In quantitative terms one could say that video clips dominate Arab satellite television. At any given time as many as a fifth of the free-to-air channels on Nilesat may be broadcasting video clips. Other programming categories that preoccupy observers of Arab satellite television -- specifically news, religion, and dramatic serials -- are broadcast by fewer specialized channels, and probably receive a smaller proportion of airtime on variety channels.(1) But the ubiquity of video clips may overstate their popularity. Video clips are free content in an economically troubled business, paid for substantially not by the networks that broadcast them, but by mobile phone service providers and music producers. Mobile phone service companies underwrite the production of video clips because the text messages flowing constantly on the margins of the screen during songs advertise their business, and because of selling ring tones. The same goes for music producers -- video clips advertise cassettes and CDs, and they create stars who can command high fees for live performance. Because video clips are quasi-advertising for a limited set of businesses rather than a simple response to demand, their conspicuous presence among the free-to-air satellite channels is an unreliable gauge of how many people watch them.
But while the size of the audience is in question, it cannot be denied that they are a significant component of satellite broadcasting in the Arab world. The music at least must be popular. If it was not, the mobile phone service providers and music producers would surely not go on producing video clips. This type of music is both commodity and culture, and must therefore be understood as both. However, the commercialism of video clips is so much a part of the art form that to look at one side of the phenomenon without acknowledging the other defies both common sense and critical sense. The intrinsic commercialism of videos inevitably invites scorn from cultural gatekeepers, who almost uniformly condemn them for lack of artistic merit.
Everything You Wanted to Know about Sex
Other factors shape attitudes about video clips. One is that the video clip is an art form that revolves around sex. There are exceptions to this rule, and some of them are important. Nonetheless, those who condemn video clips do so on the grounds that they feature excessive display of women's bodies, in a narrative or lyric structure that they take as an invitation to break social conventions that prohibit sex outside of marriage. Worse, video clips seem to sell unsanctioned sexual behavior. That they give a whiff of salesmanship is unsurprising. Video clips are, after all, quasi-advertisements for mobile phones and recorded music. Sex and advertising go together like spaghetti and tomato sauce. Selling with sex is as predictable and common in the Arab world as it is in France.
Nor is it new. For example, a 1926 cover of the Egyptian magazine al-Fukaharevels in sex (Figure 1). It shows an ink drawing of two couples who appear to be three sheets to the wind at a party, dancing on their hands. The caption says, "The future of the fine arts: dancing on the hands after the legs get tired." One couple is modern and chic; the other is more homely, and the man is a caricatured African drawn in golliwog style. The image foreshadows some of the conventions of the video clip and other forms of audiovisual culture that were still in the future in the 1920s. One is simply selling the product through sexualized imagery. Sexy women sold the magazine, just as the sexy women in video clips now sell music and ring tones. The appeal of sex could be made more directly, as a cigarette advertisement from a 1933 of the magazine al-Sarih shows (Figure 2). It sells Amun Cigarettes with a drawing of a topless dark-skinned but European-looking woman wearing an evening gown (below her exposed breasts). Breasts sold cigarettes, or so the Amun company hoped. In the case of the Fukaha image the operative principle is literally to sell the book itself (or magazine) by its cover. The publisher encouraged just the opposite of the saying "Don't buy a book for its cover." The maxim made no sense before books were mass marketed in the print age, and the same principle applies to other new media. Music and ring tones are sold in video clips "for their cover."
Another premonition of the video clip suggested by the Fukaha cover depicting drunken dancers doing handstands is the rather ambiguous appearance of one of the women. In the foreground of the drawing we see a European-looking woman in a flapper dress (which the law of gravity dictates ought to be falling off). Or is she meant to be Egyptian? Perhaps she is. On another front cover from the same period (Figure 3) a lecherous hairdresser addresses a European-looking customer, again in flapper dress and with a shocking expanse of leg exposed, murmuring in her ear: "Cutting your hair won't tire me out even if I stand doing it for an hour. If only you had a beard!" But though the sexy customer dresses like a flapper, shows leg and décolleté like a European, and appears to be quite unconcerned at the hairdresser's improper advances, we know she is Egyptian. She is drawn on the cover of al-Fukaha sitting in the hairdresser's chair reading none other than al-Fukaha, which she could only do if she were Egyptian, or at least Arabic-speaking.
