Friday, December 31, 2010

Kufiyas (and other pop Orientalisms) in SPIN's 20 Best Videos of 2010

SPIN Magazine's list of the 20 Best Videos of 2010 was recently published. The kufiya makes appearances in two of the top 20.

At number 20: MIA's "Born Free." You read about it on hawblawg here.

At number 7, Superchunk's "Digging for Something." You read about it on hawgblawg here.

Superchunk - Digging For Something from Merge Records on Vimeo.

Some well-known kufiya wearers show up in other vids. Das Racist's "Who's That Brown?" is #6.

Das Racist don't wear kufiyas in the vid, but they have been spotted wearing them on other occasions. (The t-shirt, worn by Victor Vazquez, says Coca Cola in Arabic.)

?uestlove of The Roots shows up in Duck Sauce's "Barbara Streisand" video (# 9), at about 0:27. As hawgblawg readers now, he too is a sometime kufiya wearer. (The photo below looks better than the one on the original post.)

Other pop Orientalisms:

Fez alert! Armand Van Helden of Duck Soup is shown wearing a Shiner's Fez in the "Barbara Streisand" video (#9) at 0:36. This puts him in very good company, as you know from reading hawblawg's previous fez alerts.

And RZA of the Wu Tang Clan shows up throughout the Vampire Weekend "Giving Up the Gun" video (#4) as the tennis umpire. RZA is a member of the Nation of Gods and Earths (Five Percenters). You've read my article about the Five Percenters here. And I've told you about THE book about the Nation, by Michael Muhammad Knight's The Five Percenters: Islam, Hip-hop, and the Gods of New York.

RZA and the rest of the Wu Tang are from Shaolin (Staten Island). I was born there too. That about ties it all together.

Happy New Year!

Monday, December 13, 2010

Kufiyas in the mainstream: "Glee," "Running Wilde," and Superchunk's "Digging for Something"

The kufiya, it seems, is now securely lodged in mainstream US cultural discourse. Like all signifiers, its meanings are not fixed, but are polyvalent. Here are three recent examples of the kufiya's appearance in US pop culture, which I attempt to decode.

1. Mercedes in Glee, Season 1, Episode 21 (broadcast June 1, 2010).

You know, of course, that Glee is a wildly popular and successful TV show. Mercedes is not one of the major characters, but she is an important element. She is, for the most part, a sympathetic character, who is also fashion-conscious. In this episode, "Funk," Mercedes appears wearing a kufiya in a scene where she is talking to the pregnant Quinn, soon to be an unwed teenage mom. Mercedes sympathizes with her plight and invites Quinn to move in with her. At the end of the conversation, having come to an agreement of the minds, Mercedes and Quinn bump fists.

What's the kufiya doing here? I think it's a signifier of Mercedes' fashion sense, a fashion sense that is at least in part "street," given the fact that the kufiya remains an important accessory in African-American urban communities. It's significant that it shows up in a scene where Mercedes is shown to be sympathetic to the white girl Quinn, in a scene of cross-racial solidarity, of Mercedes and Quinn making an alliance based on a sense of shared social marginalization--Mercedes as black, Quinn as pregnant.

2. Andy (David Cross) the environmental activist, Running Wilde, Season 1, Episode 3 (broadcast Oct. 5, 2010)

By contrast to Glee, Running Wilde was a flop. Launched by Fox in September 2010, its demise was announced in late November.

The show starred Will Arnett as Steve Wilde, a billionaire in love with Emmy Kadubic (Kerri Russell, who is engaged to Andy (David Cross), a radical environmentalist. (Cross and Wilde were also both in the terrific Arrested Development. Running Wilde is as lame as Arrested Development was brilliant.)

In episode 3 ("Oil and Water"), Steve gets rid of Andy by getting him to go to Alaska to fight a secret Wilde Oil plan to drill for oil on Inuit land and pollute their waterways. (It seems there is no such plan, but Andy, who Steve describes asa "stupid eco-terrorist/save-the-world nut job," wants Andy gone so he can continue his efforts to win over Emmy.)

Andy, who wears a red kufiya throughout the episode, is portrayed as a rather ridiculous figure. He worries that Emmy is losing respect and interest in him, remarking at one point, "She doesn't want to listen to my conspiracy theories any more." And Emmy tells Steve that Andy acts like he wants to start the French Revolution but usually just ends up calling up Larry King to rant. Part of Andy's motivation for going to Alaska to "save" the Inuit is to impress Emmy.

Meanwhile Emmy is trying to get Steve to "quit" Wilde Oil in order to prove his good character. (She may be rather disaffected with Andy but she is a committed environmentalist.) Steve goes to the office to quit (he just receives checks from Wilde, has never worked there, but for some reason Emmy is under the impression that he has a real "job"), together with Emmy. Andy calls Wilde to complain about the corporation, and Emmy happens to pick up the phone. Andy is looking for inside information about Wilde's plans in Alaska. Emmy decides that it would be better if Steve stayed at Wilde so that she could find out, through him, what Wilde was up to there.

Eventually, Steve does decide to quit. Meanwhile, in the last scene, Andy is shown helping to organize an Inuit demonstration against Wilde Oil. (It's unclear what Wilde really is doing in Alaska.) A Wilde Oil truck shows up, and the employees get out and address Andy as if he is a Wilde Oil employee. They do so because he's wearing (unbeknownest to him) a coat with Wilde Oil logo, that Steve had loaned him for the Alaska trip. The Inuit, who think they have uncovered a spy, take Andy off to administer a beating. Emmy's daughter Puddle, who narrates the episode, says, "and when they caught him, he cried like a little girl."

The kufiya serves the function of marking Andy as a political activist. Emma is political too, but more sensible and even-keeled. Andy is a blowhard, ineffectual in practice. And so clueless that he never notices that he is wearing a coat with a Wilde Oil logo, the log of the company against whose evils he is ostensibly fighting. The kufiya, in this episode of Running Wilde, is clearly a marker of progressive politics, but at the same time, by being worn by someone like Andy, the kufiya itself seems to be tarnished with a brand of left politics that is presented as at once extremist and ludicrous.

3. Superchunk, video for "Digging for Something" (from the album, Majesty Shredding)

Superchunk, for those of you not in-the-know, is an indie rock band from Chapel Hill, NC. According to, [p]erhaps no band was more emblematic of the true spirit of American indie rock during the 1990s than Superchunk." While Superchunk remained active during the aughts, there was a gap of nine years between the release of album 8 (Here's to Shutting Up, 2001), and this year's Majesty Shredding.

Superchunk's song, "Digging for Something," made it onto Spin magazine's list of the Best 20 Songs of 2010, landing at #13. (The album Majesty Shredding was Other Music's #22 on its 25 Best Albums of 2010 list, and of course there are more best of lists to come...) The video for the song (the youtube video is linked to in Spin's article) reflects humorously on the sort of "return" that Majesty Shredding represents for the band, which had been around, but not nearly so much in the spotlight during the aughts as in the nineties. What does it mean for the members of a hot band in the nineties to get back on the stage after they have "aged"?

In the video, they "return" with only one "original" member, singer/guitarist Mac McCaughan. McCaughan is backed by a group of younger artists, dressed in outfits that looks to me like repurposed 80s gear, which I guess is the nostalgia period of choice for the current twenty-somethings. The gear is worn, of course, ironically. McGaughan, in order to make himself appear au courant, and to fit in with his younger bandmembers of Superchunk 2.0, wears Devo style shades, a black-and-red plaid t-shirt, black Converse sneakers, and a black-and-white kufiya around his neck, triangle in front.

