-Edward Said, Orientalism (1978)
By this time it should not come as a surprise that the site, both geographic and intellectual, which we call the Middle East, is seen not only as exotic, but as something erotic. It is a place where sexuality is unleashed in the absence of the civilizing impulse. No matter how many records Nancy Ajram sells in Egypt, the face of this Middle East will be the Niqaabi or the Afghan woman in the burqa (it is indicative of the problem that indeed most Westerners do not make a distinction between Arabian, Afghan, Persian, Pakistani, etc.). This eroticized vision is a necessary part of Western policy towards the region; it is a place where one's potency must be demonstrated. The violence and the eroticism cannot be separated. It is no accident that the two constant images that mesmerize the mainstream media are the militant and the sexually available, restrained woman.
This geographic erogenous zone is a place Occidentals plunder when they wish because here the rules of civilization no longer apply. It is a place that obeys only the laws of power and is thus closer to Nature, but for that reason less human. We appropriate it to ourselves at moments when our own passions seem uncontainable by the facade of civilization. This embrace of the Orient can come in a confused rush, much like passion itself, indiscriminately devouring whatever is available, expressing and managing the violence of desire by displacing onto a setting that is not one's own. Displacing it from oneself by denying that this is really who one is. This is who They are, but not I.
Sarah Brightman, "Harem", Harem (2003)
Brightman's video received (relatively mild) criticism for its mixture of Arabian and Indian images and symbols, but this really misses the point. Instead what one should see is the necessary confusion that comes of trying to make sense of the unfreedom we genuinely feel but are forced to deny and therefore must project onto someone, some-They who are, Naturally, unfree. This is repeated in the song "Free". Here the sound is not Orientalist, but the setting and theme is quintessentially so. Once again amid a group of young women in Asian clothing, this time rendered immobile, Brightman tells us of her desire to be free as she flounders in her desire to be desired. The contradiction is not, of course, in the desire for recognition, but in the dehumanizing form which that recognition apparently must take.
Sarah Brightman, "Free", Harem (2003)
Sting's collaboration with Cheb Mami bears some of the same elements. There are obvious allusions to fetishism: the concealing of the drivers face and her uniform, which repeats, in an Occidental fashion, the fantasy of the veiled Arabian woman. These themes are especially prominent, not surprisingly, in the remix version, which invokes the sexuality of the dance club. There women, now uncovered, dance in real cages, on display for the male viewer.
Yet one should not simply toss this visual experiment into the same bin of confusion with the Brightman fantasy, for at least two reasons. First, the desire of Sting to reach out to Cheb Mami is indicative of a larger and very long-standing theme in Sting's work: his internationalism, transculturalism. He constantly experiments in a variety of musical genres and sounds. Thus the incorporation of North African rai is in fact an acknowledgement of its humanity, its importance as a form of popular music. This is in stark contrast to Brightman, whose musical selections have often forgotten the reasons for their own existence and thus have to try to situate themselves within the world of popular music, reducing themselves to kitsch. Second, while the vision of "Desert Rose" is classical Orientalism, it does twist it by internalizing it. The desert is not some far away place, it turns out. The passions, violent and erotic, are not ultimately other, but are our own. The song leads back to the Occidental world and holds up a mirror to our own hypocrisy, even as Sting ends the song awash in a sea of young dancing women. The harem is not far away. It is here.
Sting and Cheb Mami, "Desert Rose", Sacred Love (2003)
Sting and Cheb Mami, "Desert Rose -- Remix", Sacred Love (2003)