Ruby and the chequered heart
Abdel-Wahab M Elmessiri bores through the video clip (the ubiquitous benchmark of present-day Arab pop culture), probing its relevance to society, politics, globalisation -- and a range of compelling intellectual issues
EROTIC REDUCTIONISM: 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.
Click to view caption|
Clockwise from top: Soad Hosni in Khalli Balak Min Zuzu; Umm Kalthoum; Abdel- Mottaleb; Asmhan and Youssef Wahbi in the movie Gharam Wa Intiqam; STARS OF THE CONTEMPORARY VIDEO CLIPS: Clockwise from top: Nourhan during the making of "Habibi Ya Eini" videoclip; Haifa Wahby; Ruby
Yet there was a time when, listening to a song was a multidimensional experience in which the listener could appreciate lyrics, music and performance. Not unlike the video clips of today, most were admittedly about romantic love, but some were about mothers, nature or human relations in general. Singers performed the classical Arabic poems of such giants as Ahmed Shawqi, Al-Akhtal Al-Saghir and Ibrahim Nagui. Among my own favourites was Tislam Eidin Elli Eshtara (Bless the hands of him who bought) by Abdel-Mottaleb. I also liked Abdel-Aziz Mahmoud's Al-Sabah Al-Jadid (New morning), an Abul-Qasim Al-Shabbi poem composed by Medhat Assem. Unfortunately, the latter was lost and is no longer available in the radio archives; whether we should ever listen to it again depends on the generosity of collectors. There was Asmahan's Layali Al-Ons fi Vienna (Merry nights in Vienna); in this connection one also remembers Abdel-Halim Hafez classics as La Talumni (Don't blame me). This species of music is to be encountered in many Fairouz songs, and it survives in Magda Al-Roumi.
Diversity of subject matter was matched by variety of form: the comic "monologue" (Ismail Yassin and Thuraya Helmi); the duet (Mohamed Fawzi); the operetta number (as in Majnoun Laila, "Layla's Madman"); the film ( Ghazal Al- Banat, "Girl's Dalliance") and radio drama ( Auf Al-Asil, "The Original Auf") song... And that is not to mention patriotic songs, which were heard throughout the year, not, like now, only once or twice a year, as if in memory of an irrevocably lost past. There were religious songs, too -- Fayda Kamel's Ilahi Lais Li Illak Awna (No help for me but you, my God), Asmahan's Aleik Salat Illah We Salamu (God's peace be upon you). This species too has all but disappeared, leaving only the romantic love genre for the video clip to take over. Yet in the ubiquitous hands of the video clip, even love songs -- a once ambiguous, complex and delightfully varied genre -- have undergone a negative transformation.
THE DEATH OF SUBTLETY: Take for example Khanni Al-Hawa (Love deceived me) or Ghazal Turki (Turkish gazelle)... Mohamed Qandil's Ahl Iskenderia (People of Alexandria), Abdel-Aziz El-Sayed's Al-Beed Al-Amara (Pretty white girls,), Mohamed El-Ezabi's Eyoon Baheya (Baheya's eyes), Mohamed Rushdi's Oulo le Maazun Al-Balad (Call the town maazun ), Nagat El-Saghira's Kalemni An Bokra (Tell me of tomorrow), Laila Murad's Baheb Itnein Sawa (I love two [people] at the same time), Shoft Manam (I saw a dream) and Al-Hob Gamil (Love is beautiful), Mohamed Abdel-Wahab's Gafnuhu Allam Al-Ghazal (His eyelid teaches dalliance), Asheq Al-Roh (Lover of the spirit) and Al- Khataya (Sins), Abdel-Halim Hafez's Samra (Dark girl) and Al-Toba (Repentance), Asmahan's Dakhalt Mara Al-Geneina (I once entered the garden) and Ya Toyoor (Birds), Umm Kalthoum's Madam Teheb Btenker Leih (Since you're in love, why deny it?), Al-Atlal (Rubble) and Hanat Al-Aqdar (Destiny's tavern)... The examples are endless.
Being love songs in the true sense of the term, all include erotic insinuations; and I use the word "insinuations" deliberately, for the erotic is always assimilated into another romantic dimension of the song, be it the images or the narrative background. Enter the video clip and all is instantaneously reduced to a one-dimensional eroticism, presented in isolation from any other element, the dancers leaving very little to the viewers' imagination. The image is usually more powerful than the abstract word, for a distance separates the recipient from a text he is reading, giving him time to reflect on meaning and significance. The image, on the other hand -- especially when it is the image of half-naked, beautiful girl jumping up and down and, in the process, moving all that can be moved in her body, and in a less than objective way -- is an immediate assault of the senses; it leaves no room for reflection or relaxation (imagine a classical song turned into a video clip of the dancing variety -- a largely impossible proposition).
