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Filling a Void That Can't be Filled

The (Hollowed) Politics Of Assaf’s Idolatry

by HELGA TAWIL-SOURI

Now that no one buys our votes, the public has long since cast off its cares; the people that once bestowed commands, consulships, legions and all else, now meddles no more and longs eagerly for just two things – bread and circuses!

–Juvenal, Satires X

It is perhaps unfair of me to write a critique of Arab Idol, since, I admit, I have never been a fan of watching television. The lure of reality and contestant shows whose formats are rampant across the world remains alien to me. But this time, I admit, I was captivated by the growing frenzy over Mohammad Assaf – the “rocket of love and peace from Gaza.”

Of course I am thrilled: for him. For his family. For Palestinians. For all Arabs. For his fans. Like millions of other viewers, my heart dropped with him as he fell to the stage floor when his victory was announced. I almost teared when the camera panned to his mother; and I beamed with a sense of pride when he claimed “Today I represent Palestine and today I am fighting for a cause through my art.”

Well before his win, and certainly much more since, his victory is alluded to in nationalist and purportedly political terms. What has been fascinating is the media frenzy around and about him as it propelled itself into a tsunami from the shores of Beirut (where the show takes place) and Gaza (where he lives), rippling throughout the Arab world, and eventually into the Western press too. ‘Average’ Palestinians would be interviewed, pundits would elaborate, I’m excepting Thomas Friedman to get in on this too: Assaf is a symbol of hope and unity, an example of Palestinian resilience and strength. He’s hailed by some as single-handedly showing the world that Palestinians – and particularly those Gazans – are normal people too. His win is pitted as bringing happiness to Palestine, a much needed victory in a landscape of despair, a break from daily violence and oppression.

The victory has of course also been coopted by politicians. Analysts are interpreting what it means that Palestinian Authority President Abbas and ex-Minister Salam Fayyad were first to ‘embrace’ Assaf; and that upon recognizing Assaf’s wide-spread popularity Hamas congratulated Assaf, although some Hamsawi preacher had previously denounced the show as immoral. UNRWA too has donned him the home-grown Angelina Jolie of Palestine, serving as an ambassador for the organization. None of this is exceptional: World Cup winners are also paraded in their capitals, made to shake the hand of their leaders, and coopted as national icons and symbols. All kinds of ‘regular’ and exceptional Palestinians have been made into heroes, exploited for varying political ends by various groups. Assaf follows in the trajectory of others whose creativity and talent has been hijacked, from Ghassan Kanafani and Mahmoud Darwish to Elia Suleiman and DAM Rap. And just as some of these ‘idols’ had to contend with giving in to their own exploitation or resisting it, Assaf too will experience that tension as he (already) faces his own cooption into something much larger than a victory on a talent show. Such is the curse of becoming a celebrity.

It is not the euphoria surrounding his win that I take issue with; but the problematic politics of Assaf’s idolatry – i.e., the ways in which his victory is being produced and consumed.

To begin with, Arab Idol, like Star Academy before it, promotes a mundane form of nationalism, even while it is also a pan-Arab experience. On the one hand, the show is Arab, as reflected in its title, that it airs on a pan-Arab satellite, that its contestants and judges come from various parts of the Arab world, and that its audience participates simultaneously in it no matter they live thus creating a pan-Arab “imagined community.” On the other hand, the show also promotes crass nationalism. Perhaps there is no way around the latter problem: a contestant can immediately be pegged based on his accent and dialect; and there is no way to prevent audience members from voting based on a contestant’s nationality rather than his talent. But the show producers, contestants, audience members (in the studio and at home), and the local and regional media covering the event do make it explicitly more jingoistic – national flags play a prominent role; contestants often choose at least one nationalist song; judges refer to contestant’s nationalities; local media highlight a nation’s own contestant; regional media make it a point to ascertain whether a contestant is Palestinian, Lebanese, Syrian, Egyptian, Saudi or otherwise. As Marwan Kraidy argued about Star Academy, these shows expose political fault lines.i Kraidy also highlights the ways in which such shows articulate “an alternative view of public participation in a public process” in that they are as much about entertainment and nationalism as they are about voting, elections, and due process. And it should come as no surprise then, that such shows are looked upon by the likes of Thomas Friedman as teaching those ‘backward’ Arabs the meaning and practice of democracy. I agree with Kraidy to some extent. Arab Idol is a political space, but only in certain realms: the diegetic overt jingoism and extra-diegetic practice of certain ‘democratic’ and nationalist processes. But the relationship between media and politics becomes much more disconcerting the wider we draw these concentric circles.

