Perwas Hussein: the challenges of a Kurdish singer on Arab Idol


Kurdish flag waves in the audience during Perwas's performance

Last night’s episode of Arab Idol brought more than flashy dresses and big voices to the stage. As the number of contestants dwindles down and each singer can taste victory, one Kurdish woman by the name of Perwas Hussein wowed the judges and made the crowd go wild when she (if I’m following my pop Arab culture correctly) qualified for the final round. And yet with her sweet victory came a very bitter slight from one of the judges. Ahlam Al Shamsi is a Khaleeji artist who has been a judge on Arab Idol for quite some time. Judging seems to have gone to her head, however, because Ahlam seems to think she knows more about where Perwas is from than Perwas does herself.

Take this socially sanctioned opportunity to watch the following clip from Arab Idol’s episode on April 12, where Perwas sang in Kurdish for the first time.

All of the judges react with half shock, half awe, that there are languages in the Middle East other than Arabic (and yet contestants are often required to sing in English or French). Even the words “Kurdish” and “Kurdistan” flow awkwardly off their tongue, as if they think they’re breaking some taboo and rebelling against such Arab conventions. One of the other judges, Nancy Ajram, says she wants to sing in Perwas’s language but stumbles at just saying the word “Kurdish”. Another judge, Ragheb Alama has to fill in for her, and he seems to be the most enthusiastic about affirming Perwas’s Kurdish identity. Perwas is exotic, cheered for her culture, although she is also an incredibly talented singer. Ragheb Alama talks about the important role she fills as bridging the gap between Kurdish and Arab music, and Perwas’s beautiful performance in Kurdish even drew the attention of Al Arabiya.

And yet Ahlam remained resistant. She never talks about Perwas’s Kurdishness, and even from this earlier show, Ahlam says Perwas is from Iraq and not Kurdistan. And now, last night she furthered the insult by telling Perwas that she shouldn’t even identify as being from Kurdistan but from Iraq, erasing her heritage and pride in one fell swoop, that Kurdistan should not be a part of Perwas’s identification on Arab Idol.

Ahlam’s comments created a huge drama across several social media sites. The #twitterkurds community engaged in a lively debate about whether Perwas, as a Kurdish woman, should have participated in a show called Arab Idol anyway. The Arabization of Kurdish culture has long been used as a tactical means by groups in power to erase the Kurdish identity. But some argued on the other side, that Perwas’s stunning performance was a way to show Kurdish pride to the entire Middle East, and brought the beauty of the Kurdish language right into the living rooms of millions of viewers.

Outside of the #twitterkurds conversations, people tweeted their opinions about the Ahlam comments, ranging from confusion about the significance of what Ahlam had said, some comments about a lack of knowledge of Kurdish issues and their reactions to their first time hearing the Kurdish language. Of course, there was also the casual racism common among Arabs. One tweet in particular expressed a thought that many Arabs echoed across Twitter:

“So why was she even accepted to begin with, its called ARAB IDOL and she doesn’t even speak Arabic!”

As disgusting as that kind of sentiment is, the denial of Kurdish songs has a long and oppressive history. In December of 2011, a Kurdish singer was arrested in Turkey merely for singing a song in Kurdish. And in a Turkish nightclub that same month, a man was shot eight times for merely requesting a Kurdish song.

Perwas is in a position to do important things, should she choose to accept that responsibility. Arabs are so underexposed to Kurdish issues, to the Kurdish culture and language. We should be celebrating the richness of the Middle East, not hiding it under a rug. At the same time, Arabs should never expect Kurds to expose themselves to hostile situations in order to “give us their culture” or that we have a right to access one of the most powerful forms of Kurdish resistance just because we like it. Music can be a revolutionary act when it is used a means to preserve the values of a people. The songs of Kurdistan could teach Arabs a lot about the Kurdish struggle, if we keep our ears and hearts open.

As a response to the wave of outrage across several social media networks, including one campaign that said “If Kurdistan is Iraq, then Palestine is Israel”, which solicited a strong reaction from Ahlam herself, Ahlam published an official apology on her Facebook page, where said that she meant no harm or prejudice to the Kurds. The apology, while it seems sincere, also displays the ignorance that many Arabs have about how meaningful the Kurdish identity is. After decades of oppression from almost every major Arab government, Kurds cling to their language, their culture, and their music because that is what preserves them as a people. Through her comments, Ahlam revealed that Arabs see the Kurdish issue as a mere political scuffle, limited to Iraq, and not as a widespread struggle for existence and autonomy. But she couldn’t have been prejudiced – Ahlam has Kurdish friends.

On that note, here’s another gratuitious Perwas Hussein video. I’m cheering for you, Perwas!