Thursday, October 9, 2008

Akhasmak Ah, Aseebak la! * Arabs and concepts of globalization

Abstract: Arabs, be it in the region or throughout the world, have always had a difficult take on globalization. Afraid it would melt their cultural and religious values they have oscillated between refusing the concept outright, to including limited applications of it, to simply integrating it into their daily norm with a twist. The paper below discusses many such instances and bases its title on the famous Arab pop song by singer Nanacy Ajram “Akhasmak ah, aseebak la” (Her 2003 breakthrough hit) which translates into “I argue with you, yes, I leave you, no!” a typical attitude of the Arab consumer who tends to disagree with many of the elements he is presented with, but is unable to leave the globalization process alone. With the use of practical examples and precedents, it will highlight the ambiguity of dealing with the complex phenomenon that globalization proves to be. Research: Would you like a Mecca Cola, a Zamazam Cola, or even a Qibla Cola with those French fries? Although discontinued in 2005, Qibla Cola (1) is still a cousin in terms of ethics and marketing strategy to Zamzam and Mecca cola. Zamzam was launched in 1954, originally “an outreach of Pepsi” but later became its own independent company in 1979 following the Islamic revolution. (2) According to Wikipedia, “It was launched in France, in November 2002, by Tawfik Mathlouthi, as a means of aiding Palestinians by tapping into demand for alternative products in European countries. He had been inspired by a popular Iranian soft drink, Zam Zam Cola, which was already successful in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, and in fact only decided to launch his own brand when he was unable to agree on terms for a distribution contract with Zam Zam.” (3) It is interesting to note that the three above-mentioned colas are actually spin-offs of the more famous originals: Pepsi Cola and Coca-cola. In themselves these products are imitations of originals, only they were suited for the taste and marketing aspirations of their target audiences. When Richard Nixon and Nikita Khrushchev made a public appearance together in the 1959 World Fair, which took place in the American National Exhibition in Moscow. The American pavilion, designed by Jack Masey, contained a recreation of a Long Island kichen. “Khrushchev averred that Russian kitchens were longer-lasting than American ones and that, in any case, he doubted the average US worker could afford what was on display. Nixon said they certainly could, and what became known as the Kitchen Debate gathered steam until the US vice-president thundered: "You must not be afraid of ideas!" Infuriatingly, the Russian president smiled and said: "That's what we're telling you - don't be afraid of ideas."” (4) The small irony is that Masey was born to immigrant parents, one English, and one Russian. So, as both sides back then accused each other of being “afraid of ideas,” at the height of the cold war, another anecdote comes to mind: Whereas the NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) spent millions of Dollars to develop a pen that works in space, Russians used grease pencils to write while in orbit. (5) The above joke merely displays that sometimes local and rudimentary answers are best suited to complex questions. But are Arabs “afraid of ideals?” If we were to go back to the Cola interpretations, the question that begs itself is: What kind of Burger goes with such ethically engaged colas? The answer: “Beurger King” naturally! Indeed, “the bright and colorful eatery was launched in July (2005) in an eastern Paris suburb crowded with immigrants and dilapidated housing projects. Its name plays on the French word "Beur," meaning a second-generation North African living in France.” Catering for this target audience simply puts in perspective the alienation such a population was feeling, indeed, when France won the world cup in 1998 (Which it organized as well) the “Bleu, Blanc, Rouge” slogan (referring to the colors of the French flag) was transformed into “Black, blanc, Beur” However, the riots that engulfed the French suburbs in 2005 proved the slogan to be short-lived. According to journalist Haby Asservo, “this team, they told us, was the ultimate proof that integration had been a success. There was nothing, they said, that prevented the children of immigrants succeeding in French society. "Black, Blanc, Beur" was the slogan. It means "Black, White, Arab." […]The success of the French national team in 1998 and of players like Zidane and Thuram, while not to be taken as a political slogan for integration, is proof that something positive can come out of these marginalized communities. The power of these young people, if harnessed constructively can make France stronger and truer still to its ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity.” However, this author will also ask the question: Would Beurger King have existed if its clientele did not feel alienated in McDonald’s and Burger King? Other sectors whereby globalization is being targeted to local Arab audiences is music. “An example