The old band members, meanwhile, are variously working as a dentist (Jon Wurster), a potter selling her wares at craft fairs (Laura Ballance), and a professional Buddhist meditator (Jim Wilbur). The three see a flyer for the Superchunk 2.0 concert, join forces, storm the stage, drive off the youngsters, and rejoin McGaughan to finish the song. Unlike the young upstarts, the three originals just wear normal, non-stylish, regular clothing. Unlike the fashionistas of Superchunk 2.0, the originals are "real." As the song ends, McCaughan, as if to indicate his embracing of his "real" indie roots, throws the kufiya onto the ground and tosses away his dark glasses. He has dispensed with the trivial fashions of the moment and reclaims the authentic, anti-style style of original indie.

In this video, then, the kufiya functions as a key signifier of the pop fluff of contemporary fashion. Real indie isn't concerned with such inconsequential accessories of musical performers who are all show and no go. Real indie is just about the music.

Stay tuned. Friends keep sending me their kufiya sightings, and I'm behind in my reporting, so there is always more to come. (Many thanks to David for item #1, Noat for item #2, to Kamran for item #3.)

Sunday, November 14, 2010


Among the many things I've learned while tracking kufiyas is that (a) kufiyas are stereotypically associated with hipsters and (b) kufiyas have emerged as a convenient stick to beat hipsters with.

Here's what I said about the hipster/kufiya connection in my most recent talk about kufiyas, which I gave at the University of Louisville last month:

Hipsters have also [in addition to celebrities] been a focus of criticism due to their fondness for kufiyas. For some reason, over the past few years the kufiya style has become synonymous with stereotypes of the hipster. The New Oxford American dictionary definition of the hipster--“a person who follows the latest trends in fashion”--captures the social type's ambiguous character: hipsters are up-to-date and cool, but at the same time they are followers, rather than the trendsetters. They try to live on the cutting edge, but constantly on the lookout for the latest thing, they will abandon an “old” trend for a new one at a moment's notice. Perhaps it is because hipsters, or as some have called them, the hipsterati, are so “trend” conscious that they can so readily serve as an example of the degraded status of the kufiya in the US. Standing as the quintessential example of the apparent emptiness of the search for coolness, the hipster is a convenient lightning rod, and so a popular and widespread spectator sport of mocking hipsters has developed.

I then go on to cite several examples, most of which I have blogged about previously.

I'm therefore very keen to get my hands on a new book (which I've just ordered), called What Was The Hipster?: A Sociological Investigation (n+1 Foundation, 2010). Today's New York Times has a great essay from Mark Greif, one of the contributors to the volume. Greif uses Bourdieu's book Distinctions to make sense of hipsters and the struggles over "taste." Here's the observation that, I think, really sums up hipsterdom, and helps make sense of all the mocking of hipster kufiya-wearing:

All hipsters play at being the inventors or first adopters of novelties: pride comes from knowing, and deciding, what’s cool in advance of the rest of the world. Yet the habits of hatred and accusation are endemic to hipsters because they feel the weakness of everyone’s position — including their own. Proving that someone is trying desperately to boost himself instantly undoes him as an opponent. He’s a fake, while you are a natural aristocrat of taste. That’s why “He’s not for real, he’s just a hipster” is a potent insult among all the people identifiable as hipsters themselves.

The spectator sport of hipster mocking, according to Greif, is just hipsters mocking other hipsters. His piece is accompanied by this graphic. The scarf is meant to evoke the kufiya, but given the absence of the kufiya pattern, it lacks authenticity. The kufiya pattern would give the stereotype a harder bite, I mean.

Greif has published a longer piece in New York Magazine (October 24) that is even more illuminating. I quote some of my favorite bits below (kufiyas of course make their appearance):

"The hipster is that person, overlapping with the intentional dropout or the unintentionally declassed individual—the neo-bohemian, the vegan or bicyclist or skatepunk, the would-be blue-collar or postracial twentysomething, the starving artist or graduate student—who in fact aligns himself both with rebel subculture and with the dominant class, and thus opens up a poisonous conduit between the two...

The hipster...was a black subcultural figure of the late forties, best anatomized by Anatole Broyard in an essay for the Partisan Review called “A Portrait of the Hipster.” A decade later, the hipster had evolved into a white subcultural figure. This hipster—and the reference here is to Norman Mailer’s “The White Negro” essay for Dissent in 1957—was explicitly defined by the desire of a white avant-garde to disaffiliate itself from whiteness, with its stain of Eisenhower, the bomb, and the corporation, and achieve the “cool” knowledge and exoticized energy, lust, and violence of black Americans...

The hipster, in both black and white incarnations, in his essence had been about superior knowledge—what Broyard called “a priorism.” He insisted that hipsterism was developed from a sense that minorities in America were subject to decisions made about their lives by conspiracies of power they could never possibly know. The hip reaction was to insist, purely symbolically, on forms of knowledge that they possessed before anyone else, indeed before the creation of positive knowledge—a priori. Broyard focused on the password language of hip slang.

The return of the term after 1999 reframed the knowledge question. Hipster, in its revival, referred to an air of knowing about exclusive things before anyone else. The new young strangers acted, as people said then, “hipper than thou.” At first their look may also have overlapped enough with a short-lived moment of neo-Beat and fifties nostalgia (goatees, fedoras, Swingers-style duds) to help call up the term. But these hipsters were white, and singularly unmoved by race and racial integration.

Indeed, the White Hipster—the style that suddenly emerged in 1999—inverted Broyard’s model to particularly unpleasant effect. Let me recall a string of keywords: trucker hats; undershirts called “wifebeaters,” worn alone; the aesthetic of basement rec-room pornography, flash-lit Polaroids, and fake-wood paneling; Pabst Blue Ribbon; “porno” or “pedophile” mustaches; aviator glasses; Americana T-shirts from church socials and pig roasts; tube socks; the late albums of Johnny Cash; tattoos...

As the White Negro had once fetishized blackness, the White Hipster fetishized the violence, instinctiveness, and rebelliousness of lower-middle-class “white trash"...

It would be too limited, however, to understand the contemporary hipster as simply someone concerned with a priori knowledge as a means of social dominance. In larger manifestations, in private as well as on the street, contemporary hipsterism has been defined by an obsessive interest in the conflict between knowingness and naïveté, guilty self-awareness and absolved self-absorption...

By overwhelming feeling of an end to hipsterism permeated the subculture. It seems possible that the White Hipster was born in part as a reaction to the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle—the emboldened anti-capitalism that was the signal youth rebellion of the century’s end. But 2003 spelled the beginning of the Iraq invasion, and a pivot in the national mood from post-9/11 mourning to patriotic aggression and violence. The wifebeater-wearer’s machismo no longer felt subversive...

Suddenly, the hipster transformed. Most succinctly—though this is too simple—it began to seem that a “green” hipster had succeeded the white...

In culture, the Hipster Primitive moment recovered the sound and symbols of pastoral innocence with an irony so fused into the artworks it was no longer visible...

Where the White Hipster was relentlessly male, crowding out women from public view (except as Polaroid muses or SuicideGirls), the Hipster Primitive feminized hipster markers; one spoke now of headdresses and Sally Jessy Raphael glasses, not just male facial hair. Women took up cowboy boots, then dark-green rubber Wellingtons, like country squiresses off to visit the stables. Men gave up the porno mustache for the hermit or lumberjack beard. Flannel returned, as did hunting jackets in red-and-black check. Scarves proliferated unnecessarily, conjuring a cold woodland night (if wool) or a desert encampment (if a kaffiyeh [emphasis added]). Then scarves were worn as bandannas, as when Mary-Kate Olsen sported one, like a cannibal Pocahontas, hungry enough to eat your arm...

