Influence of Arab culture in the West
Jennifer Grout, 23, received high praise recently from the show’s judges for her version of Umm Kulthum’s song, “Baeed Anak,” on the popular talent broadcast. She speaks no Arabic yet manages to convey all the feeling and nuances of the legendary Egyptian singer’s music.
Grout, inspired by Lebanese singer Fairouz, studied classical Arabic music at McGill University in Montreal and later went to Morocco to further her studies. To read and listen to the rants on social media, the young singer is appropriating Arab culture. It’s further evidence, some claim, of the Westernization of the Middle East. For goodness sake, she can’t even speak Arabic. The term “cultural appropriation” is new to me. But has surfaced in the United States, especially among celebrities to use cultural references and images in their music acts. Basically, it’s when individuals of one culture, race or ethnicity, adopt the traditional dress, accessories, grooming styles and whatever else of another culture. Perhaps the most common example in the West are whites wearing traditional Native American Indian clothing and jewelry and participating in ceremonial dances or a white woman sporting a huge Afro hairstyle.
Somehow Grout is ripping off, or maybe even mocking, Arab culture by singing Arabic songs, according to her critics. Me? I’m not much of an “Arabs Got Talent” fan, but Grout’s music intrigues me and I see a glass half full rather than half empty when she is on stage.
For all the haters in the Middle East who see the West as conspirators in stealing our identity, I just wish they expressed thoughts a little deeper than crying about a non-Arab, non-Muslim singing in Arabic.
Here’s something to consider: Brit Simon Cowell owns “Arabs Got Talent.” So it’s a show owned by a westerner. Cowell recently donated £100,000 to the Israeli Army. The Israeli Army has a nasty habit of killing Palestinians. Arab viewership of the show determines advertising rates. Advertising dollars go into Cowell’s pocket. Presumably some of those advertising dollars eventually ended up in the coffers of the Israeli Army. If you want to get upset about something, this might be more worthy than some kid singing in Arabic.
I prefer to look at Grout’s singing as a positive sign of Arab influence in Western culture, not the other way round. Since 9/11, we have seen in the West a rise in conversions to Islam. We have seen American soldiers bring home sisha and opening sisha shops. We see non-Arab men and women wearing the keffiyeh as a fashion statement. We have seen Arabic phrases pop up in the American vernacular. Just the other day I was watching a French cop show and two European non-Muslims were having a private conversation when one said, “Insha Allah.” Is that cultural appropriation? No, that’s Arabs influencing Western linguistics. Nothing makes me happier as linguistics professor to see non-Arabs using Arabic phrases, alternating between English and Arabic, in a casual conversation. Despite the fear-mongering among Islamophobes, these things are a positive sign of Arab influence on a global scale.
Whether Grout wins on “Arabs Got Talent” is less important than the fact that she is eager to learn Arabic music. And that’s a good thing.
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