A nod and a wink to the veil

1st September 2006 at 01:00
A study of Middle Eastern youth culture takes detours through history as it unpicks present-day contradictions, Reva Klein discovers

Muhajababes. By Allegra Stratton. Constable Robinson. pound;7.99

The very term Middle East provokes a negative reaction in many of us, churning up images of a vast conflict-ridden region where widespread impoverishment, political mayhem and destruction sit cheek by jowl with the blinding garishness of gold palaces glinting in the desert sun.

A rather different view comes from young British journalist Allegra Stratton, who travelled to six Middle Eastern countries last year to unearth the realities of Arab youth culture, searching for insights into what young graduates thought about politics, religion, relationships, music. The result is Muhajababes, an idiosyncratic view of this diverse expanse of cultures and political sensibilities, where western culture and resurgent Islam collide and coalesce.

The name of the book comes from muhajaba, the Arabic word for girls and women who veil themselves. Muhajababes is a word coined by a Beiruti woman who Ms Stratton hung out with (the 25-year-old hangs out, she doesn't visit) as a way of describing one of many paradoxes seen throughout the Middle East: veiled young women wearing tight jeans, stilettos and make-up while carrying designer handbags. While their black veils may be a nod to Qur'anic devotion, their skin-tight clothes are a wink to the oglers they invariably attract.

The demographics that define the region are the inverse of western Europe: two-thirds are under 25, a high proportion of which are graduates with not enough jobs for people at their level of education.

Culturally, the Middle East is similarly complicated. It's best defined as a place where a vibrant, western-oriented popular culture collides, and sometimes melds with, a resurgent Islamism. So you have Dial A Fatwa, a satellite TV show that answers callers' queries on what is allowed and what is haram (forbidden). Is plucking eyebrows OK, for instance, if it enhances the look of the eyes? And for the younger children, there's Fulla dolls, Barbie look-alikes (albeit brunettes), with a difference: forget bikini'd beach Barbies - these dolls are veiled, giving little girls a chance to practise the art of arranging headscarves.

What's interesting and sometimes befuddling about this book is the eclectic manner in which the author presents a picture of what she calls the Middle East's youth crisis. So we get quite a lot of history and party politics from Egypt, Kuwait, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon served up alongside descriptions of the ubiquitous video clips: MTV-style pop videos of scantily clad, gyrating female bodies. Similarly, conversations with muhajababes and unveiled young women alike throw up the contradictions that their societies are caught up in: is the new religious conservatism that is sweeping through the region just a trend or does it signify a genuine radicalisation?

Whatever the answer is and however much Ms Stratton veers off course in a style best described as self-conscious, Muhajababes will disabuse you of your preconceptions of the Middle East forever.

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