The most advanced hipster youth even deprived their bikes of gears. The fixed-gear bike now ranks as the second-most-visible urban marker of hip, and not the least of its satisfactions is its simple mechanism...

Above all, the post-2004 hipster could be identified by one stylistic marker that transcended fashion to be something as fundamental as a cultural password: jeans that were tight to the calves and ankles. As much as I’ve investigated this, I can’t say I understand the origin of the skinny jean. ..

Through both phases of the contemporary hipster, and no matter where he identifies himself on the knowingness spectrum, there exists a common element essential to his identity, and that is his relationship to consumption. The hipster, in this framework, is continuous with a cultural type identified in the nineties by the social critic Thomas Frank, who traced it back to Madison Avenue’s absorption of a countercultural ethos in the late sixties. This type he called the “rebel consumer.”

The rebel consumer is the person who, adopting the rhetoric but not the politics of the counterculture, convinces himself that buying the right mass products individualizes him as transgressive. Purchasing the products of authority is thus reimagined as a defiance of authority...The hipster is a savant at picking up the tiny changes of rapidly cycling consumer distinction.

This in-group competition, more than anything else, is why the term hipster is primarily a pejorative—an insult that belongs to the family of poseur, faker, phony, scenester, and hanger-on. The challenge does not clarify whether the challenger rejects values in common with the hipster—of style, savoir vivre, cool, etc. It just asserts that its target adopts them with the wrong motives. He does not earn them.

It has long been noticed that the majority of people who frequent any traditional bohemia are hangers-on. Somewhere, at the center, will be a very small number of hardworking writers, artists, or politicos, from whom the hangers-on draw their feelings of authenticity. Hipsterdom at its darkest, however, is something like bohemia without the revolutionary core...

One could say, exaggerating only slightly, that the hipster moment did not produce artists, but tattoo artists, who gained an entire generation’s arms, sternums, napes, ankles, and lower backs as their canvas. It did not produce photographers, but snapshot and party photographers: Last Night’s Party, Terry Richardson, the Cobra Snake. It did not produce painters, but graphic designers. It did not yield a great literature, but it made good use of fonts. And hipsterism did not make an avant-garde; it made communities of early adopters...

The most confounding element of the hipster is that, because of the geography of the gentrified city and the demography of youth, this “rebel consumer” hipster culture shares space and frequently steals motifs from truly anti-authoritarian youth countercultures. Thus, baby-boomers and preteens tend to look at everyone between them and say: Isn’t this hipsterism just youth culture? To which folks age 19 to 29 protest, No, these people are worse. But there is something in this confusion that suggests a window into the hipster’s possible mortality.

True countercultures may wax and wane in numbers, but a level of youth hostility to the American official compromise has been continuous since World War II. Over the past decade, hipsters have mixed with particular elements of anarchist, free, vegan, environmentalist, punk, and even anti-capitalist communities. One glimpses behind them the bike messengers, straight-edge skaters, Lesbian Avengers, freegans, enviro-anarchists, and interracial hip-hoppers who live as they please, with a spiritual middle finger always raised...

And hipster motifs and styles, when you dig into them, are often directly taken from these adjacent countercultures...[kufiyas from Palestine and anti-war activists?]

Can the hipster, by virtue of proximity if nothing else, be woken up? One can’t expect political efflorescence from an anti-political group. Yet the mainstreaming of hipsterism to the suburbs and the mall portends hipster self-disgust. (Why bother with a lifestyle that everyone now knows?) More important, it guarantees the pollination of a vast audience with seeds stolen from the counterculture. [so, is there something inherently hopeful about massive kufiya wearing?]...

Something was already occurring in the revivification that transpired in 2003. The White Hipster was truly grotesque, whereas within the Hipster Primitive there emerged a glimmer of an idea of refusal. In the U.K., American-patterned hipsters in Hackney and Shoreditch are said to be turning more toward an ethos of androgyny, drag, the queer. In recent hipster art, Animal Collective’s best-known lyric is this: “I don’t mean to seem like I / Care about material things, like our social stats / I just want four walls and / Adobe slats for my girls.” The band members masked their faces to avoid showing themselves to the culture of idolators. If a hundred thousand Americans discovered that they, too, hated the compromised culture, they might not look entirely unlike the Hipster Primitive. Just no longer hip."

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Bella Freud & Hoping Foundation & Hideous Kinky

I've been meaning to do a longer post on the Hoping Foundation's recent (July) charity event that raised 430,000 pounds sterling for Palestinian children. Among those who performed were: David Gilmour and Roger Waters of Pink Floyd, Nick Cave, Tom Jones, and Kate Moss (yes, she sang back-up and played tambourine). And maybe I will in future still do that post.

But then I came across this photo (source here) of Kate Moss and Hoping Foundation co-founder Bella Freud at the event.

I guess if I lived in the UK I might know that (a) Bella is the great-granddaughter of Sigmund; (b) she is a well-known fashion designer; (c) she has been an outspoken critic of Israel and (d) she is the elder sister of Esther Freud, author of the autobiographical novel Hideous Kinky (made into a fairly decent movie, starring Kate Winslet).

Having seen the movie (but not yet having read the book), here's what I like about what I learned about Bella Freud. Hippy mom who is way into Sufism drags her daughters off to Morocco in search of spirituality and exoticism. The elder daughter, who survives this difficult ordeal, which includes a nearly-fatal bout of streptococcus, returns to the UK and...grows up to become a successful fashion designer with a political conscience.

So let's not overdo it with making fun of the "Orientalism" of all those hippy treksters and seekers after spirituality who descended on Morocco in the sixties and seventies.

Multi-colored Kufiyas, Arab-American National Museum, Dearborn

Some activists have decried the fact that kufiyas, over the last 5 years, have become multi-colored, thereby seeming to diminish the 'original' & political purpose of wearing the kufiya: to express solidarity with the Palestinians.

I've come to like the multi-colored kufiyas, and think that the proliferation of colors, as well as scarves, creates even more possibilities for Palestine symps to talk to more people about Palestine.

The Arab-American National Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, has very nice kufiyas, in many colors, many of them made in Syria. Check them out here--some as cheap as $12. I bought a really nice brown one.

I'd like to wear it the next time I get on an airplane. But I'm worried that I might run into Juan Williams, and that he might hit me--out of fear.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Fair Trade Palestinian Olive Oil from Alter Eco

My brother Ray sent me this photo. (Thanks, Ray!) He bought this at his local food co-op in Eureka, California.

I wish I could buy some at mine!

This is from Alter Eco, an outfit based in San Franciso that specializes in Fair Trade food products.

This olive oil comes from the Canaan Cooperative, in Jenin, West Bank. The olives are Rumi.

My only quibble is that the olive oil is "extra virgin." Traditional olive oil from Palestine that is not "extra virgin" tastes much better, much more robust, much more flavorful. My friend Anne Meneley is doing research on Palestinian fair trade olive oil; she notes the unfortunate effects of the yuppy craze for "extra virgin" on Palestinian olive oil production.

