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    Tuesday, October 28, 2008

    In this car, we drink Coke, listen to Nancy and despair for the future

    By car from Irbil to Zakho, Iraq – Friday, Oct. 24

    Perhaps the greatest debate gripping the Middle East has nothing to do with either the future of Iraq or the Israel-Palestine peace process. What really gets the locals agitated is a discussion of the comparative merits of the two pop vixens of the Arab world. Think Britney versus Christina, without the K-Fed subplot and the public breakdowns.

    Nancy Ajram
    (the one on the left in the pic) is a 25-year-old pouty-lipped Lebanese singer who has won acclaim as the Madonna of the Arab world after a string of hit singles dating back seven years as well as racy (for this region) music videos. Her climb to fame accelerated a few years back when she became the Middle Eastern face of Coca-Cola. She sings and shimmies in almost every Coke ad broadcast on television in this region, and her face appears on every can.

    Nancy's nemesis is Haifa Wehbe, also from Lebanon, who became a sensation by out-sexing her rival on satellite music channels, triggering a series scandals in the Arab that have been exacerbated by the fact Haifa is Shia Muslim (unlike Nancy, who is Maronite Christian). In one notorious clip, Haifa appeared in a wet red bathing suit that clung revealingly to her curvaceous form. The 32-year-old's saucy image provoked the Islamist-dominated parliament of Bahrain to pass a motion earlier this year calling for her concert in the country to be cancelled.

    Her rivalry with Nancy is such that Haifa has been made the aluminum face of Pepsi, meaning the two stars stare lustily at each other inside convenience store refrigerators around the region.

    "Nancy can sing, Haifa's just a body," Sherzad, my cheerful translator offered when I asked which side of the great divide he fell on. There's some truth to that – Nancy shot to fame after singing in and winning a televised talent show. Haifa's big break was being named runner up in the Miss Lebanon contest and then being selected by People Magazine as one of the world's 50 most beautiful people.

    To be fair, Sherzad isn't really Haifa's type. She's made it clear she's not into nice guys like him, having made headlines in recent years by performing with rapper 50 Cent and endorsing Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah following the 2006 war with Israel.

    Nancy, meanwhile, stands on the other side of the great Lebanese divide (one that reflects the split across the entire Middle East) having written a song mourning the 2005 murder of the country's popular former prime minister, Rafiq Hariri, and endorsing Lebanon's pro-Western "Cedar Revolution." Much more Sherzad's type, frankly.

    So we listened to Nancy Ajram as we plunged westward through Iraqi Kurdistan, heading for the Turkish border. But my impending departure was making Sherzad morose, despite the upbeat pop coming from the car stereo.

    “You're lucky. You get to leave tomorrow. We have to stay here,” he moaned. “Maybe God will punish me when I die for not having done anything with my life.”

    I told him that I hoped to come back in five years time and to see him happy, perhaps in an independent Kurdistan.

    “That needs to happen,” he said. “Either we separate from Baghdad, or there will be civil war with the Kurds fighting the Sunnis and Shiites.”

    I had no retort. We drove in silence for the next while, listening as Nancy cheerfully sing of love and hope.

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