Friday, December 28, 2007

Ramadan and TV (1/3): political boycott and women’s affirmation

Ramadan has seen many comments about the sudden disappearance of Syrian TV serials from the Arab screens. The very much acclaimed Bâb al-hâra (The door of the district) was the only one to make its way to numerous viewers. For many people, the boycott of the Syrian production by most of (Saudi owned) TV stations could be the real explanation.

Censorship was a second issue, especially in Egypt with a TV serial which tackled a very sensitive question, that of the fate of hundreds of Egyptian soldiers who were said to be buried alive in the Sinai sands during June 67 war.

But it is Question of Public Opinion (قضية رأي عام), filmed in Egypt by the Syrian director Muhammad Aziziyyeh and aired on different channels, including the prestigious Dubai TV, which had been the most debated production. Famous actress Yusra, considered to be “liberal” gave many press interviews to defend the work she acted in as a rape victim. She said, among other things, that shocking pictures could be a necessity if someone wants things to change.

If the stories described by the various TV serials reflect to some extend the real preoccupations of the Arab audience, indeed many people think in the Arab world that it is time to see changes in women's rights and situation in the area.

To read the original and more detailed post in french

Ramadan and TV (2/3): Comedies, Social Critic and Censorship

High Season for TV watching, Ramadan also is a time for more freedom in TV programs which deal, in a way or another, with social and sensitive issues.

For TV watchers of the Arab Peninsula, the big thing is, no doubt, a program called Tash Ma Tash (something like “Got it, Lost it!”). Since some 15 years (!), that incredibly popular TV serial succeeds in addressing sensitive issues in rather non conformist and “progressive” ways.

That year, Tash Ma Tash writers decided for instance to deal in a not so respectful way with the religious TV channels phenomenon mentioned in our previous post.

As they need more than one scandal for their TV season, they also spoke of the debated religious courts and it has been said that an Islamic judge pressed charges against them in Dubai.

But Tash Ma Tash writers broke that year with the tradition as they dedicated one program to the critic of the “liberal wing”.

Such an unusual tone for Tash Ma Tash writers was of course the subject of many discussions. Apparently, many people think that such an attack on the progressive wing was a clever move in order to look more neutral.

All Ramadan TV writers are not so successful with censorship. You’ll pay for your faults sooner or later (for the Arabic "lil-khataya thaman"), a TV serial due to be aired on MBC TV, was “postponed” after violent demonstrations in Kuwait.

To read the original and more detailed post in french

Ramadan and TV (1/3): More and more Religious Screens

Ramadan, the great time for TV watching in the Arab World, had something new this year: the rising number of religious channels.

In the Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar, an article describes the phenomenon under the title “This is how ‘religion’ has won the Satellite TV war.”

Showing how media tycoon Al-Waleed Ibn Talal, owner of Rotana, a music channel, is investing in various religious channels for specialized audiences (chidren, migrants, etc.), the journalist explains that Ramadan 2007 will see a decisive battle between competing religious channels using classical marketing tools in order to increase their public.

According to one Arab professional, there is still room for more good religious channels even if many unprofessional ventures which have been launched are due to collapse sooner or latter.

Poorly managed, with very low investments, many religious channels are taken between contradictory and even conflicting projects: the small ads which can be read at the bottom of the screen do not fit at all with the religious advices given by the many shaykhs acting in the various programs.

To read the original and more detailed post in french

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

From Kufiya to Islamic Scarf

The Palestinian kufiya is trendy in western boutiques. But even as a fashion accessory, the success story of this symbol of the Palestinian struggle may be unbearable to some people and an “Israeli kufiya” – white and blue, with stars of David on it – has been invented. A “spoliation” of the Palestinian heritage very much criticized in the Arab press, unless one could see it as an indirect and unintentional tribute to the Palestinian national cause.

The kufiya became world-wild known during the 60’, with the rising of the PLO and of their charismatic leader. This picture of Leila Khaled, famous for participating in various hijacking operations, reflects the spirit of that time when the struggle for liberation and national identity went hand in hand with the affirmation of the women’s rights and equality to men.

