It is a
perfect summer evening in Damascus; a cool wind sweeps in from
the desert, soothing scorched pavements and carrying the smells
of strong coffee and cured meat from roadside stalls up into
the clotheslines and concrete hulks of the Syrian skyline. Normally
the city's streets would be packed with cruising teenagers,
strolling newlyweds, and fully robed Gulf tourists well past
midnight. It is simply too hot to do anything active during
the day, so they wait until after the muezzin's sunset call
to prayer and then stream outdoors to walk and talk and play.
But tonight the city seems completely deserted. I peer down
from my terrace overlooking a major Damascene thoroughfare and
the only movement to catch my eye comes from a stream of lights
emitted by the large apartment complex across the way. I notice
that each window in the twenty-story structure is flickering
in unison. Struck by a sudden idea I switch on the TV in my
room and turn to Channel 4. I realize immediately the source
of the flashing windows and the reason for the city's strange
emptiness tonight: Super Star.
and Monday night this past summer, an entire nation of Syrian
men and women, young and old, sat huddled around their TV sets
to take part in Super Star, the Arab version of American
Idol (itself a version of Britain's Pop Idol). The
format of the Lebanon-based program is similar to its prototype:
aspiring pop stars compete their way through ever-winnowing
rounds, this time singing a combination of modern and classical
Arab favorites, until a winner stands alone. To decide who moves
on, audience members cast their votes through the Internet,
an automated telephone service, and cell-phone text-messaging.
In the US,
the winners enjoy a spurt of celebrity and then fade from public
view. In the Arab world, last year's winner and all three runners-up
are still icons, with legions of fans and the kind of publicity
normally reserved for national leaders and religious figures.
Super Star and its contestants are everywhere--radio,
TV, print, billboards. Pirated copies of their music are traded
on street corners, glossy headshots hawked alongside lottery
tickets and family pictures of the President.
to the producers of Super Star, 15 million votes were
cast over the summer, with 3.2 million received in just the
final few days. It is unclear exactly how many individuals participated
due to the laxity of the competition's rules on multiple voting,
but these figures certainly indicate the involvement of a significant
part of the Arab population.
this show become so wildly popular in the Arab world? Why have
Arabs of every sect, creed, and social stratum in more than
a dozen countries turned to this single program out of a host
of satellite channels? The answer lies largely in its participatory
nature and appeal to a people long denied freedom of expression
and representation in other spheres of life.
It is almost
a truism to state that the peoples of the Middle East and North
Africa have never known what Westerners would call a liberal
democracy. To be sure, over the past century many Arab nations
have experimented with democratic reforms, some going so far
as to establish constitutions, regular elections, and institutional
checks and balances. But in the end the overwhelming tendency
has been to assume the rhetoric and rituals of democracy without
actually putting it in place. Millions of Arabs in the '60s
and '70s placed their hopes in the ideology of Pan-Arabism,
betting on its champion, Gamal Abdel Nasser, to deliver on his
promise to establish an egalitarian, fully unified Arab republic
that could stand up to the West and reassert the rightful dignity
of the Arab people. In reality, Nasser's regime was thoroughly
autocratic from the beginning, built around the strength of
his own personality and a fragile web of alliances with other
environment of limited freedom and marginalized identity comes
an independently produced TV program that both celebrates personal
achievement in an authentically Arab musical tradition, and
puts Arab audiences at the center of the decision-making process.
Young men and women representing different Arab nations test
their vocal skills against each other on a public stage, while
audiences from these nations, no longer passive spectators,
share their own voices to determine the outcome. Super Star
encourages, and in fact depends on, the active involvement of
ordinary Arabs in a "democratic" endeavor with real-time,
mutually beneficial results. If the Arab people cannot choose
their political representatives free from coercion, at least
they can select a cultural representative to champion their
great to see young Arabs with normal jobs and normal problems
on stage every night, and then to be able to help them rise
through the competition and stand out as the best," says
Georges Hafez, 17, part-time manager at a family-owned Internet
café in Damascus. "I voted twice for Ayman al-Attar,
the Libyan. Did you know he was studying to be a dentist? That's
Beyond the allure of participating in a cultural phenomenon
and helping to steer its course, Super Star cultivates
a rousing inter-Arab rivalry by including each contestant's
national affiliation as part of his identity on the show. A
few weeks ago, "Hadi from Syria" was eliminated, boosting
"Ayman from Libya" and "Ammar from Palestine"
into the final round.
