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Posts Tagged ‘Dubai’

Shahs of Sunset and the Accidental Revolution

In Kippahs+Keffiyas, Popolitics on December 31, 2013 at 11:59 pm

New Year’s is about new beginnings. But it’s also about the closing of chapters. And with that said, it looks like the played out dirka-dirka-Mohammed-jihad era may finally be coming to an end… Thanks to a hit reality show on Bravo TV.

Currently in its third season, Shahs of Sunset is a sensationally scandalous yet fascinating “portrayal” of a privileged group of friends, all children of Iranian immigrants and refugees. On the surface, it’s a show about living the high life in Tehrangeles, but if you look closer it’s about so much more.

Videocrat shahs

When it first came out, Shahs shook the Iranian-American community like a Bam earthquake. Even West Hollywood’s City Council passed a resolution (a resolution!) in 2012 condemning the show. The uproar was exacting and predictable: It’s foul. It’s negative stereotyping. It’s racist.

I wonder if the critics bothered watching the show beyond the glam-tastic first few episodes. Season 1 started off outrageously enough: Private jets, petty fashion squabbles, way too much alcohol and a Vegas hotel suite situation (butler included) that would make Sheikh Mohammed jealous. And that’s just it: It’s more of an oil-money-Arab-stereotype than a Persian one. Even MJ said it quite brilliantly when describing the opulence of her own strip-club-themed birthday party: “It’s so Persian, it’s Saudi”.

Like a Purrrrsian...

Like a Purrrrsian…

Back to the haters: Shahs is not an ethnographic documentary series about Iranian identity in America. It’s a reality TV show — a format that deliberately blurs the line between fact and fiction in a civilization-eroding, dirty-look-driven formula that has nonetheless proven to be wildly popular across the globe. And I think that viewers are discerning enough to know the difference. Sure, it’s filled with (staged) cat fights and enough gold jewelry to save Greece from its economic woes, but there’s something to be said about all the stuff happening in between. Stuff about us “Middle Easterners” that needs to be addressed: Homosexuality, girl power, interfaith relationships and class.

Most of the cast members come from wealth (especially Golnesa “charge it to daddy’’ Gharachedaghi) except for one key character: Asa Soltani, the self-appointed ‘’Persian Pop Princess”. The only thing that seems to connect her to the others is the fact that she’s Iranian, loves gold and went to Beverly Hills High. Otherwise, she’s a cultural mutt (in LA via Iran and Germany) lives and works out of Venice as a multidisciplinary artist. She also dabbles in music and dresses like an MIA back up dancer. So Asa really doesn’t fit in to the spoiled brat stereotype that critics are up in arms about. In one episode, we see her humble background; a working class family supported by her mother, a full-time nurse. And Asa has repeatedly stated on the show that her top priority is to take care of her folks financially… by way of a magical liquid called ‘’Diamond Water”!

Holy water?

Holy water?

Despite the hippie chic and artistic inclination, Asa’s got some serious entrepreneurial ambition. Throughout the show, we get to witness the inner workings of successully creating a product we have all been waiting for: A luxury bottled water “infused” with the “powerful vibes” of a six-figure diamond, and she says “every single drop has been blessed with my love energy” (a scene to behold in season 2). Sounds ridiculous, right? But this is America, the land of opportunity… And when you think about it, the whole thing is pretty genius from a marketing perspective. Asa’s precious Diamond Water- as well as her Shahs salary- is probably the main reason she agreed to be on the show in the first place.

So with her worldly outlook and penchant for spiritual reinforcement, Asa is a necessary grounding force on the show. She’s rarely at the center of the drama but when she is, she just cuts right through the bullshit: When GG calls her “ghetto” for her unorthodox fashion choices, Asa snaps back: “What’s ghetto to you? “[the fact that] my daddy doesn’t bankroll my life?”. Clash of the classes at it’s finest!

