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TEDGlobal 2009

Shereen El Feki: Pop culture in the Arab world

July 12, 2009

Shereen El Feki shows how some Arab cultures are borrowing trademarks of Western pop culture -- music videos, comics, even Barbie -- and adding a culturally appropriate twist. The hybridized media shows how two civilizations, rather than dividing, can dovetail.

Shereen El Feki - Arab sexuality expert
Shereen El Feki works and writes on sexuality and social change in the Arab world. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
Hello, everyone. Because this is my first time at TED,
00:17
I've decided to bring along an old friend
00:21
to help break the ice a bit.
00:23
Yes. That's right. This is Barbie.
00:27
She's 50 years old. And she's looking as young as ever.
00:30
(Laughter)
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But I'd also like to introduce you to
00:34
what may be an unfamiliar face.
00:36
This is Fulla. Fulla is the Arab world's answer to Barbie.
00:40
Now, according to proponents of the clash of civilizations,
00:45
Barbie and Fulla occupy these completely separate spheres.
00:48
They have different interests. They have divergent values.
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And should they ever come in contact ...
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well, I've got to tell you, it's just not going to be pretty.
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My experience, however, in the Islamic world is very different.
01:01
Where I work, in the Arab region,
01:05
people are busy taking up Western innovations
01:07
and changing them into things
01:09
which are neither conventionally Western,
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nor are they traditionally Islamic.
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I want to show you two examples.
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The first is 4Shbab.
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It means "for youth" and it's a new Arab TV channel.
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(Video): Video clips from across the globe.
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The USA.
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♫ I am not afraid to stand alone ♫
01:28
♫ I am not afraid to stand alone, if Allah is by my side ♫
01:32
♫ I am not afraid to stand alone ♫
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♫ Everything will be all right ♫
01:39
♫ I am not afraid to stand alone ♫
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The Arab world.
01:43
(Music)
01:46
♫ She was preserved by modesty of the religion ♫
02:00
♫ She was adorned by the light of the Quran ♫
02:04
Shereen El Feki: 4Shbab has been dubbed Islamic MTV.
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Its creator, who is an Egyptian TV producer
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called Ahmed Abu Haïba,
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wants young people to be inspired
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by Islam to lead better lives.
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He reckons the best way to get that message across
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is to use the enormously popular medium of music videos.
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4Shbab was set up as an alternative
02:32
to existing Arab music channels.
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And they look something like this.
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(Music)
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That, by the way is Haifa Wehbe. She's a Lebanese pop star
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and pan-Arab pin-up girl.
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In the world of 4Shbab, it's not about bump and grind.
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But it's not about fire and brimstone either.
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Its videos are intended to show
02:59
a kinder, gentler face of Islam,
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for young people to deal with life's challenges.
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Now, my second example is for a slightly younger crowd.
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And it's called "The 99."
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Now, these are the world's first Islamic superheroes.
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They were created by a Kuwaiti psychologist
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called Naif Al Mutawa.
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And his desire is to rescue Islam
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from images of intolerance,
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all in a child-friendly format.
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"The 99." The characters are meant to embody
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the 99 attributes of Allah:
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justice, wisdom, mercy, among others.
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So, for example, there is the character of Noora.
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She is meant to have the power
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to look inside people
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and see the good and bad in everyone.
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Another character called Jami
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has the ability to create fantastic inventions.
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Now, "The 99" is not just a comic book.
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It's now a theme park.
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There is an animated series in the works.
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And by this time next year,
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the likes of Superman and Wonder Woman
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will have joined forces with "The 99"
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to beat injustice wherever they find it.
04:05
"The 99" and 4Shbab are just two of many examples
04:11
of this sort of Islamic cross-cultural hybridization.
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We're not talking here about a clash of civilizations.
04:18
Nor is it some sort of indistinguishable mash.
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I like to think of it as a mesh of civilizations,
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in which the strands of different cultures are intertwined.
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Now, while 4Shbab and "The 99" may look new and shiny,
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there is actually a very long tradition of this.
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Throughout its history, Islam has borrowed and adapted from other civilizations
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both ancient and modern.
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After all, it's the Quran which encourages us to do this:
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"We made you into nations and tribes
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so that you could learn from one another."
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And to my mind, those are pretty wise words,
04:53
no matter what your creed. Thank you.
04:56
(Applause)
04:59

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Shereen El Feki - Arab sexuality expert
Shereen El Feki works and writes on sexuality and social change in the Arab world.

Why you should listen

Dividing her time between London and Cairo, TED Fellow Shereen El Feki works on issues related to health and social welfare in the Arab region -- including intimate attitudes toward sexual (and political) freedoms, as explored in her new book, Sex and the Citadel.

Half-Egyptian and half-Welsh, El Feki was brought up in Canada. She started her professional life in medical science, with a PhD in molecular immunology from the University of Cambridge, and later worked as healthcare correspondent at The Economist. She also is a former vice chair of the United Nations' Global Commission on HIV and Law. While she has worked in regional media as a presenter with the Al Jazeera Network, and continues to write on social issues in the Arab world, her passion lies in projects that aim to better understand, and surmount, the social challenges facing Arabs, particularly young people.

Read a Q&A with Sheeren El Feki on the TED Fellows site.

The original video is available on TED.com
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