Well known in the whole Middle East and adopted by the Palestinians as a national symbol at least since the 30’, the kufiya is, according to Fred Halliday (100 myths about the Middle East, p. 13), a kind of ‘invented tradition’ (Eric Hobsbawn) as the pattern associated with Palestinian national identity was designed in an English factory of Manchester in order to be used by the soldiers of the famous Arab Legion!

Whatever origin it may have, a look at this picture of Venezuela’s President Chavez shows that the kufieh has not lost all of its political meaning. But a question remains: is it because the kufiya has become a fashionable accessory sold in the fancy boutiques of the Western World that the Islamic scarf is now so trendy in the Arab countries?

Plenty of comments on the kufiya on Ten Swedenburg's blog.
To read the original and more detailed post in French, follow that link

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

My life, Arab Movie : Boycott and Normalization

Since the Camp David Agreements in 1978, “normalization” means in Arabic the refusal by most of Arab artists and intellectuals of any activity in connection with Israelis.

“Normalization” may be enforced by law according to the regulations of professional associations as in Egypt where the Artists syndicate has recently decided to clear actor ‘Amr Waked of all charges after his contribution to a movie about Saddam Hussein’s where an Israeli actor was also performing.

“Normalization” always raised problems, especially with Arab Israelis unable to meet other Arab because of their “wrong” passport. On the other side, Arabs artists who visit Palestinians, even in the Occupied Territories, face trouble. It was the case recently with a Tunisian singer, although he was invited by the major Palestinian phone society.

Last October, the organizers of the first Middle East International Film Festival of Abu Dhabi also had to cope with normalization. First, they were supposed, according to some Israelis newspapers, to put an Israeli film, called The Band’s Visit, in their program. Under the threat of a boycott by many Arab professionals, they denied such an intention although it is known that pressure for the selection of that movie has been put on them, as on other Arab film festival organizers.

Later on, an Egyptian documentary, called Salata Baladi (Mixed Salad), also raised the issue of normalization. The film is based on the real story of an Egyptian family, from a “mixed” religious origin (Christian, Jew and Muslim). The family is split between various countries, especially since a part of it went to Israel in 1946, something Mary, a leftist activist and grant mother of the movie maker, Nadia Kamel, never accepted. But the old lady finally accepts to brake the taboo of “normalization” and goes to Israel in order to visit her “lost” family.

Salata Baladi has been seen, by some Arab viewers, as an unacceptable call for “normalization” unless the film is obviously anything but a “black and white” story.

What happened to Salata Baladi – even if the film was defended by many voices in the Arab world – reminds us of the reactions provoqued by the short visit, back to Haifa, that Palestinian poet Mahmud Darwish made last summer.

Obviously, normalization remains a controversial issue, and a painful one.

To read the original and more detailed post in french
And that link for the blog on Salata Baladi film (arabic and english)

Monday, December 10, 2007

Islam and Videos: Sami Yusuf (2/2)

First of all: we should not speak of Sami Yusuf in this blog dedicated to Arab modern culture. Born in Iran in an Azeri family, Sami Yusuf is marketed by the firm Awakening, based in the UK and specialised in Islamic commodities.

But Sami Yusuf, the man who "invented" the Islamic videoclip, regularly tours Arab capitals where he has many fans, two of them running an impressive site dedicated to their favourite singer.

The singer appears regularly on major Arab satellite TV screens, even if he does not speak Arabic. Like many other non-Arab muslims, he performs his religious duties in a foreign and “dead” language, like Catholics used to do with Latin not so long ago.

Sami Yusuf’s fame in the Arab world started in 2003, with his CD “al-mu‘allim” (the Master, for the Prophete). The recipe for success was already there: Arab and English lyrics in the tradition of the nasheed songs which glorify God; a kind of halal music which only uses percussions and voice (a piano appears on more recent works); a very Western mood whose pictures remind us of Hollywood Chewing gum advertisements!