I invented "swimgerie"

Lilly Ghalichi: Inventor of “swimgerie”

Lilly Ghalichi is another noteworthy outsider. Don’t let her Persian Barbie looks fool you. She may seem like the polar opposite of Asa, but they’re actually more similar to each other than any other cast member: Lilly is a Texan transplant who decided to forgo her law career to launch a swimwear line. She doesn’t drink and is often floored by the rest of the group’s antics. Her “boyfriend” is never on screen and any way – much like Asa – it’s pretty clear she’s only on the show to promote her brand. Ultimately, it’s refreshing to see these beautiful Muslim women setting out in the world on their own and defying family expectations of becoming a doctor/wife/real estate agent. And the best thing is, religion is not part of the conversation! Which brings me to my next point:

Blogger Shana Weiss (from Jewcy.com) asked: Why don’t they ever discuss religion? The answer is simple: It doesn’t matter. Historically, the Middle East has been a melting pot of religions for millennia. It’s where Jesus, Mohamed and Moses made their world debut! So what ties people together there on the day-to-day is beyond religion. And one thing I love about Shahs is that it’s showing people that faith, for the most part, is not culture. Things like language and food are far more powerful on the social level.

When Mike Shouhed- a Jewish cast member- tells his beloved mother that he’s looking to settle down, she tells him ‘’inshallah’’ – the Muslim expression for “god willing”. Reza, an endless source of salacious one-liners, is the product of an interfaith marriage (Muslim mother, Jewish father). They divorced due to his father’s infidelities and we see Reza try to reconcile with him throughout the show.  In one episode, he invites the crew to New York to celebrate Rosh Hashanah with the Jewish side of his family. It’s so obvious from this meeting that what holds these people together is their Iranian – ahem, sorry Persian- culture. Aside from a couple of kippas and a Hebrew prayer, the get-together looks like any other on the show. And this is how I’ve seen it work in the Middle East and with my own multiconfessional group of friends in the West.

One of the more touching moments on Shahs– and there have been a few- is when Reza talks about how his parents’ divorce affected him. Because his father converted to Islam against his family’s wishes to marry his mom, he believes that the social pressure of the time made it impossible for them to have a fair shot as a couple. In one humanizing moment, Reza goes through old black and white photos of his folks in happier times and tearfully confesses: “I would trade all of it – the BMWs, the Rolexes the houses in Beverly Hills- for that peaceful home with two loving parents.” All that glitters ain’t gold, people. And that’s certainly the case on Shahs of Sunset.

Lately, one captivating storyline on Shahs has bolstered ratings by bringing up something we seldom discuss: While we (born and/or raised in the West) bemoan imposed stereotypes and the critical gaze of the white man in our “adoptive land”, we are also guilty of that very prejudice on our own people. To call someone “Fresh Off The Boat”, and we’ve all done it, is to judge a newcomer as a fumbling immigrant who can’t speak proper English, let alone understand “our culture”. An FOB is not clued in and most certainly is not cool. In this season of Shahs, we see this elitist nastiness in full force. When Reza’s boyfriend introduces him to their new neighbor Sasha- a gorgeous gay refugee from Iran – all hell breaks loose. Reza calls him an FOB, then kicks him out of his apartment. When they cross paths later at a nightclub, Reza loses his shit and calls Sasha and his brother another F-word: “fags”. The irony in all this is: While Sasha- with his toned physique and hip dress sense – fits in perfectly with the West Hollywood crowd, Reza’s retro-Saddam styling makes him look like… a well-fed Middle Eastern dictator.

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Sasha Fierce: Who knew they could come off the boat looking this fresh?

The two later reconcile after Reza sees a therapist to delve into his irrational behavior. He realizes that Sasha represents a painful time in his youth -growing up gay in a conservative community – and his disconnection from the motherland. Yes, it’s all so very pop psychology, but it’s an important subject to tackle within the context of a Middle Eastern viewers, and first generation audiences in general. And I commend Reza Farahan for outing himself on so many different levels.

