Mounira Soliman and Walid El Hamamsy, editors, Popular Culture in the Middle East and North Africa: A Postcolonial Outlook. London and New York: Routledge, 2013.
Jadaliyya (J): What made you put together this collection?
Mounira Soliman and Walid El Hamamsy (MS & WH): The idea for this book came from our perceived awareness of an emerging body of popular culture in the Middle East and North Africa that needed to be examined, analyzed, and theorized. We felt that work on popular culture in this region was at best scattered, and looked down upon-- popular culture itself as being locked in that binarism of high and low culture where it is constantly perceived as the lower form. Add to this the fact that research on popular culture in this region was mostly produced by western academics. Thus, what this book strives to do is give voice to popular production, as well as analysis thereof, by scholars from the region.
The choice of the first decade of the twenty-first century in particular was impelled by the global political context that has witnessed the events of 9/11 and the ensuing western invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the ongoing Palestinian-Israeli conflict, all events that have impacted notions of identity, religion, and self/other representation. Popular culture was therefore the immediate tool of expression through which people could counter such stereotypical biases, and go beyond essentialist representations of otherness. This popular culture production has seen a huge boost with the revolutions and uprisings in the region, popular movements that have also expressed themselves through popular media.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
MS & WH: The book includes fifteen chapters tackling various modes of resistance against local and global forms of domination through popular culture production. The reader will find research on a wide variety of media that includes Eastern and Western commercial films; Sufi, Rai, and hip hop music; documentary film and satellite TV programs; dance/theatrical productions and advertisements; photographed body tattoos and cartoons; and bestselling fiction, digital media, and street art. Chapters cover diverse geographical locations from Egypt to Lebanon, Palestine to Algeria, Morocco to Bahrain, Turkey to Iran.
This variety is reflected through the division of the book into five sections, each handling one aspect of the resistance that popular culture, in our view, represents: “Popular Culture and the Aesthetics of Political Resistance”; “Gender Politics, the Popular, Social Resistance”; “Tradition and the Popular: New Forms and Trends”; “Cultural Hegemony: Popular Representations of the Middle East and the US”; and “Popular Culture and Revolution: The Voice of Dissent.”
J: How does your work connect to and/or depart from your previous research?
MS & WH: The book builds on our ongoing interest in popular production and the voice of the people. Both of us have used our interest in various fields such as gender studies, postcolonial studies, American studies, and Middle East studies to produce research pertaining to visual and popular production within the Middle East and North Africa. This is a reflection of our conviction that scholarship should not be divorced from the political and social realities in which it is produced.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
MS & WH: The book will be of interest to academic and educational institutions as well as appealing to the general reader. We anticipate the book will be used as part of the course syllabi in universities that offer undergraduate and graduates programs on Middle East studies, area studies, and cultural studies, as well as postcolonial studies. The book aims to counter stereotypical representations of Islamophobia and otherness, through bringing together the perspectives of scholars from different cultural backgrounds and disciplines. The collection shows that popular culture can effect changes and alter perceptions and stereotypes, constituting an area where people of different ethnicities, genders, and orientations can find common grounds for expression and connection.
J: How does your work contribute to and/or diverge from recent scholarship on popular culture in the Middle East and North Africa?
MS & WH: This book stands in a tradition of research that focuses on both the Middle East and popular culture, and has benefitted from previous scholarship in these areas. However, what distinguishes the book is its presentation of a fresh perspective on popular culture from a resistance angle, and especially combining media that are not often combined, as well as covering a large geographical spectrum. Previous scholarship in the field either examines various forms of popular culture production but limits itself to one geographic region (say one country), or, contrarily, analyzes a specific art form (for instance, film) and traces its manifestations across various locales. Hence the specificity of our intervention: its insistence on diversity as to both the different art forms examined and the several geographic locations included.
