Here come the muhajababes!

How sex, booze and heavy metal fit into the world of hip young Arabs today.

Published July 10, 2008 11:00AM (EDT)

"Rewish," or "al Rawshana," is a colloquial Arab term that means "hip" and also "distracted or confused," according to Allegra Stratton's "Muhajababes," a lively (and rewish) exploration of youth culture in several Middle Eastern nations. One of the many people Stratton interviewed for her book -- a bike-glove-wearing female member of a dance troupe that inexplicably describes itself as "an R&B band" -- told Stratton that the region's booming under-25 demographic is being made ever more rewish by their exposure to two seemingly opposed forces: racy pop music videos full of gyrating, pulchritudinous singers like Haifa Wehbe and what Stratton calls the "piety trend," which has more and more young Muslims heeding the call of TV mullahs to abandon smoking, drinking, displays of flesh and premarital sex.

The result is a new breed of mermaid-like creatures, spotted by Stratton all over the streets of Beirut, Amman, Cairo, Dubai and Damascus. These are "muhajababes," from "muhajabe," a term for the veil. Zina, a girl Stratton met in a Cairo cafe, is a classic example. Her hair was covered with "a flower-patterned headscarf" but she was also wearing heavy makeup and jeans so tight she couldn't fasten the top button. When Stratton asked Zina why she also smoked (widely considered "haram," or forbidden, to observant Muslims), Zina grew "frosty." Then she explained: "If I smoke and wear the headscarf you know that I'm not one of them [that is, the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's largest Islamist group]. You know that I'm Islamic. That I am devout. But I'm also different ... If you know what you're looking for then you'll see being a Muslim these days is a different thing."

Stratton, a British journalist, didn't begin her research knowing quite what she was looking for, but she had a thesis, taken from Western scholars of the contemporary Middle East. These professors are predicting a major sociopolitical shakeup in the region, based on demographic patterns resembling those seen before in upheavals in Western history, such as the English Civil War and the French Revolution. "What creates unrest," Stratton writes of this theory, "was not just an increase in the numbers of young people but also in the numbers of educated young people with no increase in jobs." (Yes, that sentence is grammatically incorrect, as are many in "Muhajababes." Chalk it up to a combination of Stratton's attempt at an easy, casual style and the bad habits engendered by the low editing standards in British publishing. Be warned: Participles dangle as plentifully in these pages as vines in a jungle.)

Having spent her own post-collegiate years sharing a big, ramshackle East London house with a bunch of idealistic pals (they dreamed of setting up a printing press in the basement), Stratton decided to wander around a handful of Mideast cities, in search of the "Arab Haight-Ashbury," where the coming revolution might be brewing. Mark LeVine, author of another new book, "Heavy Metal Islam: Rock, Resistance and the Struggle for the Soul of Islam," also went looking for glimmers of social change, but he took an approach at once more and less comprehensive than Stratton's. LeVine, who is both a professor of Middle Eastern history at the University of California, Irvine, and a profession rock musician, traveled to more countries (including Pakistan and Morocco) than Stratton, but he seems to have hobnobbed with a much narrower range of people.

There's something irresistible about the idea that LeVine, who according to his author bio has played with such luminaries as Mick Jagger and Dr. John, not only interviewed rock and rap artists from all over the Middle East and North Africa (or MENA, as he calls it), but also put down the notepad and got up onstage to jam with them. The folio of photographs at the center of "Heavy Metal Islam" features a few shots of him rocking out with his subjects at festivals and in nightclubs. Yet LeVine's account of Muslim rock culture is strangely colorless, mostly because he's only interested in two things: the music itself and the degree to which a band's lyrics explicitly criticize the political regimes in their home countries.

Most heavy metal lyrics are aggressive and doomy, and the lines LeVine quotes -- "This land is barren, it does not feel/ Our self-made slaughte / by our own hands/ Here lies the orphaned land" from the Israeli band Orphaned Land, for example -- can be interpreted as speaking of anything from, say, the conflict over Palestine to environmentalism to free-floating teenage social angst. The people LeVine interviews have ample cause for complaint; besides the general authoritarian, undemocratic nature of their governments, they often come in for extra harassment as a result of their appearance and musical taste. Metalheads in Morocco, Lebanon and Egypt have even been arrested for practicing "satanism." But their counterparts in the democratic West are often just as disgusted with the adult world for entirely different reasons.

Complaining about their governments isn't what makes Islam's metalheads unusual -- practically everyone in the Mideast does that (to the extent they can get away with it). What's interesting is the fact that they've chosen heavy metal in spite of its Western roots, and the ways they reconcile this with their own regional and nation identities. Several of the musicians LeVine interviews are religious, even devout, and the author has hopes that rock fans will unite with young Islamists against their authoritarian rulers. To his great disappointment, a meeting he facilitates in a Cairo hotel bar between members of a band called Wyvern and the editor of the Muslim Brotherhood's Web site turns out to be a dud, mostly because the metalheads don't seem to believe the Brotherhood's recent protestations that they are now interested only in political reform, not policing cultural virtue. "So many Egyptians -- and Arabs more broadly," LeVine laments, "prefer to continue dealing with the devil they know (corrupt and autocratic regimes) than to risk the even less appealing alternative of a religious state."

