I received an interesting e-mail from Michael Baumgartner, a young businessman who works in Dubai. He was sharing an incident he witnessed in a hotel in Saudi Arabia. Nowadays, he says, one can observe daily the constant tug of war between “the driving forces of Western modernity and the restrictive forces of a hardened ancient cultural tradition.” One example: It was only recently that the government lifted a ban on picture mobile phones. Originally, they had been banned because of an outcry over the circulation of photos of women. At the same time, the government has made a recent multi-billion dollar investment in an advanced telecom network designed to deliver next-generation 3G mobile video services via phone.
But the incident Michael wanted to tell me about happened in a Riyadh hotel lobby. He was sipping coffee when he heard what he described as a universally recognizable sound: the shrieks and giggles of a group of excited teenage girls. Just such a group of black-robed young women rushed into the lobby where men were sitting, which surprised him. That’s because the sexes remain so segregated in Saudi Arabia. Men and women can only be together if they are related. Michael says he has never even ridden in a car with a Saudi woman and has to order at a segregated male-only counter at the local McDonald’s.
Still, these girls rushed over and mobbed a young man, shouting and giggling the whole time. They took photos with him and begged for autographs and he obliged, to their delight. He behaved just like a rock star–because he was a rock star. His name is Hisham Abdul Rahman, the recently crowned winner of Star Academy 2 (think Arabian Idol). Star Academy, which broadcasts via satellite from Lebanon, is widely popular in Saudi Arabia. It’s decried by traditionalists because male and female contestants compete as they do on American Idol. And as on The Apprentice, the contestants live together in the same house and are filmed 24 hours a day. Definitely hot stuff in the Arab world. In Saudi Arabia the state telecom operators block the phone numbers displayed on the show so that Saudi viewers cannot vote on the contestants. But that doesn’t stop them from watching, and it doesn’t stop young girls from falling in love.
Needless to say, the clamor in the lobby was noticed by nearby agents of the “Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice,” who quickly rushed to the scene determined to stop the “immoral acts” taking place. They told Hisham to beat it. He refused–hey, he was a star, already learning the international rules of being a celebrity, which include being above the law. But the Moutawa, the religious police, are used to being obeyed.
They grabbed Hisham to pull him away but the girls fought back. They grabbed Hisham, too, and there was a literal tug of war between the old and the new. Back and forth it went–but finally the Moutawa won, possibly to Hisham’s relief, and he was carted off with his clothes in tatters. Can’t you just imagine the joy of the lucky girls who went away with a cuff or a button to cherish?
Hisham was packed off with a one-way air ticket out of Riyadh and back to his hometown of Jeddah, which is generally thought to be less restrictive than the capital.
Michael writes that, to him, this was a most graphic demonstration of the conflict within Saudi Arabia right now being played out by what he likes to calls “Team 2000″ and “Team Middle Ages.” It’s the conflict, of course, between their deeply religious tradition and Western secular and materialist values that are expressed to the Saudis on MTV and the Hollywood movie channel. Both channels are on their local satellite TV and are very, very popular.
“Western modernity certainly need not necessarily equal atheism, but ‘Team Middle Ages’ is fueled in part by the thought that it does,” he writes. “It is also driven by some far nastier things–including Salafist religious fascism and sexism. In the end, ‘Team 2000’s success depends in part upon reversing this view, and then isolating and defeating the far nastier things–a very tall order and one whose outcome will have major global implications.”
Now let’s never underestimate the power of teenage girls. Didn’t the ’50s in our country end as girls shrieked for Elvis, and didn’t the ’60s begin when their younger sisters fell madly in love with the Beatles? Still, it is sad if the Saudis think that all our culture has to offer them, especially their young women, is this season’s Idol and MTV.