Excerpts from Popular Culture in the Middle East and North Africa: A Postcolonial Outlook
From Ted Swedenburg, “Palestinian Rap: Against the Struggle Paradigm”
Since the early aughts, numerous US and European mainstream media outlets, including music magazines, have published sympathetic reports about Palestinian hip-hop. New York director Jackie Salloum’s documentary about Palestinian rap, Slingshot Hip Hop, screened at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival and aired on the Sundance TV channel, is now available on DVD (2009). Rap music has also become a commonplace at Palestine solidarity events in the US, and rappers from Palestine are frequently featured. Arguably, Palestinian rap has received far more attention in the West to date than any other musical genre from Palestine.
Much of this media interest at first seemed prompted by Palestinian rap’s apparent strangeness or novelty. It was strange for Western reporters unfamiliar with the scene to find Palestinians, stereotypically known for terrorism and violence, doing something so familiar, so “normal” as rapping. As journalist Richard Poplak observed, “[H]ip-hop in Palestine seemed, at least on the surface, like a freakish pop-cultural glitch” (207). Political activists for their part appear to have embraced Palestinian rap, at least in part, as a vehicle for bringing the question of Palestine to the US public in an appealing manner. Some scholars seem similarly motivated. Mark Levine, professor of history at University of California-Irvine, observed, for instance, “It’s so hard to get through the reality of Palestinians’ day-to-day life to an American audience. But how you can do it is through the back door. And the easiest back door because of its cultural importance is hip-hop. So if Palestinians can do hip-hop and sound so good at it maybe they are a bit like us. And so maybe we should listen to their story” (“Protest Rap from Gaza”).
Sympathetic academic (as well as some media) accounts of Palestinian rap for their part have been guided, in large part, by what might be called the struggle, or resistance, paradigm, the model that has informed most approaches to popular culture in Palestine/Israel (Stein and Swedenburg). According to this influential line of thinking, the battle for Palestinian rights is so pressing that to devote research energies to something so seemingly irrelevant or frivolous as popular culture would be downright irresponsible. The paradigm dovetails with still-prevalent disciplinary models that regard popular culture as epiphenomenal, as an effect of more fundamental and significant forces—economic, political, military, diplomatic, and so on. Finally, because popular culture is mostly market based, profit oriented, and linked to global economic and cultural forces, Palestine scholars and activists have tended to regard pop cultural manifestations as corrupted, inauthentic, foreign, and even as manifestations of disloyalty to the cause. So the study of Palestinian expressive culture has mostly focused on either high culture or folklore, both considered to be more serious and genuine and uncompromised by commodification and globalization.
It might appear, at first glance, that by paying serious attention to rap, today’s Palestine activists and scholars are, at last, deviating from the resistance paradigm logic. But, on closer inspection, it turns out that is not the case. Only aspects of Palestinian rap that promote the cause of Palestine are deemed worthy of attention and promotion, and therefore sympathetic accounts focus almost exclusively on rap’s role in the struggle for Palestinian liberation. The title of a recent article in The Electronic Intifada about Ramallah rapper boikutt (discussed below) is symptomatic of this tendency: “Music as Resistance Inside the Ramallah Bubble” (Smith).
My concern here is to highlight what might be overlooked or occluded by this narrow approach to Palestinian rap that is especially endemic among progressive scholars and activists, who tend to regard the Palestinian as synonymous with the counter-hegemonic (Stein 99). The Palestinian rap artists I discuss below certainly do write rhymes that comment on the extraordinary and difficult conditions under which they live. When asked to comment on what their music is about, moreover, these artists take care to insist that their aims are political. But they also have other purposes and aspirations that tend to be ignored or downplayed in the rush to promote the issue of Palestine. They desire to be appreciated as artists, and in particular, as rap artists who participate in a global cultural movement. In order to convey their messages effectively, moreover, it is incumbent upon them to do so in a way that is aesthetically pleasing and sensible to listeners. Mark Levine (cited above) argues that, in order to convey the on-the-ground reality to foreign listeners, Palestinian rap must sound “good.” By this logic, then, for Palestinian hip-hop to be politically effective, it cannot only be about “the message.” Rap simply cannot be appealing if it only involves chanting slogans whose meanings are transparent. In order to win over audiences, both local and foreign, Palestinian rappers must necessarily be concerned with aesthetics, with the production of “good art.”