The first and most obvious problematic is the politics of Arab Idol as an ‘economic space.’ Arab Idol is a format production, substantially cheaper to produce than other forms of entertainment, nowadays universally popular. It signals the regionalized arrival of the expansion of a global mass culture that is increasingly standardized and homogenized. It is a cultural commodity which serves as a source of profits for media entities; in this case, the MBC empire. The political economy of Arab Idol – as part and parcel of media globalization – plays a role in the de-politicization of regional and local media; pushing decisions and revenues off-shore.

Arab Idol is also an ‘economic space’ for the cellular phone companies who rely on millions of viewers to cast their votes. In Assaf’s case, Wataniya and Jawwal – the two Palestinian mobile phone companies – have vested interest in seeing him make it all the way. In the finals, competing against a Syrian and an Egyptian finalist, Assaf was vying against the potential of 80 million Egyptian votes against him (no one seemed concerned about Syrian votes). Jawwal gave subscribers discounted rates so that they could maddeningly text to vote for ‘3’ multiple times. Jawwal claimed that it registered 8 million votes for Assaf from Gaza on the night of the finals alone (obviously non Palestinians must have voted for him too). The show and especially the thrust to vote for one’s compatriot, demonstrates the extent to which Arab Idol is not only entertainment, but an instrument of market manipulation serving both as a channel for one’s nationalistic obligation and a tool with which to prepare costumers for enthusiastic spending.

The collusion between powerful business interests, government, and producers of culture/entertainment is also evident upon a deeper reflection on the role of Jawwal herein. Jawwal is the largest cellular telephone company in the Palestinian Territories. It is a subsidiary of the telecommunications monopoly Paltel, which is itself one of the most profitable and powerful Palestinian companies. Paltel alone annually contributes more than ten percent to Palestine’s GDP, and a huge chunk of the PA’s tax revenue. Paltel (and Jawwal) has also over the years become one of the largest “philanthropic” institutions in the Territories, from sponsoring graduation ceremonies to launching technology-training programs. The company’s founder and largest shareholder is Munib Masri, who, one would have us naively believe, just happened to be sitting front-row at the final and first to jump on stage to offer Assaf a celebratory hug. Masri is a Palestinian version of Rupert Murdoch-cum-Rothschild-cum-Warren Buffet and then some: business tycoon, philanthropist, political player behind the scenes, and the richest Palestinian individual. Masri has been a long-time Fateh supporter and his relationship with the PA, from the days of Arafat to the present, which has been a confluence of political and economic clout would make for a fascinating book. Given that Masri owns substantial shares of many of the largest of all Palestinian firms, he provides the PA a huge source of its revenue. Jawwal had much to economically and politically gain from Assaf’s win, that much is obvious; and I won’t hypothesize on how and why Masri was there when Assaf’s victory was announced live on TV, and why he’s been hovering over Assaf like a vulture ever since. Perhaps lesser known, is that Jawwal also played a prominent role locally, in the production of posters, billboards, t-shirts, and other marketing schemes and paraphernalia which quickly became ubiquitous in the Palestinian Territories. All, of course, for the purpose of texting in more votes.