FLESH PARADES: Having reduced singing to single genre, video clips have also done away with nuances within that genre. Having spent many delicious hours watching video clips, switching between channels, from one scantily dressed dancer to another, I discovered that what has enabled the video clip to penetrate our sensibility is what might be referred to as "horizontal dancing". We are all familiar with dancing; we have seen it in movies, five-star hotels, nightclubs. But it was always vertical. In horizontal dancing, the performer lies on the floor instead of standing up, making her movements both dazzling and seductive -- a process in which she is aided by the hi-tech image manipulation and the fast pace of the action; the viewer can only succumb.
Belly dancing, with its explicit erotic dimension, is part of our cultural tradition. It is also an art form that was largely confined to movies and weddings. It has belonged in a parallel world, one we tended to keep at bay. Before the emergence of video clips, there was one notable attempt to elevate belly dancing into a valid form of expression -- Soad Hosni's film Khalli Balak Min Zuzu (Beware of Zuzu), particularly the scene in which Hosni dances to Shafiq Galal singing La Tibki Ya Ein (Don't cry, my eye), a sad song -- the first and last attempt to divest belly dancing of eroticism.
What video clips are doing with music is the diametrical opposite of this -- normalising otherwise exotic erotic dance, and bringing it into our living rooms all the way from the floorshow. Video clips present dancing as a daily experience -- precisely what Sherif Sabri does in his rendering of Ruby's first song Enta Aref Leh (You know why): the singer is seen walking casually in the street, in a dancing costume; later she changes into casual clothing and continues to dance. Her dancing, what is more, is amateur rather than professional -- the kind practised by ordinary girls at home, for fun. This acts to remove the barrier separating daily life from belly dancing -- normalisation of a risqué activity. (Perhaps this explains why the recent Lucy video clip failed, for, being an expert dancer, the heroine danced as a professional does in a floorshow).
THE LIKE-THIS SYNDROME: The same tendency continues in Ruby's second song, Leh Beydari Kedah (Why does he hide [his feelings] like this ). Ruby appears in gym wear, an evening gown, a schoolgirl outfit, and as a widow. The variety of attire notwithstanding, Ruby still moves suggestively -- like this. The last scene is particularly interesting in that it is reminiscent of a home video. Wearing casual clothes, Ruby is on her way to the hairdresser's, and her face looks extremely innocent (quite unlike this ). Her smile is pure and childlike, with the barest hint of sensuality -- normalisation at its effective best. This is how belly dancing is deranged, domesticated, business as usual. Ruby is a dancer and yet she's a role model -- or so we're supposed to think.
One explores this in such detail because one is aware of its import: these things affect millions of people, changing our perception of ourselves, our surroundings, the way we perceive sensuality and sexuality. I recall that when settled in Egypt in the early 1970s, my children knew very little about Egyptian pop culture, having been brought up in the US. One day, I found my four-year-old boy singing the refrain, Ya Wad Ya Teil (Cool boy). I remember wanting to know more about this song in order to work out what was going on in his head -- and that of the society he was fast becoming part of. So I watched Khalli Balak Min Zuzu, pen and paper to hand, and ended up with an essay that Al-Ahram published under the title "Pondering the Cool Boy and the Chequered Heart", in which I now remember making reference to the scene in which Hosni, advising women to make things happen for themselves, Hosni gestures assertively as she says, "dreaming will get you nowhere, you get what you want this way."
Two years later, watching the TV serial "Adventures of Chief Okasha" resulted in an article for Al-Taliaa entitled "From Faten Hamama's sorrows to Chief Okasha's joys", in which I argued that Faten Hamama's films had set the boundary separating her trademark character (the virgin) from that of filmstar Mimi Shekeib (the whore). The Okasha show had eliminated that boundary. In one scene, for example, Okasha is sitting between a woman journalist and a professional dancer, kissing both. I wonder whether Okasha started a trend that now finds expression in Ruby and other video clip starlets. If such a trend exists, is it inevitable or can we still reverse it? Pop culture, of video clip are an important instrument, affects the nation as a whole. And we cannot in our right mind let show business producers decide what is best for us.
PRIVATE PLEASURES: You may be wondering by now if I actually like video clips -- I do, and my description of the performers is not, in the end, unbiased. I find the performers beautiful, titillating, and pleasant to watch. They move horizontally and vertically in continuously surprising ways that set my head spinning. I could say a few things about the sets, the makeup, the clothing (or lack thereof), but I am hardly qualified to pronounce judgement on any of these things.
