Visual Odes to the MENA Diaspora

The opening for ‘Territory’
“In [the] news, the Arab is always shown in large numbers. No individuality, no personal characteristics or experiences.” -Edward Said

The Middle East North Africa (MENA) diaspora constitutes one of the largest migrations en masse in recent history. Despite this, most depictions of the diaspora in western media are of fringe violent radicals and psychologically sick individuals. What members of the MENA diaspora are told time and again by the societies in which they reside is that there is simply no room for their stories. The Blaze’s videos change that by giving us an indelibly real depiction of MENA life.

The Blaze (French slang for “name”) is an electronic outfit comprised of a musician-director duo based out of Paris, France. They have just released their first EP, called Territory. They have released only two videos, one for their single Territory and one for their single Virile, almost a year apart from one another.

In interviews, the duo have said that they wished to create videos that celebrate the platonic love between men and explore the emotional complexity of returning home. The videos they’ve created are visceral and poetic. They know that there is no better cultural medium to portray themes like placelessness and homecomings than with stories of the MENA diaspora.

Territory and Virile are composed of the minutiae of everyday Arab Muslim life, both in and outside the homeland. These images have the power to be both comforting and subversive, which is the world in which all MENA people reside. You can view both videos below.

Mainstream French media have received The Blaze’s work positively. However, this positive reception is not without problematic and damaging attitudes. The French publication Apar, in singing its praises for the Territory music video, said “[t]he main actor, Dali Benssalah, (who has nothing to envy Tahar Rahim since he will soon dethrone him on the big screen) offers a breathtaking performance.” This is extremely troubling. This statement, while complimentary to Bensallah’s compelling performance, implies that there can only be one Muslim Arab actor in France.

This type of tokenism is all too familiar among minorities. Usually tokenism manifests itself in insidious ways, and its roots are partly in mainstream media’s inability to see their own prejudices. But for a publication to so openly and casually pit two talented actors against one another simply because of their ethnicity, and then conclude that we can’t have both, means not only that they aware of their prejudices, but that they are also fine with it. This is one of the many ways the mainstream media limits our stories. (Not to mention it would be a terrible loss not to have both Rahim and Bensallah in more films, they are both a joy to watch.)

While Apar did a lovely job describing the emotive effects of the video, it was superficial at best. Their comment about tokenizing Muslim Arab actors is a sign that the author lacked any meaningful perspective. Yes, it is valuable that The Blaze’s videos can provide universally enjoyable experiences. Part of art and especially music’s purpose is to bring people together. But that is only one piece of a much larger and more meaningful story.

Territory follows the return of one man, actor Dali Bensallah, to his home in Algiers, Algeria. This is a story near and dear to many of the MENA diaspora, myself included. Territory shows that MENA life allows men to be masculine in a way that is practically forbidden in the West, it depicts the deeply matriarchal nature of life there, and it seamlessly interweaves the holy with the base. Outside of the MENA community, these depictions will likely discomfort, confuse, or surprise viewers, either implicitly or explicitly.

And this is, in part, the reason this video is so important. These depictions are honest and common narratives in MENA life, it evokes deep nostalgia when members of the diaspora view it. It creates a sense of belonging within the placelessness. It also acts as a valuable cultural tool, exposing sheltered western viewers to a life they so rarely see. They get to be shocked, to feel beauty, or to question their preconceived notions of MENA lives.

أهلا وسهلا (ahlan wa sahlan)

Ahlan wa sahlan. This is how we say hello. It means “you have found your home, you have found your family”, and is used to welcome both family and strangers alike. This is how Territory greets us, with Bensallah finding his home and his family once again. And in another way, Territory greets us with a man openly in tears, being embraced by another man. This type of affection is commonplace among men in MENA.

We see this closeness again in a later scene; the camera pans over young male faces sitting together, relaxing, and smoking. Their closeness, arms around one another, hands resting on another’s knee, is a natural part of their friendship. However, this type of affection is likely surprising or discomforting to those outside of the MENA community.

Bensallah is then embraced by his entire family, and the camera provides special focus on the women. We then see Bensallah sleeping on the floor of his grandmothers’ room, with the rest of the children. Some children are even sleeping in the matriarchs’ beds with them. We also see Bensallah embracing his mother, the camera focused on their faces. These shots act as a reminder of the power of family, and more specifically, the power of older women in MENA households.

Friends in prayer
Same friends, dancing

We see Bensallah and his friends on a rooftop dancing what seems to be through morning and night. We also see his friends on a rooftop praying, likely the Fajr prayer (at dawn). We can note Bensallah’s figure sitting to the side, watching his friends kneel in sajda position. He participates even though he is not praying, and he is not ostracized because of it.

These activities, dancing and praying, both holy and base, exist in the film on the same elevated plane. They both hold equal significance in their lives. It is this complex, multifaceted existence that western media do not concern themselves with when depicting our stories.

