I remember, one afternoon in 2004, watching TV in my aunt’s sitting room in a small West Bank village. Much of the night before had been taken up speaking about the current toxic situation in the region, my family regaling me with tales of redemption, betrayal and fear. All told with a hefty serve of humour. I could tell that in some ways, peculiarly enough, there were people in other parts of the world who took their situation more seriously than themselves.
My feelings were confirmed when the next day I sat in front of the TV, flicking channels and finally settling on one of the many music stations taking the Arab world by storm. This one was called “Superstar”, not to be confused with the pan-Arab Idol show of the same name, and it ran music videos and concert clips 24/7, SMS messages of love and flirtation scrolling constantly across the bottom of the screen in gaudy technicolour. A family friend later confirmed that they were watching Mazzika, another of these music channels, more than Al-Jazeera. It all seemed very bizarre to me, but I concluded that in such times of trouble, no matter how misguided it seemed, music videos, with their cheeky storylines and buffed, good-looking and impossibly happy actors, obviously served as an antidote. Forget occupation and war — Nancy Ajram had a new album out.
I guess not even a familiarity with Western MTV culture would prepare me for the pop culture-saturated Middle East I visited and slightly recoiled from. I write this as a Muslim who has grown up in Australia, but with an enduring love of my heritage. I encountered a Middle East I wasn’t quite prepared for on many levels, but my understanding is layered and borne out of something entirely different to that of those women who visit the Arab world in search of tales of woe (think Geraldine Brooke’s Nine Parts of Desire and the more recent The Veiled Lands by Christina Hogan). And I think that’s partly why I don’t feel any richer for having read Muhajababes.
Meet Allegra Stratton, BBC journalist and twenty-something-year-old. She lets you know straight off the bat that she’s a bit of a firecracker. She’s had an argument with her roommate about the legitimacy of the US invasion of Iraq: roommate says it’s bad, Stratton thinks it’s good news. She soon realises that the war in Iraq is nothing short of a catastrophe and this somehow leads her to take some time off to explore the Middle East, no doubt in search of 10-year-olds wielding AK-47s. “I’d go there and see whether their young population — in all its puppy-fat enormity — was taking form as the profs would like it to. I wasn’t going to get into Iraq but I could go to countries near it”, she tells us importantly and in what is, as I eventually realise, her humour-lite style. There are funny moments, but she’s not a comedian.
Stratton’s “book of conversations” is essentially that: a record of her meetings with anyone who seemed her age whom she interviewed (youth being her basic criteria) during her trek through Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Dubai. What Stratton seems to have found is a bunch of pretentious, hippy-nostalgic luvvies, who, incidentally, are just as annoying as their Western counterparts.
To give you an idea of the flavour, consider some of the characters she covers: there’s Walid who wants to instigate revolution in Lebanon, despite having one of the less autocratic governments in that part of the world, and whom she describes as “a lucky mixture of the best bits of some of the world’s foxier men. What Mr Potato Head would look like if he had David Bowie’s frame, Bob Dylan’s head, shoulders and slouch, and Jimi Hendrix’s mania”. She also meets the Jordanian Daoud, an untalented (according to Stratton) artist of nude paintings who barely scrapes by and neglects his widowed mother in pursuit of bad art. Then there’s Darah, a sexually ambiguous woman who first introduces Stratton to the term ‘muhajababe’. It is Darah who, in gridlocked traffic, points out two girls who were “cigarello thin and Coco Chanel chic. Both wore black-nylon boot-cut hipster trousers and high heels, carried baguette handbags and wrapped around their heads were black sheer headscarves as tight as the rest of their outfits”.
Finally, meet the muhajababes. Music clip-influenced girls and the inspiration for the book, who appear to veil either because they have to or because Amr Khaled, an enormously popular preacher from Egypt, told them they should.
I think we’re meant to be overwhelmed and enlightened by this revelation. Yet none of this greatly surprised me, having seen countless young women on the street in Amman and even in Sydney adopt this approach for years, their bodies wrapped seductively in tight clothing, and their headscarves sitting loosely on their made-up faces, the scarf looking very much like a nun’s habit without the cap. Muhajababes are everywhere, yet Stratton suggests she’s discovered something extraordinary. In fact, this is one of the problems with her commentary: she writes as though everything is shocking and finds a great deal taxing when it comes to fatwas and culture. She certainly doesn’t seem to like Islam or Muslims very much, or perhaps it’s just a superior attitude of indifference with her seeming to roll her eyes impatiently every so often in response to all the silliness surrounding her.