Jawwal and Masri’s presence and role here are part of the despondent de-politicization of Palestine, in which concerns for political liberation have been trumped by ‘economic growth’ (mostly in the form of foreign investment, liberalization, and privatization), and now, popular culture. As Khalidi and Samour eloquently label it, what post-Oslo Palestine faces today is “neoliberalism as liberation.”ii Jawwal and Masri (as head of the much larger and more powerful holding company Padico with its hands in everything from banking, finance and agriculture to energy, tourism, construction and real estate) are spearheads of that vacuation of the very political nature of the question of Palestine. In this model, national ‘success’ is to be found (supposedly) in things like “smoother running traffic, a liberal education curriculum, investor-friendly institutions, efficient public service delivery, and, for the middle class, access to luxury hotel chains and touring theatre performances,”iii which, by no mistake, also serve to deepen the pockets of the likes of Munib Masri. To this list, we can now add Assaf’s Arab Idol victory and the circus around it.

There is also the larger political problem of the overt and over-the-top politicization of Assaf’s victory. In a sense, I am suggesting that the thesis of “entertainment corrupting politics” remains salient – although I do not mean it in the same way as an ultra-conservative Islamist polemic railing against the immorality of popular culture. Some claimed, rightfully in a sense, “The moment [Assaf’s] name was announced something unprecedented happened, Palestinians spilled out of their houses, into the streets, and started dancing like Israel wasn’t watching. In Gaza, Ramallah, Lid, Nazareth, and Jerusalem, they partied like Palestine had been freed.”iv That the victory was therapeutic is not surprising – much entertainment across the world serves that function; and the benefits and pitfalls of flight, escape, or catharsis through media as a means of gratification in the modern world has been theorized since the days of Pascal and Montaigne.

The notion that Assaf’s win was akin to the liberation of Palestine echoes much deeper historical concerns over the Roman empire’s fickle populace which abandons its political responsibilities for bread and circuses. (In the contemporary Arab world, and Egypt in particular, there’s a slightly different version: bread and chicken. So long as state subsidies keep those in cheap supply, citizens would remain mollified, no political upheaval would occur. This explains why many theorists see the Egyptian ‘uprising’ as necessarily related to the rising price of food.) A mythology that frames its subject in the sublime context of the rise and fall of empires, colored by apocalyptic assumption did not end with Juvenal’s reaction to the entry of ‘the common people’ into the cultural arena more than two thousand years ago. It continues to be a pervasive and persistent concern. The masses, mass media, popular culture, and not so differently, nationalism, jingoism, are often pitted as a, if not even the, destroyer of community, individualism, morality, decency. That culture is besieged by the masses, bent on vulgarization, creating a new kind of barbarism which has arisen out of modern civilization, has been of concern to Jose Ortega y Gasset and Alexis deTocqueville, T.S. Eliot, Richard Sennett and Alfred Camus. The perspective of the moral corruption and superficiality of (popular) media has many problems, not least of which is its contempt for the average person, its suggestion that what the average man wants (to be fed and to be entertained) are not worthy goals, its romantic assumption that things were once better than they are now. But there is also resonance in Marxist interpretations of panem et circenses, especially in light of what Palestinians and Palestine must still struggle against. Marx’s critique moves a little beyond a tirade against superficiality, barbarity, and points to a different kind of ‘conspiracy’: “In the classically austere traditions of the Roman Republic its gladiators found the ideas and the art forms, the self-deceptions that they needed in order to conceal from themselves the bourgeois limitations of the content of their struggles.”v To put it bluntly, our production and participation in Assaf’s idolatry contributes to elites’ economic gain, the depoliticization of the Palestine question, and also implicates us in our own ideological (dis)illusionment. This is after all why Arab Idol is successful, it has hegemonic appeal. Marxists theories are helpful here in positing all media as estranged from values and offer nothing but entertainment, distraction; the illusory which we adopt without recognizing that it leads to our own demise. In other words, culture plays a part in the taming of (our Palestinian) revolution.

