I first saw M.I.A.’s Bad Girls video (directed by Romain Gavras) a couple months ago, and have been stewing since then to try to figure out why, exactly, I am so fascinated with it.
Sure, on the surface, it is visually enrapturing and musically infectious. It also has deeper layers: it hints at another side to the Middle East, beyond our stereotypical, media-fed images of women in burqas who aren’t allowed to drive. The music video is steeped in sexually charged dancing, beautiful women, fast cars; it’s like The Fast & the Furious, Persian Gulf edition.
But aside from its sheer (and vast) entertainment value, why I am so enamored with this piece of pop culture? I finally figured it out: Bad Girls reflects my own relationship, as I imagine it, with the Middle East. A windy desert, fast cars, beautiful women, a carefree rockstar attitude that is surprisingly applicable across the region combined with a laissez-faire attitude towards money (assuming one has it), a whirlwind of adventuresomeness and an unmatched esprit de corps. Gavras captures this vibe and my fantastical memories perfectly, and makes me want to party like it’s Saudi.
When I watch it, I am reminded of nights partying at clubs in Amman, learning to belly dance from Arab women, both strangers and friends, outdoor neighborhood weddings with raucous music and highly charged and energetic dancing, bonfires on the beach with guitars and ritualized dances around fires in the middle of the desert, midnights on the Sinai with hashish and Stella, driving for hours across the Jordanian desert on a whim and starry nights filled with hookah smoke. Bad Girls captures the passion for aesthetics, for art and music, for glamour and image, for passion itself.
What Bad Girls show us is that the Middle East is, for all its problems and in a bizarre twist of fate, a place of absolute freedom; where devastatingly beautiful women can dance on hoods of cars and men can drag race through the desert in souped up European sports cars, at least metaphorically.
This is how I do, and how I want, to remember the Middle East. Go for the seduction, stay for the beauty, come back for that piece of yourself you left somewhere on the side of the road. Though we might read it as Orientalism, the Bad Girls video embodies at an erotic, mysterious, seductive truth about my Middle East. We can drape these truths in accusations of conservativeness, backwardness, primitiveness, or whatever is designated for “the Orient,” but as in Bad Girls, the Middle East I know is beautiful and irresistible. The video and my Middle East are an embodiment of everything prohibited by our own puritanical fears of the unknown, of desire, and of temptation. This is, I believe, fundamentally what Bad Girls is all about: it challenges us to find the freedom and the perfection in such an unfamiliar place.