of a group who has armed itself with its lyrics is DAM, a trio of rappers, Tamer Nafer, Suhell Nafer, and Mahmud Jiery, who hail from Ramleh. The group’s name means blood in both Arabic and Hebrew and is also associated with the English curse word. DAM blends the influences of 2pac and Mos Def’s American hip hop flavor with the traditional Arabic music greats, George Wasouf and Fairuz.” (8) The movement is not only confined to Palestine, Lebanese artists such as Aksser (Which means “against the current” but also “going against the traffic” – something the Lebanese are famous for), Ashekman – which is also a slang Arabization of the French word “echappement” or exhaust pipe, also sing rap and hip-hop star RGB equally chants his lyrics in Arabic. Whereas rap and hi-hop were born in the American inner cities, their Arabic interpretations seem to speak to a new generation which is eager to incorporate Western elements into its musical repertoire. No one understood this better than Michel Elefteriades, the Lebanese producer and artist extraordinaire. By coupling traditional Arab sounds and celebrities with international beats he came up with a winning formula which has included so far: Tony Hanna & the Yugoslavian Gipsy Brass Band, Tony Hanna & the National Orchestra of Nowheristan, Hanine Y Son Cubano (Arabo-Cuban, 10908*), Jose Fernandez & Wadih El Safi, Jose G·lvez & the National Orchestra of Nowheristan. For those asking what “Nowehristan” is – or where it is – the answer is even more cryptic. Elefteriades “pulled the bases of a new nation he named Nowheristan. The ceremony of proclamation of the nation of Nowheristan received the United Nations' support by the presence of UN Secretary General’s personal representative and the Lebanese Minister of Culture. Numerous Arab intellectuals have joined the concept of Nowheristan and thousands of candidates from around the world have already requested applications for citizenship. H.I.H. is dedicating his time, his talent, his wealth… to promote the great Empire as an alternative to the political, ideological and economical problems of the world today.” (10) The movement of creating new nations was certainly not created by Elefteriades, as a matter of fact, one of the most known international authorities about such a phenomenon is the American Steven F. Scharff, who specializes in micronations which he defines as “any number of things: a model country that exists solely as work of fiction, a small group of people who are seeking sovereignty from another governmental power, a collection of brave souls who are trying to establish a new country, a tiny sovereign jurisdiction that may have escaped the notice of other major powers.” (11) In a personal interview, Scharff, a Nevada resident, explains that “there are several Arab micronations, including Assyria, which is composed of people scattered through Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria.” (12) An Arab micronation is a new way to blend into globalization through the use of the internet, because indeed, so far Assyria only exists through its online presence. Which naturally brings us to discuss how Arabs are slowly but surely blending the globalised world of the internet with their own perceptions. One of the most obvious ways is chat. Because most Arabs do not chat using the Arabic alphabet but rather an Arabized version of the Latin one. Sounds which are not present in the original phonetics of the Latin were replaced with Arabic numerals which resemble closely the letters in question. 2 for example is the “hamza” and 7 is the sound “h” with an emphasis which is not present in the original latin alphabet. (13) As a matter of fact, Arabic is known as “lughat al dad” which means the “language of the dad” – a phonetic sound and a letter not present in any other alphabet. The above Latinized version is also used for short message system on cellular phones. “The green-and-white limited edition Hidayah phone, which means divine guidance in Arabic, sounds the "azan" call to prayer five times a day as well as the bang of the traditional bedug drum used at sunset to signal the end of the fast. It also wakes Muslims up with religious songs before the dawn prayers so they can eat a final meal.” (14) Lately, in Beirut, and during the Holy Month of Ramadan, the cell phone is being put to good use as an alternative to the traditional “mousaharati,” a folkloric figure which would roam the streets with a drum in order to wake up the fasting people for the “souhour” meal at dawn prior to fasting. People wishing to wake each other up would simply give each other a missed call on the cell phone. Which is another way of incorporating international inventions for local customs. It is to note that some parts of the region were not on friendly terms with the mobile, specifically the camera-equipped cell phones. Sheik Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah Al al-Sheik, Saudi Arabia's highest religious authority, announced the religious edict Tuesday in remarks to al-Madina daily newspaper. The devices, he said, were "spreading obscenity in Muslim society," the newspaper reported."All citizens should renounce