Don't Take Your Love to Town

14 October 2004

Elissa, Nancy Ajram, Amr Diab, Mustafa Amar.  The mention of these names will certainly draw blank stares from everyone I know back home.  These people are all Arab singers.  Actually, they are more than singers.  They are international superstars, with 250 million fans throughout the Middle East.  Gangs of photographers follow them wherever they go.  They arrive at red carpet events in limousines, just like the celebrities at Hollywood premieres.  Their lives and loves are chronicled in glossy magazines and critiqued in online chat rooms.  Their often surgically enhanced faces adorn billboards and posters in every town and city throughout the region.  From Kirkuk to Cairo, you’ll hear their songs being played in cars, homes, shops, and restaurants. 

Their yearning-but-innocent music most often tells the familiar stories of love lost, love betrayed, or love denied for some cruel reason.  “Habibi” (“My Love”) is heard in nearly every ballad.  In the Arab homeland, from the Western Mediterranean to the banks of the Tigris, these crooners and chanteuses are stars in the sky generating a Beatlemania-like response in the shackled hearts of millions. 

Yet in the U.S., these people known to a good chunk of the world’s inhabitants could walk down a street in Manhattan and be completely anonymous.  With their nose jobs and collagen-injected lips, Elissa and Nancy Ajram might be confused for just another two young ladies from the Upper East Side.  Amr Diab and Mustafa Amar, with their dark curly hair and swarthy looks, might sadly be dismissed as two off-duty cab drivers, probably under Patriot Act surveillance.

But one young lady would turn heads no matter where she went.  No plastic surgery for this natural beauty.  If she was the subject of surveillance, it would be for the purposes of getting videos of her that could be played back again and again for the boys at the station, who would pause from their donuts long enough to inject some colorful action verbs into their glowing reviews. 

Rania Hussein, aka “Ruby,” is to Arabs in 2004, what Madonna was to Americans in 1984.  The 23-year-old law student from Cairo burst onto to the Arab music scene last year with “Enta Aref Leih” (“Do You Know Why?”).  The video that accompanied that song showed young Ruby—who is tall and curvy, with long dark hair and big dark eyes--wearing a belly dancer’s outfit, shaking and shimmying through the streets of, oddly, Prague.  Half of her midsection is exposed and her shoulders are bare.  That’s it.  By MTV standards this is incredibly tame.  If Christina Aguilera, Britney Spears, Pink, and Lil’ Kim are rated X, Ruby’s performance in “Enta Aref Leigh” deserves a G.  The Daphne character in the Scooby Doo cartoons often showed more skin. 

But the Arab world was up in arms.  (I should point out that I am being figurative, not literal.  An important clarification these days.)  “Who is this tramp bringing dishonor to the Arab Homeland?” conservative commentators with long beards and kufeya cloths on their heads would ask, while their hormonally-charged sons cleared the racks of Ruby CDs in every bootleg stand they could find.  “Do you like Ruby?” is a question I always ask when I meet young Egyptians guys.  They laugh excitedly, slap the table or the steering wheel, and say “Ah…Ruby.” 

For her part, Ruby didn’t understand all the fuss.  She pointed out, quite rightly, that belly dancing has been part of the culture here forever.  Why were so many people attacking her?  But her protests fell on deaf ears.  That kind of slutty behavior was expected of American girls, but an Arab woman should know better. 

In early 2004, Ruby followed up with another smash hit, “Leih Beydari Keda” (“Why Does He Keep Secrets?”).  The tune is catchy and the song itself is rather innocent.  But much of this video shows Ruby, this time dressed in white tank top and leggings, working out on an exercise bicycle.  One inch of her midsection is showing, but it’s the swath that contains her belly button.  Again, by MTV standards, this is nothing.  But the Muslim Coalition and Focus On al-Family people over here freaked out.  The video has been banned on several television stations throughout the Arab world for being “inappropriate” and “against Arab social and traditional values.”  Her countryman and fellow young musician, Amr Diab, said recently that when he sees her seductive videos he immediately turns off his television.

Ruby still lives in the working class Cairo house in which she grew up.  According to an interview I read with her in The Jordan Times, she said that lots of people call her names when she leaves her home; names too nasty to be printed in an Arab newspaper.  This makes her sad.  All she wants to do is sing and dance because it makes her feel free and happy.  Her intent is not so offend but to entertain.  She seems to be doing both in equal measure.  American readers can judge for themselves by visiting www.rubymania.tv

The Arab world seems very confused by female sexuality.  In Saudi Arabia, religious police walk around and hit women with little sticks for showing too much ankle skin.  Yet Saudi men drive across the border to five-star hotel bars in Aqaba, Jordan to get drunk on whiskey and watch Eastern European belly dancers do their thing.  Girls in West Amman wear push-up bras and painted on jeans, but have to be home by 10:00 and, while out, are in constant mobile phone communication with their brothers or parents.  My Arabic teacher, a progressive young Christian woman, told me about an anatomical drawing class she is taking at a local art college.  The option of using a live nude model was a complete NOGO.  So the teacher brought in small statues depicting the naked male and female form and asked the students to sketch them.  The more conservative Muslim girls in the class refused, saying that it was pornographic.  To accommodate them, the female figurine was removed and the male had a handkerchief tied around his waist.

After September 11th, the question of “Why do they hate us?” became a popular topic of discussion in America.  If “they” do indeed hate “us,” perhaps sex is part of the reason.  Conservative, religious Arabs (much like conservative religious Americans), tremble and fume at the gyrations of Britney, Christina, Pink et al that they see beamed in on their satellite TVs.  They fear their daughters becoming like them.  I know a sane Iraqi man who actually returned to Saddam’s regime from exile because he didn’t want his American-born daughter being corrupted in the States.  Think about that!  Perhaps this all explains why so many Arabs hate Ruby.  She is one of them.  Is she the thin edge of the wedge that, if left unchecked, will split their society wide open?  No doubt there are a good number who quietly hope this will be the case.  But they aren’t the ones calling the shots, though they are the ones buying the records.

The other day I heard on Amman’s English-language easy listening station, Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman.” 

You can bend but never break me
'cause it only serves to make me
More determined to achieve my final goal

It was amusing to hear that song in this part of the world.  Perhaps Ruby can take some strength from this feminist anthem recorded 32 years ago.  Maybe for her next project, she can even do a cover.  In fact, as a statement, she should be covered while doing the cover.  Her body and hair concealed beneath a long black frock and headscarf, she could belt out:

I am strong
I am invincible
I am woman

You can be sure that the conservative commentators in these parts would go insane if this actually happened.  You can also be sure that the album would go multi-platinum.