'Talent without skill is like a desert without an oasis," says an Arabic proverb.With this in mind, I tuned in with the rest of the Arab world to last weekend's premiere of Arabs Got Talent show on MBC 4, marketed as the Middle Eastern version of the popular America's Got Talent.
I usually don't watch talent shows except when I want to laugh, but I wanted to see what kind of "talents" would be performed by youth from across the Arab world. The ultimate prize is 500,000 Saudi riyals.
Performances included bad imitations of Michael Jackson's dance moves (by several contestants), bad singing, hammering nails into one's nostrils, running around the stage bumping into things, and last but not least, reciting nationalistic poems as the soundtrack from Braveheart - a film about a Scotsman - played in the background.
Those rapping in Arabic and breakdancing weren't too bad, even though certain moves made me cringe. But it was all in good fun, and we ended up being entertained.
It does take courage to go on stage and be judged. I would never do it myself, even though I was a bit of a breakdancer back in the day.
During a commercial break, one friend from France asked why so many contestants dance in this style. I joked: "Maybe because we can't dance ballet."
But besides the nationalities of those involved, there weren't many "Arabic" elements to the show. The more I thought about it, the more I asked myself what exactly would be considered an "Arabic" performance. Arabic music? Arabic traditional dance? A sword fight?
History is full of Middle Eastern singers, poets, jesters and dancers, many of whom were given royal treatment as they resided in a ruler's court. Ibrahim al Mausili (742-804) remained a favourite singer of his time, kept in the court of the fifth Abbasid caliph, Harun al Rashid, until his death.
The tradition of favouring performers eventually phased out with modern times, however, a fact that brings up another major question, and one that the judges debated among themselves: what exactly is the definition of talent?
A Jordanian boy played a beautiful, nostalgic, traditional Arabic melody on his violin, and was booted out. Only one of the three judges, the popular Lebanese singer Najwa Karam, wanted to keep him in the competition. The other two, both journalists and media figures, said it wasn't talent and that it was "boring".
Poor kid. I wasn't the only one to feel sorry for him - other performers and viewers supported him.
Being a journalist myself, I am not sure I would appreciate being judged by other media figures concerning entrainment-related attributes. This is one of the criticisms of the show by viewers, as the show's Facebook page shows. My friends and I didn't agree with most of the comments by the two media judges, the Egyptian talk show host Amr Adeeb and the Lebanese journalist Ali Jaber.
But then again, it's good to have different opinions. Mr Adeeb was the more impulsive and comical judge, while Mr Jaber was less expressive and hard to please. Personally, since Ms Karam has been in the entertainment business for 26 years, I respected her views the most. She also happened to be the most gracious of the judges.
Ultimately, the best part about the competition was giving young and old a chance to express themselves. Stuffy businessmen were letting loose, skidding across the floor; parents watched their children perform with great pride and anxiety; Arab women broke stereotypes with their breakdancing.
This show is just one of many recently launched targeting Arab youth. When I was growing up, there was no such thing. We all watched western shows with western youth and values. So no wonder the contestants were copying western talents and western icons, as that is mainly what they grew up on.
What I like the most about the show is the fact it is in Arabic. Not only do we get to watch Arabs do the strangest things with their bodies, but we get to hear the different accents and certain Arabic words. Many of us in the new generation have forgotten what they mean.
*Published in the UAE-based THE NATIONAL on Jan. 20, 2011