Spotlight is a newsletter about underreported cultural trends and news from around the world, emailed to subscribers every Monday. Sign up here.
The Middle East might have been late to the Johnny Depp-Amber Heard trial, but when the infamous tribunal arrived on TV screens and 4G networks from Morocco to the Gulf, it made a grand entrance. The memes, the puns and the edited videos were unsurprisingly over the top, dubbing Arab humor and culture for some of the case’s details.
Opinions on the trial and verdict differed, but not in the way they have in the West. In the Middle East, Depp is by far the favorite, the winner, the chosen one. Middle Eastern men from different ethnic backgrounds, religions, sects of the same religion, tribes from different regions, tribes from the same region and political ideologies all stood behind this unlikely hero. In my lifetime, I have never seen Arab men this united in spirit with one man since Gamal Abdel Nasser.
I highly doubt the actor known for his exotic characters like Edward Scissorhands anticipated his new role as an idol for legions of oppressed Middle Eastern men who have long awaited a hero to save them from the intrigue of women. This would be funny if it weren’t so tragic.
First of all, this essay is not about the verdict, nor is it in any way a defense of Amber Heard or critique of Johnny Depp. A jury made its decisions and a judge accepted.
On Twitter, @DailyJulianne compiled a thread of all the male celebrities who were called out, accused or found guilty of some kind of abuse toward women and the consequences they faced. Virtually none. Back to the Middle East, where it gets more confusing. If in the West there are rare cases in which the #MeToo movement has unfairly indicted men or stories that have proven to be perhaps not as black and white as Harvey Weinstein’s reign of horror, in the Middle East those do not exist. Men do not face accountability or retaliation for any mistreatment of women. On the contrary, all women are guilty of manipulation until proven worthy. The presumptions are summarized in the word “kayd” — possibly the most exhausted word associated with women.
Roughly translating to a combination of slyness, manipulation, shrewdness and intent to cause harm, kayd — which I’ll use in its literary form — wasn’t arbitrarily assigned to women. Its basis can be found in the Quran in the story of Joseph and Zulaikha, when the latter falsely accuses the Prophet of trying to assault her. The verse “their kayd is great,” which was used to describe her manipulation, has been appropriated and generalized. It is now a prejudgment for all intentions and actions of women in society. I don’t want to exaggerate and say that presuming a woman has the worst intentions happens daily or for everything. But it is common enough to be considered more a fact than a presumption. So all women are Eve or Zulaikha if they claim wrongdoing by a man, until proven otherwise. And if they prove otherwise they are still guilty and stigmatized.
Of course this is not exclusive to Muslims, as the discourse also appears in both Judaism and Christianity. However, it is not patronizing to acknowledge that in the Middle East the “kayd factor” is stronger. For one, marital rape is at least a crime in some states (though not all) in America and overall accepted as something not to do in the West. In the Middle East the crime does not exist in many countries, and some religious texts have even been used to justify coercing women into sex.
So, what justice are Middle Eastern men seeking exactly? The most women have done since the #MeToo movement reached the region is use social media to document cases of harassment and abuse, mostly to no avail. That has been apparently traumatizing for some men despite no man having been “canceled” over it. On cancel culture, and sticking to the celebrity theme, besides artists who are forcibly canceled by authorities because of political views, I can think of only two cases where the public decided that the artist involved should no longer have a career.
The first case is that of Egyptian performer and bellydancer Dina, who was filmed (unaware) by her then husband (now ex) during sex. Later, he leaked the tape, causing a scandal of huge proportions. Dina was mocked and scorned for years. She maintained that she was unaware of the filming, and even though that was eventually proven to be true, the stigma around her persisted. Years later when she mustered enough courage to appear on a talk show, she reiterated that was betrayed and that she was the victim. Dina’s career gradually came back to life, but she reached nothing close to the stardom she once had.
The other case of cancellation was of the musician Fadel Shaker. Once his generation’s crooner, whose love songs filled radio and TV airways with hit after hit, Shaker broke bad and was found guilty of terrorism in a Lebanese tribunal. The accusations were serious, including funding and carrying out acts of terror.
Another Lebanese crooner, Wael Kfouri, was unscathed, however, following accusations of severely beating his wife. His career is still thriving. Hussein Fahmy, an iconic Egyptian actor, was accused of abusing his then-wife, a blind Saudi Arabian businesswoman. She divorced him, then he remarried and divorced again for the seventh time, his stardom never fading.
The most recent case study of Middle East and North African men getting away with abuse, and perhaps the most unsettling, is that of Moroccan singer Sa’ad Lamjarrad. The 28-year-old singer quickly won hearts with his catchy tunes, strong vocals, witty dance moves and innocent good looks. He is accused of rape on four different continents. In the U.S., he is still wanted for trial. Lamjarrad still makes hits and still headlines his own shows, most recently in Baghdad, where he is expected to perform soon. The modest social media campaign to stop him has been largely ignored by concert organizers and society as a whole except for a small circle of activists. Lamjarrad is so secure in his career that the Lebanese superstar and self-proclaimed feminist Elissa recently joined him in recording a duet. The disappointment in Elissa was once again limited to an online campaign that quickly died.
So what do men in the Middle East fear exactly? Hashtags? Why was Johnny Depp’s victory relatable to them when they have never had to stand trial? Will Amber Heard be added to Eve and Zulaikha as another guilty both before and after being proven otherwise? Most important, will the defamation trial held in Fairfax, Virginia, have an impact on the court of public opinion in the Middle East? Will Sa’ad Lamajarrad soon be a symbol of male empowerment?