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Last Updated: Monday, 21 May 2007, 08:35 GMT 09:35 UK
Arab youth revel in pop revolution
By Sebastian Usher
BBC News media correspondent

Haifa Wehbe
Haifa Wehbe is pushing back the frontiers of sexual suggestiveness
In downtown Beirut - one of the key centres of the Arab music industry - Habib Battah, editor of the Middle East Broadcasting Journal, is keen to explain how a new breed of pop superstars like Nancy Ajram and Haifa Wehbe is providing the soundtrack for tens of millions of young people across the Arab world.

"If you look at 10, 20 years ago, the Middle East was one of those few places where parents and children enjoyed the same music - and today there is that generation gap that is forming for the first time in the Middle East," he says.

One of those who spearheaded this change is the Beiruti singer, Yuri Mrakadi. As an unplugged version of his biggest hit, Arabiyon Arab ("I am an Arab") plays in his snug studio in an old apartment in east Beirut, he recalls how he helped shake things up a few years back.

"Because I came up with red glasses and I had bleached hair and I was on guitar and I had like these jeans, I was representing my generation," he says.

"I wasn't trying to do anything, I was just trying to represent myself. People felt that 'oh yeah, this is what we want, but we want it in a new package, not the same old stuff'."

Modern image

The new wave of Arab singers have had their images burnished and glamorised by home-grown video directors like Said El Marouk.

They produce hundreds of music clips that have an expensive sheen and are technically far removed from the old style of Arab video, in which singers wandered uncomfortably around cheap sets of palm trees and fountains, bemoaning their lost loves.

Right now that's what's happening with music in the Middle East - it's being used as a way to connect young people
Habib Battah

Said says there is a thirst among the young for something new that reflects their lives.

"We want something that is like us," he says.

"What am I wearing? It's made in Italy. We want something that shows the modern Arab world, reflecting the truth and the future".

There are more than 40 Arab music video channels. Dominating the market is Rotana - owned by the billionaire Saudi Prince al-Waleed Bin Talal.

Rotana's marketing manager, Hady Hajjar, describes the company's vision from the top of a tower that looks across downtown Beirut - much of which is currently occupied by supporters of Hezbollah, who present a sharp contrast to the music videos' parade of flirtatious, scantily-clad singers.

"Let's not judge on terrorists, let's not judge on wars. Let's judge on cultural thinking. Let's judge on accomplishments," he says.

"We think what you see on Rotana is a good showcase for the Arab world. If I thought any differently, I wouldn't be working here. The main reason people are working in Rotana is because we believe we can reflect our image to the world. It's maybe our window to the world".

Yuri Mrakadi
Yuri Mrakadi says some find the gloss more important than the song

Rotana runs six TV channels, a record company and has a roster of more than 100 of the Arab world's top stars.

It produces a new video every two to three days. The most expensive can cost up to $300,000 (150,000) - a fortune in the Arab entertainment industry, where a 30-part series is budgeted at half the price.

Rotana makes much of its money through the constant stream of mobile phone messages from its young viewers that runs along the bottom of the screen.

Habib Battah says the messages are much more than simply a way to make money.

"There's a real frustration in the Middle East among young people, and this is a way for them to kind of escape their family structure - of dating, of arranged marriages etc - and actually meet people in different countries - young people - and connect with them.

"And there is a big desire, a big thirst for that forum. And so right now that's what's happening with music in the Middle East - it's being used as a way to connect young people."

Selling sex

There has been a lot of controversy over the sexual content of the videos - featuring women singers in what are highly provocative poses for the Arab world.

One of the biggest stars right now is Nancy Ajram.

I think watching videos of Haifa Wehbe and all these girls who have their boobs hanging out is a kind of mild form of porn
Lena Lahham
Habib recalls how one of her early videos helped shoot her to superstardom.

"The video Akhasmak Ah was basically shot in a cafe in Beirut, and the woman was seen as a power figure in the video.

"She was dancing on the table and it was a room full of men and the men were just at her feet. And she was just commanding them. So in some ways it was seen as showing a woman as an object and in other ways it was seen as a woman being empowered."

Many of the music clips - like those in the West - are selling sex in a way that is new to the Middle East.

The biggest phenomenon in the past few years has been Haifa Wehbe, a Lebanese singer whose image is that of a sex goddess.

Her videos and songs have taken Arab pop into new areas of sexual suggestiveness, inspiring a flurry of flirtatious, scantily-clad imitators.

Lena Lahham is a producer who has worked with many of these new singers, including Haifa.

"For people in Saudi Arabia, people in Kuwait - people in really conservative societies in the Middle East - there's a barrier between men and women that is just so huge that the only outlet for the men is... This is how I view it.

"But I think watching videos of Haifa Wehbe and all these girls who have their boobs hanging out is a kind of mild form of porn for them - this is why they love watching videos."

Surface gloss

Some Muslim clerics have denounced the video culture. Many Arab women say they find the videos demeaning.

And there is also concern that the classical Arab music of the past, embodied by the iconic, though somewhat dowdy Egyptian singer, Uum Kalthoum, has been squeezed out.

Nancy Arjam
Nancy Ajram - demeaning to women or a model of empowerment?

"I've always said that if you look at Uum Kalthoum for instance - I'm touching on something from our culture - imagine her now in a video clip. It wouldn't work. I don't think you could have someone who looked like Uum Kalthoum being a star now," says the Beiruti singer, Yuri Mrakadi.

He remembers a moment that perfectly encapsulated for him the Arab video culture's infatuation with surface gloss.

"When I used to have a production house, before I started singing, I once had a major artist who came to me and said, I want to do a video clip.

"I said OK, we can do that, and I asked about the song. He said: 'No, I don't have the song yet, but I have the car and the villa.' I swear to God!

"I said: 'Oh, really. He said: 'Yes, we're ready.'"

Broader change?

This seemingly endless supply of new and disposable Arab pop has filtered into the wider culture.

Big hits like Haifa Wehbe's Buss el Wawa are everywhere, even catching the attention of the region's traditionally dour politicians.

"It's very sexually suggestive," says editor Habib Battah.

"It's kind of saying 'Kiss my little wound, My little wound needs to heal'. My little wound means wawa, so in Arabic it's Buss el Wawa.

"The wawa has become such a buzz in cultural language that even the politicians here will make fun of it, and they will use it as a slogan, you know: 'What is this - a wawa?'"

Looking at the apparent freedom and openness of the women in the latest videos, some in the West see them as a sign that the old Middle East of authoritarian leaders and ideological intransigence is changing.

But Mr Battah feels that this is going too far.

"There is a misconception in the West that reality TV and pop music means that the Middle East is becoming more democratic. But, you know, voting for a superstar is not the same as voting for an election."

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