A Separation

Cultural diplomacy has often been ignored as a salient form of political diplomacy. Currently, we are seeing a change in the practice of Arabic cultural diplomacy as it expands to include media that is not state-affiliated and creative projects that are made independently of the government. One example is Iranian director Asghar Farhadi, whose award-winning film, A Separation, has provided foreign audiences around the world with an accurate and credible portrayal of Iranian culture and identity.

Farhadi’s A Separation, which he describes as a “detective film told in the style of a documentary,” demonstrates the influence of film diplomacy as a medium for communicating messages, so often miscommunicated, to the global audience. A Separation is an incredibly powerful film about the difficulties of existing within two spheres at once—the traditions and precedents of old Arab culture and the struggles and demands of modern society. It gives American audiences an incredibly intimate and personal exploration of Iranian domestic life—a life divided by gender, age, religion and class.

The movie tells the story of an Iranian couple going through a separation (Nader and Simin) and the domestic worker Nader hires to help care for his ailing father (Razieh) as a result of Simin moving out. Razieh, who is pregnant finds the work incredibly difficult and eventually suffers a miscarriage. The movie revolves around the culpability of that miscarriage which could have been caused by Nader’s harsh treatment of her or her husband’s alleged domestic abuse. The film shows the audience intimate portraits of Nader and Simin’s life such as domestic quarrels, daily work, mental disease, their daughter’s schooling, Tehran traffic, frustrating government bureaucracy.

We read a lot this semester about the difficulty Iranian filmmakers have in expressing themselves outside the bounds of national censorship as well as the expectations of the Iranian filmgoer. It is rare that a film made within Iran can capture such an intimate and morally complex portrait of domestic life. It forces the audience to ask themselves complex and globally relevant questions of responsibility—the film focuses on the difficulty and ambiguity in telling the truth and the effects of inflexibility and pride within Iranian male culture.

This movie is interesting because though there are allusions to Iranian politics, it does not present itself as a political work. Instead, it gives us a snapshot of Iranian life, allowing its audience to pick up on the subtle similarities and differences between the Iranian and American domestic spheres. I think that often Middle Eastern films about social issues are regarded in a political context because daily life in the Arab World is completely dominated by political life. A Separation certainly brings about questions of morality and ethics but also refuses to be a political talking piece. There is family at the heart of this film. Yes, there are gender dynamics, class conflicts and an exploration of the religious and social systems that cause Razieh to find herself in such despair, but family is what is truly at the heart of this film. The politics of the family in this case supersedes the politics of the nation.

Here is a link to the trailer for A Separation 

Posted in Theatre & Film | 3 Comments

IAM and French/Arabic Hip-Hop

I spent the second half of last year living in France and was surprised by the prevalence of Arabic identity within French pop culture. In France, Arabs from northern African are known as “Maghrebs.” IAM is one of the first and most prominent Maghrébin hip-hop bands in France and its front man, Akhenaton is also a popular solo artist. In France, Maghrebs experience a strong amount of social and political prejudice. An incredibly conservative political party, Front National (FN), campaigns almost solely on the platform that Maghrébins do not belong in France and should be expelled from the country as they are not a part of French identity. IAM uses their music to fight against FN. An example of this can be heard in their contribution to the song “Contre les Lois Racistes” (Against the Racist Laws), which focused on raising youth consciousness to rally against unjust immigration laws.

Maghrébin hip-hop has emerged in recent decades as a way for French Maghrébin youth to vocalize their discontent and engrain themselves within France’s growing music industry as a permanent part of popular culture. IAM raps about African and Arabic identity in its music, with particular allusion to ancient Egypt. The group emerged in the late 80’s and is known for mixing French beats and lyrics with Middle Eastern and Egyptian influence. Even their stage names are of Egyptian origin; Akhenaton and Kheops both chose stage names that allude to pharaohs. By referencing ancient Egypt and referring to themselves as pharaohs, IAM assert connections to the contemporary Arab world in an indirect way. If their music were more outright with their references to Middle Eastern origins, white French conservatives might associate it with Islamic Fundamentalism’s grip over North African diasporatic communities living in France and try and censor it.

Often, when someone of Arabic origin immigrates to France, they are encouraged, if not forced, to forget their cultural roots and assimilate into the French culture. IAM helped to reinvigorate the large but culturally silent Maghrébin population within France. The group’s music is both politically charged and defiant; it subverts notions of racial superiority by suggesting that a multiracial alliance can combat “old” French politics.