Anyone who has watched Arabic-language films or television can confirm that the same convention transfers across different forms of mass media. The salience of actresses and models who sport a carefully cultivated European look is so marked that one cannot help noticing those who do not fit the pattern. Roughly the same is true of men. Of course roles in film or television often call for much more localized imagery -- not every character in a film or musalsal can be shown dressing like a European. But almost without exception, the persona of stars elaborated through secondary media (magazines, television interviews, public appearances), as opposed to roles in films or television serials, is European. The convention of favoring European looks -- in clothes, hair style, and to some extent skin color -- extends seamlessly into the video clip. Consider, for example, Maysam Nahas. Nahas is no superstar, but she does typify much of the rhetoric on video clips. She is a Lebanese singer who appeared two or three years ago as a sultry blond in a video clip titled Kull al-Shawq (All Desire -- Figure 4). The clip is both narrative and lyrical. The narrative part is simple: it is about a lover's quarrel. They break up in the beginning, and get back together in the end. Visually it is about men desiring the singer. The video could easily be labelled a "porno-clip," as Egyptian detractors of the genre sometimes call the video songs they object to most strenuously. Kull al-Shawq even hints at some borrowing from the pornography genre. (Figure 5) The camera certainly focuses on body parts fetishistically. At one point, she drinks from an open faucet, bending over, camera lingering on the breasts a moment, luscious lips drinking the water. She raises her head and a drop rolls suggestively down her neck, while a group of voyeuristic men look on.
However, the salience of sexualized European looks as an ideal of female beauty occurs in every decade from al-Fukaha in the 1920s to Maysam Nahas in the 2000s. But while the prominence of European appearance has been a stable convention in mass mediated visual culture, it is nonetheless one of the aspects of video clips that draws scrutiny and invites comment. Of course the availability of visual mass media -- illustrated magazines, films, television -- is historically uneven. Cairenes had access to these visual conventions since the 1920s; Yemeni tribesmen may have only encountered them in recent decades with the advent of television and labor migration to more cosmopolitan parts of the Arab world and beyond. Nonetheless those who promote the notion that such images are new and potentially disturbing implicate the entire Arab world -- urban Cairo as much as an isolated village in the Yemeni highlands. In the end it may be the idea of novelty rather than novelty itself that invites attention. In one sequence of Maysam Nahas's All Desire video, she is ogled in the street by a crowd of relatively dark men (she ends the video in the arms of a blond lover). (Figure 6) The gist of it is identical to another al-Fukaha cover from the 1920s, in which men on a tram are astonished to see a woman exposing her legs. They sit on one side of the tram so that they can all get a good look at the woman, who sits alone on the other side. The conductor enters, saying, "Why all this crowding? They're all one lot over there, and she's another lot all by herself!" Plus ça change, one might say. The men on the tram and the men ogling Maysam Nahas are cut from the same cloth. But of course things do change. The point is that it pays to bear in mind that novelty in "new media" must be held to a high standard. Video clips may be more remarkable for their brute accessibility compared to previous "new media," for the ways people consume them, and for the places in which they consume them, than for the nature of their content. And yet whether or not one likes them or respects them as an art form, the ways they create meaning must also be taken seriously if one wants to understand them.
This Brings Us to Youth
One might expect opposition by cultural conservatives to the use of sex as a marketing tool in any society. In the Arab world, this opposition is shaped by the fact that video clips are made for youths. Though we may not have precise quantitative data on viewing habits, this we can be sure of. Everyone knows it. From the style of the music, the text messages constantly flashing across the screen, and the age of the performers, video clips scream "youth." As a category, youth is quintessentially modern. It exists because mass education creates a stage in life between childhood and adulthood. Without mass education, the boundary between children and adults would be marked by marriage. Since transition to sexual maturity takes place during the years of education -- the defining feature of youth in a modern society -- school years are a potentially uncomfortable stage in life. This is a generic feature of all societies with mass education, but it is a particularly acute problem when marriage is the only sanctioned outlet for sexual behaviour, as is the case in Arab society.
