'An Earthquake That Shifted the World Around Us'

The members of Dark2Men rap about faith, problems faced by young Saudis and their dreams for the group's future. They auditioned for a hip-hop competition on MTV Arabia and performed at the finale last month in Dubai.Video by Faiza Ambah/The Washington Post
By Faiza Saleh Ambah
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, March 7, 2008

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates -- Even before they stepped onstage at the MTV Arabia competition finale, members of the Saudi hip-hop group Dark2Men knew they would not win.

The contestants were to be judged on their lyrics, stage presence and performance, but Dark2Men had never performed in public because of strict social and religious codes in their native Saudi Arabia that ban nightclubs, concerts and theaters. The seven other finalists, from the less restrictive Arab countries of Egypt, Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates, had rapped live for years.

But backstage before the show, one of the show's co-hosts told the contestants something that made Dark2Men's impending loss seem like victory, the members said. "He said no matter what happened in the competition, we would go down in history when they wrote the book about Arab hip-hop," said Hani Zain, 27, who raps in Arabic for the group.

An Egyptian won the competition, which is being broadcast this month, but the three men of Dark2Men said their lives had been transformed by the experience in ways they had not imagined.

"It was an earthquake that shifted the world around us," said Tamer Farhan, 24, who raps in English. "It gave meaning to all the hardships we faced to get here."

Saudi Arabia, home to Islam's holiest shrines, follows a stringent form of Islam that prohibits alcohol and the mingling of unrelated men and women. The conservative kingdom does not allow the study of music in schools, and many Saudis consider careers in acting, singing or dancing as shameful.

But the advent of satellite television channels such as MTV Arabia, which was launched in the Emirates in November, and social networking Web sites have made it easier for young people to pursue interests deemed contrary to the country's tradition and culture.

The Dark2Men members, for example, met up on a rap Web site and compose their music using online programs. They have posted several songs on YouTube and have a Facebook site.

But even as they rap in praise of Islam and their mothers, and against the war in Iraq and terrorism, their biggest hurdle has been convincing family, friends and Saudi society that they are not simply trying to imitate a decadent Western lifestyle.

Since winning the MTV Arabia hip-hop audition in January, they have struggled with fiancees unhappy about the attention garnered by their television appearances broadcast across the Arab world, bosses angry about their extended leaves from work, and fathers worried that their sons would leave stable jobs and become entertainers.

For a week last month in Dubai, they forgot those pressures as they danced until dawn at nightclubs, stared wide-eyed at a fancy restaurant's glass-enclosed cold room full of wine and champagne bottles, and learned how to move onstage.

Maan Mansour, 25, who sings in Arabic and English and had never traveled outside of Saudi Arabia, said he developed a passion for performing. "There's this unique feeling you get right before you go onstage that's fear and excitement," he said. "Then as soon as you put your foot on that first step, it's as if a cascade of cool water washes over your chest, and it's amazing."

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