In recent years, their connection with Maghrébin culture and Middle Eastern identity has become more pronounced. Now, they project a specifically Middle Eastern and Maghrébin image  in order to try and make the Islamic and Arabic subculture in France a permanent part of national identity. This is a theme that Akhenaton has carried into his solo career. He posesses many different cultural identities (from Italy, living in France, practicing Islam and of Middle Eastern descent) and unites these identities through the universal language of hip-hop. These connections and this effort can be particularly seen on the cover of his solo album Meteque et Mat. The album shows an Italian man with a Pharaoh chess piece, in front of the background of an Islamic design around his name and an Arab and Italian looking house.

I thought that this group was a great example of the way Middle Eastern hip-hop not only acts as an ambassador for Arabic identity and culture, but has the ability to transform the way Arabs are represented across pop culture.

Here is a link to “Contre les Lois Racistes”

Here is a link to Akhenaton’s album cover.

Posted in Algeria, Music & Oral Performance, North Africa | 1 Comment

Dialogue Through Music

While browsing the internet exploring the world of Middle Eastern music, I found this article called “The Arab League of Hip Hop”. This article discusses the “political potency” of Arab Hip Hop, and its transnational existence and unity throughout the Middle East, by comparing it to the Arab League and jokingly calling it the “Arab League of Hip Hop”. The author mentions U.S.A. backing of Arab Hip Hop and of Hip Hop in general for diplomacy use, but he focuses mainly on the lack of support by the U.S. for Palestinian Hip Hop. He even mentions that Hamas does not support Palestinian Hip Hop.

What particularly stood out to me in this article was how Arab hip hop, specifically Palestinian, engages in a dialogue with various events throughout the middle east and the world. The example they gave was Shadia Mansour’s, a British-Palestinian artist, song “Koffeye Arabeyye/The Kufiya is Arabic”. She wrote this song as a reaction to the creation of an Israeli Keffiyeh. Mansour immediately reacted to the Israeli appropriation of the Kufiya by writing and performing her song. This incited a dialogue within the mainstream media, critiquing the existence of the Israeli Keffiyeh and showing support for Palestinians. This seemed to me to be a really good example of how Arab Hip Hop is politically engaged in current events and how it encourages dialogue about these events amongst its fans.

Here is the the website for the Israeli Keffiyeh and here is a link to Mansour’s sung response.

Posted in Israel, Music & Oral Performance, Out-of-Class Media Post | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

Shim al-Yasmin by Mashrou3 Leila

Mashrou3 Leila is a Lebanese band that has amassed great popularity among the more alternative music scene in the Arab world after releasing their debut album in 2009.  They are known for satirically commenting on social issues in Lebanese and Arab society and as such have been faced with a lot of criticism.

One of their songs entitled “Shim al-Yasmin” or “Smell the Jasmine” is about a homosexual relationship and criticizes the homophobia found in Arab society.  It poses a dilemma in which the singer is in love with another man and wants to have a relationship with him, yet society will not allow for this.  He says he wanted to“’arfak ‘a ahli” or “introduce you to my family”, but “inta bi beitak o ana shi beit” or “you’re in your house, and I’m in another”.  Finally, he ends the song with “o tzakkar tinsani” or “remember to forget me”.

I found this song interesting primarily because it touches on one of the most controversial issues in Arab society today in a very subtle way.  He uses the ending possessive pronoun “-ek” instead of “-ik” to imply that he is talking a man.  Furthermore, he does not even explicit say that he loves this man, but instead muses about how he wants to do everything with this man that he would do if he were in a relationship (i.e. introduce you to my parents, take care of your kids, be your homemaker, etc).

In addition, this song is reminiscent of a more classical Arabic style than Mashrou3 Leila’s other songs.  They employ a very stripped-down background music and utilize instruments like a bass guitar, an acoustic guitar, a violin, and a piano.  None of these are particularly “Arab”, but rather than overshadow Hamed Sinno’s voice, these instruments yield to the power of it.  As such, if we focus on his voice, we find that it evokes a more “classical” sentiment.  He constantly elongates and wavers syllables, and emphasizes the pronunciation of certain letters such as the “haa” in habibi.  This point is particularly important because he chooses to emphasize words that are the key subjects in discussion of homosexuality, habibi meaning my darling (masculine).  He stays painstakingly true to correct Arabic pronunciation, which creates an interesting dichotomy between the value of Arabic culture and his criticism of this same culture.

