MIA's new video: an unflattering depiction of Gulf Arabs or a tip of the hat to a cultural meme in a complex region?
Bad girls do it well: stereotypes and silent Arab voices
For all the things the Arab world does well, creating cross-cultural products does not rank high. Arab popular culture - the films, television shows and music of the region - is popular within the Middle East (and in related cultures like Turkey), but don't find wide appeal in other parts of the world, such as East Asia or Europe. That stands in contrast to the mass appeal that, for example, British television and American cinema have.
The factors that have influenced this state of affairs are diverse - political and thus cultural stagnation on one side, imperialism on the other - but the result is that, for much of the world, Arabs are more often written about than writing themselves, more often depicted than creating the depiction. The imbalance can be troubling.
What, then, to make of a big-budget music video that depicts Gulf Arabs as anarchic, gun-toting, stunt-driving street-dancers?
This is the music video for Bad Girls, the latest song by British-Tamil hip hop artist MIA - the same MIA who caused such shock across America on Sunday night by swearing and using an obscene gesture during her performance at the Super Bowl.
Is the video, as the chatter on the internet and social networking sites this past week has it, a condescending take on a misunderstood culture through an Orientalist lens? Or is it an interesting cross-cultural attempt to address social norms? Or simply a brazen pop star seeking controversy wherever she can find it? (After MIA's Super Bowl performance, this seems the most likely explanation.)
The video is set in the desert of an unnamed country, with a mostly male cast in Gulf-style dress (kanduras and kaffiyehs), while other men and women appear in military fatigues, toting guns. Men and women both put on performances of "drift" stunt driving at obviously unsafe speeds.
Drifting is a popular pastime, known as tafheet or hagwalah, among young men in many Gulf countries. A car is intentionally oversteered, causing it to skid, or drift, rapidly across the road, apparently out of control. Related antics include driving a car on two wheels (known in UAE slang as shal), often with a passenger balanced precariously on the roof.
Videos of these dangerous (and illegal) stunts are posted on YouTube and garner hundreds of thousands, even millions, of views along with mostly adoring comments.
In her depiction of drifting stunts and other imagery associated with Gulf Arabs, MIA's video can be read in a couple of different ways.
One view is that this is as an extension of a broader exoticisation of the Arab world. Arabs are merely a backdrop: men and women who appear in the video are often faceless (because they are covered), they don't speak, and they are not sung to or about. They are mere window-dressing for MIA's expression, background scenery as she sings to a different, western audience.
Moreover, as one Lebanese activist put it on social media, there is an eroticisation of the Middle East, implicit in the use of silent men watching a western woman gyrating her hips. I can see how the video could be read in that context, even if MIA is hardly the typical representation of a "western" woman.
But I don't view the video like that. Firstly, it strikes me that there is no correlation between the lyrics and the video. "Live fast, die young, bad girls do it well," runs the chorus, the usual nonsensical sloganeering that works well in pop music, but less well in meaningful discourse. So there isn't really a message in the words.
And neither is there in the medium. What the video does is reference an underground activity in the Middle East - and given that the Middle East is already seen as quite radical, the whole theme is doubly subversive. The rest of the details are fairly superfluous, born of a need to be shocking - ooh, guns! ooh, dark-eyed women! - and belabour the obvious tropes of the region.
But it is worth noting that the video doesn't jump fully into the usual stereotypes: there is no gluttonous fantasy about the material wealth of the Arab world, and the women who are depicted are not the stereotypical subservient nymphs. Indeed, MIA's work has consistently touched on politics, immigration and gender issues. Her 2005 debut album Arular referenced Tamil liberation movements and the Palestine Liberation Organisation.
It strikes me as more of a compliment to a complex region that the strands of its underground culture are used to bolster a mainstream video. Drifting is a cultural meme in Gulf Arab society, and has now been featured in a different cultural form. That seems like an encouraging cross-cultural pollination.
It could be argued that, with so many strands in the underground cultures of the region, let alone in the mainstream cultures, it is frustrating to see just this one used. Yet if the fear is that elements of Arab culture are being brought to western audiences without appropriate sensitivity, the answer seems to lie not in censoring those few occasional expressions, but in producing many more.
On Twitter: @FaisalAlYafai