What interests me, rather, is the question of whether the pleasure a video affords is a sufficient reason to speak in its favour? Doesn't such a line of thinking betray a bias towards individuality -- as if individual pleasure is the only purpose of life, as if the individual (the amount of pleasure he gets) is the only, absolute point of reference? What about society and the family, by contrast? Shouldn't the analytical unit be society as a whole, its orientation and interests? Shouldn't we place such considerations above the private pleasures of individuals? Is it not our right as human (hence social) beings to posit questions regarding other aspects of human life? For there is more to video clips than private pleasure, namely their influence on society and family, and, enjoy them as I might, it is to this that my attention must now turn.
CONSUMERISM UNBOUND: 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. Video clips amount to more than a sexy woman dancing and singing. Rather, they provide the public with a role model, promoting a particular lifestyle that typifies a worldview in turn, one whose starting point is individual pleasure at any price -- a solely carnal pleasure that excludes the possibility of appreciating a good performance, the beauty of an aspect of nature or a thought, an emotion. 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.
It is a well-known fact that escalating libidinal voracity is a function of consumerism -- a fact on which TV advertisers tend to capitalise, resorting to sex to sell commodities. Particularly worrying in this connection is that sexual consumerism disassociates the individual from moral and social values. The viewer is implicitly encouraged to pursue individual pleasures through increased consumption -- the unabashed pursuit of narrow self-interest through purchase. This seems like an unwise message to be transmitted to the masses in a society in which the vast majority of the population continues to live either slightly below or slightly above the poverty line.
BEYOND THE PHYSICAL: The video clip reduces both women and men to their respective, sexually charged bodies. The body becomes the sole source of identity, which is significantly narrowed down in the process. This is why video clips are so repetitive. Compare Hosni's assertive this way to Ruby's suggestive like this : Hosni's this way was a declaration of female independence, a refusal to live in the shadow of men. Zuzu, the character Hosni so ably brought to the screen, refuses to be defeated when things go wrong in her love life. She shakes her head and makes fun of her beloved, comparing his coolness to that of a British surgeon, a police sergeant, a diplomat (note how all such characters have both wiliness and power).
Hosni goes on to liken him to Ramses II and the Mystery Man. The idea is to sarcastically inflate the macho characteristics of the lover with the object of undermining them. Both the fictional, foreign Mystery Man (an extremely reticent character) and Ramses II (the Pharaoh fond of huge statues) -- it is her beloved's gait that evokes the latter -- are references to the machismo and authoritarianism. Yet the context and the tone act to expose the Egyptian male's allegations about himself, undermining this brand of power; this is why all such references are preceded by sarcastic phrases that undercut them, turning the huge and magnificent male into a small child subject to manipulation by the real female subject. When the moustached male declares that "the whole world is not up to his standards", that he is "the tallest person in the alley", it becomes apparent that he is the victim of a conspiracy to ruin his reputation; the dynamic girl has set him up, leading him to believe that he is a rapacious hunter while reducing him, in reality, to a prey. She knows how irresistible she is, notwithstanding her adversary's legendary inflated proportions and the historical weight he carries.
And this is precisely not what Ruby does. Her message is rather, quite simply, that girls are cute and cuddly, receptive and playful. Ruby's character is sexy, perhaps sweet, but not inspiring. Frankly, I am surprised at the lack of a feminist critique of the implicit affront to women's status that she represents.
THE DREAD OF GLOBALISATION: The video clip embodies a consumerism detached from all ethical, societal, and national affiliations. The songs often have Indian, American or European settings; the girls are often blond, or dressed in foreign fashion. Libidinal consumerist man, preoccupied with private pleasures, moves within a tight circumference that does not overlap with any value system, be it social or moral; his societal and familial affiliation are gradually eroded; his sense of belonging to his own country is rudimentary if not nonexistent.
Now if you look at the video clips, you will realise that they take place in no specific country. Even when the story revolves around an Egyptian easily recognisable as such, the sets, the costumes, the whole backdrop has nothing at all to do with the implements of life as we know it. The characters drive fancy cars; they live in mansions... And this not only stimulates the consumerist urge further and further, it acts to weaken the viewers' sense of national or cultural belonging. Video clips are, to a greater extent than anything else, a symptom of globalisation -- of a world homogenised, broken down to basic economic units amenable to the laws of supply and demand. Within these units, the individual is materially driven, with no particular traits, no sense of belonging, no historical memory. This is good only insofar as one endorses a world dominated by the movement of capital and commodities. In the end cultural and ethical traits comprise impediments to the effective functioning of such a world. And it is in this light that the video clip can be placed in a broader international context.