Link to a live version of the song: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Df-89RZgXrw

Link to lyrics in Arabic: http://feelnotes.wordpress.com/2010/07/08/mashrou3-leila-the-lyrics/

Link to translation: http://feelnotes.wordpress.com/2010/07/12/mashrou3-leila-the-english-lyrics/

Posted in Music & Oral Performance, Out-of-Class Media Post | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

I Love Hip Hop in Morocco and Cultural Appropriation

Like Charles, I also chose to look at I Love Hip Hop in Morocco.  Our class discussion about cultural appropriation really interested me, particularly how Litvin’s ideas about the appropriation of Hamlet might relate to Arab hip hop as well.  On a visual level, the “I Love Hip Hop” phrase expressed with a heart references the “I Love New York” t-shirts, and while this “I” plus a heart is fairly common now, it made me think of international marketing techniques.  In the film, the organizers’ efforts to find corporate sponsors include meetings with Coca-Cola, who represents this same kind of multinational corporate marketing.  On the website for the film, ilovehiphopinmorocco.com, you can buy a variety of different products with this phrase.

In terms of the hip hop artists themselves, they do seem to be engaging with American rap from the 1980s and 1990s in ways that are responsive.  Rather than simply sampling the sounds or the style, as some American hip hop artists now do with Arab music (like in Jay-Z’s “Big Pimpin’”), the artists do have a particular understanding of the context of this hip hop and rap and can relate that context to their own struggles.  In a similar way, the themes of Hamlet really resonated with many in the Arab world, and thus Hamlet was incorporated into the Arab theater canon in new ways.  Are there more connections between Hamlet and hip hop?  The phrase “words, words, words” comes to mind.  Also, are American artists engaging in similar appropriation of Arab hip hop?  The scene where the group meets with Chuck D might be an example of this.

Posted in In-Class Media Post, Music & Oral Performance, Theatre & Film | 2 Comments

Street Jokes, Polysemy, and Intertextuality

Nukat al Shari3a (Street Jokes) is a program shown on Jordanian television that follows host Mohammed Lahham as he travels through both Palestine and Jordan asking people he meets on the street to tell him a joke. The show is currently in its second season. This is a link to the source I found out about the show from, a blog that helps Arabic students to gain proficiency in dialect through vieweing various media forms:
I find the link above to be really interesting for a few reasons. In response to one child’s joke, the host replies “Like!” in English and gives him a high five. Though the entire show is in Arabic, the host chooses to break this linguistic precedent and use the English word ‘like,’ to invoke the facebook practice of ‘liking’ content published by friends. The polysemy of the video sends an interesting message about the demographics that the show is trying to reach; it would be a really interesting study to look at what type of audience is watching the show regularly, how much English they may speak, how familiar they are with facebook, and whether the reference was understood. The fact that people residing in other countries often perceive facebook as inherently connected with the English language is also an interesting fact.
Another video actually contains a reference to the Zenga Zenga video that we watched in class. Though I’m not entirely sure about the Arabic in this portion of the video, it seems as though the host asks a man to tell him a joke, to which he eventually replies, “zenga zenga!” and continues to recite a few notable quotes from the clip. The show plays on this reference and plays the song over clips of the host interacting with Palestinians with editing effects that reflect the original youtube sensation. This small digression demonstrates how important a role intertextuality can play in humor and media in general.
Though they do not usually have English subtitles, you can view more of these videos by searching for ‘Mohammed Lahham’ on youtube.

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Homeland Imprisoned Within Itself

Leading up to and during the Iranian Revolution, huge numbers of Iranians fled their country and moved to the West. The Iranian diaspora now has pockets throughout Europe and the US. Nowhere is the population of Iranian refugees and their children larger than in Los Angeles, known in the Persian community there as Tehrangeles, and population estimates range between 700,000 and 800,00 Iranians (far more than the population of Boston proper). Because of the huge restrictions on music production in Iran, the majority of Iranian pop music is now produced in LA and distributed in Iran via satellite channels and the internet.

Hengameh, an Iranian American artist based out of LA produced a song in 2006 called “Iran.” Similar to the Turkish songs we listened to in class, Hengameh’s song is a mournful love song about her homeland. Employing acoustic guitar and accordion combined with entirely Farsi lyrics, Hengameh combines American musical tactics with Persian poetics. “From you hardly a word, and me with a broken heart,” she sings evoking the loss of a beloved father. She does not shy from politics either, singing about “a great old homeland, imprisoned within itself.” Hengameh’s song exemplifies the pan-Middle Estern topic of homeland in music and approaches it in a way that emotionally connects with Iranians both inside and outside of Iran.

