A parallel stream of many Michael Jackson related memories ran through my mind as I witnessed the ongoing influx of news-reports which marked the death of one of the world's biggest entertainers.
Of course, I instantly realized that this was probably the case with millions of people around the world... As condolence messages began pouring in the forms of texts, emails and 'status updates' to major news channels and websites from all four corners of the world.
Clearly, the Middle East was no exception... It was so interesting to monitor the comments of all my Facebook and Twitter friends... People who I have known, lived, studied or worked with across the Arab world and beyond.
Jackson was, without question, truly universal in the sense that he broke all barriers of culture, language and geography; people hummed his songs from the US to Japan no matter what their native tongue was.
I still remember that all along the 80's and early 90's, Saudi record stores (including the then popular "Billboard's" and "Stallions" outlets) didn't sell (in public that is) any Michael Jackson material, claiming that his albums were banned in the country (many claimed he made anti-Arab statements, but these were never proven and MJ himself appeared on Arab channel, MBC, in the mid-90s and declared his love for his fans in the region).
Yet, in secret, there was no question that the King of Pop rocked the place... His music was still made available through the black-market, through friends of friends and VHS recordings of MTV, which were exchanged and sold extensively (this was of course, long before the introduction of satellite television, while the idea of internet downloads was probably still not conceived at the time).
Even in countries where there was no such ban, such as in Lebanon or Egypt, the mere mention of The King of Pop's name was frowned upon in most social circles (this was years before his child molestation charges, which made those circles much bigger and perhaps more understandable); many of 'the elders' were worried that listening to Jacko would corrupt morals and turn their kids to Wackos... Yet the youth didn't care.
Those days witnessed the glorious era for both 'brand America' and the up and coming youngsters in the Middle East. Michael Jackson was the biggest icon in that inspirational era, where many people were still very much impressed with everything that came from the US (though they may have not admitted in public).
Back then, long before the Iraq War and George W. Bush became President, American goods were just too good to resist. Calls for boycott for political/religious reasons were minimal. In film, you had The Terminator and Rocky Balboa; in music there was MJ, Madonna, then MC Hammer, Snoop and many others. When it came to fast-food, there was KFC, Hardee's then Pizza Hut and McDonald's.
While other iconic symbols obviously included Levi's jeans and 'Hulk Hogan' of the World Wrestling Federation (now known as WWE).
Yet, Michael Jackson's music seemed to be the stand out on its own... Unlike most of the other examples, it continuously defied the marketing concept of the 'product lifecycle'. Even today, it just wouldn't die, as many people still listen to it and enjoy it.
On Facebook, my school colleague Fahad, who now lives in the US, mentioned that he is remembering when he used to practice the Moonwalk in front of the mirror as a kid, while Sami -- a friend who left us years ago to go study and work in the US, but now is back in Saudi Arabia, immediately began posting clips of his favorite music videos, such as '"Smooth Criminal" and "Bad."
However, just as I was wondering if I could find any negative comments regarding the incident, a friend of mine called me from Dubai complaining about all the hype Jackson's death is getting; he is arguing that the man wasn't a Princess Diana socially, or even a Bob Marley musically. Nevertheless, he uses a statement which I immediately recognized as the 'punch line' I was looking for, he said:
"Despite everything, I have to admit that Michael Jackson's music was the soundtrack of our generation's life".
A Yemeni performing Bille Jean with a local twist -- video available from YouTube.
Perhaps this video of a young Yemeni dancing to Billie Jean in a way that mixes the local fighting techniques of using a 'Khangar' (tradtional Yemeni dagger) with the twists and turns of the King of Pop, would demonstrate just how much this man has managed to rock the desert.