this (the use of cell phones with cameras) ... for it can harm everybody without discrimination," the paper quoted him as saying. Violators "should be strictly confronted and punished."” Other technological innovations which Arabs are still ambivalent about include television. Specifically, a major dilemma is occurring concerning reality shows which are adapted to Arab formats. A recently as May 2008 “A Kuwaiti Islamist lawmaker on Thursday urged authorities to ban a team from Lebanese reality TV show "Star Academy" from recruiting young Kuwaitis, saying the program destroys morals. "The recruitment of youth for a program that destroys morals and fights our (Islamic) values is no less bad and dangerous than recruiting them for terrorism or for peddling drugs," MP Waleed al-Tabtabai said in a statement.” (16) Such banning efforts in the past did not stop Kuwaiti national Bashar Al Chatti from scoring second place in the first season of Star Academy (19), a show based on cell phone voting. “The Middle East attempted their own version of Big Brother in 2004 with countries like Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Lebanon, Oman, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Somalia, Syria and Tunisia participating. But due to religious protests it did not air past week one.” (17) The show was ruled as un-Islamic and cries of “Stop Sin Brother! No to indecency!” chanted the protesters. (18) Banning the TV show in question is but one of the ways in which Arabs demonstrate their displeasure whenever their values are derogated. One of the most serious is boycott. When Danish newspaper Jyllans-Posten published the cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed in 2006, the reply of the Middle East was to boycott Danish goods. “Denmark, a country with a positive image all over the world, suddenly found itself in the center of an international religious and political hurricane. In this maelstrom, the Danish-Swedish dairy conglomerate Arla became the target of a boycott. […] Arla was by far the foremost loser in the Cartoons-of-Mohammed episode. For Arla, the Mohammed episode was a real crisis; it posed a real and immediate threat to a major part of Arla’s business.” (21) “Arla Foods is Europe’s second-largest dairy company and the leading Danish exporter to Saudi Arabia, where it sells an estimated two billion kroner ($328 million) worth of products every year.“More and more supermarkets are taking our products off their shelves and don’t want fresh supplies because consumers no longer want to buy our brand,” Arla Foods spokesman Louis Honore told AFP.” (22) Interestingly, two years down the line, “Arla currently enjoys 95 percent of the turnover it had before the boycott began, the company said in a statement. In Saudia Arabia, however, the company's largest Middle Eastern market, Arla has only managed to reclaim 83 percent of its previous turnover.” (23) Which is another case where Arab consumers went into a fight with brands, only to forget about it at a later stage. Sometimes, instead of boycott, or simply complementary to it, alternative products are created. Sometimes even with a twist of humor. To those finding McDonald’s in Lebanon not compatible with their political tastes a joint called Guns and Buns whose motto is “A sandwich can kill you” might be the answer (It is important to point out however that when a bomb targeted a local branch for McDonald’s in 2003 (24), the company was quick to retaliate through a campaign in which it says it is a 100% Lebanese company employing Lebanese people and being a part of the local economy. The technique is reminiscent of the signature of the Americana Group which is “Americana, 100% Arab.” Guns and buns owner “Yousef Ibrahim presents rebranded Lebanese favourites like the "rocket-propelled grenade" (chicken on a skewer) and "terrorist bread". "They accuse us of terrorism, so let's serve terrorist bread, why not?" Mr Ibrahim told Hezbollah's al-Manar TV. You noticed the moment I opened the place, there was a lot of business Yousef IbrahimOther dishes include the Kalashnikov, Dragunov, Viper, B52, while realistic-looking weapons and ammunition decorate the counters, and camouflage netting hangs from the ceiling.” (25) Sometimes, the local version of an international phenomenon is not merely a person endeavor, actually, it might be required by law. One such aspect could be the Arabization of international logos as required by some Arab States. In effect, sometimes the result is borderline ridiculous such as “Brasserie Paul” whose sign in Arabic is written in the same way the word “urine” spells. Another example includes the launching of the Giorgio Armani perfume “Gio” in Saudi Arabia. The campaign, an adaptation of the international one, read “I want Gio” (Or rather I lust after Gio). Which in Arabic translated as “Abghi Gio” with one major problem: The way Gio was written on the bottle could be read in Arabic (Which is read from right to left as opposed to Latin) as: Mouna. Mouna being the popular name in Arab culture, the campaign therefore read “I lust after Mouna.” As a final concession to how signals could be misinterpreted from