There are all sorts of strategies for controlling youth. School, of course, is the main "work" of youth and hence the primary means of structuring their lives. For the increasing number students who do not work after school hours in family trades, agriculture, or businesses, various extracurricular activities have been devised over the years to structure the "free time" of youth -- scouting (once a significant movement in many parts of the Middle East, and much emulated organizationally by more politically minded movements) and sports for example. But the problem of leisure remains. Arab society gives almost no social sanction to sex for unmarried youths, particularly girls and young women. This is the reason that the insistent marketing of products through sex is the primary lens through which video clips are viewed -- it rubs salt in a particularly sore spot. Consequently, the dominant attitude expressed toward video clips in public is hostility or scorn. Even the youthful patrons of video clips are often inclined to mirror the dominant hostility. Survey research on attitudes toward video clips rarely capture the ambivalence of opinions, because to state an opinion openly requires respondents to make choices about how to position themselves vis-à-vis patriarchal values. Furthermore, depending on the respondents' class background, people almost everywhere disavow an interest in television to the degree that they want to be associated with elite taste. Consequently, surveys tend to show that youths are as sceptical about video clips as their elders, inevitably leading to the conclusion that whoever likes video clips, it is not these youths (i.e., whichever ones were asked the survey questions). And yet the music industry and mobile phone companies go on churning out new video clips at a furious pace.
The oblique nature of video clip fandom came home more forcefully with my first encounter with Nancy Ajram, who is one of the dominant stars in the video clip business. On the first night of Ramadan of 2003 (1424 A.H.), I attended an iftar at the home of a family in Cairo I had known for almost two decades. After the meal, the television came on, as it almost always does, and the first program my friends tuned in was a nightly televised popular music concert. The first singer presented in the program was none other than Nancy Ajram, who appeared singing on top of an open bus by a seashore. She was wearing leather trousers and a skin-tight tube shirt. Her movements, her song, and her interviews between numbers all proclaimed sex. But I had not followed Arab popular music during several years of an overworked first teaching job, and had never heard of Nancy Ajram. When I asked who she was, the 22 year-old daughter of the family, who I had known since she was five, was incredulous: "You've never heard of Nancy Ajram?" With unfeigned enthusiasm she told me the Nancy Ajram story. She was Lebanese. She began singing at the age of eight. She started off singing in children's contests until she broke into the big time, and now she was the biggest star in the whole Arab world. And here she was singing on top of a bus in leather trousers and a tube top, as my muhaggaba (veiled) interlocutor who lived in a lower-middle-class neighborhood dominated culturally by Islamists told me in no uncertain terms that I was an idiot for not knowing who Nancy Ajram was. This young woman bore all the signs of social conservatism. And she is socially conservative. Despite her obvious enthusiasm for Nancy Ajram, and extensive knowledge of the singer's biography, it took nothing to get her to switch into the register of social disapproval. One moment a fan; the next moment an opponent.
Hostility to video clips is ubiquitous. As Palestinian poet Tamim Barghouti put it, "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." For him, video clips are a form of cultural imperialism:
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.(2)
English professor and cultural critic Abdel-Wahab M. Elmessiri focuses more directly on the capacity for video clips to undermine the foundations of patriarchal society:
Critics of the video clip, I've noticed, tend to focus on the partial nudity it makes available, the erotic, like-this suggestiveness. And I would agree with them if not for other concerns of my own -- the effect on society and the family.… By focussing on carnal pleasure in a social setup that makes marriage increasingly difficult as a practical course of action, the video clip contributes to a libidinal voracity we could well do without.(3)
These are normative positions in the press and in most public discussions of video clips. In this formulation, video clips are a form of Western cultural hegemony that "make Arab youth want to become what they can never be," and they undermine patriarchal society through the marketing of sex, which "makes marriage increasingly difficult as a practical course of action." One has to search fairly hard for a contrarian position. In fact, one has to go outside the Arab world.
