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Arab Version of American Idol: Why There Is Hope For the World

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The Arab world’s equivalent of American Idol, Star Academy, concluded in April with the crowning of Saudi Arabian singer Hisham Abdul-Rahman as “Star” on the Lebanese LBC network.

I love the awkward enthusiasm of the announcement of Hisham’s victory on the English version of the show’s website:

“Congratulations and celebrations when everyone knows that you’re a Star. Congratulations and jubilations we want the world to know you are happy as can be. Everybody has got moments in their lives when the sun shines down so warm and good. Hisham, this is one of those times, when life unfolds the way it should. You never know just how it’s going to go, so the best that you can do is do your best because you passed the test. It’s time for a celebration, being a Star, what a sensation!!!”

What a sensation, indeed. Imagine American Idol carrying on through what this show did: it was delayed for a week when former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Harriri was assassinated on the 14th February, and three times in a row in March and April, the weekly concert was interrupted by explosions.

The show — with 16 young male and female performers from all over the Arab world being filmed 24 hours a day living and training together as they competed for a recording contract — was an enormous hit throughout the region. Over 80% of Lebanese teens tuned in, for example.

What tremendous news: a silly, shallow, modern reality show with aspirants seeking so temporal and decadent a thing as stardom, and an audience going nuts over the process. Where there is pop culture mania, fads and celebrity there is hope against political and dogmatic religious oppression.

Saudi religious scholars certainly took note, condemning the hoopla in the strongest terms on the Saudi news site Al-Wifaq. “Young Arab men and women were put together in an abominable state of mingling of sexes … exposing themselves, singing, dancing and corruption … What happened is considered a crime against Islam and a great offence against the Islamic nation.”

When Hisham triumphantly returned home with an appearance at a Riyadh shopping mall in late-April, admirers rushed to shake his hand and girls even — zounds — kissed him. The Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice went bananas and put him on a plane to Jeddah.

“A number of youths and girls crowded round him and deviant behavior occurred. Then the commission removed him from Riyadh on the orders of the governor,” the sheikhs wrote in the Al-Wifaq statement. “We call on this youth, and all who took part with him … and all who gave media coverage or prizes or votes, we call on all of them to repent before God.”

And they said the enthusiastic reponse to Hisham’s victory and appearance indicated a “defect in society.”

Quite the opposite, deranged zealots, quite the opposite. Most importantly, their screed is without teeth: they call for repentance, not prison or execution.

Lastly, another refreshing sign is the open debate about the controversy and the propriety of the show in general as evidenced by this blog discussion, and the key line, “Do we have to be either with 100% Bin Laden or 100% Star Academy??”

No you don’t, as the comments on the blog from across the region attest.

Samara writes, “Getting to the point of the subject now. Bin Laden is a psycho. He did something very wrong and HARAM. What is the so HARAM about Star Academy? Did they harm anyone? Did they kill people?

Saudi Arabia people have been making a big deal about Star Academy for no reason. There is nothing wrong with the damn program. We will hear comments every year for the same nonsense reason.

If those people do not like, disagree, or even find it HARAM, then they should not watch it…”

But samie_jr is concerned, “staracademy isnt in the business of making stars, its in the business of ripping people’s pockets specially the Gulf region … its a cheap program .. making very young people watching this progam want to act like those in the program …

You see how George make the girls kneel and move their legs and so on .. its all part of showing the sexy contour parts of a female body ..

its a low class program , the program along with all its staff .. they all stink.”

And hihi thinks some perspective is in order, “I think those people who makes “fatwa” that star ac is haram or something like that has to get a life!!! The sheikhs can giva fatwa about terrorism and say that its HARAM TO KILL INNOCENT PEOPLE AND THAT THOSE PERSONS WHO DO THOSE THINGS IN THE NAME OF ISLAM IN FACT DON´T FOLLOW THE RELIGION!!! I think they must make fatwa on serious things not on programs like star ac!!!!!”

Music to my ears.

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About Eric Olsen

  • http://selfaudit.blogspot.com Aaman

    Fine reporting, Eric.Sex,rock & jobs – the best way to make a change.

    Paula Abdul’s next stint perhaps?

  • Eric Olsen

    thanks Aaman, Paula would make a great ambassador!

  • SFC SKI

    NOt a lot of real rock in the ME yet, it’s like that bad Manilow style stuff.

  • http://selfaudit.blogspot.com Aaman

    They’ve lost out on one generation, thanks to the oil boom – they’ll catch up.

    India did too, thanks to semi-socialism. Look at the scene now:)

  • Eric Olsen

    it’s the vitality displayed by expending energy on stupid pop culture stuff that is the key here

  • Bennett

    A ray of hope, a sign of better times ahead? I do hope so. Great job Eric, we need more news like this.

  • Eric Olsen

    thanks Bennett, I think it a peek into a fundamental shift in the culture and very much a sign of changing times

  • SFC SKI

    The comments in the blog you cite are really interesting, and I am glad to read the varying opinions that are there.

    AS I have said before, the Muslim Arab world is no more easy to pigeonhole than any other people, region, or religion. There is hope.

  • jarboy

    keep in mind that the real jihad is not muslims against the west, but fundamentalist muslims against moderate muslims. come to think of it, isn’t soemthing similar taking shape in the usa? christian fundamentalists against religious moderates?