In the Arab world at least, someone was behind this success story as Sami Yusuf met the Egyptian TV preacher ‘Amr Khaled (already mentioned in the previous post), when the latter was living there more or less in exile. They started collaborating, during 2005 "Muslim World Star" tour for instance.

Of course, this collaboration went on when the singer started his Arab career. Sami Yusuf was invited at various Amr Khaled’s TV shows and both are marketed, in the Arab world, by the same company, “Good News for Me”.

When some people expressed their reprobation of this kind of joint venture between two media stars, Sami Yusif replied that he did feel very “oriental” and that his only desire was to spread a spiritual message showing that one could be muslim and modern, nice looking and devoted to God.

Obviously, this is a point of view which touches many young people in the Arab world, especially within the raising middle classes which do not believe in political struggle in order to change society but see that moral action is more successful.

A turn toward a kind of “soft islam” (see this previous post), quite appealing to people who fear an islam somehow too political.

To read the original and more detailed post in french.
And think link leads you to al-mu'allem song.

Islam and Videos (1/2)

Moral videos are fashionable in the Arab world. For instance, a video, which is said to be the first clip produced by nationals, was recently filmed in Saudi Arabia by a young producer named Qaswara al-Khatib.

The pitch is rather simple: a young professional is living a “bad” life and getting into more and more troubles until he comes to understand, after an accident on his motorbike, that “only God will help” (ما لك غير الله).

As noticed in Amal’s “Arab Woman Progressive Voice” blog, it is not just a coincidence if the camera shows at different times the main character wearing a T-shirt with the world “progressive” written on large letters on it. As we have seen in a previous post about TV soap operas, “progressist” or “liberal” are indeed very “bad words” for those who hope to put the youth back on the right track.

Ramadan being a high season for devotion and business, many singers take this opportunity to sell CD’s records with pious songs. In the impressive list of them which was published in Al-Hayat, Tamer Husni deserves special attention as one of the most favourite and scandalous pop singers of the Egyptian and Arab youth has radically changed since he left jail some months ago.

Indeed, when he was in prison Tamer Husni has been visited by the very famous ‘Amr Khaled, one of the top preachers of the new generation. Since that meeting, Tamer has become a committed (ملتزم) singer, meaning a singer committed to the spread of the Good World and the Right Thinking.

It would be very nasty to see in that cooperation something like a smart marketing campaign between two icons of the Arab youth. Thus, when an Internet site like, close to the religious opposition, does allude to such a possibility, one may think that there is some kind of irritation, sincere or not, for this commercial use of religious feelings…

To read the original and more detailed post in french and to listen to Only God Will Help song, this link.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

When a mufti speaks for women’s rights...

... nobody cares in the West! Nonetheless, Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah’s fatwa, delivered on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, made its way in the Arab World.

For instance, Al-Quds al-‘arabi daily wrote that there were a lot of talks in Jordan mosques last Friday, after long debates on the Internet and during satellite TV religious programs.

Indeed, Fadlallah’s fatwa arguing that women have the right to defend themselves against men's violence made a lot of fuss.

Such a position, presented in many media as “the right for a woman to beat her husband and to desert his bed”, was very much welcome by local associations for women’s rights, but was refused by Islamic jurists in Saudi Arabia or Egypt.

How strange is it to see that Western media, so incline to castigate whatever “wrong” position expressed in the so-called “Arab street”, did no pay very much attention to that rather open-minded fatwa!

Sure, it is safer to keep on saying that Islam is fixed for ever, and obviously unable to deal seriously with controversial issues!

Indeed, they are many crazy and indulgent muftis but others are not frighten by audacious thinking and open discussion.

To read the original and more detailed post in french
Text in English of Fadlallah's fatwa.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Orient deserted by Oriental dancers

Today, Oriental dance is mostly Occidental. In Cairo cabarets and elsewhere is the Arab world, belly dancers are no more local as most of the professionals come from countries of Eastern Europe.

In 2003, Egyptian authorities tried to cope with that situation and prohibited foreigners from practicing in clubs. A ban which was left in September 2004, because of the lack of performers!

