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Saudis got talent? Young people yearn for creative outlets

There are many talented young people in the Arab world who are either too embarrassed to show their skills, or receive no recognition when they try.

When you want to do something - and you can't find the right platform in your community or country to express yourself - you head to the internet.

Thanks to YouTube, a group of young Saudi men and boys have shown the world that they can dance - and how.

Posted on Saturday, and already attracting 3.5 millions views, the video shows boys performing their own version of the hit single Gangnam Style by the South Korean pop rapper Park Jae-sang, who is better known by his nickname "Psy".

Their parody, titled "serwal and fanela" (referring to the undergarments of pants and a vest, respectively), shows boys dancing in public and choreographing humorous scenes in parking lots and on the street. Of course, they even pull some Michael Jackson moves, which never go out of style in Saudi Arabia.

There isn't a party or wedding without a tribute to MJ and his moon walk. And it isn't just the males; women, including myself, have danced to MJ's tunes and copied his moves. When I used to try to tell people about this side of Saudi Arabia, the hidden creative subcultures, they wouldn't believe it. The harsh stereotype is of a conservative, closed nation.

There are many talented young people in the Arab world who are either too embarrassed to show their skills, since families tend to look down on less-orthodox talents, or receive no recognition.

Imported reality shows, such as Arabs Got Talent, have helped to tap into some of these hidden talents.

Those same impulses are apparent among young people in the UAE. During a recent visit to a youth centre in Sharjah, I saw some young boys trying to build a robot. Judging from the smoke emanating from the metallic mini-humanoid, I didn't think it was working out very well.

Another time, I saw a group of boys playing football blindfolded in Safa Park in Dubai. I stayed well away from them, but it looked like they were trying to rely on their other senses to get to the ball.

In Ras Al Khaimah, I encountered a group of hikers who were on a hunt for jinn and treasure; in Liwa it was a group ripping up the sand dunes on dirt bikes listening to Emirati mix music.

What are your fondest memories? I bet some of them come from doing something unconventional with a group of friends, even if it's just a little silly or creative. Juxtapose those memories with those from endless hours spent in the malls (although I can recall a couple of exciting episodes when my friends and I ran away from the Saudi morality police over some minor indiscretion).

Before the internet, social media and instant news, we could get away with squirting the Mutawa with water guns. These days, it would be splashed all over the internet in minutes.

But what still holds true is that people often develop a sense of humour as one way of dealing with despair and frustration.

I will never forgot a teenager in the south of Lebanon giving me directions: "Take a left, not at the first destroyed house, not at the second destroyed house, but at the third one, with the fridge dangling from the window." It was a combination of the legendary self-deprecating Arab humour with an acknowledgement of the reality in Lebanon, which has so often been torn by war.

But contrast the recognition that South Korea (and the world) have given to Psy for Gangnam Style with that received by those creative boys in the Saudi video. Whatever you may think of Psy's song, it has introduced South Korea to the world - Saudi Arabia could also use a cultural ambassador.


On Twitter: @arabianmau

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