In an effort to build bridges between East and West, Washington is sending Kareem Salama, the first US Muslim country singer, on a tour of the Middle East.
US sends America's first Muslim country singer on Middle East tour
NEW YORK // Singing country music songs from beneath the brim of a cowboy hat with a full-bore Southern drawl, the up-and-coming performer Kareem Salama breaks the expectations audiences may have of an Egyptian-American Muslim. At least that is the message the US state department hopes to make by sending "America's first Muslim country singer" on a month-long tour from Morocco to Bahrain, designed to improve Washington's dented reputation across the Middle East.
"I want to learn from the people we meet, share my music, share my personal experiences and break some stereotypes and preconceived ideas about being an American Muslim," Salama said. "And if I can introduce country music - that's cool, too." Salama is doubtless a patriotic American, describing his "land called paradise" in a peppy pop-country anthem and lauding the way men politely tilted hats to his headscarf-wearing mother as she strolled around rodeos during his childhood.
The 32-year-old singer is the product of two US-educated engineers who emigrated from Egypt to raise a family in a mosque-less, rural Oklahoma town of Southern Baptists that Salama describes as being "99.9 per cent white". Country music was not the obvious genre for an Arab-American to achieve commercial success, being associated with a conservative, "Bible Belt America" that saw fit to torch Dixie Chicks albums after singer Natalie Maines criticised George W Bush before the invasion of Iraq.
Another example of country music's rage came in after the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington when Toby Keith pledged in his hit Angry American to "put a boot in your a** ? It's the American way". But Salama defends the musical genre, describing his homeland as an "inclusive country that welcomes newcomers" of all faiths - while advocating his own policy of turning the other cheek in songs such as Generous Peace.
"I wanna put a boot in their a**, too, and I think most Muslims want to put a boot in their a**," he said of the 2001 jet hijackers. "The problem is when you say it that way and get a crowd going, then it can spin off into a tribal, vigilante thing." Colombia Barrosse, the director of the state department's division of cultural programmes in the bureau of educational and cultural affairs, describes the rising country star as an embodiment of "the American dream".
She describes a "very expensive" tour across Egypt, Morocco, Kuwait, Bahrain, Syria, Israel and Jordan hailing from this year's budget of US$11.5 million (Dh42m) - itself lamentably small but still an increase from last year's $8.5m. Directing cultural diplomacy and so-called "soft power" towards the region has topped priorities since the US president Barack Obama's Cairo speech last June and the promise of a "new beginning" in US relations with the Muslim world.
While American arts patrons praise the Obama administration for increasing funding for such cross-cultural ventures, they complain that cash shortages still hinder their efforts to build bridges between East and West. According to Vishakha Desai, the president of the New York-based Asia Society, "the arts have a way to humanise and create a more nuanced understanding" of others that is needed to ease tensions between the Muslim world and the United States.
She complains that cross-cultural arts projects, such as last year's Muslim Voices expo - which brought Kuwaiti actors, Sufi musicians and whirling dervishes to entertain Brooklyn crowds - was scaled back because of cash shortfalls. "There isn't enough funding," she said. "Money remains a huge issue. Even under the current administration with its tremendous interest in using arts and culture to advance public diplomacy, the truth is, there isn't enough support."
Margaret Ayers, the president of the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, criticises Washington's cultural chiefs for allocating "less than one per cent" of their budget on exchanges, harking back to a Cold War era in which the US lavished billions on arts outreach to stymie Communist expressionism. Performers who have benefited from US cultural spending laud the results, with members of the New York-based indie band ZeroBridge still visibly elated from their week-long musical tour of Moroccan villages in July.
Mohsin Mohi-ud-Din, 25, the band's drummer, whose Muslim parents traded Kashmir for Maryland, says his preconceptions were challenged when he saw Moroccan "girls with their heads covered, rocking in Iron Maiden and Nirvana T-shirts, throwing up the metal sign". Likewise, he sought to challenge the conception among Moroccans that US Muslims languish under Islamophobic oppression, saying: "Muslims have more freedom in America than they do in most Arab nations - and we weren't afraid to show that."
Although it remains unclear whether his audience will be convinced, Salama hopes to deliver a similar message about "American-style freedom" when strutting around Middle Eastern concert halls and universities in cowboy boots over coming weeks. "My presence there demonstrates that fact about America: that, for better or worse, I do have the right to say what I want," he said. "That nobody's going to tell me what to say; and if I said that to the president of the United States, that would be fine."