It seems churlish to reproach politically vulnerable people for a prudent refusal to accept the enemy of their enemy as their friend. It's true that many young Arabs increasingly see their religion as the ideological basis for political change while at the same time rejecting the extreme Wahhabist puritanism of Saudi Arabia. But even tolerant cultures tend to give metalheads a hard time, partly because metal -- like other forms of what LeVine refers to as "intense" popular music -- is fueled by a rebellious spirit. Sure, the Islamists might want to harness that energy now, while they're rebelling themselves, but they're unlikely to appreciate this particular manifestation of diversity should they ever come to power.

Another problem with "Heavy Metal Islam" is that virtually all of the subjects LeVine interviews in any depth are either musicians or professional scene-makers (promoters, producers, etc.). What's glaringly absent from the book is any substantive consideration of the fans, their numbers and the role of the subculture in their lives. After all, in the West, it means one thing to be a heavy metal musician and another thing to be a fan; the audience who go to Metallica concerts doesn't live like the band's members, even if they might want to. Besides, people rarely become musicians because they want to be activists. (Even the exceptional Plastic People of the Universe in Czechoslovakia, as LeVine finally gets around to admitting in his epilogue, were persecuted by their repressive government into becoming an inspiration for the Velvet Revolution of the late '80s.) Professional musicians, like most artists, are few in number and largely preoccupied with their work. Little wonder that so many of them told LeVine that they just want to be left alone.

"Heavy Metal Islam" works best as a tip sheet on the hard rock of the Muslim world. Most of the bands build their fan base via MySpace pages and Web sites. The book's bibliography and list of links lead to acts ranging from the Kordz of Lebanon, whose sound, according to LeVine, "blends together hard-rock and funk-guitar riffs, with a Gnawa (Moroccan blues-style Sufi music) bass line and vocals, Lebanese-inflected melodies, and a hip-hop beat" to the fabulously hypnotic (and subcontinentally iconic) Junoon, who combine rock with "the complex scales of classical Indian music, which offer twenty-two intervals to choose from in constructing the that or raga scale of a particular song."

Stratton, by contrast, can't really articulate why she thinks a Lebanese "ethno-techno" musician is "really good" or a Jordanian painter's work is "very bad," but she can give you a sense of how their work fits into the average Middle Eastern life. The answer is: barely. The painter, who mostly does nudes, has to keep them locked away in his home/gallery for fear of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the musician can't really compete with the sexy pop hits that monopolize audiences throughout the region thanks to heavy TV rotation given over to "video clips" (as music videos are called). A single company, Rotana, owned by a Saudi prince who mainlines money into the business, dominates over 80 percent of the music industry and its specialty is writhing bombshells in skimpy outfits. (It makes a nice favor to one's girlfriend of the moment to turn her into a star -- which explains why so many of the company's singers have such weak voices and such stunning figures.)

Rotana's video-clip floozies are wildly popular in the Arab world, even among the fashionably devout; Stratton witnessed a flock of veiled girls mobbing the singer Ruby at a Cairo shopping mall, unperturbed by the fact that she shakes it on-screen with a bared midriff and a python. A member of Ruby's entourage floated the idea that the girls regard the videos as a rare glimpse of the sexual life that they otherwise won't taste until their wedding nights.

Stratton had by then learned enough to doubt this picture of the muhajababes as "sexual ingenues." One of the girls she interviewed, a single mother at the center of a media circus surrounding the paternity suit she'd filed, told the author of her "urfi marriage," a kind of semiformal, provisional wedlock contracted by young Egyptian couples who want to have Islamically correct sex. The girl, Hind, got pregnant, and refused to comply with her TV-star boyfriend's request that she get an abortion and hymen-reconstruction surgery (!) to restore her virginity, combined with a 10-camel payoff and 60-day fast that a sheik assured him would cleanse their souls of the sin of the abortion. According to Hind, such practices are fairly routine among Egypt's middle-class youth.

Later, Stratton found out that Hind's ex, Ahmed, had been hanging out with an Egyptian televangelist named Amr Khaled, a man who becomes the Keyser Soze of "Muhajababes," an influence the author detects everywhere but whom she never gets the chance to meet. A potent combination of Billy Graham, Oprah Winfrey and Dr. Phil, Khaled is a regional superstar. "Absolutely bags of money," an unveiled Palestinian girl told Stratton. "Pop star friends, internet sites, television programs. People -- both girls and boys -- are so into him he's like a heart throb." So much so, in fact, that in the early 2000s, the Egyptian government, apparently seeing his popularity as a threat, told Khaled that if he wanted to stay in the country he'd have to stop preaching. Instead, he went to a university in Wales while the sales of his videotapes skyrocketed and his appearances via satellite and Internet went on as usual. (Khaled has since made several return trips to Egypt.) Satellite television and the Web, Stratton notes, mean that effective state control of the media, once a given in the Middle East, has become more and more difficult.

