Popular culture in Egypt has long been the site through which people claimed or criticized class, gender, or national identities. In recent years, it became vehemently denounced for spreading toxic male ideology that normalized violence against women. The controversy sparked by Tameem Younes’s 2020 song Salmonella which portrayed a love-stricken man threatening his beloved of worst afflictions in case she rejected him exemplifies the often-ambiguous reception of popular culture in Egypt. While the National Council for Women in Egypt took steps in obtaining the video’s removal from Google search, the public disagreed on whether the song advocated violent male behavior or, on the contrary, disparaged such a behavior through humor. In July 2020, against the backdrop an Egyptian wave of Me Too, Younes decided to remove the song from all his social media accounts.
The participation of popular culture in Egypt in upholding or subverting established norms of class, gender, and political behavior is one of the themes addressed by the recent collective book Culture Pop en Egypt: entre mainstream commercial et contestation (2020) edited by professors of Arabic literature Richard Jacquemond and Frédéric Lagrange. The volume is divided into four thematic sections, each dedicated to discussing a different site of popular culture in Egypt, namely fiction, television and internet humor, music, and the street. It brings together an outstanding group of scholars to address topics as diverse as literary thrillers, television series, commercials, comedy shows, internet memes, alternative music scenes in Cairo, and the living popular culture in Egypt’s neighborhoods. Drawing from such a variety of cultural practices, the book intends to contribute to the Anglo-American debates of cultural studies by bringing into the picture the Egyptian case. Specifically, it seeks to redefine the notion of popular culture by exploring the variations of the Egyptian emic equivalent, sha’bi, and its articulations with the mainstream, underground, sub-cultures, and the street.
The Cultural Shift of the 2000s
Beyond theoretical concerns, the book documents the profound shift that Egypt’s cultural sphere experienced during the last two decades. In the introduction, Lagrange compares this shift with the one of the 1970s, when the appearance of the cassette opened the cultural market to proletarian cultures giving birth to what is known today as sha’bi music with its unparalleled figure Ahmad Adawiyya. The change in technology coincided with the passing of the Nasserist cultural icons—Farid al-Atrash (1974), Umm Kulthum (1975), and ‘Abd al-Halim Hafiz (1978)—which ousted the highbrow culture from its privileged position. The turning point of the 2000s was similarly brought about by the expansion of media industry with the introduction of the internet and Arab satellite television. But if the 1970s resulted in accentuating the boundary between highbrow and lowbrow cultures, the 2000s broke these categories altogether. The book convincingly demonstrates how the culturalist angle that informed so much of the cultural studies in the past few decades has become irrelevant today, namely the distinction between highbrow and lowbrow, secular and Islamist, modern and traditional, and local and global cultural production. Instead, the authors prefer to speak of Egypt’s popular culture in terms of movement, flows, and influences.
Firstly, the classical distinction of Pierre Bourdieu between legitimate and illegitimate cultures is fading. In literature, more and more writers write scripts for the cinema and television and less and less they are interested in obtaining institutional recognition, as Richard Jacquemond and Teresa Pepe argued in their respective studies on the bestselling writer Ahmad Murad and the TV adaptation of Sonallah Ibrahim’s novel Dhat. Similarly, musicians learn how to play music from online tutorials, producing highly personalized sounds in which folk, poetry, and electro come together in a productive blend. In her study of Cairo’s downtown underground scene crystallized during the 2011 revolution, Séverine Gabry-Thienpont follows the slam poet Abdullah al-Minyawi, who draws from the highbrow and lowbrow cultural registers such as classical Arab poetry, Sufism, and Qur’anic recitation. Nicolas Puig, on his part, shows how Mahraganat music previously confined to the urban culture of lower middle-class males made it into the mainstream, becoming a cherished guest in Cairo downtown’s parties and international festivals.
In social media and television, discussed by Chihab El Khachab and Amr Kamal, respectively, a similar blurring of the boundaries can be observed. Analyzing the phenomenon of digital cartoons (memes), which spread as a wildfire in the Egyptian internet in recent years, El Khachab argues that we cannot consider cultural producers separately from receivers. He suggests to see the memes as a visual extension of the everyday conversations peppered with the exchange of gags, punchlines from films, and language puns. How cultural consumers partake in cultural production is also discussed by Amr Kamel, who sheds light on the overlooked yet omnipresent producer of popular culture in Egypt: the industry of subtitling foreign films in Arabic. Focusing on the Arabic version of the American comedy show Saturday Night Live, Kamal reveals how the practice to subtitle foreign shows into Arabic has turned every Egyptian into a subliminal interpreter capable of switching between English, standard Arabic, and its dialectal variations.
