Now That’s What I Call Arab Pop (vol 1): The rise of the soul-stealer

Video killed the radio star, but YouTube killed the music video channel, and thousands of video clips now mournfully play unwatched as mere background noise in our living rooms. But over the next five weeks, Ada Petiwala will delve beneath the surface of Arabophone pop videos as part of her ongoing effort to revive our appreciation for these seemingly bubblegum artefacts. In this first edition, she comments on the rise of the kick-ass heroine archetype over the past three years.

Late is the hour in which the soul-stealer chooses to appear.

It’s January 2013, and I’ve been on a Rotana Clip bender for the better part of the evening, television screen glazing over with the privately owned music channel’s routine programming — an interminable montage of soppy Arab pop video clips.

As usual, heartbreak dominates each short video tonight. I’m just about through with the nasally love pangs, bathroom blubbering and unsettling amount of lonely shore-side strolls when the glare in the room shifts suddenly from light pastel hues (the color palette for pop emotion and nostalgia) to a mirthless gunmetal grey (an immediate visual cue for doom). My eyes hurt — they’re not used to acclimating so quickly between two rivaling shades of cheesy.

Scenes of a grim CGI dystopia flash about, triggering an ominous male narrator speaking in English over numerous peals of thunder (reinforcing the doom) to explain:

“In a world ruled by technology, where women became extinct and men have digital clocks implanted in the back of their necks, a woman [cue sympathetic violin cords] rose in the name of justice and fought for the men who were forgotten in the dark, using her hands as a weapon, which had the power to suck the time out of any man she touches. This is how the revolution began.”

Maya Diab video still - CGI dystopia

Maya Diab video still – CGI dystopia

I disregard the manifest plot holes of this vague fantasy saga — especially the inexplicable rise of a superwoman dubbed the “soul-stealer” in a world declared to be female-extinct — and soldier on.

Maya Diab video still - lone woman

Maya Diab video still – lone woman

Rotana Clip has helpfully indicated that this is not, in fact, a trailer for an upcoming sci-fi flick, but a music video called “Shaklak Ma Btaaref Ana Meen” (You Don’t Know Who I Am, 2012), starring second-tier Lebanese pop artist Maya Diab and directed by prolific Arab video clip and advertisement director Said El Marouk. Marouk is also credited as the second unit director and visual consultant for Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009), which explains the video’s cinematic length and frenzied tech feel. 

As I keep watching the never-ending (eight-minute) video, I realize I really don’t know who Maya Diab is. I’m trying to grasp the increasingly muddled concept of soul-stealing and follow a secondary “love against all odds” narrative, and simultaneously trace Diab’s incredible physical transfigurations as a celebrity chameleon. My mind is working very hard.

In one scene, she’s a bronzed-up Kim Kardashian, crying through her smoldering smoky eyes and four sets of fake eyelashes as a cackling minion of the pre-revolution (note: still no indication of what this revolution entails) shaves her head.

Once the hair’s all off, she’s Amber Rose, which at the very least tells me that Diab sits squarely on the fence in the Kanye-fueled feud between his past and present lovers.

Maya Diab video still - Kimber

Maya Diab video still – Kimber

The pop identity crisis continues through the buildup of dance sequences, set on an urban green-screened rooftop and illuminated by multinational jewelry company Mouawad’s shimmering billboard in an otherwise diamondless, darkened city (this isn’t an uncommon PR strategy; all Arab female pop stars have deals with either mobile phones or jewelry companies for product placement in their music videos).

I’m not sure whether Diab’s now transformed into Beyoncé, Lady Gaga or a bizarre hybrid of both. On the one hand, Diab’s male dancers are outfitted in black leather ensembles, and Marouk makes it a point to include a shot of them marching in matching black heels, perhaps a nod to the Haus of Gaga’s costume design for “Alejandro” (2010).

Maya Diab video still - Gaga

Maya Diab video still – Gaga

But the choreography of Diab and her dance troupe is reminiscent of Beyoncé, whose dance moves develop around simple, powerful and sexy motions.

Maya Diab video still - hair flip

Maya Diab video still – hair flip

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After mysteriously escaping from her sealed-in glass prison cell, emerging from a rubble-encrusted trap door, driving away sexily in an indispensible high-speed car chase, and singlehandedly trouncing five exceedingly sluggish baton-wielding adversaries in a final do-or-die fight, Diab proves undefeatable in the quest to save her man. Never mind that the soul-stealing, time-sucking narrative died at minute four of the video, overwhelmed by an excess of glossy visuals and action/adventure film tropes. In this pricey attempt to tread the line between short film and video clip, Marouk fails at giving me either; the plot takes itself too seriously and ends up being nonsense, while the song itself remains utterly forgettable.

In the final gasps of the video (and my patience), I’m not expecting our heroine to undergo another celebrity metamorphosis, just some classic narrative resolution. But then we zoom in on a victorious Diab perched atop a Mayan pyramid (perhaps an intentional reference to her given name?). She’s gone and done it again, and this time she’s Angelina Jolie — according to me and my friend, the internet. And just like that, it’s over.

Maya Diab video still - Angelina Jolie

Maya Diab video still – Angelina Jolie

Despite the lack of noise around the video and its low viewership on YouTube, it seems to have influenced other Lebenese singers to rethink the artistic direction of their videos. A little over a year after Diab sucked time out of the back of men’s necks, singer-actress Haifa Wehbe (who regularly plays a sedentary seductress in her clips) jumped out of planes and skillfully outran the authorities as a notorious diamond thief in “Ezzay Ansak” (How Can I Forget You?, 2013), which is more action than we’ve seen in the rest of her oeuvre.

In her 2015 clip “El Shark El Azim” (The Great East), performer Carole Samaha dons a spiked black leather bodysuit and slays vigorously in defense of the peoples of The Great East (which we presume to mean the Middle East). Funded by the dubious UAE-backed Global Network for Rights and Development (GNRD), for which Samaha is goodwill ambassador, this video develops a similar doomsday visual theme as Diab’s “Shaklak Ma Btaaref Ana Meen” — though the difference here is that Samaha fights not for a man, but to save a long-tyrannized homeland.

Carole Samaha

Carole Samaha

It could be that Diab and Marouk have sparked a trend in which Arab pop starlets are trying on the toughened-up maverick character. It’s the first time these women have been fashioned into something other than helpless lovers or belly-dancing femme fatales in this particular cultural vehicle, thus diversifying an otherwise terribly sentimental genre. But it may be little more than a lateral move — it’s hard to see this new archetype as more “feminist” than the love-sick heroine, as opposed to just representing an attempt to tap into pervasive Lara Croft/futuristic cyborg sex fantasies.

But we’ll see how this character develops. For now, the queen of sugary pop, Nancy Ajram, still reigns supreme on Rotana. I’d prefer to succumb to her pain, her watermelons and her pleas to come hither than submit to Diab’s stale potpourri of received visual ideas, which ultimately defangs the feral femininity that it pretends to embolden.

Ada Petiwala