RUBY'S IDEOLOGY: Globalisation is in essence an endeavour to standardise the world, reducing it to identical units, both rationalised and economic, subject to material laws like those of supply and demand. The human being who occupies the parameters described by these units is economic libidinal man; he has no particular traits and no sense of belonging because his historical memory has been erased -- all of which are preconditions for the unhindered flow of capital and commodities. In the absence of belonging, identity, value systems, ethical and religious points of reference, everyone is the same; everything is relative. It becomes difficult to distinguish between beautiful and ugly, good and bad, justice and injustice; an absolute relativism predominates.
And the ideological expression of globalisation is post-modernism, alias anti-foundationalism, a movement that rejects points of references, celebrating the absence of reason. Rorty has said that post-modernism means that man will not sanctify anything, not even himself. Post- modernism is not just hostile to religion and ethics, but to the accepted norms of humanity. Yet what does this have to do with Ruby? In a post- modern world, the individual lives in a specific, small realm, unhampered by tradition or collective memory. Humanity is standardised, individuals taught how to rest content with pre- packaged sets of physical goals. Only then can global business thrive.
OUTSIDE HISTORY: The video clip is disassociated from current events. When Sheikh Ahmed Yassin was assassinated, the entire nation was enraged, yet video clip churned out cheerful songs as if nothing had happened. And this demonstrates that the world they occupy lies outside the parameters of history. It may seem far-fetched to attempt to relate Ruby's performance to globalisation, but it is well to remember that, while the connection may not be direct or organic, all things are interconnected nonetheless. Lyotard has compared the post- modern standpoint on reality to the relation of a naïve man (viewer) to a coquette -- he thinks he has got hold of her, but she always manages to escape him; the relation of mind to reality is slippery at best.
Fredrick Nietzsche, Roland Barthes, and Jacques Derrida all argued that deconstructing national and linguistic categories is a process that has a sexual dimension: dissolution and fluctuation. Some advocates of post-modernism -- the rejection of ultimate points of reference -- argue that a woman's body is self-referential; it presents a challenge to the logocentric world (a world with a centre, fixed, comprehensible) as understood by man. In her celebrated book Against Interpretation (whose date of publication, 1965, is considered by many to be the birth date of post-modernism), Susan Sontag argues that the most important challenge to absolutes and to reason is the body.
Notice the effect on your mind of watching a dance of the horizontal variety. This physical experience has nothing to do with historical, cultural or social specificity, and works to erode collective memory. Post-modernism posits, in essence, that each individual lives within what is called a "small narrative", his own, an impenetrably individual point of view. The socio- historical grand narrative, which would subsume any such small narratives, is nonexistent; even if it exists, it has no legitimacy or relevance. Therefore all ultimate points of reference fade away, and horizontal dancing appears alongside its horizontal counterpart, together with multinationals working to reduce humanity to a predictable, standardised bundle of economic and libidinal desires -- an individual who is readily instrumentalised in the framework of the global market.
At no time was the scandal of the video clip more exposed than on the assassination of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin. While an entire nation raged and mourned, the bodies of the dancers kept appearing, unaffected, as if they were, in themselves, a beginning and an end -- the beginning of individual pleasure; the end, alas, of history.
THE SATELLITE TAKEOVER: Through 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.
To know in which direction we are heading, one should simply watch MTV and follow how human beings are systematically turned into what I like to call human protein. Some of you may not be aware that there is a nightclub in Cairo called Evolution X. This venue serves a drink called Blue Lesbian. I see this as another attempt to normalise abnormality, not essentially different from the attempt to normalise horizontal as opposed to vertical dancing and the systematisation of sexual stimulation; it is scary, to say the least. But is it possible to stop the forward- march of such exponential deterioration?
Some would say that this amounts to interfering with freedom of expression, with art. My contention is that video clips are not an art form at all; they have nothing to do with creativity as such. What they are is a crude commercialisation of sex that exploits humanity for the sake of profit. Great art deals with many subjects, including sex, but sex (like violence) is never presented as an end in itself; it is an element among many others. Art (unlike pornography) can use sex, but not in a gratuitous manner. Art can use sex to portray the complexity of the human condition, to help us understand the nuances of the human psyche. If the video clip producers want to produce art, they'll have to do two things first. One is to stop seeking material gain. The other is to practise what they preach; that is, to apply the ethics of the video clip to their wives, mothers, daughters, and sons. I have no doubt that this is what they'll do, but you never know.