Paradoxically, this disappearance of a radical critique itself pulls on nationalist heartstrings and ideals. Soon after Assaf’s victory was announced, MBC aired simultaneous scenes of impromptu celebrations from Ramallah, Gaza, Nablus, and Nazareth. As one author put it, “Nazareth’s incorporation in the final episode of “Arab Idol” may, at long last, signal a shift in recognition” of the ‘forgotten’ nearly one and half million Palestinian citizens of Israel.vi Of course including Nazareth or any other location within Israel where Palestinians were celebrating Assaf’s win is highly symbolic. But it is also part of the spectacle of Arab Idol.

A spectacle holds only the promise. And here the words of the Frankfurt School theorists Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno resonate eerily: “the promise, which is actually all the spectacle consists of, is illusory: all it actually confirms is that the real point will never be reached, that the diner must be satisfied with the menu. In front of the appetite stimulated by all those brilliant names and images there is finally set no more than a commendation of the depressing everyday world it sought to escape.”vii The spectacle of Nazareth on the screen, the spectacle of the ‘party’ on the streets of Nazareth, and indeed the spectacle that is creating Assaf’s idolatry stand in opposition to a politicized public. Arab Idol and Assaf’s win offer us an escape, a moment of happiness, a street-filling all-night party; but that escape is also a helpless and dangerous flight “from the last remaining thought of resistance. The liberation which amusement promises is freedom from thought and from negation.”viii The confetti falls on stage, Assaf dons the Palestinian flag, he is lifted up as our national hero; but Palestine remains as far away from us as ever, whether in Nablus (where Masri resides, where Paltel has its headquarters, and where only the Israeli government will decide if Assaf can visit), Nazareth, Jerusalem, or Beer Sheba (where Assaf’s father is from). Assaf returns to Gaza among much jubilation, where less than twenty-four hours after his win, Israel was dropping bombs. Whatever we were escaping remains, Khan Younis is still (forgive me Mohammad Assaf) a shithole. If we have performed our national duty, we voted throughout the season and the finals (thanks to Jawwal). We click ‘like’ on Assaf’s Facebook page, we agree that he is our symbol of hope and unity, we buy a couple of trinkets with his good-looking face on it. But with each of these practices our national liberation shrinks in the rear-view mirror.

When the show was over and the credits rolled, I turned the TV off. I went to bed with images and thoughts of the scenes of jubilation. I anticipated that Assaf’s win was going to be billed as the closest thing Palestinians have gained to national liberation; I thought of Nietzsche. When he declared God dead, Nietzsche was on to something, which Arab Idol and Assaf’s ensuing idolatry have confirmed: in modern life, we have produced and we consume popular culture in an attempt to fill a vacuum which cannot be filled.

Helga Tawil-Souri is a Palestinian Americanmedia scholar and documentary film-maker.[1][2] Tawil-Souri is an Associate Professor in the Department of Media, Culture, and Communication and Middle East and Islamic Studies at New York University. She can be reached at helga.tawil@gmail.com.

Notes

i Marwan Kraidy. Idioms of Contention: Star Academy in Lebanon and Kuwait. In Arab Media and Political Renewal, Ed. Naomi Sakr. London: I.B. Tauris, 2007; 44-55.

ii Raja Khalidi and Sobhi Samour. Neoliberalism and Liberation: The Statehood Program and the Remaking of the Palestinian National Movement.Journal of Palestine Studies, Vol. 40, No. 2 (Winter 2011), pp. 6-25.

iiiibid., pp. 15-16

iv Maysoon Zayid. “Mohammed Assaf: From Underdog to Idol” The Daily Beast, June 25, 2013. http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2013/06/25/mohammed-assaf-from-underdog-to-idol.html

v Karl Marx. The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Chapter 1. Available on-line: http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1852/18th-brumaire/ch01.htm

vi Leena Dallasheh. “Assaf, Palestine and the ‘Forgotten Palestine’” Middle East Research and Information Project, June 24, 2013. http://www.merip.org/assaf-palestine-forgotten-palestinians

vii Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno. Dialectic of Enlightenment. New York: Continuum Publishing, 1999 (1944); p.139.

viiiibid., p.144.