The 25th of January has been celebrated for years as “Police Day” in Egypt. Those who refuse to forget now associate the 25th of January with the revolutionary spirit of Tahrir Square that persevered until the 30-year authoritarian rule of Hosni Mubarak was put to an end. The day that was once a holiday to celebrate police efforts ironically serves as a reminder of police violence – of destroyed encampments and trampled down civilians, of viral videos of young men getting shot in the chest in front of their mothers and the grieving screams that erupt afterwards. Scenes that flooded the screens in every home, scenes that gave slight shimmers of hope for connecting pan-Arab utopias built by a new generation that refused repression and inequality.
But that was 12 years ago – almost half of my entire lifetime spent in the darkness of putting out the fire of the revolutionary spirit. Dull the knife, dig out the seeds, kill the sprout, and build unnecessary new cities and fake democracies. Forget.
Forgetting is much like grieving. Painfully slow and then suddenly existent, screaming to be acknowledged, quieting down to an inescapable self-evidence. Suddenly, no one talks about it anymore. The knife is dull, and the adrenaline rush disappears. “Why are you still talking about that, we’ve all forgotten about it,” says my mother on the phone and I can’t blame her. Maybe the only reason I remember is because I left, because I’ve given up on the country, distancing myself enough to become an observer from the West.
Observation is a luxury
and not many can afford the subscription.
- Burj Khalifa
Once upon a time, in a land far away, where humans spoke the same language, an arrogant decision was made. They were to build a tower so high that it would reach the heavens, bringing them closer to their maker – making a name for themselves. Almost like they wanted to become gods, observers from the clouds, watching others living their petty little lives below. As the story goes, the humans were punished by their God for daring to want His powers. He made them speak different languages and they were scattered across the earth, halting the building process and nullifying their dream.
Burj Khalifa is the tallest building in the world. It is located in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. To draw parallels between the Tower of Babel and Burj Khalifa is ridiculously cheap. Other than highlighting a long history of human arrogance, these parallels may prove the godliness of observation, the lavishness of being above everything and everyone.
No almighty power stopped whatever monarch of the UAE from importing the best designers and architects from around the world along with heaps of underpaid migrant workers from countries poorer than his would ever be. No almighty power could have stood in the way of all of these imported laborers building this ridiculous city in the middle of the desert. What was God going to do? The migrants already speak different languages.
No power of any kind stands a chance against generational wealth amassed through oil extraction.
From the tallest building in the world, the city below can be observed; other skyscrapers, artificial bodies of water, shopping malls, expensive homes and the remains of a desert that’s been dominated by the power of man (and oil money).
- Our Values and Traditions
When Mona Zaki took off her underwear in a no-nudity PG-13 Netflix production, there were uproars on Facebook and Twitter, calling her a disruptor of Arab society, amongst other untasteful things. The film, “أصحاب…ولا أعز” (Perfect Strangers) is a remake of an Italian film that’s been remade time and time again, about a group of middle-aged friends who vow to surrender their phones at a dinner party for everyone at the table to see. Every message, call and email received must be shared with the group. The game causes tensions and secrets to come to the surface etc. Marriage is hard, whatever. Someone’s having an affair, someone’s a closeted homosexual and Mona Zaki’s character accepts dares from a man online to keep her little bourgeois life exciting – hence, the removal of the undergarment seen (or hinted at) at the beginning of the film. The film itself isn’t much different from the other (European) versions released before it, a mediocre social comedy that the average Netflix user can and will consume while checking their phone and eventually forgetting about after watching.
After its release in January of last year, and although the platform got backlash “for inciting homosexuality and championing adultery”, the film topped Netflix MENA’s charts along with becoming a most-watched film in France. The average Arab Netflix subscriber is one who can afford to spend a considerable amount of money a month on content that needs a stable and at times overly expensive internet connection. Having Netflix in an Arab country is like dunking a piece of chocolate in chocolate sauce. Piracy is easy and accessible, the consequences are practically non-existent. The only reason anyone would pay for Netflix in, say Egypt for example, is to flex. Paying for a Netflix subscription is like owning an overpriced Mercedes that can’t handle the dusty streets of the gated community you live in, so you mummify it in your driveway. Netflix subscriptions are Burj Khalifas in their own right. Status symbols – who can afford the unnecessary?
And who can afford Westernization?
There’s a convoluted relationship that some people living in the SWANA region have with the West, glorifying it for its “forwardness”, cleanliness and technological superiority while simultaneously hating it for its “liberal” atheism and its disconnect with “traditional” values. The discourse around and the very existence of “أصحاب…ولا أعز” (Perfect Strangers) is a direct and rather harmless consequence of this ambivalent relationship with the West. The Qatar World Cup of 2022 is a manifestation of this ambivalence on a much larger scale: build stadiums grand and fast – efficiency is the name of the game, open the arms of your tiny country to the international public, and welcome all visitors, stay civil and liberal as a Westerner would. But ban pride flags because they don’t align with your “values and traditions“.
Apparently, exploiting migrant workers aligns with our values and traditions because it brings us one step closer to the West. Capitalism is the common denominator.
We can build, exploit and observe from afar.
- Botox Tears in a Private Jet to Doha
Reality TV doesn’t have much to do with reality; this isn’t a secret. Dubai Bling is pretty much a six-hour-long advertisement for Dubai; this isn’t a secret either. This author doesn’t expect a Reality TV show on Netflix about Dubai to be self-aware or critical. But this author has indulged in the brainlessness of this show’s consumption, even recommending it further. What started as a joke steadily became a source of frustration. There is much that can be mocked. The catfights, the Gucci tracksuits, the private jets, the fake roses, the botox, the attempts at gaining sympathy, the “fashion” show, the fake liberal feminism, the girlboss stickers, the ridiculously oversized Fendi sunglasses and above all, the promoted hard-workerism. A review written by Joseph Fahim for the Middle East Eye describes these phenomena in a critical tone, giving a better overview of the show than I am willing to.
As Fahim concludes, the show’s main attraction may just be that it aims to make the average middle-class viewer feel better about themselves; dear viewer, you may not be as rich as these people but you are certainly more intelligent.
However, I fear there is something more sinister at play. Between Lojain Omran, Ebraheem Al Samadi, Lojain Adada and the other personalities featured on the show, there are unspeakably big fortunes being used to finance very lavish lives in a very lavish city. Each of these personalities, whether socialites, businesspeople or heiresses, are given a platform to not only showcase their lifestyles but to also include the viewer in their private affairs. Inciting drama is easy; the biggest egos with the largest fortunes in the tallest skyscrapers with oh, way too much time on their hands. Unlike “traditional” Reality TV programs like Keeping Up With The Kardashians, the main focus of Dubai Bling isn’t exactly the “characters” but rather, as the show’s title suggests, Dubai itself.
Dubai isn’t a mere setting, it’s the driving entity of the show. Dubai is a concept, a philosophy, a way of life. The show aims to advertise, sell and propone Dubaism – the need to build the tallest building in the world, to own the most expensive clothes, to live in the biggest house. To capitalize, to become the most Western-adjacent version of your non-Western self. To observe from afar. To pay for a Netflix subscription. To forget. Stay numb, enjoy the fireworks and the petty drama. Ignore the poor living conditions of the servants, the builders and the entertainers. Exploit your children and put them under the spotlight of Netflix cameras. Fetishize your own culture. Shield yourself behind the walls of your gated community, shield yourself from the misery outside. Afford ignorance, afford to forget.
Forget what could have been.