Sun, Aug 05, 2007 - Page 9 News List

Persian Gulf culture emerging as new voice of Arab world

Ten years ago, Gulf states were often ignored as little more than sources of cash. Now, the region's business titans are taking the reins of popular culture

By Hassan Fattah  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES

One of the most popular talent shows to hit Arab television this year has some of the trappings of similar shows in Europe and the US: swaggering contestants, big budget sets, grizzled judges and the chance to become a real star.

But as the mostly mustachioed contestants stood on stage in their flowing gowns and traditional headdresses, half nervous, half eager, the Poet of Millions competition became an example of a shift occurring in Arab pop culture.

Instead of love ballads sung by scantily clad singers the contestants offered the rhyme and rhythm of a flowery style of Bedouin poetry known as Nabati, popular in the Persian Gulf, but largely forgotten in much of the rest of the Arab world.

"Some Arabs say his love borders on insanity," one contestant began in a lament to a fallen elder, as the audience roared. "He cannot describe the feeling no matter what it may be, each of its letters woven in silk to see. But death came to you, some said, and you remained patient. But why, why did you go to it?"

The cultural rise of the Persian Gulf is analogous to that of the US South in recent decades, when country singers and southern ways have become part of pop culture. Much like the southern drawl, the Gulf accent has fast entered the mainstream.

"Ten years ago the only dialect you heard in the media was the Egyptian one, and later the Lebanese," said Nashwa Al Ruwaini, executive producer of the Poet of Millions and several other shows and film series in Abu Dhabi.

"With satellite TV, the people in Egypt now hear and understand what people in the Gulf say. And the Gulfis started going to the Egyptian market and the mainstream," he said.

When people spoke of culture in the Arab world, they meant Beirut, Cairo or Morocco, the biggest producers of films and music. Cairo's streets were automatically the "Arab street" and what happened there often defined the mainstream.

Oil-rich states like Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, resented for their sudden wealth and tainted by the stereotypes of spendthrift sheiks, were often ignored as little more than sources of cash.

Now, the sheiks and business titans of the region are seeking to come out in the open going past religious programming into pop culture that is increasingly being defined by them.

Throughout the Middle East, media companies and government projects have worked to elevate Gulf talent and bridge a longstanding divide between the region's conservative ways and the comparatively more liberal attitudes found elsewhere.

Gulf singers have also reflected a more appealing image to a region growing ever more conservative and refusing of the West's influence here. Where Lebanese and Egyptian singers show off skin and sex, Gulf singers are more covered and their acts often feature children.

The Poet of Millions, soon to be entering its second season, proved an instant hit that spawned similar poetry competitions and shows on Lebanese and Egyptian TV.

CULTURAL DRIVE

The show, produced for US$14 million, is part of a broader campaign by Abu Dhabi to build museums, sponsor book prizes and encourage publishers to relocate to the Persian Gulf emirate.

"People in the Gulf want to prove to the world -- to the Arab world especially -- to think past their pocketbooks," said Hussein Shobokshy, a columnist with the pan-Arab daily Asharq Al Awsat.

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