Belly dancers are seen from very contradictory perspectives: heirs of an ancestral tradition or exotic puppets in the tradition of Orientalism; venal femmes fatales seduced by the power or free women fighting against conventions…

The great names of the Oriental dance have vanished and the fact that an Arab satellite TV is preparing a soap opera about Tahia Carioca’s life is just another proof of it. Today, who could dare to perform as Tahia? And which Carioca will be depicted? The repented old woman of her last days or the outrageous lady who married 14 times and was sentenced to jail under different governments?

As one feels in the beautiful “Farewell to Tahia” written in 1999 by Edmard Said, “Nanaesque figures” are no more to be found on the stage of the Arab theatre.

To read the original post in french
To read Edward Said's text, and to watch a nice video featuring Tahia Carioca and Samia Gamal, this link.

Foreign and Domestic “Personal Services” in the Arab World (2/2)

After the problems that children face because of “careless” foreign maids, more and more articles in the Arab press and on the Web tackle another issue, that of the consequences of sexual relations which may occur with young adults, with husbands and sometimes between women.

A survey in Saudia was for example very much commentated because it says that almost 60% of the foreign maids would accept sexual intercourses before marriage. So that wise housewives do pay attention in choosing not to nice-looking maids for their home.

But maids and generally speaking female workers do not always come from non-Arab countries and it is quite easy to find on the Internet announcements for Moroccan girls “wishing a job in the Gulf”.

Normally, the business is run by private agencies but states may find it attractive too. In May 2007, an agreement between Egypt and the Saudi Kingdom was to be passed for the employment of some 120.000 “young Egyptians ladies” (less than 30 years).

For many people in Egypt, such a deal was a real scandal, an attempt to the national pride, In their articles, journalists made rather clear allusions to the sexual consequences of the sending of young Egyptian ladies behind the closed walls of foreign houses.

Hopefully enough, private houses are not the only place for unmarried sexual practices in the Arab world. Hotels and “massage parlours” are well known meeting points, and the authorities, as in the Emirates or in Jordan for example, have been obliged to change the regulations in order to channel the flow.

With the globalization of the sexual market, the local competences face more competition. A real threat for the many Moroccan “artistat” who work in Jordan for example. A phenomenon, so well-known that “Moroccan”, in modern Arabic, is largely used to mean a prostitute. Nicely enough, in French “professional” slang, “un saoudien” (a Saudi) is a client!

To read the original post in french

Maids Made in Asia: a Global Market (1/2)

The situation of the Asian maids “imported” by numerous Arab families is not exactly a taboo in the Arab media. But it is a subject which is mainly tackled from an educational point of view, because of the consequences for the family.

There is however an evolution. Recently for example, videos have been filmed in Saudia to remind viewers to be kind with the people working in their homes, especially during the holy month.

Since a few years, to employ a foreign maid is no more the privilege of well-doing families living in the rich states of the Arab peninsula. On the contrary, it is becoming something more and more casual in countries like Syria where the authorities are more used with the regulation of national emigrants than with the immigration of foreign workers.

With the generalization of education, finding a good and cheap little maid on the local market has become a real challenge and the business of trading “human commodities” is indeed flourishing.

Then, as any other product, prices are changing according to the origins (Sri-Lanka, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Somalia…) and to the “season” – Ramadan being the most expensive one!

A Human Right Watch Report: Middle East: Sri Lankan Domestic Workers Face Abuse
To read the original post in french

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Fatwas for Mr President

For decades, and even centuries, fatwas have been delivered by religious people in order to help ordinary people to find solutions for their day-to-day problems. Of course, fatwas also have been requested for more important matters, and then subjects of many disputed political debates.

In modern times, the muftis have to compete with new voices which appeared with the modernization of the Arab world, namely voices of the intellectuals (muthaqqafun) and thinkers (mufakkirun) and, today, the stunning voices of the media stars (anchors, actors and so on...) who speak more and more in the name of religion.