The only time we see acts of violence in Territory, they are used as acts of dance. This in and of itself is a revolutionary depiction of a Muslim Arab man in western media. No one is violent toward one another, and when there is an appearance of violence, it is all in play. Both times of play fight are to the beat of the music and are more dance used as a means of connection than actual acts of aggression and isolation.

The final shots act as a synthesis of the trip home and of life in the homeland. We see in its single shot scene, the camera reveals the world in which Bensallah exists, layer after layer. First we see him, then we see his father, then we see the matriarchs, his home, his friends, and finally the children he plays with. Each layer is holding him exactly as he is.

Virile’s story is a foil to Territory’s. Where Territory was set in the homeland, Algiers, Virile is set in a Parisian suburb. Where the protagonist in Territory was surrounded by family and friends, the protagonist in Virile is isolated except for one other person. This video yet again depicts an aspect of the MENA experience.

The isolation in Virile is palpable. The room is sparse, the walls are a stark white. The only furniture to speak of is a chair, a music station, and a mattress. The decorations are just as sparse. We can see a tapestry, a small painting of a camel, and a poster of Muhammad Ali’s breakthrough fight against George Foreman. My father, a Muslim Arab American from Egypt, also keeps that poster up in his office.

There is little connection to the outside world. The story seems to be telling us that the only connection they need is in one another, and in the music. The large windows taking up the wall further isolates us by showing that they are surrounded by anonymous, identical flats. And as the camera pans out in its final shots, we see only that they are in a flat in a nameless European place.

There is a hamsa on his laptop, just like the hamsa Bensallah wore around his neck in the Territory video. The hamsa (meaning ‘five’ in Arabic) holds mystical significance in Middle Eastern art, and is a connection to a much deeper pre-Islamic history.

In one way, this isolation is universal. There is very little that he needs on his journey to success. Most of us leave home to create our own happiness, and in the long interim between leaving our family and potentially achieving success, we are alone. However, the isolation depicted in Virile is the type of isolation that only immigrants can experience.

This isolation is further compounded by mainstream culture’s rejection and ignorance of the MENA population. In recent years, a wave of anti-Islamic rhetoric has swept the western world. These men live in a country full of people who hate them and people like them. Despite this, there is nothing but joy and love between them.

Using dancing and play-fighting to convey the emotional connections between men is a common theme in these videos.

If the power came from one individual within his life’s story in Territory, the power in Virile comes from the connection the two characters share. Where Bensallah was shadowboxing dancing and only touched his friends in loving ways, here the men play fight and are playful with each other in a way that was not seen in Territory.

While this type of life may seem commonplace to many non-western cultures and therefore not necessarily as revolutionary as I make it out to be, it is important that these stories are being told for Muslim Arabs, who are degraded so frequently and denied their own complete stories so often that hatred and discrimination are a normal part of life. It is refreshing to see universal stories of love and longing through the eyes of the Other.

These stories are stories of everyday Arab Muslim life, and in that way it is overwhelmingly familiar to those in the MENA community; but it also acts as subversive storytelling for those outside of the community. The stories told in Territory and Virile have the capacity to be both familiar and shocking at the same time. To one viewer, it is an all too familiar experience of returning home. To another viewer, it is a portrait of a brown man who has emotions, shares them openly, and isn’t afraid to hug another man. As members of the MENA diaspora, we must inhabit both worlds.

As anti-Muslim and anti-Arab political rhetoric is on the rise, narratives like the ones in The Blaze’s videos are all the more important to share.

Anti-Muslim and anti-Arab rhetoric is on the rise globally. In America, voters found Trump appealing for his “no-nonsense” approach and his eschewing of “political correctness”. However, this no-nonsense approach relies in large part on unmitigated hatred of non-white people, including — in large part — Arab Muslims. He has used this discrimination to influence his foreign policy, most notably placing an illegal ban on people from certain predominantly Muslim countries.

In The Blaze’s home country, the National Front has been gaining traction for many years. Last week, the country chose Le Pen as one of the final two candidates for president. This means that a significant portion of French voters considered Le Pen’s brand of anti-Muslim, anti-Arab rhetoric and liked it. While a large portion of the country finds Le Pen’s hateful approach to leadership appealing, it is a relief to note that Paris voters chose Macron and Mélenchon over Le Pen in every district.

As anti-Muslim, anti-Arab political rhetoric is on the rise, narratives like the ones in The Blaze’s videos are all the more important to share. The group’s music videos are more than just beautifully shot evocative pieces of art. They are an ode to the MENA diaspora experience, a story that has been time and again summarily discounted and overlooked.

These videos can be placed into a larger movement centered around sharing the realities of the greater Middle East, North Africa, South Asia (MENASA) diaspora, both through sharing struggles faced by minority groups and through telling universal stories . A popular example of this larger movement is the hip hop group Swet Shop Boys. The members embody the diversity within the movement. However, this movement is still too small; we deserve more narratives from the MENASA diaspora.

The members of The Blaze themselves keep a relatively low profile, choosing instead to let their music and videos speak for themselves. The stories that they share are a valuable addition to a larger conversation happening among young creators. They are on tour this summer.