x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

'He meant so much to Arabs'

Rym Ghazal, a huge Michael Jackson fan during her upbringing in Saudi Arabia, tells how the singer's music influenced a generation of Arabs.

A family looks at a Michael Jackson CD at a Manama music store that the singer visited in 2006.
A family looks at a Michael Jackson CD at a Manama music store that the singer visited in 2006.

Although he never performed in the Middle East Rym Ghazal, a huge fan of the singer during her upbringing in Saudi Arabia, tells how Michael Jackson's music influenced a generation of Arabs. At 3am today, I was woken up by phone calls and text messages from friends and family across the region, from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Lebanon, Jordan as well as the UAE, as news of the death of Michael Jackson made its way around the globe. "I can't believe it. We finally bought the ticket to see him perform live, and he died," said one of my closest Saudi friends, weeping as though she had suffered a personal bereavement. She, like me, had been trying for years to find a way to meet our pop idol. There was always something: either we were too young, or our families wouldn't allow us to travel just for a concert. My friend and her husband, also Saudi, had tickets to see him in London. They have been Jackson fans ever since the album Thriller finally reached this part of the world, and thought they would finally get their chance to see him on his comeback tour, which was to have started in the British capital next month. But it was not to be. As most of his admirers in the Middle East got pirated or smuggled copies of his music in the 1980s and 1990s, I don't think MJ knew just how much his music shaped a whole generation of Arabs, just how many fans he had here and just how devoted they remained throughout his ordeals. We might not have heard of the Beatles or Elvis Presley, but we sure knew Michael Jackson. At a massive wedding in Jeddah six years ago, attended by 2,000 guests from across the Gulf, it was MJ's "best hits" that were the biggest hit with the guests. In the male-only wedding hall, the young men, dressed in traditional clothing, competed against each other to see who could dance the best "moonwalk" and who would reign as the best "MJ dancer". This was the scene in the 1980s, 1990s, and even in this decade, when his music would be played on special occasions, from birthdays and weddings to school parties and beach outings, and even inside the most conservative families' households. There was just something about him and his songs that rang true. When we were teenagers, we would often smuggle music by MJ into our school in Saudi Arabia and share it among us by putting the cassettes into generic plastic covers to hide the fact that we were listening to his music. There were fears among the religious police about his "influence" on the young mind, particularly as songs such as Bad and Beat It were copied and sung, and even dubbed into Arabic, by the young and the rebellious. We didn't care about his personal life, it didn't matter. What was important were the songs. We identified with the themes of loneliness and rejection in his lyrics. After the first Gulf War, the young in countries such as Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Kuwait listened to his songs for strength and inspiration. I know I did - even if I didn't understand all of the words back then. In many ways - and despite reservations about Washington's recent foreign policy - he was a symbol of America as a land of opportunity, especially for a generation of Arabs that had grown up in conflict. People named their cars after him, not to mention their pets - my own white-and-black cat is called MJ. The 1985 song We are the World, which MJ co-wrote, is a regular at school parties. Even his more recent albums strike a chord with his Middle Eastern fans, while a song like Scream, for example, is often played among young groupings who feel frustrated, pressurised, and suppressed by the establishment, whether it be official or cultural. Many Middle Eastern parents were happier when their children preferred MJ to other singers at the time, such as Madonna, with her emphasis on self and sex. "You could feel his heart in his songs, and his songs touched on universal issues and we could identify with his songs," said an Emirati friend. In 2005, when Jackson was looking for a refuge from all the negative publicity and hounding by the media, he chose Bahrain as a sanctuary where he would not be judged as harshly as back home. I cannot think of another foreign artist who has infiltrated our culture so much as him. Sadly, in a career that spanned almost his entire life and in which he visited more than 100 cities on five continents, MJ never performed in the Middle East. There had been suggestions that the forthcoming tour might include a date in the UAE, but his sudden death has dashed the hopes of the tens of thousands of fans who saw themselves in his songs. rghazal@thenational.ae