Watch the music video here: Iran- Hengameh

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I Love Hip Hop In Morocco

I Love Hip Hop In Morocco is a documentary about the first major hip hop festival in Morocco.  While the overarching theme is the creation and performance of the festival, it also focuses on individual artists and allows the viewer access to their thoughts. I found a couple aspects of the film surprising.  First, I thought it was interesting how self-aware many of the artists were.  In American rap, much of the music and the discourse between rappers seems to be very self centered, as the artists tend to focus on themselves – their positive attributes and worldly goods.  There is little to no mention of other people (save for insults) and other places in the world.  However, the Moroccan artists seemed very aware of their place in a global hip hop scene (relative to their American influences) as well as their linkage to Hip Hop as a music of resistance.  Most mainstream American artists no longer link rap to the struggles experienced by African Americans, but the Moroccan rappers link their music with both their daily struggles and the historical precedent.

Another aspect I found interesting was that a lot of the artists in the movie were in groups, such as H-Kayne.  While this is reminiscent of earlier American rap, as there were groups such as the Sugarhill Gang and Run-DMC, it is not really reflective of modern day US hip hop, where most artists perform solo.  Since Moroccan hip hop was still in its early stages, I wonder if it will follow the path of American rap and morph into a more solo scene, or if there is a cultural difference that encourages group collaboration.

Posted in In-Class Media Post, Music & Oral Performance, Theatre & Film | 3 Comments

Beeshu- Ridicule and Revolution

Among the most interesting things I’ve come across this semester has been Top Goon: Diaries of a Little Dictator. These are very short (generally 5 minute) episodes of a show of sorts, currently being produced inside of Syria in an attempt to weaken Bashar al Assad. The story follows a finger puppet Assad, but calls him “Beeshu,” which is diminutive for Bashar, and portrays him as small, scared, controlled by his military generals, and absolutely crazy.  Below is episode five, in which his children protesting him in his own home.

Episode 5: Protests at Beeshu’s Home

The show begins with Beeshu shouting out to himself, “I’m not crazy! I’m not crazy!” Beeshu then comes in while his children are playing, making a big fuss over himself, and asks the children why they did not clap for him, as others do when we walks into a room. The children explain that they are each mad because he has killed or tortured one of their friends. Beeshu cannot accept this, and tries either to justify what happened or to simply shut the children up. The final straw comes when they ask him if he’s heard the newest protest chant, and proceed to both to chant, “Syria, don’t be afraid, Bashar after Ghadaffi!” and tell their father he’d be lucky to last another month. Bashar then calls for his security officers, literally calling out ‘Goons! Goons!” He chases away his children, and crys out that they are “Infiltrators! Salafis! Israelis! Al Qaeda! Al Qaeda! Al Qaeda!”

In the discussion that followed a screening of the show,  Nadim Shehadi, a visiting scholar to the Fares Center, mentioned the importance of undermining the idea of authority more than the physical authority in a case like Syria. He pointed out that, as long as people look at Syria and say things like ‘well, things are really bad now, but without Bashar, it might be worse, there might be Islamist extremists in power!’ we are buying into the idea of Assad’s power. He works very hard to posit himself as a keeper of peace on a regional scale, as preventing something even worse from coming, and buying into that idea can actually help uphold his regime. But the show works to undermine the idea of Assad as a stabilizing force, showing him as constantly scared, childish, and making outlandish statements, such as that anyone who opposes his power is a fundamentalist terrorist. This aims to send a very strong message to all those who might think to support Assad, showing him to be a very poor person to count on for anything, let alone their security.

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The 99

Teshkeel Comics published The Ninety-Nine in 2007. The Ninety-Nine is a comic book featuring, for the first time a team of superheroes based on Islamic culture and religion. They embody the 99 attributes of Allah and come from 99 different countries. For example ‘Noora’, who has the power to look into people and see the bad and good in them and ‘Jami’ has the ability to create magnificent inventions. The creator’s desire was to rescue Islam from the images of intolerance in a child friendly way. In a recent TED Talk, Shereen El Feki said that THE 99 is not just a comic series, it is a theme park and has it’s own animated series and shortly the likes of superman and wonder woman are to join forces with the 99 to beat injustice wherever they find it. Teshkeel initially entered the animated television world with the comic book series. However, recently The 99 has prospered and now partners with DC Comics’ Justice League of American standing cape to shoulder with the likes of Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman to defeat the friends of evil. The 99 are ordinary teenagers and adults from across the globe, who come into possession of one of the ninety-nine magical mystical Noor Stones (Ahjar Al Noor, Stones of Light) and find themselves empowered in a specific manner. All dilemmas faced by The 99 are overcome through the combined powers and capabilities of three or more members. Through this, the 99 series aims to promote values such as cooperation and unity globally and throughout the Islamic world. The 99, uses appropriation of various superheros, like the recent Arab hip-hop songs to appeal to every section of the Islamic public sphere. Further, the collaboration with international companies has increased their transnational impact. The 99, has its own comic books, tv series and movies, in English and Arabic.




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