According to the English-language Al-Bawaba.com, when
Ammar was asked why his tone was so sorrowful, he answered,
"I can't separate myself from the situation of my people."
Rahaf Tahseen, a second year accounting student at the University
of Damascus, expressed her feelings for the Syrian singer: "He
is the pride of the country. Everybody voted for him. When he
sings it feels like he's singing for all of us, his voice is
so pure and strong."
No doubt part of the appeal of voting in Super Star is
the chance to side with your countrymen and snub the audiences
of rival Arab countries. Along with the usual squealing teenybopper
crowd clutching homemade glitter-and-paste banners and fainting
on cue, the studio is normally filled with enraptured fans of
all ages waving a sea of flags in solidarity with their compatriots
onstage. At the climactic moment when Ayman from Libya and Ammar
from Palestine stood together for the last time to hear the
results of the final vote, a stagehand brought to each singer
their nation's colors. Interestingly, Ayman and Ammar then exchanged
flags and draped them around their bodies to await the announcement.
A Libyan and Palestinian stood side by side in recognition of
each other's talents, acknowledging at once both the distinctions
inherent in their national backgrounds and the power of artistic
expression to transcend these barriers in the spirit of true
camaraderie. Yet, when Ayman was declared the winner, a member
of Ammar's entourage walked to the end of the stage and unfurled
his flag directly in front of the camera, so that millions of
viewers saw nothing but the green, black, white and red of Palestine
for a few moments.
It is perhaps this aspect of Super Star more than anything
else that distinguishes the program from other cultural phenomena
to have taken hold in the modern Middle East. Super Star
does not pretend to promote, and in fact goes out of its way
to reject, the kind of Pan-Arabism that blends all Arab individuals
and nations into an undifferentiated mob of identical interests
and backgrounds. In some ways the Pan-Arab ideology of Nasser
and like-minded political and religious leaders was doomed from
the outset because it sought to impose an untenable, over-simplified
commonality upon the Arab peoples in denial of their myriad
social, cultural, and spiritual distinctions. Super Star
bucks this trend by celebrating individual achievements
and the different socio-cultural experiences that fostered them
within a common linguistic group. In the end, the only thing
shared by all the contestants and all the audiences is the admiration
for Arabic music--a commonality that does not require the subjugation
of individual wills to some lofty cause.
Unfortunately, it turns out that Super Star's equal playing
field may not have been quite so equal after all. Al-Bawaba.com
reported accusations from "high-level" Palestinian
authorities that Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi staged "a
costly nationwide publicity campaign" in favor of the Libyan
contestant and even provided free phone calls for citizens who
wished to vote. The biggest Palestinian cell-phone company,
for its part, openly admits having given similar discounts to
its subscribers, but says it did so only to counter the unfair
intervention of Gaddafi.
Though skeptics might justifiably point to this backbiting as
evidence that the Arab world is simply not ready to cast aside
old tendencies, the redeeming fact is that huge numbers of ordinary
Arab men and women chose to participate in this "liberal"
process in the first place. And for the most part their participation
resulted in the nomination of superb musical talents whose qualifications
were merit-based and representative of common interests. Besides,
as anyone on the Gore 2000 campaign could tell you, sometimes
even the best-intentioned democratic processes can be marred
by allegations of fraud.
the proliferation of the Internet, mobile phones, and satellite
television stations operating beyond the sphere of government
control, Arabs from every nation can watch a single Lebanese
television show and take responsibility for its outcome. The
contestants and the audiences both have an integral part to
play in the direction of the competition, and each represents
to varying degrees their own national and personal interests.
In effect, Super Star provides the only common platform
for popular participation in the Arab world--the only accessible,
properly "democratic" institution in a region dominated
by authoritarian elites.
At a time
when so much energy and attention is being focused on exporting
democratic values through nation-building and strong-arm diplomacy,
who would have thought that the best hope for Arab democracy
lay in American pop culture and a crooning TV "Idol"?
MacKenzie studies Arabic and teaches English in Damascus.