x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Even in Arabs Got Talent, the West still calls the tune

Arabs' incredible fascination for anything western is reflected in the publicity for an all-American singer on an Arab talent contest.

Arabs Got Talent is a show that really knows how to court controversy. Last year’s front-runner Shamma Hamdan caused a stir in large parts of the Arab world and TV ratings soared accordingly.

So, how could the programme’s producers top that controversy this year?

Enter this season’s much talked about contestant, Jennifer Grout, a classically trained 23-year-old all-American singer from Massachusetts who can’t speak a word of Arabic.

Grout dominated discussions of the show on social media in the lead up to last weekend’s final. Much of the Arab audience firmly wanted her to win.

The international press hailed her as the white woman who was set to win the competition, the next Arab idol and an unexpected star. There was little or no mention of the other 11 Arab finalists. In the end, of course, she didn’t prevail.

One has to wonder, was all the fuss merely a clever publicity stunt by the producers or an unexpected outpouring of affection for the blonde American girl who sang classical Arabic tunes?

When it comes to pop culture, Arabs love all things western.

Brands like Pizza Hut, KFC and Starbucks have become mainstays of our world. American pop music blares from nightclubs and passing cars. Fashion, movie stars, slang – you name it, if it’s western and more importantly American, Arabs love it. Beirut, the plastic surgery capital of the Middle East, has set the trend for swapping Levantine noses for sleeker western models.

Another western thing Arabs love is fair skin. Any trip to a pharmacy in the Middle East will reveal a plethora of skin whitening creams promising everything from career success to the attentions of that once unattainable man.

Sitting in my boyfriend’s living room in the West Bank, I recall a conversation between him and his mother describing the woman his brother wanted to marry.

After a battery of questions, she arrived at the final and seemingly most critical one: Is she dark? Ya’ani, he said, normal. Is she darker than Jennifer? No, the same, or maybe a little lighter. Her reply was that any darker than me, a Palestinian-American, was too dark.

The Arab world may openly rail against the politics and power of the western world, but many of its citizens appear locked in a snake charmer’s dance with its culture.

And that brings us back to the white woman who has taken the Arab world by storm.

Judge Najwa Karam openly gushed over Grout. “We have for so long imitated the West, and this is the first time that a person who has no link whatsoever to the Arab world, an American girl who does not speak Arabic, sings Arabic songs,” she said.

The judges ushered Grout into the finals, proclaiming her a star along the way.

Oddly, Karam’s comments say less about Grout’s performance, and more about how much the Arab world sometimes idolises westerners for making efforts to understand, emulate or participate in our culture.

Grout’s imitation of Arab culture has been seen by many as an impressive act worthy of attention and praise. She is essentially being upheld as remarkable for being a novelty act, a non-Arab doing Arab things with some aptitude. The inference here is that she lends us legitimacy by her interest and we in turn put her on a pedestal.

In my eyes, it’s this chasing after the West for validation that renders the Arab world as something akin to a battered spouse. It’s as if we constantly need to prove that we are good enough.

It’s our way of saying please accept us. Why don’t you love us? We’re just like you. We created geometry and numbers. We’ve given so much to the world. Will we ever be good enough in your eyes?

Strangely, at the same time that the programme’s judges were chastising Arabs for imitating the West, they were praising an American woman for her role in bringing the focus back to Arabic classics.

“I’m really happy because this music is so special for me, but it doesn’t really get much acknowledgement in the West,” Grout said in an interview. “And I feel like I’m bringing a new audience and almost giving the music the justice it deserves.”

In essence, the pretty little white girl who loves Arabic music is showing us that we are good enough to be appreciated and desired in the world’s eyes.

The underlying message is not only that a white American’s imitation of Arab culture is the vehicle to bring it to wider attention, but that Grout has taken up the mantle of showing us how to be a better, more talented Arab than the real Arabs in this competition.

All of this whiffs of neo-colonialism. At the end of the day Arabs may have talent, but I wonder if we have much sense.

Jennifer Jajeh is a writer and performer based in Los Angeles. She is currently at work on a book based on her one-woman show, I Heart Hamas: And Other Things I’m Afraid to Tell You. For moreinformation go to www.jenniferjajeh.com