In any case, this is well worth a try. You can order a bottle for yourself online here. $19.99 for a 12.7 oz. bottle. Try it on your homemade hummos. Or mix it with some garlic and yogurt, for a delicious dip. Que viva Palestina.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Update on Cheb Mami: Parole denied

Jean-Marc HAEDRICH / VISUAL Press Agency

From RFI, October 12, 2010, this item, entitled: "Franco-Algerian star refused parole"

Maghreb music star Cheb Mami has had his appeal for parole rejected, his lawyer said Tuesday. Mami was sentenced to five years in prison in July 2009 for attempting to induce his girlfriend's abortion by force.

Mami had submitted a request for parental parole to see his two-year-old son, who was born while the singer was in hiding in Algeria. The judge in Melun rejected the request because the son is not in France, but in Algeria.

In August 2005, Mami's then-girlfriend Camille
[this is incorrect, his girlfriend is named Isabelle Simon- TS] was forced to a villa in Algeria after telling Mami that she was pregnant. She was then drugged by two women and a man who tried to force her to abort the child. Camille subsequently gave birth to a healthy girl, who is now four.

The prosecutor said the star will be eligible for parole at the end of February.

Another report I read said Mami plans to appeal the ruling.

My previous post on Mami's conviction is here.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

"The Good Wife" discusses: Hamas, the Gaza flotilla, the cultural boycott of Israel...

Thanks to Noa, who alerted me to this. I had not seen "The Good Wife" previously, but now I am going to start watching this series. You've gotta see this episode (broadcast on October 12).

A macher in the gay community who also happens to be Jewish causes a big drop in donations to Peter's Attorney General campaign. Not, as it turns out, because Peter's brother-in-law said (it was a joke) that Peter was homophobic, but because Peter was photographed carrying a copy of Jimmy Carter's book, Palestine: Peace, Not Apartheid. Peter is forced by his campaign aide to host the potential Jewish donor at a Yom Kippur dinner, where he will be expected to give his mea culpas and to proclaim his undying support for Israel.

At the dinner Peter and his aide express their 1000% support for Israel, the cultural boycott (Elvis Costello, The Pixies) of Israel is mentioned as a terrible thing. Then, Peter and Alicia's daughter reveals that the book was in fact hers, and she proceeds to argue with the Jewish (potential) donor, and criticizes the Israeli attack on the Gaza flotilla.

What is interesting is that Peter and Alicia don't chide or shut up their daughter (probably they don't agree with her). Her position, critical of Israel and sympathetic to the plight of Palestinians, is not punished. It is permitted, and not contested. Moreover, the Jewish guy is made to seem rather creepy and small-minded for going after Peter for simply carrying a book--which turned out not to be his in any case.

Rather remarkable for US television.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Rai myths: Khaled (repeat) and Cheikha Rimitti

My post about Khaled's selection as one of NPR's 50 Great Voices has now appeared, in a shorter and much sharper version, on Foreign Policy's Middle East Channel, here. A thousand thanks, alf shukran, to Marc Lynch for his fine editing. (As of this moment, it has 103 'like's. Read it, and if you like, click that 'like' button!) It's great when one's blog postings get some attention, and it reminds me that I need to devote more attention to this blog than I have over the past few months.

In the interests of that project, let me add to the theme I have been developing, on the myths of rai. The Khaled post of course deals with this issue, as does a much longer post on this issue last December 12. Here's another fragment from this on ongoing argument, this one about the late Cheikha Rimitti, about whom I posted an obit in May 2006.

Cheikha Rimitti

It is probably due to the fact that rai publicity is so focused on the genre's purported oppositionality, that the cheikhat origins of rai are usually emphasized in accounts of rai history, while the bedoui and wahrani strands are mostly ignored. Bedoui was brought to Oran in the thirties and forties by rural-to-urban migrants, and was performed by ensembles led by a vocalist, known as a cheikh, who sang poems (usually self-authored) in a genre known as melhun, and was backed by one or more percussionists playing hand-held frame drums (the guellal) and a player of a reed flute (the gasba). (Here's a clip of the respected bedoui artist Cheikh Hamada, probably dating from the late 50s or early 60s, broadcast on Algerian television when it was under French control.) Wahrani ("Oranais") was an urban genre that developed at the same time, and was heavily influenced by the modern Egyptian neoclassical music of the likes of Muhammad Abdul Wahhab, Umm Kalthoum, and Farid al-Atrash. It also incorporated influences from bedoui, classical Andalusian music, the French chansons of Edith Piaf and Tino Rossi, the jazz imported by US troops stationed in Oran during World War II, and the pasodoble and flamenco favored by Oran’s substantial Spanish population. (Here's a clip of one of the great stars of wahrani, Blaoui Houari. It's possible that this clip also dates from the colonial era.)

Rai publicity, however, generally stresses the cheikha origins of rai music. Unlike the respected bedoui cheikhs, the cheikhat were considered rather disreputable due to the fact that they typically performed in mixed-gender settings, where alcohol might be consumed, at weddings (in front of males), at parties organized for men, and at religious festivals. Due to her disreputable reputation, the cheikha was considered something akin to a prostitute, and in fact cheikhat often performed sexual favors in return for monetary compensation. Like the cheikhs, the cheikhat also sang to the accompaniment of gasba and guellal, but their lyrics were more colloquial and often improvised. The typical picture of old-school rai presented in world music publicity, therefore, is of women singing about scandalous subjects, in bars and bordellos, in front of mixed audiences who are consuming alcohol. While this is a more-or-less accurate image of the cheikhat milieu, it is only one of the strands of rai.

The singer most closely associated with this bawdy image, and the most renowned of the cheikhat, was Cheikha Rimitti (alternative spelling: Remitti), who was born in 1923, started performing in the early 1940s and continued up until her death, at age 83, in May 2006. Her very name and the story surrounding it would seem to instantiate the scandalous character of the rai cheikhat. According to Virolle (1996: 115), the most reliable source on Rimitti, during the 1940s rai music (known then, according to Virolle, as elklâm elhezal or parole leger) was performed at both cabarets and at religious festivals, known as wa‘da-s. It was at the wa'da of Sidi Abed, one of the most well-known festivals, held near Relizane (where she lived at the time) that Saida al-Ghelizania reportedly picked up her performance name Rimitti, while drinking at a cantina. She ordered another round, saying, "Rimitti (francarabe for remettez) la tournée." Someone overheard and remarked on what she had said, and so she became known as Cheikha Rimitti, or, “Give me another [drink].” The story is told in a variety of versions, but symptomatically, the fact that Rimitti was performing at a religious festival where drinking was also going on, is almost never recounted, for that would seem to undercut Rimitti's reputed outlaw status and also problematize the purported contradiction between Islam and alcohol/rai, one of the key oppositions upon which the rai publicity depends.

The other key part of the legend surrounding Rimitti's oppositionality concerns the song, “Charrak, Gatta'” (tear, cut), Rimitti's first hit, recorded in 1954, released on Pathé. (Halasa [2002: 46], otherwise a reliable source, writes that Rimitti started recording in 1936, but this is incorrect. Rimitti only started to perform in public in the early 1940s. Her first recording was released in 1952. Several other sources also claim that Rimitti's first recordings date from the thirties.) Rai commentators typically proclaim that the song's lyrics invited women to lose their virginity. It is not clear when this account of “Charrak, Gatta'” came into currency or who is responsible for it, but it is repeated and spread incessantly in all the publicity about rai and its rebelliousness. Let us pause for a moment, however, to consider this reading of the lyrics. Why would the French recording company Pathé, which released Rimitti's record, put out a song that called on women to give up their virginity, in such a crude way? And wouldn't the colonial authorities have been hyper-sensitive about such an incendiary lyric? Surely if its “meaning” were so apparent, the French colonial authorities would have censored the recording, rather than to allow it to be sold freely and to be broadcast on state-sponsored radio?