If there is an alternative to the video-clip-as-cultural-threat position, it may be a "video-clip-as-discourse-of-liberation" argument. If one were to do an ethnography of the video clip, one would surely want to ask video-clip producers if this is what they see themselves as doing. I have not done video-clip ethnography, so I can shed no light on the matter. I do know that I would be surprised to hear the argument made very insistently in the public sphere outside of the video-clip industry. Barghouti and Elmessiri's views are very common (though of course expressed in different forms and degrees of sophistication).
But Arab video clips have been championed outside the Arab world. Charles Paul Freund, a senior editor of Reason magazine (4), argues vociferously that "there is a revolution going on in Arab popular music," and that the political implications of this revolution are huge:
What this low, "vulgar" genre is offering, in sum, is a glimpse of a latent Arab world that is both liberal and "modernized." Why? Because the foundation of cultural modernity is the freedom to achieve a self-fashioned and fluid identity, the freedom to imagine yourself on your own terms, and the videos offer a route to that process. By contrast, much of Arab culture remains a place of constricted, traditional, and narrowly defined identities, often subsumed in group identities that hinge on differences with, and antagonism toward, other groups.
Freund's take on video clips sounds eerily like the reception that initially greeted the Al Jazeera network in the West before the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attack on New York. In numerous academic conferences between the establishment of Al Jazeera in 1996 and the 9/11 attack, Al Jazeera was the Great White Hope for civil society in the Arab world. It was going to bring real debates. It would be independent. It was the thin end of a democratic wedge. Of course then 9/11 happened, and shortly thereafter Al Jazeera was vilified in the American press when it began contradicting the American line on the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Freund's article has the same breathless quality as the early discussions in the West of Al Jazeera. The civil society promised by Al Jazeera didn't quite work out (in the estimate of the American press). But Freund says don't worry, the Arab world will be revolutionized through sex! He ends his article by contrasting the "liberated" sex of the latest video clip hit, by a singer named Elisa, who is shown having a liaison with a man in a Paris hotel, with the puritanical outlook of Islamist thinker Sayyid Qutb, whose sojourn in the US turned him into a fierce opponent of decadent music and dance.
It isn't hard to imagine [Sayyid Qutb's] reaction to the sight of Elissa's substantial cleavage looming out of her bustier … Yet Elissa in her hotel room … could hardly be [a] more apt response … to the Islamist moral constrictions that have been advanced, in part, as a result of Qutb's work.
Sayyid Qutb might well have been outraged at Elissa. But he might have tried to get even rather than to get mad. Believing Muslims -- possibly not in the Sayyid Qutb mold, but believing nonetheless -- can also pursue their vision through this genre.
What Would Sayyid Qutb Say?
One of the impediments to better understanding the significance of video clips is the tendency of observers to see only what they want to see. The most common fixations of all commentators are women and sex. It is perfectly true that some aspect of sex features in the majority of video clips. But despite frequent claims that video clips feature nothing but "partial nudity" and "substantial cleavage" looming out of bustiers, sex is handled differently from one video clip to another. Some are about controlling women. For example, there are a small number of honour-killing videos. Some video clips feature married couples with children. Others are narrative videos about meeting, falling in love, getting married, and having children. Despite the obsessive concern by critics with "libidinal voracity" there are in fact a number of different models of sexuality on offer in Arab video clips. There are even a few video clips to which even a hardliner like Sayyid Qutb might give at least qualified approval.
