Lessons from Arab Idol

12/18/2013 11:56 am ET | Updated Feb 17, 2014

When my friend invited me to a concert of the current winners of the Arab Idol in Pasadena, I didn't need much persuasion. I said yes immediately. I wanted to meet real life Arabs. I was getting tired of the editorialized, de-contextualized versions of them that the English language media usually show us.

Like most non-Arabs, my views of Arabs had been mainly shaped through the news media, where the focus is on violence and conflict. But there's an additional dimension to my perception of Arabs. Back home in Afghanistan, I was not exactly happy to notice an Arabization of the Afghan society. In a show of middle-class respectability, young Afghan girls had ditched the Afghans' own colorful traditional hijab, dressing in black niqabs, like the women of the Gulf states, instead. In my childhood neighborhood of secular, professional Afghans, the local supermarket was now called Mecca, and the men who manned the counter were dressed in Arab gowns. All this made me feel like a stranger in my own country. My resentment grew when I found out that most young Afghan girls had no idea of female Afghan national heroines, and instead named the women of the prophet's household as their role models. I felt that my country was being culturally colonized, the martial qualities of the Afghan of legends were replaced with the submissive piety that was attributed to the women of the prophet's family. I felt that the colorful garments of local Afghan clothing were replaced by the monochrome black and white that we associate with the inhabitants of the deserts of Arabia. I felt that we were losing the lively, picturesque richness of our own culture, which was being replaced with the rigid, monochrome piety of what Afghans assume to be authentically Muslim.

Imagine my surprise when I entered the concert hall, only to encounter a sea of uber-glamorous young women, who each easily could pass as one of the Kardashian sisters. Even the girls who wore headscarves had made sure to apply the kind of striking, but immaculate, make-up that requires regular practice to achieve. They were all beautiful, attractive and altogether, a feast for the eyes. If many Afghans had adapted Arab culture, it was not the glamorous, fun and colorful side. I realized that in doing so, they had deprived themselves of a very attractive, romantic and passionate culture that was equally, if not more, Arab.

In the course of the concert, my Christian Jordanian friend, whom I treated as my native informant, kept hearing me blurt out: "But they are just like Afghans, late for the show, unruly and hard to control." Several times during the show, the audience found it hard to curb its enthusiasm; and, despite the official ban on leaving their seats, the audience danced their way to the front, staging their own mini-party, during which they danced to folklore Palestinian dance tunes. The audience was Arabs that came from the American diaspora sections of Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and included many Palestinians. Their need to be together, to dance and sing together, was evident in their regular attempts to break the rules and stage their own parties in front of the stage. I found myself enjoying the sight of women wearing headscarves, dancing together with those who had not only bared their long hair, but also highlighted it to make themselves even more attractive. I soon discovered that it was the spirit of Arab nationalism and pan-Arabism that brought these people together in a unique show of unity. My Jordanian friend was less taken by the show of solidarity: "They are such hypocrites. Now they cheer and dance to a song about Palestine, but when Palestinians come to their country, their treated them the way Mexican illegals are treated in the U.S. They shove them into camps and don't even allow them to work."

It was true that of the three singers who appeared on the stage, it was the final one, Mohammad Assaf, a young Palestinian, the current winner of the Arab Idol, who was given the most enthusiastic show of love, respect and adoration. I caught myself thinking that Palestinians are like Afghans in that everyone in the Middle East roots for them, and knows of their tortured history, but when it comes down to it, no-one gives them a visa or a job. This contradiction between the harsh realities of daily survival, and the enthusiasm of the show, was hard to miss. Mohammad Assaf could have hardly missed the crowds of young women from Syria, Jordan and Lebanon, who barely controlled their desire to be close to him. They kept taking pictures with their iphones, beckoning him towards them and shrieking with joy in the process. He seemed mildly surprised, but as he sang about the way his people withstood profound suffering over a long time, it was clear that a part of him did not trust the pan-Arab enthusiasm thrown at his people. It felt like he was keeping his distance, or maybe it was the Afghan in me that read into his expression. Afghans, too, are admired in the Middle East for their history of withstanding a painful, longstanding political conflict. But this admiration hardly ever translates into something more concrete, like aid projects or work and travel reform. Afghans, too, end up working in low-paid jobs in the service industries of richer Arab nation states. In such positions, they are hardly ever treated as equals or with dignity. I witnessed one such scene at the Dubai airport, where a group of Pashtun Afghans were treated like a herd of animals, pushed away from the corner where they sat on the floor, dressed in their traditional Afghan clothing. They moved away, ashamed and submissive. Obsession with wealth and class is a reality among Arabs, but that night, it was the power of Arab musical culture that made the audience realize that they desired something bigger, and altogether more beautiful than what their class-driven and politically divided societies offered.

Basic Arabic and my own language of Dari Persian have enough of a shared Arabic vocabulary to enable me to understand that all the songs were odes and homages to the Arab homelands of Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Palestine. When I asked my friend, she confirmed my suspicion: "These are old and well-known songs. For example, they are about a particular tree that only grows in Lebanon. The songs are love songs but the object of love changes from the homeland to a beautiful woman and back."

I left the concert, thinking that romantic nationalism of a non-violent type is well and alive among Arabs, at least amidst the diaspora communities of the U.S. It is the opposite of the violent Jihadism that we encounter in the news, but we hardly ever hear about it. It's shame because in its enthusiasm, celebration of glamour and joyous sounds, this is a side of Arab culture that anyone can relate to. I found myself cheering with the Arab men and women around me, and genuinely feeling that I could connect with them through the power of music. If such life-affirming enthusiasm for one's country was a part of Arab culture, then, I would happily welcome an Arab cultural invasion of Afghanistan. As for the others, if you ever feel like the news is making you become prejudiced towards Arabs, just go to one of their concerts and you would find yourself enamored with their culture.