Fara C, writing in L'Humanité (2000), offers a more plausible story. One night, while Rimitti was performing in a cabaret, a dispute broke out between a jealous woman and her male companion. The woman grabbed her date, pulling on his shirt. Rimitti sang, spontaneously, “Tear, tear, and give it to Rimitti to sew up.” Then she went and hugged the couple. This, asserts Fara C., is the origin of the lyrics of the song, which Rimitti later recorded. Some listeners, according to Fara C., did consider the song an assault on the values of virginity and were highly scandalized. Such an interpretation is therefore possible—but it is not the only one. In any case, it is highly doubtful that Rimitti originally intended the song in this way or that this was how the song's meanings were generally understood at the time. With the exception of a few academics, however, almost no one who writes in English about rai bothers to consult sources like Fara C.'s article, especially, it seems, if the sources are published in French. Rai publicists prefer instead to repeat stories that embellish the image of the rai rebel, and so "Charrak, Gatta" has come to be represented as having a perfectly clear meaning: an attack on virginity.


Fara C. 2000. "Cheikha Rimitti, diva du blues oranais." L'Humanité, December 9.

Halasa, Malu. 2002. "Songs for a Civil War: Algerian Raï, Rap and Berber Folksong." In Els van der Plas et al, eds. Creating Spaces of Freedom, 45-58. London: Saqi Books.

Virolle, Marie. 1996. “Raï, norme sociale et référence religieuse.” Anthropologie et Sociétés 20(2):111-128.

The song "Charrak Gatta" can be found on the CD, Aux sources du raï. Les Cheikhat: Chants de femmes de l'ouest algérien, Club Du Disque Arab, 1995. I am trying to find a translation of the lyrics.

Good ethnographic sources on cheikhat are Willy Jensen's Women without Men: Gender and Marginality in an Algerian Town (Brill: 1985) and, for Morocco, Deborah Kapchan's Gender on the Market: Moroccan Women and the Revoicing of Tradition (Pennsylvania: 1996). (Kapchan uses the spelling shikhat.)

More to follow. Can't promise you when.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

pardon my french, pardon my halal, pardon my burqa

Michael Kimmelman published an interesting piece in the New York Times' Arts & Leisure section back on April 25, 2010, about the globalization of the French language. I'm just now getting back to this article, as I sort the heaps of paper in the home office. And finding that the article still relevant. Check out this report on MSNBC about the new controversy in France, replacing (perhaps, or perhaps only for the moment), the issue of the burqa: halal fast-food burgers.

On Wednesday, "popular French fast food chain Quick, the No. 2 burger chain in France after McDonald's, started serving halal-only food in 22 of its French outlets, targeting France's large Muslim population, an underexploited market that has long been ignored by big business...[among other things this more bacon burgers at these outlets.]

Politicians left and right have attacked the move from every conceivable angle. Some ask why halal food should be foisted on the general population, while others worry the Quicks in question will promote segregation of the Muslim community instead of acceptance. France argues that integration is the only option for minorities, and the only way to preserve social cohesion

Meanwhile, here are some excerpts from Kimmelman's piece:

Didier Billion is a political scientist with an interest in francophone culture...“A multipolar world has emerged,” he said... I am very proud of being French, but 40 years ago the French language was a way to maintain influence in the former colonies, and now French people are going to have to learn to think about francophone culture differently, because having a common language doesn’t assure you a common political or cultural point of view.”

...In a country where pop radio stations broadcast a percentage of songs in French, and a socialist mayor in the northern, largely Muslim town of Roubaix lately won kudos for protesting that outlets of the fast-food chain Quick turned halal, cultural exceptionalism reflects fears of the multicultural sort that Mr. Zemmour’s book [the controversial, pro-assimilationist French Melancholy] touches on.

It happens that Mr. Zemmour traces his own roots to Sephardic Jews from Spain who became French citizens while living in Algeria in the 19th century, then moved to France before the Algerian war. He belongs to the melting pot, in other words, which for centuries, he said, absorbed immigrants into its republican culture...

Yasmina Khadra, the best-selling Algerian novelist, whose real name is Mohammed Moulessehoul [is a] 55-year-old former Algerian Army officer who now lives in Paris heading the center, [who] writes novels critical of the Algerian government under his wife’s name, which he first borrowed while in Algeria because the military there had banned his literary work...

“Paris is still fearful of a French writer who becomes known around the world without its blessing,” Mr. Moulessehoul said. “And at the same time in certain Arab-speaking circles I am considered a traitor because I write in French. I am caught between two cultures, two worlds.

“Culture is always about politics in the end. I am a French writer and an Algerian writer. But the larger truth is that I am both.”

A footnote on Yasmina Khadra: I've read his first novel, a policier called Morituri, and it was terrific. But friends who stay abreast of such things say that his subsequent novels have focused more and more on the problem of Islamist fanaticism, in such a manner that makes his work very palatable to French Islamophobic tastes. Moreover, check out The Toby Press, which publishes Yasmina Khadra's translated work. Strange, isn't it, that most of the authors are Jewish, many of them Israelis (the likes of Amos Oz and S. Yizhar), and that Khadra is the only Arab name listed. What sort of politics does this represent, one wonders.

Another note: I tend to think that halal-only menus for a burger joint discriminate against members of the community who might want bacon on their cheeseburger. I guess Beurs who want to eat bacon-cheese can go to MacDonald's. But still.

Here's a graphic example of the predictable, and over-heated, reaction from French rightist circles.

Friday, September 03, 2010

Sandra Bullock in kufiya: "Hangmen" (1987)

Hangmen, according to the sources I have read (mainly wikipedia), is the first feature film in which Sandra Bullock appears, at the age of 23. Hunt just a bit and you can find it on youtube. It's virtually unwatchable, perhaps one of the worst films of the 1980s? Bullock plays Lisa, the girlfriend of Danny Greene, whose dad is a CIA agent who has gotten into some trouble because he is about to "out" a rogue unit within the agency. The bad guys, in order to get to Danny, and through him, his dad, kidnap Lisa.

Lisa is reading a newspaper, walking near the subway in New York City.

One of the rogue CIA agents shoots a dart into her neck, to dope her up and immobilize her.

Once Lisa is doped up and woozy, it is easy for the rogue agents to grab her and take her away.

The fact that the Lisa character wears a kufiya in this scene indicates nothing except that she is a fairly normal college student in New York City in the mid-1980s, when the kufiya was fairly mainstream wear for youth living there. The Lisa character is not depicted as particularly hip or as politically progressive. All it "means" then is that the kufiya was typical street gear, at this time and in this space.

Previous 1980s kufiya sightings: Madonna, Bambaata, Delta 5, Nico, Born in Flames. If you know of any others, please let me know.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

podcast & playlist for august 31st's interzone radio show

the podcast for the August 31 interzone radio show is here

listen to Buraka Som Sistema, Merle Haggard, Lloyd Miller & the Heliocentrics,
Charanjit Singh, Googoosh, Zeid and the Wings...and more!!!!

playlist here

Saturday, August 28, 2010

kufiyas: "Green Zone" & MIA's /\/\/\Y/\

I've commented previously on what I am provisionally calling the "tough guy" kufiya. (Re: From Paris with Love, Green Zone, The Hurt Locker, The Book of Eli, Reign of Fire, and The Three Kings.)

