Breathing You In: The Arab Music Video Goes International


Controversial Lebanese singer Haifa Wehbe is at it again with her first English-language single Breathing You In, released on April 14th. The accompanying music video, shot by international Palestinian music director Tarik Freitekh (see picture below) in Las Vegas, has predictably taken the Arab world by storm, as all her music videos usually do.

Haifa is the first and only Arab artist to be featured on VEVO, where the video has reached nearly 6 million views. It was also shown on MTV and VH1 here in the USA, another feat for an Arab artist. The single is being marketed under “Haifa,” in what I’d assume is an attempt to either hide her “Arabness” for international audiences or, most likely, an attempt to make her a one-name star abroad as she is in the Middle East. If anyone can break into the international music scene, it’s certainly Haifa Wehbe. As she said once in an interview, “I’m not a singer, I’m an entertainer;” and indeed there are plenty of Arabic female stars who have better voices than Haifa, but as the United States music scene proves, those who are most popular in pop music don’t usually have the best voices, they have the looks, moves and attitudes. Haifa certainly has the looks; she can writhe around enough for a music video; and she definitely has enough sex appeal to put Beyonce and J-Lo to shame. Her so-so voice is actually an advantage for her: EDM (Electronic Dance Music) is all the rage in the USA, and her breathy vocals are perfectly suited for a song with little singing.

Haifa’s not the first Arab star to branch out from singing in Arabic. French has been used by singers such as Asma Lmnawara, Amina Alaoui; Diana Haddad (“La Fiesta”); Amar (“Oh la la”); Cheb Mami (“Non sera non”) and Cheba Maria (“Mon Amour”). Some singers throw a few English lyrics into their songs, such as Brigitte Yaghi in her song “Albi wou omri” and Maya Diab in “Neb2a Sawa.” Haifa even did so on her CD Baby Haifa, where she titled one song “Naughty,” while the song “Baba Fein” features the line “Mama don’t worry” (sung adorably by a little boy). Egyptian-born, American-raised Lara Scandar sings almost exclusively in English (“Mission is You,” “Chains,” “See the Beauty”). Superstar Tamer Hosny has released several songs in English, including “Smile” (with Shaggy); “Bahebek moot” and “Welcome to the Life” (with Akon).

The Arab media and fans are divided over the song and video, with “Haifaholics” (her admirers) posting stills from the video all over social media, drawing their own renditions of Haifa and frantically voting for her in the Big Apple Music Awards (surprisingly this is a Middle East awards show, NOT a New York event, although international artists from the USA to France are also included). Those in the Haifa Haters Camp call the lyrics “pointless,” the outfits inappropriate and the dancing overly-sexual. Personally I am obsessed with the song and video. It is truly on-par with today’s pop videos; director Freitekh did a splendid job with the editing. It’s got a story line (Haifa’s in love with Casper Smart, J-Lo’s ex-boyfriend choreographer who stars in the clip as an astronaut); crazy-cool outfits that no ordinary person could pull off; and great shots of Haifa and her back-up dancers.

The outfits

Golden Goose Venezia sneakers. Current/Elliott shorts.

Haifa first appears in a barn in this relatively simple shorts-and-sneakers combo, proving she can rock everyday clothes just as well as gowns and skintight bodysuits.

The outfit above is only seen once for a few seconds, and I can’t help but wonder if it was someone’s passive-aggressive way of getting back at Haifa, because it’s an ugly outfit and an unflattering shot.

The first of Haifa’s glamorous getups is this white long-sleeved jumpsuit that sparkles. Her red hair really pops against all that white.

Zuhair Murad jumpsuit designed exclusively for Haifa.

My Moroccan friend commented that he thought Haifa looked very vulgar in the video. I don’t agree, but I think this bodysuit would look better without that awful fringe. It’s no more revealing than a bathing suit, though, so I don’t see what the problem is.

Britney Spears in “Toxic” circa 2004? That’s what this sheer jeweled jumpsuit reminds me of. She looks like a misty woodfairy nymph.

Roberto Cavalli dress.

Why this stunning dress only appears in two very short frames is a mystery to me as it is so beautiful and dramatic. It also happens to be the same dress Haifa wore to the Cannes film festival last year!

Elise Dray diamond ring.

The most angelic she looks in entire video. Again, she looks like a woodland fairy nymph, in all the best popular ways.

The controversy

Laying with a bunch of men in a bed of orchids? Rubbing against two male dancers simultaneously? Allowing herself to be touched by several men in inappropriate places? Social media went wild with Haifa’s suggestive poses and moves. Compared to American music videos, it’s all very tame; Haifa doesn’t even kiss Casper Smart, much less roll around with him in a bed. From a feminist viewpoint, the shots could be construed perhaps as unwanted groping, or even an allusion to gang rape; but I actually see them in a different way: Haifa’s in control. She dances up on them, not the other way around. She pushes the men away, then draws them close. They appear to be admiring her. In all her music videos, Haifa always appears in control; so who are we to deny her of her sexuality by portraying her as the victim, or damning her for it?

I understand that sex is a taboo subject in the Middle East, especially sex outside of marriage. What and what is not socially permissible vis-a-vis relations with the opposite sex varies from country to country, between small village and city, between different levels of society. I have always been surprised that Arabic music videos are as suggestive as they are, with their sexy outfits and moves, given said sexual taboos: what is a guy to think when he watches a Haifa Wehbe or Myriam Fares video on TV, but then expects his sisters/mother/wife to walk around in a hijab or abaya? From one view point, some may simply consider them entertainers that inhabit a world without morals or restrictions, but even if they are allowed to inhabit another “world,” why does a man who disagrees with his wife showing skin or dancing in public think its OK to watch a woman doing that on TV? To some degree, music videos-wherever they are from-rub off on the public conscience. Maybe that’s what Haifa’s critics are afraid of.

I don’t think they have to worry any time soon. And in any case, maybe Haifa will become such an international success with Breathing You In that she won’t have to care what her haters think, much less have time to respond to them!








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