On the cultural sensitivity tip, it’s also worth mentioning that the producers have made an impressive effort to enlighten viewers with some Farsi 101 in inserts like this:

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Nomar Elmi, the director of community outreach for the National Iranian American Council in Washington, D.C., put it well when he had this to say about the show: “(…) the silver lining for me is that it will get people talking. Usually we are depicted as terrorists from the axis of evil. At least this is another side to the community. It isn’t the most positive or accurate, but it will get the American public talking.”

I doubt that executive producer Ryan Seacrest had any of this in mind when he was first blinded by the bling on this crew, but I think Shahs may be paving the way for alternative representations of Middle Eastern people in Western media: They can be gay and proud, they can be successful, they can be Jewish and Muslim, and they can get drunk together and love each other for who they are as individuals. Caviar vending machines aside, this is the world that I (and other children of immigrants in the West) come from, and it’s refreshing to finally see it (sort of) portrayed on TV. So although I don’t think Shahs of Sunset is essential viewing, to me it’s proof that the pendulum of representation has swung – albeit to the opposite extreme, but that’s the only way for it to eventually strike a balance. And I’m not ashamed to say it: I’m a fan.

Stuck between Iraq and a Hard Place | Vintage Videocrat

In Vintage Videocrat on June 28, 2010 at 8:16 pm

Published on GNN – Wed, 28 Mar 2007 12:32:31

Location: Dubai, U.A.E.

Ah Dubai with all its glitz and glam, looming cranes dance across the horizon and skyscrapers puncture the heavens with Babel-esque ambition. I’ve been living here for just over 4 years now and I’ve watched the population swell dramatically: The city is being developed so quickly that it can’t seem to keep up with all the young professionals and masses of Indian labor workers it’s luring in.  Educated Arabs and Westerners from across the globe are flocking to the Paris Hilton of the Middle East to build this desert dream and benefit from the lucrative opportunities and liberal lifestyle. While the foundations of many buildings are still setting, the Russian mafia have already bought out the penthouses. Almost anyone is invited to get a piece of the Dubai pie… But for Iraqi passport holders, it’s persona non-grata.

As you may know, there are no real career opportunities for the people of Iraq in their own country. The security situation is so fucked that people are fleeing in droves. We know by now that over a million have fled to Syria, and around 800 000 are in Jordan. Hundreds of thousands more have sought refuge in other countries. Just a few months ago the UN put out a startling statistic: 1 in every 8 Iraqis is now displaced, which has resulted in the largest population movement on Earth.

Gulf countries are taking a shameful stance: Saudi Arabia and Qatar refuse all Iraqi passport holders. The UAE is beginning to develop a stricter line  as well. And this is where it hit home.

My cousin Ahmed graduated university and fled Baghdad last year to Dubai to join his mother and sister in an attempt to build a future. Although he quickly found work at a local factory out here, he’s had to stay in nearby Oman for11 days waiting for a new visit visa to come through, granting him a legal two-month stay. Visit visas in Dubai last 2-3 months for everyone. Certain nationalities (North America and Europe) can just hit up any nearby border, get stamped and return to the UAE within a couple of hours. They call it the “visa hop”. For educated Iraqis trying to escape the chaos and to work in the UAE, it’s a drawn –out and nerve wracking process.

For reasons that are unclear, his company is having serious trouble sponsoring him to get residency status and so he’s been sent to the tip of the Arabian peninsula, Musandam, to wait for his visit visa application to be approved. Over the past 6 months, it’s becoming increasingly difficult and his waits in this picturesque province of Oman, are becoming longer and longer. After two visa rejections this time around, his mother – who has residency status here- was finally able to get him back in Dubai… For another two months that is. And the process repeats itself until one day, he might not be able to come back at all.

I’ve been hearing about this problem from family, friends and acquaintances for months now. Educated young Iraqis who are desperate for work are being rejected form entering the United Arab Emirates without explanation. Ahmed’s case, it seems, is one in thousands.

