How To Kill Creativity In The Arab World

Melody TV has been producing, what are probably some of the funniest and most creative commercials I’ve ever seen aired in the Arab world. The irony here perhaps, is that these creative commercials are about creativity in the Arab world, or the lack there of. They depict an Egyptian film studio that is home to an eager filmmaker who is constantly coming to the studio’s head with new and original film ideas, all of which are, in fact, Hollywood productions, including Brave Heart, Titanic, Rocky and Seven. After pitching his idea, the filmmaker is constantly turned down by the studio head who is on the lookout for the conventional cliches that make Arab cinema “work”, such as the hero always winning, and a female character always being reduced to a sex object. The commercials tend to end with the studio head opening a desk drawer of scripts from actual Arab films and throwing one to the filmmaker. The viewer is then told what the “outcome” of that decision was, and it’s usually a disastrous, but realistic conclusion, and naturally, the original film goes to Hollywood. It’s a we-had-it-first tale gone wrong.

There’s a lot that one can read in to all this. The way we shun and kill any signs of creativity, constantly pursuing the formulaic, mostly because we believe that this is what our audiences demand. Thus we introduce nothing new, and everything is consistently recycled. There’s also the relationship between the mentor and the apprentice, one of the missing components in the Arab world. We are taught wrong, but generally worship those who teach or train us anyhow, because of their authoritative nature. After going to great lengths to impress his mentor, the filmmaker in these commercials will happily accept inexplicable rejection and admiringly accepts his new task – taking the studio head’s script while spurting out accolades like “ameer” (prince) and “professour” (professor).

Then there’s opportunity.

Watching these commercials reminded me of Gustave Eiffel who originally wanted to build his tower in Barcelona for the Universal Exposition of 1888, only to be turned down by city hall representatives who thought it to be too strange and expensive, and did not fit the design of the city. Eiffel took his design to Paris the following year and the rest is history. The Eiffel Tower is now an icon of Paris and France, and it is also the most visited paid monument in the entire world. One city lost an opportunity to make something great because it did not conform, and another took a chance on creativity and it proved fruitful. Think about the Arab world. How many of our creations in the past couple of decades were original and not western imitations?

The relationship between opportunity and risk is interesting. In the Arab world, creativity is often seen as being too “risky” to even consider. We are ingrained to believe, from an early stage in life, that anything creative is typically not worthwhile, and the best way to succeed is to follow in the same old footsteps. Think about the way we raise our kids to shun arts, music, even anything of a social science nature – and to pursue becoming doctors and engineers. And not great doctors and engineers, just mediocre doctors and engineers. Enough to make a decent living and to be socially considered as having a respectable profession. We have so many doctors and engineers in the Arab world that one would think we would be a region producing some of the most cutting edge breakthroughs in those fields. But we’re not. Not even close.

Our education system shuns creativity.

I would wager that very little is invested in the arts in our part of the world and I’ve been to schools who don’t even have art programs to begin with. We generally fail to see the connection the same way the bureaucrats in Barcelona’s city hall refused to see the connection. Creativity manifests itself in many ways, especially economically. Books, movies, music, architecture, design, marketing, etc. What do these fields and industries represent in financial terms for the western world? Billions upon billions of dollars?

Lest we forget that creativity also breed innovation. It takes real outside-the-box creative thinking to innovate. Interestingly, every so often you’ll read about someone in the Arab world having innovated something completely outside-the-box – the small doses of apparent creativity – and then they are never heard from again. If they’ve succeeded then they probably had to immigrate to a different environment that sees opportunity in what this person has created, and that is typically the west. Rarely will our governments or even our private sector invest in something outside-the-box and deemed “risky”. Even venture capitalists will tend to stick to the most conventional ideas out there.

Creativity is a natural resource that we have denied for so long that it has translated to large-scale missed golden opportunities. Social opportunities, cultural opportunities and economic opportunities. We are told to conform and to simply tread water. We are told to admiringly accept and welcome creativity only when it is produced by the western world, and it’s exactly what makes us surprisingly say “Is that Arab!?” when we see the rare glimpses of Arab creativity. Which is exactly what I said when I saw these commercials.

You can watch some of the Melody Aflam commercials here (subtitled in English):

Rocky:

Dances With Wolves:

Titanic:

Brave Heart:

Seven:

Thought Is Free...

35 Comments

  1. I don’t mean to disappoint you, but almost all Melody channels adverts including Madonna, Akon…etc crazy ads and the ones mentioned here are done a the agency Leo Burnett in Egypt.

  2. The commercials are hilarious. I love them… especially after living in Egypt for 2 years.

    From an outsiders perspective, your thoughts on Arab creativity are spot on. In Egypt they built the Great Pyramids and to this day they proudly boost their egos saying, “We are Pharaohs!” Okay… so what have you done in the last five thousand years? Not much! Anything of any significance either ends up being messed up in the end or decent but outsourced (the Metro made by the French).