Either way, Stratton’s Sesame Street approach to pan-Arab politics and lifestyle is frustrating; it’s all so unthinkable and peculiar to her, yet finding the Middle East’s losers or aspiring, dream-fuelled youth with a beef or two is hardly groundbreaking and I soon wondered how amazed we would be if an Arab woman went to the US and the UK and talked about all of the awful things she heard about.
Based on her conversations, Stratton zones in on two main figures: Amr Khaled, who she paints as little more than a puffed-up and ridiculous evangelical figure of influence for the starved masses who follow him, lemming-like, as he spreads the word. The other is wealthy Saudi Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal, who runs these 24/7 music channels through his Rotana satellite stations.
The two are in stark contrast with each other, yet their respective influences connect. Khaled leads the reformation of Islam with “personal trendy piety”, or what Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood (Al Ikhwan) once called, Stratton notes, “air-conditioned Islam”, leading girls to hijab before they’re “ready”; Al-Waleed tells them what they should aspire to with his music clips. The result are muhajababes, girls who weakly attempt to reconcile the contradictory.
I took an obscene amount of notes as I read, yet none of it seems greatly significant now. Sufficed to say, both Khaled and Al-Waleed exert great amounts of influence and are making changes in their own success-driven ways.
Muhajababes essentially proves that greed and stupidity are alive and well in the Middle East, and excels in demonstrating the obvious: there are troubled areas, social misfits, a severe lack of freedom in general and a crucial diversity in attitudes, religiosity and culture. The Middle East is a melting pot of random things, and it is, not surprisingly, increasingly influenced by the West, Stratton observing that capitalists and major companies recognise the surge in palatable, Khaled-style piety and are using it for their own gain, Western-style.
Take, for example, Sami Yusuf, the outrageously popular semi-nasheed singer whose video clips grace TV screens inbetween Ajram and Amr Diab and who even promoted Coca Cola when he released his first album. He falls squarely into the “Khaledism” slot: a sexed-up religious approach. There are certainly interesting anecdotes and snippets of worthy commentary, but overall, it is a disappointing trip into the ordinary.
Meanwhile, Stratton doesn’t inject much of her own personality into the book, except to deliver cynical and, at times, snotty observations, all told in her oft-caustic style of overflowing prose. While refreshingly honest in her obnoxiousness, I couldn’t help but feel that, while greatly amused by the simpletons she met, Stratton not only seemed bored and unimpressed but was also perhaps questioning why she was even there.
She confesses, at one point, to being bored by the subject of hijab, saying she “wanted to find something a bit more fun”. And that’s the crux of it, because I am not convinced that this book, for all its magnanimous observations and “research”, is actually important. Rather, it seems little more than a young woman’s “project” to cash in on the Arab phenomenon; hers is a search for the obscure and try-hardish in the Arab world, and the result is a catalogue of the disheartened, disenfranchised youth who, not very uniquely, have social problems to deal with.
The main difference with the Western world’s social problems being, obviously, a lack of democracy in the background. (And after reading some of the contentions contained within this book, one could truly think democracy is a cure for the world’s ills). As Stratton comments at one point, when she has become weary, she thought “asking people about democracy in the Arab world was like talking about the weather, both because discussion of it was all around you, and because no one had any say in determining it”.
I envision how this book will be sold. An intriguing and eye-opening insight into the Middle East, with Stratton cast as a hip, daring Westerner ready to smash through the stereotypes with every click of her keyboard. Yet, it is Stratton herself who “casts” people, hoping to find an A, B, C of culture clash and establishment rebellion. The more interesting conversations never occur, and she herself confesses that the book she wrote is not the one she initially set out to capture. I can’t help but feel that there could have been much worthier tales to share and more deeply hidden experiences to uncover.
She ignores, for example, devout Muslims, depriving the book of any balance, focusing instead on self-haters with delusions of grandeur and a gripe or three. It’s all so hammy that even Stratton observes her struggle to not cringe when listening to one particular girl’s tale. These people offer their insight into why life is as it is for others, but more than anything they just complain and censure (for example, the girls not wearing hijab are quick to refer to muhajababes as the “sluttiest” girls around).
She does confirm that the Middle East has its own share of affected latte-sippers to contend with. But admittedly, the sippers may actually have something to truly fight for because as Stratton takes 280 pages to inform you, the Middle East is a hotbed of change and revolution right now. It’s just a shame you don’t close the book and want to go there yourself.