because of Ruby).

About Humphrey Davies

Humphrey Davies is TBS managing editor.

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