Al-Ahram Weekly Online   4 - 11 June 2009
Issue No. 950
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Two b's in bomb

Amira Howeidy wonders just what Jad Shwery can do for the image of Arabs in the West

Click to view caption
The Arabs as Jad Shwery imagines them in his new music video: he makes rapper-like gestures, sitting among his cool peers

The self-proclaimed "revolutionary" and "controversial" Lebanese singer and director Jad Shwery, 29, has produced a new track with a difference. It is hot, it is sexy, and it has a political message. His 3.40-minute video, Funky Arabs, allays all suspicion by literally stating at outset, "Every individual who participated in the following video is an Arab." In his Lebanese-English lyrics -- no better term describes the language of the song -- Shwery tells us that Arabs are not the way they "seem on CNN or on BBC." And what could be more appropriate by way of welcoming US President Barack Obama, who is flying to Cairo today to address 1.5 billion Muslims to rebuild US credibility in the Muslim world, still firmly on the path of bringing the axis-of-evil era and its damaging stereotypes to an end?

Shwery's video was released at the end of April, but it acquired renewed relevance -- at least among informed parties -- after Obama's visit to the region was scheduled. An all-Arab song, all in English, addressing precisely the kind of rift the president has come to the region to help heal. Shwery wants to talk to the misguided Western masses, to make sure they know better than to believe CNN and BBC. With his porcelain skin and hairless chest, his soft tones and rapper-like demeanour, he wants to persuade the West of wonderfully Western he is. And so are we, fortunately: this, Shwery tells his audience, is what Arabs are like. Jad Shwery shot to fame after directing one particular music video starring the delectable Maria, a sexually provocative performer if ever there was one. The song -- released in 2005 -- was called, too suggestively for comfort, El'ab (Play or, in colloquial, Shake). It was widely regarded as soft porn, which evidently places Shwery in a position to erase all those anti-Western beards, veils and vestments of zealous piety that have so horribly tainted the Arab image?

"Take a look at us," the patriot intones in heavily accented English. "We ain't no bombers." Note that the final b is emphatically articulated. "We've got the guts [sic]." Shwery goes on, in the same pseudo- cool tone, "You're gonna experience an Arabic touch with a modern sense. Now is the time, I came up with the rhyme, to show you what we're not and listen to what we've got." And what have we got, pray tell? Civilisation? Art? History? Generosity? No. According to Shwery, what we've got is far more valuable than all that, and crucially more amenable to our would-be allies in America: "Sexy girls, Arab beauty that'll rock your world," while the camera zooms in on who else but Maria, in backless pink leotard, rocking playfully on a giant champagne bottle in a bucket. Not only that, but "we" also apparently have "loaded guys" that "you gotta see when they get their highs [once again, alas, sic]."

With these two elements of the Arab identity clearly identified in words and imagery -- bikini-clad porn star-style girls and hunks bobbing all over the place -- Shwery proceeds to the courtesy of inviting Westerners to "dance with us till the break of dawn, go with us, freak with us, sex and the sun," for as the sales pitch puts it, "funky Arabs turn you on." But there are more cultural specificities yet: "exotic beats", "mentality [sic.] and the grace [sic.] and the bling-bling [sic.] world of the glamorous race," where girls apparently adore "Yves Saint Lauren, Gucci, Louis Vuitton and Dior." Not to put too fine a point on it, in short, Shwery is supposedly selling anti- racial profiling, stereotype-debunking art; and it is art meant to summarise, for the benefit of the average Westerner, what it means to be Arab. It means petrodollar-financed prostitution, safely exoticised erotica and plastic surgery. That's all. I am sure Obama would be delighted, although -- thank God -- he wouldn't have seen this pitiably juvenile, thoroughly abusive, ludicrous excuse for a funk number on MTV.

It does not take much to guess that Shwery does not know what funk is, because he does not realise that funk -- "jazz's deformed cousin", in the words of the electro-loving Vince Noir in the British comedy show The Mighty Boosh, which emerged in response to hardship, in the jazz-saturated America of the 1950s -- is actually no longer cool. Could it be that Shwery discovered in this "Arabness" of designer labels and silicon-filled flesh, any of the "tales of tragedy and violence, erratic relationships, crushed aspirations, racial strife and flights of imagination that expressed unsettling yet undeniable truths about life" originally associated with the genre, as the Encyclopaedia Britannica describes it? No, he could not. And though touted as funk -- or at least "funky" [sic.]: cool but cooler? but that would be a misuse of the word -- Funky Arabs is neither jazzy nor groovy, anyway. It is just vulgar, suicidally naïve, perhaps even worse as an image of Arabs than the paraphernalia of militancy.

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