SHAMS: Rock the Casbah

Shams (Arabic for “Sun”) is a popular female Kuwaiti singer who has just released a controversial song titled, Ahlan Ezayak (or “Hi! How are you!”) Accompanied by a slick MTV-like video that lambastes George W. Bush and his occupation of Iraq, the song has become all the rage in the Middle East. Shams croons in the Khaliji style, one of the most intoxicating and seductive genres in pop music today, and yet most Americans have not heard of it - even as U.S. soldiers sink ever deeper into Arab sands. Clearly, it’s time for what The Clash used to call, “a public service announcement - with guitar!” Well o.k., make that “with oud.”

Screen capture from Shams’ video

[ Shams & George, an impossible affair. All screen captures from Shams’ video, Ahlan Ezayak - or "Hi! How are you!" ]

Arabic for “From the Gulf,” Khaliji is a musical genre that has come to represent the cultures of the Arab and Persian Gulf area. Set apart by its heavy use of traditional instruments like the pear-shaped stringed instrument - the Oud, and the Tar and Bendir framed drums, today’s Khaliji has changed with the times. Synthesizers and modern digital recording studios have modernized the sound of this intrinsically Arab music, characterized by driving compound Gulf rhythms and intricate sequences of hand clapping. The fact that Shams is Kuwaiti, a people who have been the biggest supporters of American policy in the Arab world, makes her video all the more inflammatory - an indication that the Kuwaiti/U.S. romance is over. And indeed Ahlan Ezayak is a song about love gone sour, “Hi! How are you? - You think you’re so great, I never want to see you again!”

Screen capture from Shams’ video

[ After her break-up with the big cheese, Shams sings from atop a wall composed of letters that spell out, "GUANTANAMO." ]

The video opens with Shams singing to a moronic looking digitized George W. Bush at a press conference held on the White House lawn. The gathering quickly becomes an opportunity for the singer to publicly announce, “I’m not your relative, I’m not your sweetheart.” The video then dissolves into a subversive montage involving the singer, Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, as Shams sings her song of broken love - “Whether you hurt my heart or adore it, I refuse you. Go buy yourself and get away from me.” The surreal video depicts Shams confronting her veiled self in a police line-up, lying down in front of the White House on a wall made of letters that spell “GUANTANAMO,” cutting the strings of powerful marionettes (there’s Tony Blair!), and boxing in the ring with Condoleezza. Even the Statue of Liberty can’t help but dance to that funky Khaliji beat. There’s more, dare I say, “feminist” sentiment and rebel rage in this video, than in all of the current rock and hip-hop video’s of today put together.

Screen capture from Shams’ video

[ "And in this corner!" - Shams in the boxing ring with Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice. ]

Shams saves plenty of ire for her fellow Arabs. The video mocks an aging Arab journalist who wears a ridiculous blond wig in an attempt to be more like a Western reporter - Shams dances along and blows the absurd toupee off the CNN wannabe’s head. Then there’s the scene of a teenage Arab girl excessively influenced by Western standards of beauty, whose own self-loathing transforms her into a plastic surgery disaster - replete with enormous breasts and a Michael Jackson-like nose.

Screen capture from Shams’ video

[ Shams confronts herself in a line-up after a police clampdown. One of her personas being a "Westernized" singer, the other, a veiled traditionalist. The message - all rebellious Arabs go to jail. ]

The final scene of the video shows the singer wearing a beautiful white wedding dress and walking off into a blazing red sunset, holding hands with “Hanzala,” the scruffy cartoon character created by legendary Palestinian artist, Naji al-Ali. To Westerners, this running off with a cartoon boy may seem an odd ending, but a bit of research reveals the finale as intensely poignant to the Arab heart - for Hanzala represents the Palestinian diaspora and a people’s thirst for freedom and independence.

Screen capture from Shams’ video

[ Shams and Hanzala walk hand-in-hand into a blazing red sunset - true love at last. ]

Naji al-Ali lived in forced exile from his native Palestine for his entire life, and while a refugee he created over forty thousand satirical drawings that were published in newspapers and journals all across the Arab world and beyond. His disheveled pint-sized Hanzala character, quasi-biographical, and representing the homeless refugee, was first published in a Kuwaiti newspaper. Naji’s drawings railed against the pervasive corruption in the Arab world and its lack of democracy - as well as voicing opposition to the Israeli occupation of his homeland, but he paid the ultimate price for antagonizing the powerful with his editorial cartoons. In 1987, while working in London for the Kuwaiti Al-Qabas newspaper, Naji al-Ali was shot and killed on the street by unknown assailants, his life had been cut short at the age of 51. Naji once said of Hanzala:

“This child, as you can see is neither beautiful, spoilt, nor even well-fed. He is barefoot like many children in refugee camps. He is actually ugly and no woman would wish to have a child like him. However, those who came to know ‘Hanzala’, as I discovered and later adopted him because he is affectionate, honest, outspoken, and a bum. He is an icon that stands to watch me from slipping. And his hands behind his back are a symbol of rejection of all the present negative tides in our region.”

The implications in the emotional ending of Shams’ video are clear. She has turned her back on all of the “present negative tides” to marry Hanzala, who it turns out, is not the physically stunted and victimized child we see - but a sagacious and heroic spirit as old as the “refugee problem” itself. Shams has married the resistance. If you want to know what Arabs are thinking and how Arab artists are responding to the conflagration in their neighborhood, turn off FOX and NPR, toss out your dog-eared copy of Newsweek - and watch this video.

One Response to “SHAMS: Rock the Casbah”

  1. [...] SHAMS: Rock the Casbah - February 7, 2007 “Shams (Arabic for ‘Sun’) is a popular female Kuwaiti singer who has just released a controversial song titled, Ahlan Ezayak (or ‘Hi! How are you!’) Accompanied by a slick MTV-like video that lambastes George W. Bush and his occupation of Iraq, the song has become all the rage in the Middle East.” [...]