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  • Print publication year: 2009
  • Online publication date: June 2012

4 - Contesting Reality: Star Academy and Islamic Authenticity in Saudi Arabia


Hisham ‘Abdulrahman was anonymous in December 2004 when he left his native Saudi Arabia to participate in the second season of Star Academy, the widely popular pan-Arab reality show. When he returned from Lebanon four months later, after winning Star Academy 2, Hisham had become an adulated superstar in his homeland. Upon landing in the Jeddah airport, he was greeted by a crowd of adoring fans waving his picture and begging for autographs. But the next day, April 22, 2005, when young Saudi girls touched him in public at a shopping mall, the religious police, tasked with enforcing strict behavior in the name of Wahhabiyya, arrested Hisham and threw him in jail. However, within hours of the arrest, the Saudi prince and media mogul al-Waleed Bin Talal secured Hisham's release and later invited him to a much-publicized visit at his office.

‘Abdulrahman's dizzying transformation from average person to pop idol to prison inmate to royal guest was courtesy of the Saudi-Lebanese connection. In its first year, LBC's Star Academy shattered pan-Arab television rating records and spawned heated public debates in Saudi Arabia, despite the fact that the Saudi contestant, Muhammad al-Khalawi, had been voted off the show at an early stage. When Hisham emerged as a front-runner in Star Academy 2, Saudi airwaves, pulpits, and opinion pages were ablaze with vehement disputes about Star Academy's vices and virtues, focusing on the show's impact on Saudi identity and authenticity.