From Omaima Abou-Bakr, “Satellite Piety: Contemporary TV Islamic Programs in Egypt”
Beginning with the 1970s, television programs with religious content passed through three significant stages of media appeal and public popularity. The first period is the sweeping outspread of programs and recorded sessions featuring the Azhari shaykh, Muhammad Mitwalli al-Sha‘rawi (1911–1998), explicating in a lucid and simplified teaching manner Qur’anic verses and the wisdom of divine revelations. The location shown to the viewing audience was inside the main prayer-hall of a mosque, with al-Sha‘rawi sitting cross-legged in traditional fashion on a raised stool besides the minbar (mosque pulpit) faced by rows of the exclusively male audience sitting on the carpet. Al-Sha‘rawi, with his typical Azhari uniform and pose, as well as the halaqah setup (a traditional study session, consisting of a circle of students or disciples formed around a scholar, teacher, or spiritual leader), reinforced the traditional aspect of these recorded sessions—even if the style and manner of presentation initiated at that time by al-Sha‘rawi was new and unprecedented by previous religious figures. The main feature and cause of his attraction was the use of non-specialized, simplified language, with interspersed colloquial Arabic, to paraphrase Qur’anic texts and explain their meaning and wisdom. Hence, access to direct understanding of religious concepts, previously exclusive to experts, was a major factor in the success of this initial phase of disseminating and popularizing religion via the available media channels of the time.
The development of the second phase came with the rise of Amr Khaled (b. 1967), Islamic preacher and new television star of the late 1990s and first decade of the twenty-first century. All details concerning the person and performance of Khaled manifest the significant departure, even from the previous innovative stage of al-Sha‘rawi, on a number of levels. First and foremost, Khaled was not classically trained in al-Azhar, but received post-graduate religious education in a parallel institute that trains preachers, following his original study of accounting, hence considered a lay preacher not an official shaykh. His elegant full suit and tie, shaven beard, and youthful age were an immediate visual divergence from the look of the classical “man of religion” or shaykh. Concomitant with the drastic developments in the media domain of cable and satellite television, Amr Khaled was able to present several programs that were aired on Arab channels, such as the Saudi Iqra’ and the Lebanese LBC. The format has now completely changed from the static sessions or lessons of al-Sha‘rawi to a high-tech, studio-televised show with a gender-mixed, youthful audience, who are mostly of a marked higher social class than al-Sha‘rawi’s. Khaled’s programs appeared in regular talk-show format with a front podium and a studio audience, who may occasionally participate and respond to the presenter’s engaging questions via mobile, wireless microphones. Clearly, the basic setup has changed from a shaykh and his silent, receptive disciples at his feet to a more interactive and dynamic atmosphere. In content and style, Khaled took the primary innovation of al-Sha‘rawi steps further. More than simply making Qur’anic meanings accessible to common understanding, Khaled’s distinctive contribution was making religious values and ethics relevant to the modern life of youth in particular. He focused, not just on religious observances, but also on the morals and social conduct that ought to be inspired by Islam and followed by the youthful generation of both genders, who constituted the target audience of his preaching. His personal charisma and approachable informal style in addressing the contemporary real-life problems of this generation even transcended that of al-Sha‘rawi, and he became the most watched and followed religious figure during the latter 1990s and after. Local observers differed widely over the interpretation of Amr Khaled’s media career and impact, both positively and negatively (Wise 44–45). Yet the popularity of adopting this fashionable look and modern style in religious programs led to the spread of more new-wave Islamic preachers, a phenomenon that has elicited studies on changing public religious discourses in relation to “official Islam,” on one side, and to television entertainment, on the other.
[Excerpted from Popular Culture in the Middle East and North Africa: A Postcolonial Outlook, edited by Mounira Soliman and Walid El Hamamsy, by permission of the editors. © 2013 Mounira Soliman and Walid El Hamamsy. For more information, or to purchase this book, click here.]