In the blinking lights of one of the most popular pubs in downtown Beirut, groups of young men and women enjoyed contemporary Lebanese folk songs. They danced, waved, nodded along and sang to lively beats.
“We don’t want our daughters to work with the degrees they have earned,” one of the songs, “Jumhuriyyit Albi” -- "The Republic of My Heart" -- by Mohammed Iskandar, played. The young people -- males and females -- danced along with the tune.
Whenever the disc jockey stopped the music for a few moments, the dancers chanted loudly, filling in for the singer; they have memorized the tune and lyrics of the song, which had been playing continuously on Lebanese radio stations.
In Iskandar’s previous work, “Quli Bihibni” ("Say That He Loves Me"), his breakthrough hit, the singer orders his female partner not to answer her phone when alone and says that he would shoot whoever comes near her.
Sociologist Sevag Hagopian filed a legal complaint against Iskandar’s first hit, charging that the song was both violent and offensive to women. The prosecutor forwarded the case to Lebanon's General Security office, where the complaint was dismissed. Various women's rights institutions and groups in Lebanon echoed Hagopian’s concerns.
Iskandar’s popularity represents a new wave of songs that have recently topped the Lebanese charts and that include violent or offensive lyrics, especially toward women.
Badi, a Lebanese pop star, sings one such example. “Who would dare come close to you?” his song dramatically says. “Tell me his name. I’ll chop his head off. He’ll be a lesson for all.”
The attractive tunes, inspired by Lebanese folk music, allow the lyrics to transcend the minds of the listeners quite easily, said Ketty Sarouphim, a psychologist and Lebanese American University associate professor.
Sarouphim admits that she wasn't aware of the existence of the songs in the national music industry. When she heard the lyrics, she tilted back a little, raised her eyebrows and shook her head.
“It’s more dangerous when it’s in a form of a song than when you read it,” Sarouphim said. “Because you repeat the songs, not only do you memorize the information, but you believe in it. It’s a double whammy; it acts on both sides.”
The right side of the brain’s hemisphere manages music, Sarouphim explained. The lyrics and language, on the other hand, are on the left side.
“When you combine them, you make the whole brain active,” Sarouphim said.
Once emotions are activated due to activity in the left side of the brain, the lyrics become more effective in emphasizing the message, she said. In the case of the songs, she said, the message is that violence is acceptable in selected circumstances.
In the fall of 2010, a group of Lebanese activists launched Kherrberr (Arabic for "Dental Drill,") the first media monitoring system that aims to remove sexist and racist biases from the media.
Kherrberr blames radio stations’ profit-oriented management for the growing popularity of violent and sexist songs.
“They (radio stations) probably just want to collect profit and play the popular songs,” the Kherrberr team said via e-mail. “They say, 'This is what the audience wants,’ and we say, ‘This is what you make them want.’”
Pop artist May Matar responded to Iskandar’s “The Republic of My Heart,” with a song called “Metlak Mish ‘Ayzin” ("We Do Not Want Men Like You").
“We have cultured men of whom we are proud,” Matar said. “They understand the value of education.”
“The main message in my song was to say that women have come to a level that no man can destroy, and that education is something that a man shouldn’t refuse for his wife,” Matar added. “Women are strong and can speak for themselves.”
Matar said she is against all violent songs, whether or not they are addressed against women.
And yet, one of the popular songs with violent lyrics comes from a woman -- pop star Nawal Al Zoghbi. “I will kill whoever thinks of hurting you,” the star sings in a 2008 piece, “Albi Sa’alo” ("Ask My Heart") by Mounir Abu Assaf.
Despite opposition to the songs, radio stations haven't cut back on playing them. Television channels also haven't refrained from airing the related video clips.
Iskandar continues to sing his songs in concerts in front of receptive crowds.
Fares Iskandar, who writes the lyrics of his father’s songs, refused to comment on the issue. He has publicly rebuffed accusations of misogynistic intentions.
“Iskandar is an intelligent man,” Mohammed Hodeib, the founder and leading member of Wled El Balad band, said. “We should direct the blame to ourselves and be sad that we are applauding songs of such a standard.”