    Very enjoyable article and great commercials!

  3. Very well said! I remember having the craziest dreams as a child that could have easily been acheived if our arabic society wasn’t so against anything new, & what do you know… now I’m an engineer! Times are slowly changing, & although it could take another couple of decades for it be be acceptable to be different, lately there have been a few effors from people who live in wealthy arab countries. The sad part is the older generation still ridicules them (& even teach their childen to do the same.

  4. You are a troublesome little pecker, why do like poking the beehive? Let me share with you a little story and insight.
    The other day we were having that same exact conversation amongst a bunch of our friends, focusing more so on jordan. it started by recollecting a comment a syrian choir member mentioned when asked about his opinion of the Jordanian choir “they are like kids chasing a pickup truck, while they are running pretty quickly they are just still never catching up”
    we concluded a few things, mainly that society and family create a much larger incentive for indivduals to measure things in monetary gain framework. that in and of itself discourages creativity because, as you said, its risky.
    besides being a traditional society that apposes change, the most potent form of creativity is that of creative maladjustment and dissent.
    still at the end of the day there is a huge disparity in creativity between different arab countries, and sadly in jordan we had a bunch of people try to instill some really creative and innovative programs to inspire creativity but the problem that we face in jordan is that we boast so much about mediocrity and we are fiercely jealous.
    a brilliant and promising student who has potential to be a great singer, she goes to a prestigious university to learn more about what ti takes to be singer.
    while she might be mediocre at best, the way she is celebrated and boasts about her minor achievements in jordan you will think she is headlined a placido domingo tour. that constant praise makes those brilliant prospects dull and linger in the “average”
    and thats the problem of arabs, and specifically jordanians, and creativity.

  5. i think part of it has to do with being oppressed/repressed in so many ways .. politically, sexually, socially, etc so i think that puts a damper on our creativity .. the other thing is we live in a society that places a high emphasis on conforming so anything outside the box is not encouraged .. and of course our education system of memorizing is not so stimulating .. so many reasons really ..

    arabs outside the arab world do just fine in terms of being creative so the problem is the environment i guess and not the people ..

  6. We seem to be opposed to even mildly creative things! everything needs to be replicated to be acceptable, The way we dress, the way we celebrate weddings, the jobs we get, the way we behave, the jokes we make, the countries we go on vacation to, the way we design our homes, menus in restaurants and the list goes on forever!!! I can accept people not being creative with their own lives but why do they have to be so critical of other people’s out of the box thinking?

    People often believe that creativity is something you’re born with, and in most case this is entirely untrue, it’s the way we train our brains to think mixed in with a lot of hard work!!! I heard a wonderful quote the other day where Charlie Chaplin ( Who defined out of the box thinking in his field ) described his process of coming up with new ideas as ” “sheer perseverance to the point of madness” .

  7. Brilliant and hilarious commercials and an excellent post. I find it ironic that one of the comments bolsters your opinion. The Golden Age is long over; yesterdays innovations aren’t going to fuel tomorrow.

  8. @bambam:

    “the problem that we face in jordan is that we boast so much about mediocrity and we are fiercely jealous”

    good point

    @mo: don’t the people create and sustain that environment?

    @Nada:

    process of coming up with new ideas as ” “sheer perseverance to the point of madness” .

    brilliant!

    @الأردني الحر : yes, governments and repression are one reason….but definitely not the only one.

  9. Hollywood……creative…….HAHAHHAHHAHAHHAHHAHAAHAHHAHAHHHAHHAHHAHHAHAHA.

    You’re looking for creativity in the wrong wrong places. I creativity equals Hollywood, I’m glad we don’t have it.

  10. well to a certain extent but people play a marginal role .. in fact people have nothing to gain from maintaining the status quo .. so while they do share part of the blame they are not guilty .. i would say it is those who are in power who are mainly responsible for this .. the people have no power ..

  11. @mohamed: i dont think i described hollywood as being implicitly creative…but indeed…regardless of the numerous productions it turns out every year, there are a handful of films that are genuinely and undeniably creative. the same can be said of the entire art world.

    and in any case, creativity goes far beyond the realms of hollywood hills, and includes the ability to simply think creatively…thus creating something original, something innovative.

    thanks for commenting

  12. @mo: i would strongly disagree with that. the people are very much empowered and it need not be defined as solely by their ability to vote or speak freely. people are empowered every time they make crucial decisions when it comes to raising their kids. zoom out…to our immediate environments and the demand for us to conform within lines that society alone sets. not governments, but society. people. most of what we do, say, think and believe on a daily basis is not determined nor enforced by governments as much as it is by the people themselves. from parents to teachers to peers to colleagues to bosses to religious figures to to to to….

