It would not instantly occur to many that country music might be a useful component of an American hearts and minds campaign in the Middle East. Country is generally – though not always accurately, as Steve Earle, for one, would protest – associated with conservatism and patriotism. Since September 11 2001 in particular, mainstream country has indulged in a somewhat off-putting degree of flag-waving sentimentality (Alan Jackson’s “Where Were You When The World Stopped Turning?”) and/or snarling belligerence (Toby Keith’s “Courtesy Of The Red White & Blue”, which warned any putative foes that “you’ll be sorry you messed with the US of A/We’ll put a boot in your ass, it’s the American way”).
Country music might therefore have remained an unlikely export to the Middle East, were it not for Kareem Salama, a definitive only-in-America story. An Oklahoma-born Muslim of Egyptian descent, now a Texas-based country singer, Salama has just returned from a four-week tour of seven Middle Eastern nations, taking in such unlikely destinations as Damascus, Kuwait City, Jerusalem and the West Bank cities of Ramallah, Nablus and Hebron.
“It went way better than expected,” says Salama. “We did wonder if anybody would get the music, whether people would understand the lyrics, but they were really receptive, to the point that we’re going to include the Middle East in our marketing for our next album.”
Salama’s trip was funded by the US State Department: an exercise in what is known as cultural diplomacy. All countries do this to an extent, to court trade and tourism and accrue influence. For America in the Middle East, though, it requires delicate handling.
“We never hide what we’re doing,” says Colombia Barrosse, director of the State Department’s Cultural Programmes Division. “We’re very open about our sponsorship, because events like this are intended to be a platform for dialogue, not propaganda.”
Critics of American foreign policy in the last decade especially have been fond of noting – and not altogether without reason – that the US has an unhelpful tendency to regard the Middle East as a monolith: an unvarying bloc of hostility and resentment.
Equally, however, any amount of travel in the Middle East will reveal that Arabs often make a similar error in their judgements of the United States, perceiving the vast, diverse nation and the 300 million people in it as a single, swaggering cowboy. If Salama has persuaded even a few people that there is more going on under the 10-gallon than they might have imagined, his has been an effort worth making.
“A lot of people told me it wouldn’t work,” says Salama. “But the authenticity of a human being just turning up can pierce through a lot of baggage.”