Last updated: March 18, 2014

The Arab world is dancing. Because they’re happy.

Banner Icon People from all over the Arab world turn their streets into a stage. They dance, clap along and celebrate. You wonder why? Because they are happy.

When you hear the term “Arab world” these days, what comes to mind? Unrest, struggle for democracy, violence? You might think as well of social tensions, religious conflicts, or the ongoing fight for women’s rights.

You can try as hard as possible not to fall into the media’s trap which provides us every day with headlines about protests, clashes or economic problems in Arab countries. You can be as well informed as possible about cultural activities and positive developments in these countries – the images of angry protesters, people suffering from poverty and corruption and the feeling of instability still bob up in many minds immediately.

"Men and women, young and old, veiled women and girls without hijab, children, business men in suits and hipsters – they all dance together

But now these images are being challenged: Arabs strike back.

From the Gulf to North Africa, from monarchies like Morocco and Jordan over rich oil-states such as the UAE to the transitional states of the Arab uprisings, people in the region oppose the negative image, pessimistic headlines and skeptical mood of their countries. Their message is simple and powerful at the same time, as well as the way they communicate it: dancing through the streets of their cities, they make clear: “We are happy”.

With Pharrell Williams’ international chart-topping song “Happy” as soundtrack, people in Jordan, Tunisia, Egypt, Algeria and many other Arab countries turn the streets and places of their cities into a stage. They dance, clap their hands, laugh and celebrate – men and women, young and old, veiled women and girls without hijab, children, business men in suits and hipsters – they all dance together.

The clips have been going viral on social media in the recent two months, and the so-called “Happy-movement” continues. Every week, new versions and imitations of Williams’ famous video which reached more than 94 million views appear on YouTube, each of them presenting a city’s or a country’s version of happiness.

One of the first Arab “Happy”-videos was uploaded on January 3 and comes from Tunisia. It shows happiness in the streets of Bizerte, the country’s northernmost city. Tunisia, in 2011 celebrated as the “cradle of the Arab Spring”, has been struggling with ongoing political and economic problems in the recent years. The happiness of the dancers might be a surprise to some observers – this surprising effect is one of the reasons for its enormous success. Even the Tunisian Online newspaper Tunisia Live titled in January: “You might not guess it (…) but Tunisia is happy”.

“Happy - We are from Bizerta” has reached more than 200.000 views on YouTube and opened the way for a never-ending wave of happiness: With more than 17 “Happy” versions, Tunisia belongs to the countries with the largest contribution to the worldwide Happy phenomenon. Whether Pharrell Williams intended it or not, he created a global movement: In almost 500 videos from 71 countries (to date), people celebrate and show their happiness.

To what extend the “Happy”-movement has impact on a country’s mood became visible when Pharrell Williams himself tweeted the Tunisian video “Happy – We are from Tatooine”, a version of his smash hit in Star Wars-style. The video, directed by Mohamed Arbi Soualhia and uploaded on March 6, reached more than one million views in only one week.

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Tunisian media interpreted Williams’ tweet as advertisement for the country whose tourism sector has been suffering in the recent years, due to the negative impact of the country’s instability on the image of Tunisia as tourism destination. In social media, Tunisians shared, liked and celebrated the recognition of a Tunisian video clip by one of the world’s most famous and successful artists.

Similar to Tunisia, the Egyptian version of “Happy” might be a surprise to some spectators: Egypt, isn’t that the country which has witnessed ongoing waves of violence and clashes since 2011? Isn’t it facing one of the hardest economic periods in history, accompanied by ideological conflicts between Islamists, secularists and other groups?

It is the sad truth that only few people from outside the country make the effort to look behind those headlines. International media covered the Egyptian street art and graffiti scene as well as the growing movie scene, but the majority of this coverage has somehow been related to politics and social issues. And now we see Egyptians, dancing and joking in the streets of Cairo and in front of the pyramids, embracing life, celebrating their city and spreading their good mood.

"In times of a battle over the dominance of this public space, the Happy movement comes along in an inoffensive, almost charming way, without any aggressive touch

You might think now: Okay, so Tunisians and Egyptians are happy despite the problems they have to face in their countries currently, but what’s the big deal about it?

The Arab contribution to the global “Happy”-movement is about more than just dancing in the streets: It is about re-conquering the public space in countries where the decision who and what is allowed to be visible and hearable is very often limited to a repressive ruling elite and to social restrictions.

The phenomenon of re-conquering and re-structuring public space has been visible in many Arab countries in the last three years. In times of a battle over the dominance of this public space, the “Happy” movement comes along in an inoffensive, almost charming way, without any aggressive touch – and this is what makes it so powerful.

Looking at a country such as Morocco, where people demand reforms from their ruling elites and where social transformation processes are taking place as well, occupying the streets of Marrakech, Casablanca and Rabat is a sign of self-confidence of the citizens, of their desire to be visible and of their demand for personal freedom of expression. A creative, dynamic and stylish youth conquers the public space and turns it into their personal stage, demanding it in a peaceful and joyful way.

The Lebanese version does not only show people dancing on the streets of Beirut, but also in nightclubs and shopping malls. Employees of restaurants switch from work to dance; children join the dance as well as Lebanese living abroad. The Jordanian “Happy” video shows all generations celebrating, demonstrating solidarity and individuality at the same time. A breakdancer performs in front of antique ruins; elder gentlemen wearing traditional clothes enjoy their performance in a way that forces the spectator to share their good mood.

Instead of headlines, abstract political information or figures, the “Happy” videos show human beings with smiling faces, dancing and embracing life. The videos provide space for individuality, imperfection, humor and self-confidence. The message of the people appearing in the clips might sound simple, but it is a powerful one: They insist to be happy. Clap along.

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Katharina Pfannkuch
Katharina Pfannkuch is a German freelance journalist who contributes to ZEIT online and SPIEGEL. She focuses on cultural and social issues in the Arab world and writes regularly for Your Middle East.
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