A'azz Itnayn(The Dearest Two) by Ali Gohar is a good example. It is virtually an anthem to patriarchal values. The singer, an unshaven (though not quite bearded) thirty-something, is shown being awakened by his mother (Figure 7). He gets up, kisses his father, and goes off to work teaching at an elementary school for girls. One sequence in the song shows a mother in hijab (rare on most Arab television) dropping her daughter off at school. (Figure 8) While at play, the girl slightly skins her knee. So strong is the maternal instinct that the mother, far away preparing food in her kitchen, feels a pang of sympathetic pain from her child's minor injury. The song is essentially a lesson to teach kids a lesson in filial respect. Gohar drives the lesson home throughout the song, telling his young charges and the viewers that their parents "sold everything for their sake." In one sequence, he is shown asking a question explicitly. (Figure 9) He holds his hand up, on the point of calling on a student who will answer his question. We see the eager students with hands raised. He calls on the little girl who skinned her knee on the slide. She writes on a whiteboard. The answer? "Baba wa Mama." The question? "Who are the dearest two?" Of course the viewer knew the answer from the beginning, since the thoroughly adult singer is shown very much in the care of his parents. His mother wakes him up. The final scene shows his father putting him to bed. Sayyid Qutb might not have exactly approved of the song, but he surely would have found it preferable to Maysam Nahas's "porno-clip."
The great Islamist thinker was no Sufi, but he might nonetheless have given qualified approval to Sami Yusuf's Al-Mu'allim (The Teacher). Yusuf is a British Muslim whose family is of Azeri origin. Though not a native Arabic speaker, he has become a global star through singing anshad (devotional songs, sg. nashid). (See Patricia Kubala's article, The Other Face of the Video Clip: Sami Yusuf and the Call for 'al-Fann al-Hadif' in this issue.) Anshad are conventionally associated with Sufism. In much of the Arab world, particularly Egypt, Sufi musical performers occupy a kind of parallel universe, completely separate from the circuits of both officially sponsored and commercial popular music. The Teacher conspicuously crossed over to the popular music universe. It was broadcast right alongside Nancy Ajram, Elissa, and Maysam Nahas. Just as Yusuf crosses into the commercial musical world, his video clip crosses into the urban space of commercial music (Figure 10). He is depicted living in a modernist suburban villa -- a mansion really. Cairo is increasingly surrounded by such housing. Developments carry names such as European Countryside (Al-Rif al-Urubbi), Dreamland, and Beverly Hills. When conventional video clips represent urban space, they lean very heavily toward these areas, and they conspicuously abandon the urban center of Cairo that was once the seat of political and economic power. There is no Arab analogue to the American hip-hop "keeping it real" aesthetic, which often uses gritty urban streets as a backdrop in music videos. In Egypt (where Al-Mu'allim was filmed) almost all location shooting in video clips is done in the new suburbs. Lebanese and Arab video clips follow the same convention. Many video clips use exotic foreign locales. By contrast, nearly all "traditional" imagery is fabricated in studios, and the "old modern" Cairo is simply ignored, or filmed only at night and from a distance. Al-Mu'allim is no exception. It asserts an Islamic presence in precisely the same imagined space as many "porno-clips."
In Al-Mu'allim, Sami Yusuf is shown kissing his mother's hand while she sits on the stairway landing in his "Beverly Hills" modern mansion reading the Qur'an. (Figure 11) He then goes to his Jeep outside in the street. As he loads the Jeep, he spots a blind man crossing the street. The man is about to stumble over an unseen stone in his path, but Yusuf rushes to help him, saving him just before he trips. (Figure 12) Another sequence shows him going to a mosque to pray. (Figure 13) He goes to an old mosque, but is filmed very tightly against the exterior of the building, and in all-male crowds, so that the urban space around the mosque (probably the Mamluk-era Sultan Hasan mosque is used for the exterior shots) is invisible. (Figure 14) At the mosque, he is shown teaching a group of boys how to pray -- an obviously fitting image for a video clip entitled The Teacher. But in this sequence also he actually follows an Arab video-clip convention. Children appear in many clips, including many of the sexual ones. Even Maysam Nahas at one point in Kull al-Shawq is shown casting a motherly eye on some boys playing basketball (they in turn stand and stare at her in exactly the same lascivious manner as the dark adult men ogling her on the street).