their original target, I refer to an example which happened to myself when I was a member of an advertising agency in Saudi Arabia. At the time, it was signaled to us that Lexus, the luxury car brand, had spotted a major untapped market: Upscale Saudi Women who had a lot of disposable income but who had not ventured into buying a car because they were not supposed to enter the showroom due to social reasons. So the car dealership which is owned by a large group actually went about and set a very luxurious showroom dedicated to women, and run by a woman with the assistance of female staff and saleswomen. To announce the opening of the showroom we created an ad which featured the door of the sporty convertible SC model (Which is therefore only a half-door) upon which was the handle of a female bag with the headline “For women only.” The visual therefore portrayed a ladies’ bag with a reference to cars or conversely, a car ad with a reference to women, On the night of opening, a large chunk of the clientele came in asked about the new Lexus handbags for women instead of inspecting the new car models. Summary: The above examples serve as a slice of how Arabs are dealing with technology and globalization. Making sure international concepts are translated locally, but insuring they have their own outtake on the final translation. One that makes them feel safe and not “afraid of ideas.” Arabs tend to fight with the globalization processes, but tend to yield in eventually, because just like Nancy Ajram whose 2003 breakthrough hit forms the title of this paper, admits to plastic surgery (26) by the same token, Arabs are able to accept certain aspects of globalization only after dipping them in local spices and sauces. Today, little Middle Eastern girls are playing with Fulla, the regional counterpart of the Barbie sensation, “Fulla roughly shares Barbie's size and proportions, but steps out of her shiny pink box wearing a black abaya and matching head scarf. She is named after a type of jasmine that grows in the Levant, and although she has an extensive and beautiful wardrobe (sold separately, of course), Fulla is usually displayed wearing her modest "outdoor fashion."” (27) Yet, it would not be uncommon for those girls to be singing Nancy Ajram’s songs while doing so. Just to make things a little more complex, Ajram has already renewed her contract with Coca-Cola as their celebrity representative (28), and her Chakhbat chakhabit album, (Which roughly translates into “doodle doodle) destined for children, was co-sponsored by the brand. Her 2008 outing, “Bitfakar fi eh?” (Which means “What are you thinking of?”) still has the logo of the soda drink everywhere on the promotional ads. What am I thinking of? I am thinking of the last lyrics of her “Akhasmak ah” hit, which simply go “Ahebak ah!” – I love you, yes! *Akhasmak Ah, aseebak la: I argue with you, yes, I leave you, no! References: 1) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Qibla_Cola 2) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zam_Zam_Cola 3) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mecca_Cola 4) Wait till you see our talking chickens, Emma Brockes, The Guardian, September 18, 2008, http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2008/sep/18/design.jackmasey 5) http://www.pencilrevolution.com/2005/12/russian-space-pen/ 6) http://www.usatoday.com/news/world/2005-08-05-muslim-burgers_x.htm 7) http://www.e-sports.com/articles/959/1/Black-Blanc-Beur-A-French-story/Page1.html 8) http://www.mideastyouth.com/2006/11/30/arabic-rap/ 9) http://profile.myspace.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=user.viewprofile&friendid=163878119 10) Ditto 11) http://www.angelfire.com/nv/micronations/enter.html 12) Email interview with Steven S. Scharff for the purposes of this paper 13) David Palfreyman (November 2003). ""A Funky Language for Teenzz to Use": Representing Gulf Arabic in Instant Messaging". Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 9 (1). USC Annenberg School for Communication. Retrieved on 2008-08-25. 14) http://www.reuters.com/article/lifestyleMolt/idUSJAK26416320080908 15) http://www.sptimes.com/2004/09/30/Worldandnation/Saudi_Arabia_edict_ba.shtml 16) http://europenews.dk/en/node/10629 17) http://wanjiku-unlimited.blogspot.com/2008/08/big-brother-africa-iii.html 18) http://orwellproject.com/2004/02/27/protesters-want-bahrain-big-brother-off-the-air/ 19) http://www.fanoos.com/society/bachar_al_shatti.html 20) http://www.arabnews.com/?page=1§ion=0&article=7691221 22) http://www.arabnews.com/?page=1§ion=0&article=76912 21) Country Image and Consumer Nationalism. Case Arla and the Mohammed Cartoons Episode, Jaakko Lehtonen (Jyv‰skyl‰) 22) www.thelocal.se/10956/20080407/ 23) http://www.thelocal.se/9762/20080124/ 24) news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/2921463.stm 25) http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/7468729.stm 26) http://swedenburg.blogspot.com/2006/03/nancy-ajram-time-out-dubai.html 27) http://www.nytimes.com/2005/09/22/international/middleeast/22doll.html 28) http://www.nogomalarab.com/stars/nancy.php
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