A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Thursday, August 8, 2013

About That Sama ElMasry Obama Video: Some Historical Context on Sama

The US image in Egypt has been going through rough times lately, partly through confused messages and the fact that many secular Egyptians still blame us for allegedly backing the Muslim Brotherhood.

But one rather extreme expression of secular Egyptian anti-Americanism has gone viral in Egypt and has made it into the American social media over the past week or so. Many of those who have picked it up are Americans to the political right who, like many on the Egyptian left, claim President Obama is pro-Muslim Brotherhood. The video, "starring" belly-dancer/personality/satirist Sama ElMasry, is crude, rude, offensive, slanderous, and more, so naturally it's gone viral. But it also is being spread by people who've never heard of Sama ElMasry (which was everybody till a year or so ago), who has self-promoted herself into celebrity status by her Anti-Brotherhood songs and dances on YouTube in the past year. I thought I owed it to those Americans who are seeing this out of context to put this entertainer and her shtick into some sort of context. First, though, the Obama video (offensive for plenty of reasons, and no, I don't share her views):

Okay, you probably get the idea: Sama ElMasry is not subtle in her satire. This is getting passed around in the US with captions like "the most bizarre anti-American video you'll ever see" and the like. But what most people on this side of the Atlantic don't know is who this lady (I use the word out of courtesy) is exactly.

Sama has shown up on this blog before, back in March of 2012, when I posted about her using one of the more memorable titles ever to appear in this space: Now, the "Nose-Job" Islamist MP and the Belly Dancer, and the Growing Islamist-Belly Dancer Axis. That, in turn, was inspired by an even better headline in the Egypt Independent: "'Nose Job' MP Files Complaint Against Belly Dancer Who Says She's His Wife."

The story was simply that ... well, actually, there was nothing simple about it:
Former MP Anwar al-Balkimy, who recently resigned from Parliament after covering up his nose job with a fabricated assassination attempt story, filed a complaint Monday against a belly dancer who claims he married her in secret.
In his complaint filed to the attorney general’s office, Balkimy took legal action against Sama al-Masry for the “false allegations,” which he said harmed his reputation as a member of Parliament and a religious preacher.
Earlier this month, the Salafi Nour Party suspended the Balkimy’s membership after investigators discovered he had lied about being the subject of an assassination attempt to cover up a nose job operation he had received at a private hospital.
 Nose jobs apparently being haram under the Nour Party's version of Salafi Islam.

Sama was described as an actress and belly-dancer in most of the publicity surrounding the case, but her career seems to have been stagnating a bit before that 15 minutes of fame. Since then, though, her celebrity has been growing.

As Mahmoud Salem (known in the blogosphere as Sandmonkey) later explained after she released her first satirical YouTube video some months after Muhammad Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood took power:
The 32 year-old El Masry was briefly a television news presenter before launching her career as a singer, actress and belly dancer. She released three songs, none of which was a hit, and acted in three films. But then she rose to fame this year when she was rumored to be the wife of Salafi MP Anwar Al Balkimy. Once a member of the ultra-conservative Al Nour party, Al Balkimy was forced to resign from his seat in parliament in the wake of a juicy scandal: He was discovered to have fabricated a story about a violent carjacking to explain away his heavily bandaged face, following a nose job at a private hospital. 
. . .Despite her vagueness regarding the relationship (El Masry confirmed she was married to an Islamist politician but never stated explicitly who he was), when Parliament was dissolved last summer, she went to the building and smashed pottery on the pavement in front of it. According to Egyptian tradition, the act of smashing pottery symbolizes the permanent sundering of a relationship. El Masry then disappeared from the news, until this song came out on YouTube.
Act Thuggish [the name of her first YouTube video] did not amuse the Islamists, but their responses varied. Brotherhood leaders Mohamed Al Beltagy and Mahmoud Ghozlan complained that the freedoms won in the revolution were being abused by the secularists in a dirty war against the Islamists, but refrained from proposing any punitive action against El Masry.
Salem's links to the video no longer work, but he explains the approach:
Last week Sama El Masry, a famous Egyptian belly dancer, uploaded a home-made video to YouTube; it shows her in a skin tight outfit, swinging her hips seductively to a song rife with anti-Muslim Brotherhood political innuendo. The sexy little number set the Egyptian social media and political worlds ablaze — but not only because it mocked the prudish Islamists with the double whammy of gyrating hips and no-holds-barred criticism of the Islamist party. In a bizarre twist that could only happen in post-revolutionary Egypt, the dancer was also famous for claiming to be the ex-wife of a Salafi member of parliament.
Titled "Act Thuggish," the song became an instant viral hit amongst anti-Islamist Egyptians. It openly mocks the Muslim Brotherhood party's failed Renaissance Project, a much-ballyhooed plan to "energize" Egyptian society. It also skewers Brotherhood heavyweights — like Khairat El-Shater and Essam El-Erian, vice chairman of President Morsi's Freedom and Justice Party.
Those unfamiliar with Egyptian politics might find the symbolism in the video a bit obscure, but for most Egyptians it is pure comedy gold. The opening lyrics are derived from chants that were heard at the October 12 anti-Muslim Brotherhood demonstration, called the Friday of Accountability; it ended with clashes between protestors and Muslim Brotherhood forces in Tahrir Square. Sama confirmed that the events of that Friday provided the inspiration for her song.
The entire video is replete with satirical images — like dancing with two meat cleavers, in a play on the Muslim Brotherhood's emblem, which features double scimitars crossed protectively over a Koran. Another section of the song is devoted to mangoes, a sendup of Morsi's boast about having kept his campaign promise to lower the price of fruit and other foods during his first 100 days as president.
Egypt’s vibrant and irreverent social media community loved the fact that this heavily satirical song was created and performed by a belly dancer. They immediately created an Arabic Twitter hashtag with tens of thousands of tweets in El Masry's name, with her online supporters hailing her as a symbol of the popular opposition and the revolution — a voice that spoke more clearly than most of Egypt’s secular politicians.
After that, she was off and running. Every month or so, sometimes more often, a new YouTube video went up, with Sama dancing and skewering Islamist politics, usually with references to current events, street humor, and with the sort of unsubtle and lewd (though rarely actually obscene) language seen in the Obama video. There is a fair amount of sexual innuendo, but she's never in a revealing costume and at times dances in niqab for effect. You can find many of the videos on YouTube, though unlike the Obama video most aren't subtitled in English, and even those skilled in Egyptian colloquial will miss many of the contemporary satirical jabs.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

She did not "disappear from the news" post-Belkamy Rather she made other videos taking on Morsi and Islamists, which enlarged her popularity in Egypt. It seems that the US Middle East watchers only took note of her anti-Obama video, whether because it was translated or because they did not feel anti-Morsi popular cultural expression was of any import. Also, I"m not sure why her marriage or breakup with Belkamy sheds light on this video. Remember, Egyptians took Shaaboula seriously, and likewise, sincere, if vulgar commentary by al-Masry.