It could be an explanation for the extraordinary mess of crazy fatwas which make a wonderful target for western media in times of muslim bashing, even if other religions probably provide similar examples of isanity.

The fact is that the mushrooming of (often so-called) religious programs, all of them competing for fame, opens the flow to "scandalous" fatwas. Egypt has seen for example the revival of an "old" one, initialy given in Saudia, which forbides the shooting of weddings and divorces on screen, as they are thing "not to play with"...

Of course, issuing a fatwa also has something to do with politics. It is obviously the case when Egypt official mufti said that religion punishes the spread of “false information,” a clear allusion to the trial of various important journalists.

Worst, the same mufti, Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi, declared that he had nothing to say against the succession of Gamal Mubarak to his father Husni, should the son been correctly elected.

He did not mention the case of of president George W. Bush but he should have!

French readers are reminded that their own president, Mr Sarkozy, at a time he was "only" one of Chirac's ministers, paid a visit to Dr Tantawi in order to get a fatwa to legitimate the prohibition of the Islamic scarf in French (governmental) schools.

To read the original post in french

Soccer and Politics in the Arab Middle-East

After an Iraki singer made it to the last round of the very famous "Star Academy show" aired by Lebanese satellite channel LBC, the victory of the national soccer team at the Asian soccer cup was a rare opportunity in Irak for manifestations of joy and national pride and unity (that the last goal was the result of a joined action between sunni, kurdish and shiite players!)

But war is also on the football fields. For example in Turkey where a clash between two players, one Israeli and the other Egyptian in September 2006 just after the Israeli bombardments in Lebanon has led to riots.

In Israel too, political issues are obviously at stake when it comes to sport, for instance when the Bitar Club, supported by the right wing, meets the surprisingly successful "Son of Sakhneen" team, supported by the so-called "Arab Israelis".

Then there is the incredible story published in the Israeli Yediot Aharonot some time ago about two Brasilian twins playing, one for an Israeli team and the other for a Syrian one! Is this the New Middle-East?

To read the original post in french

The Ban of Pop "artistat" in Syria: a war for moral or against brands?

There are two translations in arabic for the word "Artist" : one is "fannânûn" and the other, not so correct, "artistât".

Recently, Syrian Union of artists (fannânûn) has declared a ban on "artistât" - mainly Lebanese - coming to Syria. Such a decision is a real threat to the "creativity" of Lebanese "artistât" already coping with many economical difficulties at home. There is no political reason for such a decision, according to Salah Obeid, the Union leader, but the necessity to protect the country against "moral pollution" of female singers playing more with their body than with their musical gifts.

Regarding what some people have coined the "ajramisation" of the Arab societies (from Nancy Ajram, one of the most glamorous Arab pop singers, "icon" for Coca-Cola in the Middle-East when Elissa, another "artistat", is the other one for Pepsi), the Syrian ban may be seen as another chapter against the (global) Amecanization of the Arab world.

To read the original post in french
And to discover Elissa, former Lebanese top model, this video

Enrico Macias back to Algeria? The Hight Price of Friendship

Finally, French singer Enrico Macias, born in Algeria in a Jew family from Constantine some 68 years ago, will not go to Algeria with French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Such a visit, already planned many times, rised too many issues, either rooted in the past (the Liberation War and the role played at that time by some Jewish families according to different voices in Algeria) or connected to the present problems, mainly because of Macias's repeated declarations in support of Israel.

Knowing that Sarkozy is expecting big profits, at least on the economic side, from his trip to Alger, the price of his friendship for Enrico Macias was indeed to hight.
Algerian voices, in the press or on the Internet, suggest Macias to do what many others "pieds noirs" (black foot, for the French who left Algeria at the Independence of the country) have done before him : to take a ticket, by plane or by boat, and to visit his native country without any official frame and game...

As a matter of fact, the best thing to do for him could be to join the great El Gusto band, which associates musicians coming form North and South of the Mediterranean, and from mixted generations and religions.

To read the original post in french
And to listen a nice presentation of El Gusto, in the Buena Vista Social Club mood, this video