When People magazine asked me to interview Haifa Wehbe, a Lebanese pop singer, for its 2006 “100 Most Beautiful” issue, the assignment seemed like a welcome break from the usual high-risk, low-paying jobs I receive as a freelance journalist in the Middle East. After all, how difficult could it be to throw a few softballs at the sexiest woman in the Arab world? Several of my normally serious colleagues among the Beirut foreign press corps practically begged to be taken along as photographers or assistant pencil sharpeners. But then People sent a list of questions the editors wanted me to ask–What’s your best feature? What’s your worst feature? What kind of moisturizer do you use?–and I knew I needed to do this alone.
Haifa and I show up for the interview–at a lawyer’s office in West Beirut–wearing nearly the same outfit: blue jeans and a dark blazer. But, wow, does she look better than me! Raven-haired and curvy, she’s nothing like the aerobicized Hollywood blondes who normally fill the pages of People. Embarrassingly, I catch myself staring at her famously ample bosom, though only to avoid her mesmerizing genie-in-a-bottle blue eyes. She makes polite noises–in fluent English–of being flattered by my interest in her beauty secrets, but I’m in an excruciating quandary: What kind of facial expression do you use when you’re sitting next to an Oriental sexpot while she complains about her jawbone structure? Do you nod sympathetically? Or act horrified by any suggestion of imperfection? I try to remain impassive, but eventually the strain begins to show. “How does it feel to be a man asking a woman these questions?” Haifa asks jokingly, but the damage is done. I don’t feel like much of one.
Perhaps I should take comfort in the fact that Haifa has a strange effect on men–and just about everyone else in the Middle East. She is the most exciting of a generation of female Arab singers, most of whom are Lebanese and most of whom go by their first names: Haifa, Nancy, Elissa. In the past, Arab divas seemed to stand for something political. The Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum was the Ur-mother of Nasserite pan-Arabism in the ’50s and ’60s, while Fairuz, who refused to pick sides or even perform in her native Lebanon while its civil war raged, became one of the few symbols of Lebanese national unity. And, though it would be unfair to say that the Arab divas of yesteryear had faces made for radio, they were (how to be polite?) very talented singers. But this new bevy of Lebanese hotties, who came of age in the era of globalization and Britney Spears, stands for just one thing: sex, or at least the mass-mediated illusion of it.
Haifa’s music, like most of Lebanese pop, is an unremarkable combination of machine-generated drumming, tambourines, and synthesized shepherd pipes that sounds as if an ’80s band like Bananarama were performing for Ali Baba and the 40 thieves. It’s her booty-shaking that sells tickets. Onstage and in her videos, wearing tight jeans and black kohl eyeliner, Haifa mixes Eastern belly dancing with Western nightclub moves in an MTV update of the Dance of the Seven Veils that promises all and delivers nothing.
All of this is shocking to many in this conservative region, but not in the way you might expect. The reactionary mullahdom of the Middle East is mostly too busy declaring fatwas against foreign depravity to pay much attention to the local variety. So, in February of this year, while a couple thousand fundamentalists burned the Danish embassy in Beirut, no one really noticed when as many as 200,000 people gathered for a Haifa concert in Oman. In Lebanon, she’s practically a national treasure, especially in the conservative Shia-dominated South, where she was born in a small farming town. The Lebanese attitude is that their country may be totally screwed up, but at least their women are hot.
And yet, Haifa touches a cultural nerve that manifests itself in a weird phenomenon: Haifa jokes. There are hundreds of them, and they typically involve Haifa having car problems in a remote redneck town and a local mechanic who suggests payment in kind. The joke suggests the insecurity of a region caught between the sexual modernity represented by Haifa and the sexual backwardness of traditional village life. Or, as Edward Said might say if he were alive and well and watching satellite television: After centuries of being Orientalized–colonized, victimized, and sexualized–by the West, the East is embarrassed to discover it has Orientalized itself.
Two days after my interview with Haifa, I wake up to find that she is filming a music video in the apartment beneath mine. I live in the kind of shell-shocked Mandate-era Beirut building favored by wannabe bohemians and location scouts, and one of my neighbors is on the production crew. I go downstairs with a cup of coffee and a bedhead, only to bump into Haifa’s manager, who gives me a look that says it’s too early in the morning for questions about bikini waxes and breast implants. Haifa slinks her way onto the set wearing naught but a nightie and hot pants, and, when she recognizes me, I call out in Arabic, “Kifak, Haifa?” and she starts laughing because I’ve just said “wassup?” using a male pronoun. My humiliation is complete when, moments later, her makeup artist lets me know that my fly is open.
The shoot is for her recent single, notoriously known as the Wawa song. Supposedly, it’s meant for children–a “wawa” in Arabic is what we would call a “boo-boo” in baby talk. “See the wawa, kiss the wawa, and help it get better,” Haifa sings, dressed as various fetish archetypes like Little Red Riding Hood and a naughty schoolgirl. You don’t have to be a member of Al Qaeda to think this is a little too kinky for kindergarten. But, as I return upstairs to attend to my personal grooming and file my interview for People, I wonder if perhaps that’s exactly what all the lost boys of this lost region need: a beautiful woman with fantastic tits to kiss them where it hurts.
Andrew Lee Butters is a writer based in Beirut.