Arabs’ Got Talent: those three grammatically dubious words pave the way for a host of clichés. For once, they’re not the stereotypical Arab-equals-Muslim-equals-terrorist ones, though; instead, the hit show reinforces the fact that Arabs are a hugely diverse bunch. A twee observation, perhaps, but one which is often overlooked by the Western media’s stereotyping of such a wide-ranging culture. Happily, the show also reinforces the fact that Arabs do, indeed, have talent.
The grammatical confusion of the title gives a fair indication of the show’s content. Like its syntax, the series is an almost-identical copy of the other international versions, with its own distinct regional twist. The three judges – Egyptian media personality Amr Adeeb, who’s already established a catchphrase, “Fulla, shama’a, munawarra,” [which doesn’t translate well, but basically means “You’re ace”]; Lebanese journalist Ali Jaber; and the glamorous Lebanese singer Najwa Karam – echo the original Britain’s Got Talent lineup from 2007, Piers Morgan, Simon Cowell, and Amanda Holden. The funny man, the sarcastic tough guy, and the beautiful, sensitive, and, err, sensitive one.
And, like its international counterparts, Arabs’ Got Talent sees a host of über-talented, talented, not-so-talented, and plain delusional people streaming through its doors. Shot in Beirut, the show welcomes Arabs from Morocco, Tunisia, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E., Oman, Palestine, Jordan, Bahrain, and elsewhere. Singers, dancers, artists, ventriloquists, acrobats, chefs, fire-eaters, freestyle footballers, and stand-up comedians get up on stage and give it all they’ve got, with the same air of optimistic desperation you see on any such show anywhere in the world.
While viewers of the Western Got Talent shows have gotten used to boos and jeers from the audience, and ego-shattering comments from Cowell (or his international equivalents), the Arab version stays in tune with the regional penchant for respect and good manners. Incompetent contestants are still, rightly, given the boot by the judges, but they’re never as harsh as their Western counterparts.
This also means there’s a higher percentage of clearly untalented contestants progressing on the basis of age (there’s a lot of kids getting through whose voices are so quivery and reedy that even their parents must struggle to sit through an entire song without wanting to scream abuse in their angelic faces, or whose ‘acting’ ability seems to consist of the ability to point) or emotion (although a good sob story from a ‘brave’ competitor tends to get a disproportionate amount of coverage in all such series). Case in point for the latter; a Moroccan singer who lost her sister. The girl breaks into Arabic song, moves on to Dolly Parton’s/Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” (in English), then switches to singing in Spanish. The performance is cringeworthy, yet Karam gets up on stage to hug the girl, and the panel offers her words of encouragement and votes her through to the next round. A shocking decision, but not a surprising one. Somehow, we couldn’t imagine them letting this clearly emotionally wrecked girl go home a loser.
While Arabs’ Got Talent may lack the grit and sarcasm of, for example, the British version, the show has unified audiences in the region on Friday evenings. And Arabs’ Got Talent can undoubtedly stand on its own as the place where people can see that the Arab world isn’t all about war and religion – whodathunkit? Most likely, that’s why the show’s title is in English, a linguistic flag that can be flown worldwide, announcing that Arabs are extremely diverse in looks, accents, and social backgrounds – facts that should never stop being told, even to Arab audiences.
The show is a refreshing unifier in a region so obsessed with differences. The talent on show so far may often fall a little short of great, but this is what the glamorous, educated, and street-savvy judging panel is there for; to hone the skills of those who deserve second chances. Arabs’ Got Talent may not produce a Susan Boyle – we’ll let you decide whether that’s a good thing or not – at least not yet, but it is worth watching.