    i would argue that the overwhelming majority of creative and innovative ideas that i have seen fail in jordan were not due to the government or the powers-that-be but rather the one million obstacles one has to face before they ever get to that final stage of government intervention

  13. you stated the reasons clearly in the article nas
    “Rarely will our governments or even our private sector invest in something outside-the-box and deemed “risky”. Even venture capitalists will tend to stick to the most conventional ideas out there.”

    you mentioned that innovation is an economy it self. so that means innovation is tied with money, so unless your innovation is a money maker you wont make a difference, its a universal issue and even exists in the west not just the arab world, thats how the world is running.

    but you need to notice some differences, the society is different, and the west has superior economy, before you talk about creativity, you should first talk about economy/industries (as a whole) and eduction, i mean REAL and high end education and you even some how pointed that out in your article, you wouldnt see that large number of engineers/doctors etc if there was serious education, innovation/skill in those sectors is what brings difference in any country.

    last but not least, the arab world is in a economic/education misery, even gulf countries with all the money they have, they are nothing but pure consumerist nations. so not much people are creative in this environment.

  14. The problems here are endemic; its not merely about our education systems or society. The problem lies in the very concept of of our identity and value systems. In the West, individualism reigns supreme and uniqueness, to a certain extent, is celebrated rather than shunned. In our countries, tribal, familial, or sectarian affiliations are the defining characterestics of people’s identity; and thus the need to conform is overwhelming. Change is semi-impossible if you are expected to act like the people around you. There is a titanic shift happening though; as people start to adopt online personalities and engage with others from around the globe, ethno/familial-centric identities are slowly dissolving.

  15. The lack of creativity in the Arab world is due to a number of combined reasons.

    1) Our culture is not a culture in which creativity or innovation is promoted. Like stated above, risk-taking is considered unnecessary. Also, hard work is not appreciated. In the West, competition is high and people are motivated. One important note to make clear is that, not EVERYONE in the West is creative. There are a lot of lazy people there too, but the percentage of people in the West who are competitive and work hard is much higher than other countries.
    2)Our education system is not adequate enough to foster creative and hard working people. Not because we don’t have the right books or resources. In fact, most of the material studied in Jordan for example are the same exact books used in Universities in America. However, in America, the book is not stressed…they teach you how to learn, think, and create. You are given tools that you really use in the real world. You are constantly trained to critically think and through practice, it becomes second nature.
    3)Our economies do not encourage innovation. A lot of people that try to do something face a huge number of hurdles before they can actually achieve something.
    4) Arabs need to stop dwelling on the past. We are smart people, but fail to recognize that our achievements thousands of years ago will not help us today. @Tim I completely agree with you on the whole building of the Pyramids. We are proud of things that we had nothing to do with! We should look at these achievements as examples of what we want to be, not what we were.
    5)Today, we are too dependent on others that we cannot be creative. We rely too much on the West economically that it prevents us from being independent enough to make our own decisions.

    There are probably other reasons that I fail to mention, but I think for the most part the issue lies in both within the individual as well as the society. Individuals are products of their societies. There are creative individuals in the Arab world today, but they are very limited. In order for it to spread, it has to be a large percentage and only by changing society could that be accomplished.

  16. I apologize in advance since I know this will probably make some people mad big time, but while reading this post, I couldn’t help but think about an interview I just read with the author of a new book about the entrepreneurial culture of Israel, which deals with the exact same themes but on the flip side: http://freakonomics.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/12/04/how-did-israel-become-start-up-nation/

    Certainly, the fact that the interview never mentions the massive aid Israel gets from the US, which effectively subsidizes the whole country, is kind of ridiculous, as is the fact that there is no mention of what happened during Israel’s wars to the indigenous inhabitants of the land. But looking purely at the culture of business and innovation, it’s an interesting read.

  17. Thank “M” for posting the link to the article about Israel as a start up nation. I think it is a very interesting read. The comments that followed the article are just as interesting as well.

    I wanted to share one comment that was amusing and clever:
    “Israel is not a start-up, Israel is a hostile takeover” – Larry

  18. you guys still dont know those stuff about israel? its only less than 200km away :D
    its enough to say that the top 100 universities list includes 3 institutions in israel and non in rest of middle east :D

  19. Great post Nas, an them are some crazy good vids also, thanks! I know its a touchy subject, but I recently had a conversation with my Irish relatives from the old country about the parallels between the overtly religious public life of old and the new secular, prosperous, and creative life they are now living. Any thoughts?

  20. Tero,,,,, Does the 4 billion dollars Israel receive from the US has t o do with with the so called” Israeli advancement “???