"He doesn't shout at us. He talks. Softly," the muhajababe Zina told Stratton of Khaled. Unlike the usual run of fire-breathing mullahs, this preacher, a former accountant, is clean-shaven, speaks an informal dialect rather than classical Arabic and wears Western-style suits. He encourages women to take the veil, but not by scolding them. Instead, he retails the stories of teenagers who felt depressed or incomplete until they renew their faith by putting on head scarves. This is a confessional mode familiar from countless American talk shows, and audiences eat it up. Zina, who dislikes the Muslim Brotherhood, took from Khaled the self-help nostrum that "the only way to change society is by changing yourself first," and went off to start a photocopying business. Later, Stratton meets a member of the Brotherhood who praises Khaled for denouncing domestic violence and calling for women's suffrage. The Brotherhood, which had once accused Khaled of selling a watered-down, moderate religion they call "air-conditioned Islam," eventually changed their tune (no doubt sensing a shift in public sentiment) and berated the government for banning him.

In other words, Khaled, like the head scarf, is newly fashionable, an affirmation of Muslim pride but also a cultural fad, like the Kabbalah or yoga in Beverly Hills. "I can list many female actors Amr and Ahmed hang around with," Hind told Stratton, explaining that her ex and his cohort turned to Khaled when gripped with a kind of existential despair about the absence of faith in their lives. The women are, like Ahmed, prone to what Hind calls "religious black moods"; sometimes Ahmed would "need to be alone in his penthouse and nothing could console him." The women celebrities who seek comfort in Khaled's circle are often referred to as "veiled-again," in reference to their resurgent interest in Islam.

The closer Stratton looks at the lives of these young Muslims, the more they resemble those of their Western counterparts, from pop stars thanking God for their Grammies to Bible Belt residents with their pro-life politics and whopping abortion rates. In Kuwait, a university student in a spotless dishdasha speaks scornfully of "Bedouins" in the social science departments, men wearing similar outfits, but with shorter hems indicating that they can't afford many changes of clothes and need to keep them well off the ground and away from the dirt. "Bedouins" -- for this boy, it's less a tribal term than an epithet much like "rednecks" -- gravitate toward disciplines that don't require them to learn English, "because they are not the most clever students and this degree never reveals that." They also tend to be more conservative religiously and opponents of liberalizing policies like women's suffrage. Still, there are limits to the militancy of these unsophisticated young men. Even the Hezbollah member Stratton met in Beirut expressed nothing but contempt for the "freaks" of al-Qaida. Her Cairo translator, a former jihadi, said of the bin Laden crew, "These guys want an international caliphate. Who else wants that? Egypt is difficult enough to sort out as it is."

The relatively small numbers of hardcore militants, however, is exactly what drives them to terrorism. Stratton got a firsthand taste of their rage on July 7, 2005, when she walked out of London's Tavistock Square moments before a suicide bomber blew up a bus there. Rumor had it that Amr Khaled had signed on as an advisor to the British government after the attacks, but Stratton could never get this confirmed; it would have made him unpopular among Muslims there. She found herself once again asking if the Mideast's secularists were right in claiming that Khaled's "trendy piety" is no more than "a rebranding of religious conservatism." Then, the next thing Stratton knew, she was hearing that Khaled was allowed to preach in the sanctum of the holy city of Medina (a "serious privilege" bestowed by the Saudi Arabian government). Later, he was Johnny-on-the-spot during the "cartoons crisis," urging Muslims enraged by Danish depictions of the prophet Mohammed to "move from protesting to starting a dialogue." Meanwhile, Khaled was recruiting ideological heirs and founding operations like the Life Makers project, designed to foster and fund entrepreneurship in the Arab nonprofit sector. All this, Stratton concludes, is "enabling the region's more moderate Islamists to ready themselves for power."

Should LeVine's metalheads and other nonconformists in the region go on worrying about an Islamist takeover? It's hard to say. Stratton thinks that the effect of the Amr Khaled and muhajababe phenomena is that "the Middle East appears more religious," while Arab youth covertly take an "eclectic mix-and- match" approach to their faith. They are not, she believes, very likely to abandon "smoking, make-up, plucking eyebrows, tight trousers, revealing swimwear, having sex." Besides, even a sincere trendy piety is still a trend, which means it comes with a built-in expiration date. Only one thing is certain when it comes to the fixations of youth culture: They don't last long.

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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