I recently watched Green Zone, which I found to be, on the whole, not bad. Better than I had expected, based on some of the reviews I had read. Matt Damon, as Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller, is shown wearing a kufiya (khaki, regulation US military issue) from the beginning of the film, the first time you see him, and throughout. Always neatly arranged, as a conventional scarf should be worn. Always like this, as in the first view we get of Miller.

You can see more shots here (from publicity stills) of Miller/Damon, who is always sharp and professional in his dress. His style of dress seems also to reflect his generally upright conduct throughout the film. [Added August 30: one or two of Miller's men are also shown wearing kufiyas, in the same manner as Miller.]

By contrast, there is Maj. Briggs (played by Jason Isaacs), who is Miller's chief on-the-ground antagonist in the US military, and is the main operative for Clark Poundstone (the Paul Bremer character, played by Greg Kinnear). Briggs is hunting down Iraqi "high value targets," Saddam's men who appear on the "deck of cards." Without necessarily knowing it, Briggs' mission is to eliminate (on behalf of Poundstone) Gen. al-Rawi and thereby kill the potential for scandal. Miller by contrast decides to try to capture al-Rawi alive, in order to expose the fact that the WMD's, the pretext for the invasion of Iraq, were a mirage.

From the perspective of the film, therefore, Briggs is somewhat out of control. The fact that he wears what I take to be a non-regulation colored blue kufiya, and that much more of his kufiya is exposed than is Miller/Damon's, would appear to index Briggs' roguish behavior. Note the marked difference between Briggs and Miller: the contrasting colors of their kufiyas and the different ways in which they wear their scarves. Briggs' dark glasses, messy hear and mustache also contribute to his "dangerous" look. From the film's perspective, this is not a positive "bad boy" image. In the end, and somewhat predictably, Briggs meets a violent end, while both he and Miller are chasing down al-Rawi.

Probably the most interesting political moment of Green Zone occurs toward the end. Miller finally has Gen. al-Rawi in his clutches, when suddenly his Iraqi translator "Freddy"shows up and shoots the Ba'athist general. "Freddy" then tells Miller, "It is not for you to decide what happens here." Reminding us that al-Rawi was in fact a vicious oppressor, guilty of many crimes against the Iraqi people. Miller's desire to capture him alive in order to blow the cover on the WMD myth does not trump the desire of Iraqis for justice.

[Added August 30: At one point Miller, or maybe another US soldier, calls an Iraqi a "hajji." Was this appellation in currency at the beginning of the invasion? I don't know.]

As for MIA and her new album /\/\ /\ Y /\ -- there has been lots of discussion about its politics and whether or not MIA is politically sophisticated, authentic, has sold out, is merely a silly provocateur, and so on...Check out Jeff Chang's post on MIA and MAYA is a particularly good take on these questions.

What I haven't noticed in all the discussion is the fact that the cover of the album, looks, at face value, like this:

The cover is 3-D, however, so if you buy the actual CD (get the Deluxe Edition) and look at its cover from a certain angle, the "veiling" over MIA's face is revealed, and you see...yes, MIA wearing a kufiya, of sorts.

MIA remains the provocateur, and even though she is married to the son of a millionaire and even though her politics are not "coherent" (are yours?), I appreciate the gesture. Kufiyas of course also show up in her controversial "Born Free" video, the first single released from the album, which I discussed here.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

All-Pakistan Interzone Radio Show, August 17: playlist & podcast, plus info on how you can help Pakistan flood victims

here's the podcast, and here, the playlist

Pakistanis desperately need our support. This is especially imperative in the US, where a shockingly high percentage of the populace consider Pakistanis unworthy of any help whatsoever. Check out this Washington Post poll, where an appalling 68% say they plan not, ever to donate money to Pakistani relief. The comments are even more loathsome than the raw numbers.

Here is a typical comment: The reason I won't donate is simple. "I don't give a damn about those miserable, flea-infested hordes of walking crap. You can thank the terrorists for my lousy attitude. POSTED BY: ADRIENNE_NAJJAR | AUGUST 16, 2010 3:55 PM"

If you are someone who is open to listening to music from Pakistan, which means you can imagine that Pakistanis are not all "terrorists," then it is really incumbent upon you to send some cash, even a small amount, to your fellow humans who are in such great need.

Here are some recommended avenues for making donations:

Via the US government, if you are so inclined. It's easy, text "SWAT" to 50555 and make a $10 contribution that will help provide tents, clothing, food, clean drinking water, and medicine to people displaced by floods.

The Nation magazine, of course, offers an array of ways to help, in this article by Pete Rothberg.

And here are a couple of important articles about the flood:

Ahmed Rashid, "Pakistan floods: an emergency for the West"

Middle East Report Online, Disaster Strikes the Indus River Valley, From the Editors

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

interzone radio podcast & playlist, august 3 show

podcast is: here

playlist here


Khaled: One of NPR's 50 Great Voices

I was very pleased to learn on July 26 that the great Algerian rai singer Khaled had made it into the list of NPR's 50 Great Voices--the series that lasts all year long. It's pretty remarkable, in fact, amazingly remarkable, considering that it's only month seven, and that three of the voices we've heard so far have been Arabs (the other two: Fairuz and Umm Kalthum). Plus one Afghani (the second in the series, Ahmad Zahir) and one Pakistani (Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan).

I have a quibble, however, with some of the ways in which Banning Eyre narrated Khaled's career. (Let me be clear that I greatly admire the work that Eyre has done in promoting World Music over the last couple decades, particularly with Afropop Worldwide. For instance, check out all the "Features" on North Africa on Afropop Worldwide's website.)

Eyre says that Khaled, born in 1960, came of age between the War of Liberation for Algerian Independence and the "religiously-fueled" Algerian civil war, which started in 1991. "In a land torn apart by intolerance and violence, Khaled stood out as an artist who embraced openness and peace," reads the text. Eyre actually says, "In a land riven by intolerance and violence, here was an artist [missing word, perhaps?] openness and peace."

Khaled did not, in fact, stand out at all, he was part of a very large and vibrant rai scene in Oran. The lyrics of the songs he sang came, mostly, from a collective pool, and were not, with perhaps a couple of exceptions, distinguishable from those sung by the rest of the rai crew, which included many other equally talented singers, such as Chaba Fadela, Cheb Sahraoui, Chaba Zahouania, Cheikha Rimitti, Cheb Mami, Houari Benchenet, Cheb Hamid, and Messaoud Bellemou, to name just a few. Moreover, the song which plays after Eyre makes this claim, one of Khaled's hits, "La Camel," from the 1987 album Kutché, is a cover of a song originally recorded and made famous by Cheikha Rimitti. (Here's Rimitti's original version. Rimitti later complained that Khaled had "stolen" this song, i.e., recorded without giving her credit. She even referred to him, in an interview with El Watan, as "Cheb Khayen" or "Cheb Traitor" for doing so!)

Moreover, the representation of Algeria as a "land riven by intolerance and violence" is quite simplistic a formulation, given that the two periods of conflict were very different in their causes and their nature. But the use of the term "intolerance" seems to foreshadow what comes next: a positioning of Khaled in opposition to Muslim "fundamentalism."

The transcript of Eyre's account reads: "Khaled's directness [about women and drinking alcohol] and his force-of-nature voice...didn't sit so well with the growing number of Islamic fundamentalists in Algeria, though, and his songs were consequently banned from state radio."
This is quite incorrect. The fact that rai music (not just Khaled's) was not played on state radio was not due to the opposition of "Islamic fundamentalists."

