Beauty Meets the Beast—Nancy Ajram Encounters Kurdistan
Erbil, Iraq—Beauty meets the Beast—aka Nancy Ajram, the Lebanese bombshell and Britney Spears of the Middle East, plays post-conflict Kurdistan
Tonight was Nancy Ajram’s first and presumably last ever concert in Iraq. Tickets were priced from $75 to $500, putting it within easy reach of the vast Armani wearing uber-elites that congregate in the capital of oil-rich Kurdistan.
My American companions and I arrived fashionably late because even though our house in the upscale Christian neighborhood of Ainkawa was a mere 10 minute walk from the concert, the cabbie we took to get there didn’t know where it was. Despite the fact that it was at the biggest banquet hall in Kurdistan and this concert is the biggest music happening the country has experience since Saddam’s fall, each time we asked for directions we got told to go in an entirely different direction, sometimes to different neighborhoods entirely. Erbil—called Howler in Kurdish—is a city in which half the buildings are less than eight years old and many of the nicer restaurants and government offices have only been open a couple of months. It was therefore, not that surprising that no one knows where anything is.
After arriving at the Galaxy hall and traversing an enormous dirt field, as the parking lot and roads leading to the hall are not yet built, we entered the brand-new, cavernous ball room and were haphazardly ushered to an empty table filled with half-eaten kabobs and soiled napkins. The hall seated about 1500 people arranged in tables of 8. It was 90% full. While listening to the debka style opening band, I approached a waiter and asked if we could have fresh kabobs (they were included in the ticket price). Three hours later when Nancy was almost done our food arrived. In the intervening period, I chatted with every waiter in the place and got a whole range of responses about the likelyhood of our being served. They ranged from a) your food will be out in five minutes to b) we are out of food as we only thought 1000 people would come but 1400 are here to c) everyone is being served sequentially and you are at the back of the room please just sit down and wait to d) I can’t bring you your food but go talk to the maitre d’ and maybe he can fix it.
Now, after waiting two hours during the hyper-repetitive opening act while starving, it was finally announced in Arabic that Nancy would be appearing if the audience just clapped and yelled loud enough. Then, at the top of their lungs, all the young Howlerians howled and the MC announced Nancy and the curtain covering the side door swung open. Droves of men surged towards the stage with their smart phones held above their heads to film her entrance. Rather than appearing on cue, ten minutes later she appeared and started singing, but the miking was so poor you could only hear the band and not her voice. Then, she stopped in the middle of the song to allow the MC to announce that everyone must return to their seats. Now all official communication in the concert hall was in Arabic. Advertisements, signs to the bathroom and backstage, the music sung by the warm up band, and of course the MCs communications to the audience.
It is unclear if this is the reason that stage commands were not heeded. For many young Kurds who were educated after 1991, Arabic is their third or fourth language. Generally, their native dialect of their regional or sectarian group is their first language (i.e. Kurmanji for northerners, Chaldean for Christians, Fayli for Shi’I Kurds, a nameless dialect for Yazidis, and some form of Sorani for most of the urban Sunni population etc.). Then their second language is Modern Standard Iraqi Sorani Kurdish which appears to be the official standardized language of the Kurdish Regional Government and is the official variant of the Sorani dialect traditionally prevalent in South Eastern Iraqi Kurdistan, which has increasingly become the literary language of Iraq Kurds over the last fifty years. The universally taught foreign language in school is English. Obviously, the American liberation/occupation and the Kurds’ position in the global economy makes English a necessity for individual success. However, some Kurds who have returned from the Diaspora are more likely to know German or Swedish as those are the centers of the Kurdish Diaspora. Arabic is, therefore, the fourth language of most of the Kurdish population and in some smaller towns, it is not spoken at all by people under thirty.
Yet it was in this language that Nancy was singing and that the MCs were trying to convey things to the crowd and encourage them to move back to their seats. For the next hour while Nancy tried in vain to sing the concert, the security failed to prevent people from standing up on chairs to take pictures, rushing towards the stage, blocking everyone’s view, and making so much noise that hearing her singing was impossible. After an hour or more, Nancy’s manager came on stage and told her to embrace the unstoppable by asking select women and men (particularly those with children or non-hijabed girlfriends and wives) to come on stage and have their picture taken with Nancy. This created a degree of order as everyone knew if they behave well they might be picked. But, the ruse only lasted about ten minutes as it became hyper-repetitive causing the natives to become restless. It also prevented singing from actually happening.