Al-Mu'allim differs from conventional video clips in that it refrains from running text messages in the margins (bottom and sometimes top as well) throughout the song. (Figure 15) The text messages, sent in both English and Arabic (and sometimes Arabic written in English characters) are personal correspondence in a very public venue. The senders of course are anonymous except to each other, and the content of the messages is often about love and relationships, real, imagined, or perhaps incipient. But that does not happen in Al-Mu'allim. Religion is kept firmly separated from profane love. It is not, however, kept separate from corporate sponsorship. Periodically throughout the video clip Coca-Cola advertisements appear, the logo on the upper left, and on the lower right a red bottle cap that metamorphoses into red female lips mouthing silently at the viewer (saying, perhaps, "buy coke").
Al-Mu'allim is a strongly narrative video clip. It tells the story of a pious nature photographer trying to capture images of God's creation. (Figure 16) Yusuf drives his Jeep into the desert, perhaps to Wadi Digla just outside of Cairo, and quite close to some of the new bourgeois suburban developments. There he takes out his camera and photographs nature. Nature photography is often used in the imagery used in televised calls to prayer. God created the universe; hence depictions of nature are inherently consistent with belief. They also get programmers out of potentially thorny dilemmas of social representation -- no need to choose who or where to show; no need to worry about class; no need to worry about whether or not women need be represented. Al-Mu'allim also does not delve into such difficult areas as how to show the handsome Sami Yusuf interacting with women (many of whom are alleged to be fans in a way that confuses his stardom with his message). And it must be said that Al-Mu'allim is, in the end, a hyper-patriarchal document. Its Islamic message, however, is in some ways contrary to the social trends that have been labeled "Islamist" over the past few decades.
In the video clip, Yusuf goes on photographing into the night. (Figure 17) When it is completely dark, he spies a light shining at the top of a rocky cliff. After climbing the cliff, he finds himself facing a glowing image of the Kaaba, the symbolic heart of the Muslim world. He stares in astonishment, but does not fail to take pictures. (Figure 18) Later he is shown in his darkroom developing the pictures. It is a crucial part of the video clip's narrative that the glowing Kaaba be shown not as a vision or a fantasy, but as completely real. The material lens, a creation of science, picked up the image of the glowing Kaaba just as much as the human eye. Hence Al-Mu'allim neatly ties together spirituality and science, a maneuver certainly more consistent with Sufism than with the sort of Salafist tendencies associated with someone like Sayyid Qutb (or, more importantly, with the broader Islamist movement as it would have been understood not much more than a decade ago). (Figure 19) The final frame in Al-Mu'allim, complete with the Coca-Cola advertisement and the Melody Hits logo, summarizes the paradoxical nature of this artifact. However, paradoxical though it may be, Al-Mu'allim is not an anomaly. It is rather an instance of a niche in the video clip market. Video clips are not as simple as either their proponents or their detractors claim.
In conclusion, I would like to reiterate two points. First, video clips are far more interesting in historical context than they are as putatively unprecedented "new media." Even the rhetoric of dismissing them as vulgar and cheap resonates with the past one hundred years of Egyptian history. It is an inevitable consequence of canons of taste, which are historically changeable, quintessentially modern, and still emerging. Video clips will not undermine the foundations of society, but they are part of longstanding tensions over the status of youth in a patriarchal culture. Nor will video clips liberate the individual and usher in a blossoming of democracy, though there is no question that they are a powerful palette for sketching out ideas about sexuality and the body. It is, however, crucial to recognize that some of these ideas have historical roots. One must be on guard against overstating the novelty of new media.
My second point is simply that one must not ever take for granted claims that "all video clips" are anything. Basic reservations about analytical conflations apply as much here as anywhere else. Video clips are all made in a structured economic and social system, as is any form of expressive culture. The system itself is of interest, but so are the products of the system. Even if one grants that video clips are about sex -- which they certainly are in a quantitative sense -- there are, one must be compelled to admit, many different things that can be said about sex. Video clips are both the agents and the products of important social currents. They should therefore be taken seriously.