It's not so much that rai was "banned," it's rather that the Algerian regime had imposed an Arab/Muslim cultural politics that denied Algeria's multi-cultural nature, and so expressive culture in Arab dialect and in Berber were denied a space on state-controlled media. Rai is sung in the distinctive dialect of Wahran (Oran). This dialect is not merely not "classical" or literary Arabic, but it is also full of borrowings from Spanish, French and Berber. This brand of official puritanism was particularly characteristic of the regime of Houari Boumediene (1965-1978), but began to break down during the Chadly regime (1979-1992).

The standard story told about rai is that the music didn't make it onto state radio until 1985, but it appears that the restrictions against rai were not iron-clad. For instance, Cheb Mami became known nationally in 1982 due to the fact that he performed on a very popular television show, Alhan wa chabab ("Melodies and youth"), a program devoted to discovering new talent. He also performed in a national song competition, singing "El Marsam." When it was announced that Cheb Mami had come in second, the crowd booed, believing that he should have come in first (Daoud and Miliani 1996: 102).

And Khaled, in his autobiography (1998: 94-95), tells us a story about how he managed to push past the media embargo on rai in the early 1980s, shortly after he had begun to divide his time between his home town of Oran and the capital, Algiers. He was invited to appear on a t.v. show, which, he says, couldn't be censored, because it was broadcast live. Cheb Khaled (as he was known until 1992, when he dropped the Cheb) was warned ahead of time: no vulgarities, no sex. So he sang three songs: the first, about the Prophet Muhammad; the second, a "poetic" song, i.e., one that was artistically acceptable; and the third, about alcohol and women. (In fact, this mixture of songs about religion, songs of a more refined character, and songs of a more risqué character, was typical of the mix of songs Khaled typically performed at concerts, weddings, and in cabarets.)

Daoudi and Miliani (1996: 20) also write that the despite the official media's general embargo on rai, it did get played on radio on occasion in the early eighties, chiefly via the rare broadcast on Chaine III.

Eyre: "After he [Khaled] performed for 20,000 people in Algiers in 1985, his became the voice of a generation."

It's true that Cheb Khaled had become a national, as opposed to a regional, star, by the mid-1980s. His performance at the state-sponsored Festival de la Jeunesse pour la Fête Nationale, held in Algiers in July 1985, was certainly a key moment. But how was it that Khaled, and other rai stars, came to play at this festival? (And at another key festival, the first official rai festival, organized in Oran in August 1985?)

It was due in fact to the efforts of the "liberal" wing of the Algerian regime, le pouvoir as they are known colloquially, and particularly the efforts of Lieutenant-Colonel Hosni Snoussi, director of the state-supported arts and culture organization, Office Riadh el Feth in Algiers, who by this time had taken Cheb Khaled under his wing. According to Daoudi and Miliani, the interest of the regime's liberal wing in promoting rai occurred in the wake of a spate of unrest in Algeria: riots in Tizi Ouzou, Kabylia, in 1980 (the "Berber Spring"); in Oran in 1982 (I can find no details on this); in Algiers in 1985, following rumors that housing being built for the poor would be allocated instead to state bureaucrats; student riots Constantine in 1986 that resulted in the deaths of four protesters, and which spread to other cities. Young Algerians played a leading role in all these protests. The liberal wing of the regime therefore determined that it was necessary to focus its efforts on promoting and catering to the interests of youth and on developing the market economy, in order to deter further unrest (1996: 28-29). Rai, which was very popular with young people, was therefore embraced by liberal elements in the regime. It was due to changes in state policy toward rai, pushed by Snoussi, that got Khaled onto the stage at the officially-sponsored Festival de la Jeunesse pour la Fête Nationale.

Then, Eyre asserts, "In 1989, it became dangerous for Khaled to stay in Algeria, where artists and intellectuals were being killed by fundamentalists. He fled to safety in France."

First of all, the civil war in Algeria did not break out until 1992. No rai stars or intellectuals were fleeing to France until after the civil war broke out, and the Islamist militants of the GIA (the Armed Islamic Groups) began to target artists. (I want to acknowledge that I bear some responsibility for having helped spread of this sort of misinformation. In the article I co-authored with Joan Gross and David McMurray, "Rai, Rap, and Ramadan Nights: Franco-Maghribi Cultural Identities" [Middle East Report 178, Sept.-Oct. 1992, p. 13], we write: "by 1990, Islamist campaigns against rai caused several of its stars [Cheb Khaled, Cheb Marni, Chaba Fadela and Cheb Sahraoui] to relocate in France." This is incorrect. In the longer version of this article that appears in Displacement, Diaspora, and Geographies of Identity [ed. Smadar Lavie & Ted Swedenburg, Duke UP, 1996], "Arab Noise and Ramadan Nights: Rai, Rap and Franco-Maghrebi Identities," on p. 138, we modify the claim just a bit: "By 1990, when Islamist campaigns against rai, as well as the lure of higher earnings and global exposure, prompted several of its leading relocate from Algeria to France...")

Secondly, and more importantly, Khaled did not "flee" to France, he went there to try to expand his market and his fame, and he went with the backing of liberal elements of the Algerian regime and liberal elements in the French government of Socialist President François Miterrand. The move was entirely an entrepreneurial venture, not an act of seeking refuge. (Cheb Mami was the first of the rai stars to make this move, in 1985.)

Khaled performed in France for the first time at the rai festival at Bobigny in January 1986. The event was organized, according to Khaled, by Colonel Snoussi and Martin Meissonnier, a very influential French music producer and former journalist for the liberal-left daily Liberation. During the '70s Meissonnier was known for bringing well-known US jazz musicians to France; in the '80s he began produce a number of African acts for the World Music market. Snoussi and Meissonnier met at the Festival of Youth in Algiers in 1985, and together they were able to convince France's Minister of Culture Jack Lang of the importance of exporting rai from Algeria to France. In order for Khaled to secure a passport to travel to France and perform at Bobigny, Snoussi had to intervene with the Algerian military authorities, because Khaled had been avoiding his military service (Khaled 1998: 37-39).

It is important to note that most of the top rai artists performed at Bobigny in 1986, not just Khaled. (It must have been very expensive to transport all the major stars from Algeria to France and put them up.) It is important to note as well that Khaled opened his set with a religious song (as he usually did in concerts in Algeria as well), "Sallou 'ala al-Nabi" (Blessings on the Prophet). Important to counter the strong tendency in the discourse on rai (and Eyre's account is typical in this regard) to make it seem that there is a kind of inherent antagonism between rai artists and Islam.

The French government was as interested in trying to control and channel the energies of the rai scene in France as the liberal wing of the Algerian regime was to do the same in Algeria. The mid-eighties was a period of grassroots political mobilization by the Beurs, French citizens and residents of Arab background. Culture was an essential component of this mobilization. Rai music was very popular among young Beurs and it was widely aired on the Beur radio stations that sprung up in this period and was performed at rallies and multi-cultural concerts organized by SOS Racisme, France's leading anti-racist group of the time. Rai was a central badge of cultural pride and identity for young Beurs. It was therefore seen as advantageous to the interests of the French state to promote North African Arab culture in France, rather than to appear to be its antagonist.