  21. well its a chicken and the egg thing .. are people a product of their environment or is the environment a product of the people ..
    like i said i am not absolving people .. i just think the bigger blame falls on those in power because they promote this non-creative atmosphere .. but of course if this situation is to change it must come from the people ..

  22. free jordanian, throwing money at an economy doesn’t magically produce advancement, look at gulf countries. but its true that the massive amounts of money they are getting plays a large role.
    but they have BOTH education and money. not one of them.

  23. Free Jordanian, I think the billions in aid is certainly a valid thing to bring up, which is why I mentioned it earlier. The overall state of the Israeli economy is definitely bolstered by this aid, and it allows the Israeli government to fund start-ups more than otherwise would be possible. However, the culture of innovation is there with or without that funding. Yes, as a clever commenter pointed out, the “start up nation” began with a hostile takeover. But this doesn’t change the fact that in terms of entrepreneurship, technology, and creativity, Israel is quite advanced.

    It was also interesting to note that in the article on the book that two of the Israeli innovators mentioned come originally from other parts of the Middle East, one a Jew from Baghdad and the other a Jew from Iran.

  24. hello

    im not much of a blogger but this issue concerns me as a person working in the cultural/creative sector (im a graphic designer and a SERIOUS filmmaker who believes work in culture is not an act of charity, where the creator works to make his environment/community a better place – we work in culture because this is what we do – this is our job – our living and most importantly our life. (having said that, creative work, if powerful and sincere, can really touch people on a personal and or a collective level)

    its spot on what u say, but…

    its a bit of ‘this is how it is’ kind of thing, and i know a lot of people that have ditched this idea of ‘this is how it is’ and have decided to take things into their own hands and start their own INDEPENDANT grass-root projects . Melody channel is great and funny – but it is not and should not be our biggest source of cultural produce. People who have worked and are working on creative projects have always been (historically speaking) shunned by their immediate environments. This shunning is not specific to the Arab world…i know many creative people from around the globe that are struggling to do their projects….

    so let us educate ourselves (of learnign of the realities of producing a good cultural product) so we can broaden our horizon – and open the path to real creativity.

    Real cultural and creative work is suffering and this is a global phenomenon (Consumerism, cheap Hollywood or even Bollywood films are the main stream whether ur in Europe / US / China….etc)…

    The great creators like Picasso, Van Gogh, Sartre, Camus, Klimt, Hopper, Godard….etc – all those people did work that broke existing structures and mainstream thought….they never waited around for governments or official funds to produce their work…they never waited around for the cash to flow in so the thinking and creative process can start….

    My advise is…realize ur projects – target local and international partners/friends that can help u and believe in your projects – work professionally (meaning stop thinking that being a filmmaker means ur always doing a home movie – there are many many funds and workshops out there that would connect you to key people and organisations – go ask RFC, get in contact with people that have made films ask them how they have done it). Being creative is not an option or a luxery it is a necessity and a profession…so irrespective of what Melody decides to air – one needs to keep believing that the story they want to tell the world is something that is a matter of life and death….

    I remember the day I got liberated: it was when i thought that the $$$$ one has – should not stop or start a creative thought…as a start: all u need is ur brain – a notepad/computer…and then u can approach the world…because i know that even though ppl out in the western world have all the dough – but we have passion – we have real life – we have everyday politics – stories that are dynamic – we have romance – sadness – happiness (sometimes) – we have emotions that are so powerful to document…and on top of that as citizens of this globe – we have a feeling to make our globe our world – our room or even our home a better place….all those things make up the great ingredients for any creative projects…

    just open ur ears (and hopefully not to melody) – ur eyes (not to Rotana) – and allow ur brain to be analytical of what u see (truly analytical) – and there….u have a beginning to a great film, art or music project.

    Ur parents hate art (they also hate ppl who are different and most probably want u to marry someone from the same religion and background) – ur government does not give u money (it also does not give u many other things considering we live in developing countries). The TV channels and Arab audience want you to watch only sexed up human bodies like Haifa Wahbe….Well let that be the case…but dont wait around for anyone – do and realize projects because without those initiatives ur half the person that u could be and u would spend the rest of ur life with ur eyes and ears, and hearts and brains half closed.

    It all really goes back to the individual…just move forward and start ur projects or get stuck wondering why some silly ppl around the world are mesmerized by the likes of Haifa Wahbe…let them…such ppl will always always be part of our societies. It is not those people that are to blame but the creative ppl that got stuck in limbo wondering why? (99% of the creative peope always procrastinate – the wondering is another form of this procrastination)

    good luck with ur creative projects…and if anyone needs any sort of help send me an email (Mais Darwazah) : maisd66@yahoo.co.uk

  25. Amazingly written, I totally agree.

    ” Creativity is a natural resource that we have denied for so long that it has translated to large-scale missed golden opportunities”
    That’s totally quotable.

Leave a Comment.