Palestinian musician Bashar Murad released “Ana Zalameh” (I am a man), a music video sponsored by the United Nations in 2018. In this song, Murad explores gender dynamics in the Arab world with a focus on what it is like being a man in Palestine. The video is set inside a “factory of men” where young boys must pass several trials, like choosing the right toy, watching action movies and getting tailored for a good job to learn and develop their masculinity. While the boys are in this setting, the lyrics talk about their given societal freedom as men and how they are valued members of society. Murad then moves to a different setting, changing his lyrical theme to discuss what men should be taught. We see him as a professor, teaching students about the stereotypical views on genders, only to refute them by explaining that there are no limits when it comes to self-expression and achievement. The video concludes with the students rushing inside the factory and replacing “factory of men” with “factory of humans.” The lyrics change once again to talk about how we should listen to and respect one another, and how change is only possible by means of cooperation.
Before commenting in more detail on the video, it is important to first acknowledge that since it was sponsored by the United Nations’ “Men and Women for Gender Equality” program, it does not do a good enough job of being inclusive of all forms of personal expression and self-identity. As the name of the initiative suggests, the music video focuses in particular on what men and women can do for each other to advocate for strategies that would improve gender equality. This excludes other gender and non-gender conforming identities that merit a conversation and need to be included to see this goal through, otherwise we are perpetuating the same exclusive system through gender binaries, instead of men alone. The limited approach and one-sided representation in the video shown at the end by changing the label “factory of men” to “factory of humans” show that although Palestinian society might be moving towards a more inclusive environment, it still has a long way to go when it comes to acknowledging the complexity of gender and non-gender conforming identities and that each identity has its unique struggles that cannot be grouped under a generic umbrella.
In “Ana Zalameh” Murad challenges societal pressures with a focus on men in Palestinian society. As a Palestinian man, Murad finds himself extremely lucky to have grown up in a musical household that provided him with a tolerant and open-minded environment and the freedom to choose his own path. Nonetheless, growing up in this setting did not shield him from the expectations Arab societies place on men. For this reason, Murad seeks to disrupt this stereotypical image of the Arab man through his music and show that people should not be limited by their genders in what they can and cannot do.
Murad begins to define what it means to be a man in Palestine as we see a young boy in the “factory of men” having to choose between a Barbie doll and a toy fighter. When the boy starts to reach for Barbie, his hand is forcibly redirected to the toy deemed more appropriate for his prescribed gender. This action encourages the assumption that the only acceptable outlet for men is a “masculine” one and likewise that “feminine” behavior must be performed by all women, as Barbies are considered to be feminine and reserved only for girls. This also perpetuates the notion that feminine and masculine tendencies are mutually exclusive identities, as well as that they are the only ways to identify. The young boy in the video is raised to be masculine, to be a man, which means that femininity — and all things associated with it — is an undesirable trait that must be eradicated from his mind. This idea is reinforced as Murad clears his throat and sings in Arabic, “I am a man / I am a man / I do what I want / Don’t try to change my mind / I am a man / I am a man / I do what I want / Don’t try to convince me, it’s pointless.” The lyrics suggest that a man cannot be convinced to change his mind or go against his own will, but the boy was redirected to play with the more “masculine” toy, going against his first instinct to play with the Barbie doll. Given this disconnect, Murad’s lyrics in this scene act more like a mantra repeated so often to the Arab man, like to the young man in the video, from a very early age that he starts to believe it and embody it as the truth and as who he is. However, according to Murad, the reality is that one can identify as a man regardless of toy choice, femininity or masculinity and that changing his mind and means of expression does not take away from this identity.
The next part of the “training” to be a man is to learn how to be tough. In the music video, the boy watches wrestling matches and action movies depicting the hero as a strong man who defeats his enemies through fighting. This idea encourages a hegemonic definition of manhood as the Arab society depicted in the video is one where men are only valued if they are bereft of emotions, are stubborn and can prove their worth and masculinity through violence. This strips boys and men of their right to feel diverse emotions such as frustration, compassion or vulnerability and instead forces them to act upon what they feel through aggressiveness.
What is surprising is who is responsible for the factory: The “factory of men” is ironically run by the parents. In this video, the factory is the Arab household and inside it, Murad sings that as a boy, “I come and go as I please, and whatever I do / No one criticizes me or asks where I am.” He continues to say, “Don’t blame me / because the ones before me taught me so / They pampered me and provided me my rights / They taught me that the world won’t go on without me.” Though “the ones before me” could be the men he sees in everyday life and who he looks up to, the video suggests that it is actually the doing of the parents’ habit of putting their sons on a pedestal. It is interesting to note that the mother is also responsible for upholding the institution that contributes to her gender’s subjugation purely out of tradition and societal construct. In the video, we see the heavy expectations a boy must meet to be a “real man” such as smoking and becoming a doctor or lawyer. In this context, there might be unreasonable expectations for an Arab man to be this larger-than-life individual with high accomplishments, a respectable career and a manly persona, but his prestige and superiority in the eyes of both his parents and society are undeniable. Other individuals might have similar aspirations and expectations, but if they do not identify as men, their status and future are not so clear: they cannot come and go as they please and are questioned and restrained by their parents in their every step.
So, should we blame parents for creating and fueling these gender norms? In “Ana Zalameh,” we see Murad take the role of a professor teaching his students that “No one / No one is weaker than anyone / No one is stronger than anyone / And the future begins now / If we walk together.” This seems to suggest that change is only possible if everyone cooperates because it is difficult to achieve equality without cooperation. It is useless to blame the parents who were indoctrinated by this same society, and so society has to change first before expecting any real change. The video ends with two children playing with a Barbie doll, a fighter and a crane without restraints or expectations as to which toy they are allowed to play with. This image reinforces the idea that there is hope for this change to happen among the new generation, but only if they are taught to respect each other early on.
The tone of “Ana Zalameh” is hopeful despite the standards by which the boys must abide. If we go back to the argument that the “factory of men” is in fact the Arab household that shapes men according to the desired societal value of masculine comportment when the men finally come out of the factory in the music video, the lyrics allude to the fact that not all Arab households and not all Arab men hold true to the concept of hegemonic masculinity. In my experience and observations, this concept has been often defined in terms of devaluating and disrespecting anything other than masculine behavior, but no one should abide by this standard to identify as a man. There are those like Murad who were raised in a tolerant environment that allowed them to express themselves freely and learn to not look down on anyone’s means of self-expression. The song criticizes Arab society for raising men into emotionless bodies who feel the need to compete with other men and for devaluing other gender identities, but it also reminds the viewers that there is always the potential for change. Bashar Murad’s music video provides a window into a boy’s journey to become a man in the eyes and by the standards of an Arab society that sets clear requirements for masculinity. A system like this sets insurmountable expectations that only serve to homogenize men and encourages the suppression of identities and differences. Regardless, even if there is hope that the Arab world can move away from the hegemonic ideals that fuel the “factory of men,” this single-sided approach does little in terms of inclusivity and representation, so the next step is to acknowledge and include other gender and non-gender conforming identities in the conversation.
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