When Khaled returned to Algeria after his stay in France, he tells us, Snoussi informed him that he was going to record an album in France. Snoussi tells Khaled that he is going there just to sing, and, that he should not talk about the situation in Algeria, about the role of the military or censorship and so on. This is how Khaled's 1988 album Kutché gets made, then, through the intervention of Snoussi, and (apparently) with financial support from the Algerian government (Khaled 1998: 128; Daoudi and Miliani 1996: 30). The album was a collaboration between Khaled and the Algerian jazz musician Safy Boutella (and it is credited to both), produced by Meissonnier, and released on Pomme Music-Sony. Kutché was not a major seller, but it is a terrific album, and it was an important step in Khaled's path of establishing himself as an artist in France. It is during this period as well that Khaled settles in France, in the city of Marseille.

(After the bloody riots that erupt throughout Algeria in October 1988, and the subsequent political opening and moves toward reform and democratization, this brief period of government sponsorship and subsidy for rai ends, for the moment (Daoudi and Miliani 1996: 30). In January 1992, after the Islamic Salvation Front wins the first round of parliamentary elections, the regime suspends the second round. Civil war breaks out. The regime again attempts to deploy rai in its struggle with the Islamists.)

Khaled makes no mention in his autobiography of having to "flee" Algeria for France. He does, however, make it entirely clear that Col. Snoussi, who was an important "cultural" player in the liberal wing of the Algerian regime, was chiefly responsible for initiating Khaled's first performances in France and for funding and organizing the recording of his first album in France.

This story of how Khaled launched his career in France is a much more interesting one than the tale of how he "fled from fundamentalism." The fact that the Algerian state played a major role in initiating and underwriting the process whereby rai music became known around the world, and whereby Khaled became the best-known Arab singer on the planet, deserves to be much more widely known. It is an amazing success story, and very important, both politically and culturally. Snoussi and his associates in the Algerian's liberal wing deserve credit, as do the French actors like Martin Meissonier and Jack Lang. The conventional story, of the West "saving" Khaled from the fundamentalist threat, is the familiar colonial missionary account.

Eyre: "Khaled has never really shaken his mischievous image: He's been to court on more than one occasion for domestic disputes..."

I wonder why Eyre uses such a mild term, "mischief," to characterize Khaled's trips to French court in a paternity suit and in a case involving a dispute with this wife. Khaled's legal troubles are not just the product of boyish innocence. But spun this way, I guess, they add to his "bad boy" image.

Eyre: "he's railed publicly against Muslim fundamentalists."

True. But Khaled still considers himself a Muslim.

Eyre: "His collaborations with Jewish and American artists have irked even moderate Muslims."

As far as I'm aware, the only time Khaled met with such criticism was after he collaborated with the Israeli artist Noa, on a recording of the John Lennon song "Imagine," and in concert. Frankly, the Khaled-Noa duet is quite dreadful, arguably the worst song Khaled ever released. (Second worst is "Love to the People," with Carlos Santana. Ugh.) "Imagine" appeared on the European release of Khaled's album Kenza (1999, Barclay) but not on the US edition (2000, Ark 21). Khaled performed the song with Noa at a "peace" concert in Rome in May 2002, called "Time for Life." The event was associated with a "Glocal Forum," a gathering of mayors, World Bank officials and development experts, aimed at making globalization work better at local levels. Khaled subsequently toured the Middle East, where he encountered organized efforts in Lebanon and Jordan to boycott his concert, on the grounds that he had performed "normalization" with Israel by performing with an Israeli artist at an event where Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres was in attendance. Khaled responded that Palestinian singer Nabil Khouri had also performed at the event, and that Yasir Arafat's Mohammed Rashid was also in attendance. His concerts in Lebanon and Jordan, where he performed with Palestinian-American 'ud and violin maestro Simon Shaheen and Egyptian shaabi singer Hakim, were well-attended, despite the protests.

Khaled has also recorded with the Algerian Jewish pianist Maurice El Medioni, on his 2004 album Ya-Rayi. I'm not aware that he was criticized for doing this, although it's possible that he was. I'm aware of no instances of Khaled being criticized for collaborating with American musicians.

And who are the so-called "moderate Muslims" who have criticized Khaled for doing this? The problem with such a formulation is that it tends to make all "politics" in the Arab World seem to be about Islam. The criticism leveled at Khaled for performing with Noa, however, was a political criticism, not based on religious grounds. Those who fight against "normalization" with Israel (whether you agree with them or not) are of all political stripes, and they include the secularists and the religious.

In addition, by asserting that Khaled was criticized by "moderate Muslims" for collaborating with Jews and Americans, Eyre once again reinforces the notion, which is so prevalent and widespread in the discourse about rai, that Islam and rai are antagonistic.

Eyre: "Khaled fiercely adheres to his message of peace, love and personal freedom. But in the combative milieu of North Africa and the Middle East, those too can be fighting words."

It's true that Khaled sings about these subjects, on occasion. But Eyre pitches his description of Khaled and his political significance, so as to make it appear that the entire thrust of Khaled's message is in opposition to "Islamic fundamentalism." This impression, of course, is entirely to the liking of the Western liberal consumer, who can comfortably listen to and purchase Khaled's recordings, under the assumption that s/he and Khaled are involved in the "same" struggle against intolerance and in favor of peace.

Such an impression of course can benefit Khaled's music sales in the West. But the impression is mistaken. Khaled in general avoids making overt political statements, but he has, on occasion, spoken out about Palestine. For instance, in an interview in January 2002 with Sean Barlow of Afrop Worldwide, Khaled stated that "to end [terrorism], we need to fix the problems, the source of the big problem. For me, what is at the base of this whole thing is the history of the Palestinians. George Bush has said we're going to stop terrorism. This is the end. The end? Not yet. There are still people killing children in Algeria, in Asia, in Africa. There are still people killing Palestinian children. Palestinians have lived in war for 40 years. That means there are people who were born and died in war. They have the right to profit from life like me, like you, like everyone."

The kufiya Khaled wears in the photo above, which I believe was taken when he was touring the US in January 2002, registers his sympathy with the Palestinians.

Khaled has also expressed his objections to French racism (I can't locate any sources at the moment). But more importantly, he has worked tirelessly to bring Arab Maghrebi culture into the mainstream of French culture. This has done a great deal to counter the strong anti-Arab racist tendencies and movements in France. In my opinion, it makes more sense to speak of Khaled as a French artist (after all, he has made the country his home since the late 1980s) who has done a great deal to promote Arab culture in France, rather than as an Algerian artist.

Eyre's representation of Khaled as someone who is fighting for peace and love and against fundamentalist Islam is a comfortable image for the cosmopolitan Westerner to consume. As we listen to him, as we buy his recordings, we can imagine that we are somehow "doing good," maybe even striking a blow in favor of peace and against intolerance. A more complicated picture of Khaled, one that situates him in the ongoing struggles of Arabs in France for human rights and against racism and Islamophobia, a picture of Khaled as someone who, like most other Arabs, strongly feels that the Palestinians have been dealt a raw deal--this is not so easy to take on, for the presumptive fair-minded NPR listener who might be interested in World Music. It would be more comfortable for that listener to imagine that he was participating in the "rescue" of Khaled from fundamentalism.

But isn't it the responsibility of experts in World Music like Banning Eyre to educate audiences about the music of the world and the contexts that produces that music, rather than just promote that music, in the conventional ways deployed by the World Music industry?


Daoudi, Bouziane and Hadj Miliani. 1996. L'aventure du rai: Musique et société. Paris: Editions du Seuil.

Khaled. 1998. Derrière la sourire. Paris: Michel Lafon.