“I’m not the only one,” he told me on the phone from Oman last week “ There’s a group of 20 guys like me in my motel. Some of them have been waiting here for months…” I was told that there were almost 200 people with similar stories to Ahmed’s.

His sister and I drove for 3 hours to the border to see him and satisfy his craving for a Pizza Hut all-dressed thick cruster. I took my video camera along and intended to shoot interviews for a story with the other young men stranded there.

Upon our arrival, Ahmed tried to persuade the other guys to meet me. They were all understandably fearful of my videocamera (a lot of Iraqis avoid media for fear of reprisals on their relatives by fundies back home). In the end I was able to interview about 7 of them under anonymity. Their stories were utterly shocking. Here were a group of well-spoken and respectable young men between the ages of 25-30 who all had certified university degrees (one of them even had a Masters) suffering the same fate: although they had found work in Dubai within a matter of weeks, their companies could not sponsor them and their visit visas were getting increasingly difficult to approve because of their Iraqi passports. They are engineers, pharmacists, computer programmers and one architect. All of them have reached the end of the line; their visit visas to the UAE having been rejected after a period of waiting in this remote – albeit scenic- purgatory in Oman. All of them were left with no option but to pack up and go back to where they came from. The message is clear: Iraqis can (literally) ‘go to hell’.

“Dolfie”, 27, is a soft-spoken Basrawi with a Bachelors and a Masters in Electrical Engineering from the University of Basra. His latest ‘visa hop’ has had him stuck in Musandam for 50 days. He came to Dubai in September last year and soon found a job in his field. His company can’t find a way to sponsor him because of his Iraqi passport and although he was granted entry several times before, his visit visa is not being renewed, again, with no justification. The rejection has taken its toll: “I am so upset… I told my contacts in Dubai to not bother anymore. If they don’t want me or welcome me, I don’t want to live in their country either.” He’s being shipped back to Basra this week.

“Dolfie” and the other men had their degrees certified by the Iraqi foreign Ministry as well as the Iraqi Consulate in Dubai. He even showed me the documents. “Is this not enough?” he urged. Certified degrees are vital to granting residency in Dubai- or so the officials say- but for some strange reason, it didn’t help his case. “Do I have to get a PhD too?”

How is it that all of these young men- these educated young Iraqis- are being denied any sort of future in neighboring countries like the UAE? This is especially baffling to me when Dubai is still in the process of development and needs skilled labor in all sectors. The locals aren’t going to build the dream (they are a minority in the UAE), the expats are.

“Yazan” is an articulate 29 year-old with the same story. He was working at a pharmaceutical firm in Dubai for a few months, living in limbo between visas. He told me about his case, his tired blue eyes pleading for some kind of explanation: “We just don’t understand why this is happening. Is there some kind of official policy against us?” Yazan’s efforts to save his young family in Baghdad from living in constant fear and insecurity have been in vain. “I am so depressed. Sometimes I try to cry but I can’t… We are left with no solutions, no choices…” He has no choice but to return to Baghdad.

Are Iraqis being blacklisted? Is the US/puppet Iraqi government putting pressure on the UAE to deny these youth visas?  I went to the Interior Ministry of Dubai to try to get some answers. As I suspected, my investigation didn’t go very far. An Emirati lady in the PR department was kind enough to talk to me for a while. She told me that as far as she knew, the UAE government had issued a new law banning Iraqis who hadn’t entered the country prior to 2004. When I asked her why this was happening, she said she didn’t know and that they just followed orders. For more details I would have to talk to her director, who was conveniently out of the office and never available when I called to inquire afterwards.

Just when I thought my heart couldn’t handle anymore bad news about Iraq, more proof of how Iraqis not only get the short end of the stick, they get beaten into a bloody pulp with it.

“It’s like slow [social] asphyxiation,”  said Saad, a 29 year-old architecture graduate who’s also stuck between Iraq and a hard place in Oman, “ the Iraqi people are being strangled to death.”