After Nancy had kissed many babies and let many women get their pictures with her taken by their brothers on their iphones, she announced, “Hadha ghayr haflat taswir, hiyya haflat musiqa. ‘Ibadu, ‘Ibadu min fadlaku wa khalni akun murtaha li ughani.” (This is not supposed to be a photo party but a concert, please give me some space so I can sing.) At this moment she stepped backwards away from the front edge of the stage, now instead of having the desired effect of causing people to back away from the stage, as she moved further and further back her security people also backpeddled causing a gap to appear between the security and the mob. With each step Nancy took backwards, the security also backpeddled and the mob surged into the gap. By the time Nancy was halfway back on the stage, scores of young Kurdish men were on the stage. By the time she had fled to the back of the stage behind the drums and stage equipment, the security men (all wearing black suits and red ties) were overwhelmed by the mob. Pinned against the wall, Nancy then knelt on the floor and the remnants of her security force formed a box around her, to prevent her from being molested. This worked for about a minute. Then, new audience members mobbed the stage –apparently to see what was happening — preventing the initial mob from retreating or advancing. After a few minutes of stalemate — during which time it was unclear what indignities she suffered — the concert lights were turned on and men in Peshmerga uniforms marched in from the back of the hall with AK-47s. This created a distraction ‘pulling’ the attention of members of the crowd away from the stage and towards the back of the hall. At this point, Nancy’s security team fought a rear-guard action to extricate her from the crowd by pushing and punching their way from the back of the stage to the side door. After surviving this nearly ten minute siege, Nancy was safely backstage, the lights were on, and the men with guns proceeded to clear out the concert hall.
At this point, the surreal began to turn into farce—the MC took the stage to address the mob as we exited the hall. Rather than berating the crowd members for being savages, a proof of Iraqi backwardness, the reason major Arab performers never come to Iraq, or an embarrassment to the Kurdish nation… The MC said ‘I see that Howler is very happy to have witnessed Nancy’s first concert in Iraq. She was very happy to sing for you as well. She apologizes that due to the crowd control and security issues that she will not be able to continue singing. The concert is now over, we are all happy, it was a great show, and we hope you have a wonderful evening. We apologize that Nancy did not get to sing the much anticipated premier of her new song in the Iraqi dialect which she hoped to unveil tonight. Please be safe and go home.’
Now on the way out, I looked at people’s faces and they did not seem shocked or angry. Then amidst the crowd, I noticed a woman in her mid forties that I recognized, she is the chief of staff to the Minister of Justice of the Kurdish Regional Government (the minister was the chief justice in the Saddam Trial, I do not mention her or his name so that this blog does not come up on searches about them. They are both extremely kind, gracious, and knowledgeable individuals who are striving to build Kurdistan). As it happens, I had just had a meeting with the Justice Minister two days previously and had talked at length with his chief of staff, so I signaled her out of the crowd as someone who spoke excellent English and would be able to share with me her insight into the evening’s events.
I opened the discussion by asking her what she thought of the concert. She responded that ‘People were very happy and it went very well.’ I told her I had the opposite impression. She then said, ‘It was a great night for Kurdistan that Nancy Ajram, a cultural icon of the whole Middle East, visited Irbil and people were very happy and do not know how to behave in such situations.’ Taking us into decidedly undiplomatic territory, I probed ‘Is it really a great night for Kurdistan? If I were Kurdish I would be embarrassed at how many of my countrymen behaved, especially the wealthy young men in fancy western clothing.’ She said, ‘no not at all, People merely behaved normally and enjoyed themselves, they were relaxed and felt they were in their home. And could behave as they wanted to. That is good.’ I wondered outloud if everyone got to enjoy themselves or if in fact some people enjoyed causing chaos and inconveniencing everyone else. Her husband jumped in saying ‘It was a great night for Kurdistan, it is a shame that they had such a cheap security firm, they must not have been Kurds or they could have controlled the crowd better. I used to live in London, I know this stuff happens all the time there when big stars like Michael Jackson play and they don’t have the best security. One hears of such incidents at concerts in Europe all the time.’
Later while walking out we met the maitre d’hotel who I had complained to about not getting served our food. As a non-diplomat, he was slightly more open with me. He explained that they expected 600 people, planned for 1000 and that 1400 showed. He said it was a very sad day for him as he failed to serve everyone food and that the concert was a failure. He wished it had never happened. I commiserated with him, assuring him it wasn’t his fault and that I understand how hard it can be to manage such an event. I told him there will be other opportunities to get both the food and the crowd control right. However, I doubt if I was Miss Ajram I would want to make a return visit anytime soon.
The website Al-Bawaba.com describes the incident slightly differently, stating:
Lebanese singer Nancy Ajram broke in hysterical tears during her recent concert in Irbil Iraq, after the audience forced themselves on stage and surrounded her from all sides. The singer became very scared during the concert, which did not go according to plans.What was considered to be very unusual during the incident is the fact that the security men assigned to protect Nancy from being attacked by fans also turned into fans and became preoccupied with trying to take pictures with her neglecting their assigned duties. This neglect of the security men led the audience to go on stage knowing they would not be stopped. At this point, Nancy’s business manager Jiji Lamara, the organizer of the event and the band played the role of the security men and tried to protect the singer from being hurt and toppled by fans. Nancy became terrified and began crying hysterically and as a result of the crowds of people pushing towards her was injured in her foot. It took Nancy over 15 minutes to get to her private car and flee the scene. Once she was able to escape, Nancy packed her bags and immediately left to go back home.