Humour and the Street as the Sites of Subversion
One of the consequences of the blurring of the boundary between cultural consumers and producers—as revealed by the phenomenon of memes or foreign film watching—has been the creation of a more participatory culture in which old debates can be posed anew.
The themes of gender, class, and politics—with an implicit question of whether popular culture allows for resistance or not—permeates the majority of contributions. The association between arts and resistance is a common trope in Arab cultural studies, and is a slippery one. As it has been already noted, the main difficulty is to define the vantage point from which one could classify an individual act as a manifestation of agency or, on the contrary, as an effect of the structure.
Most authors handle this issue with care. Their essays resonate with Lila Abu Lughod’s 2005 study, Dramas of Nationhood: The Politics of Television Egypt, that television in Egypt still acts as the means of national pedagogy. Gaëtan Du Roy describes the television’s effort to promote the national unity between Copts and Muslims through the TV series focusing on Shubra, the neighborhood praised as the symbol of the authentic Egyptian cosmopolitanism. As Du Roy shows, the series posited class and religion as equivalent social boundaries that are not to be transgressed under the threat of a sectarian strife. Similarly, Pepe notes how TV series today are increasingly hailed as televised highbrow literature (al-adab al-tilifiziyuni), although the revolutionary opening of 2011 allowed, she argues, for the scriptwriter Maryam Na’um to produce a more female-friendly adaptation of Ibrahim’s novel Dhat that ends on a hopeful note.
However, it is especially humour and the street that allow today to overcome the pedagogical role of the television. The promotion and criticism of models of masculinity is the focus of Lagrange’s analysis of the comic commercials of the non-alcoholic beer Birell, which urged Egyptian men to “man up” through the consumption of the bitter drink. While the commercials could be understood as promoting the ideology of toxic masculinity—in a similar way as Younes’s video-clip Salmonella was received by some—Lagrange stresses their intentional ambivalence that draw from both the liberal feminist struggle against sexual harassment and the constant bullying of men to “man up” against the alleged loss of “authentic male values.” The subversive role of humor is also paramount in internet memes, which subverts the state’s discourse on foreigners, while the pluriglossia created by the subtitling industry allows to introduce explicit language into Egyptian screens.
The street is another site where the official discourses can be sabotaged. Elena Chiti identifies competing living popular cultures by following the traces of the powerful Egyptian myth of Raya and Sakina across Cairo’s and Alexandria’s urban fabric. The story of the most infamous serial killers from Egypt’s coastal city is a barometer to measure the proximity of different urban communities to institutional discourses on gender and national belonging. In May Telmissany’s contribution, we again encounter the street which serves as a stage for performances by the Egyptian collective Eskandarella. Through their adaptations of the Sheikh Imam’s and Ahmad Fu’ad Nigm’s songs, Eskandarella managed to bring the political song tradition back to life.
The biggest contribution of the volume lies undoubtedly in its empirical scope allowing to identify the variety of sites of popular culture. The literature of best-sellers, television, commercials, comedy shows, internet memes, music, and the street—all featured as grounds where popular culture is produced and consumed. Such findings would not have been possible if contributors had chosen a more theoretical entry into the subject, which tend to conflate popular culture with the popular class. The analysis of how the same cultural content travels between different class locations—moving from underground to sub-culture and to mainstream—is highly innovative in Arab cultural studies.
The volume is leaning towards literary and media studies approach, with the majority of articles focusing on content analysis. This approach is valuable, but its findings could be explored in more sociological directions. For example, the book seems to suggest that while gender has become a hot topic in popular culture, class is far from becoming one. This insight could be pursued more thoroughly in the future, by analyzing, for example, how the producers of Mahraganat music experienced the sudden hype created around their production in the activist circles of downtown Cairo and international audiences. In general, it might be illuminating to explore the workings of class identities in the alternative musical scene of downtown Cairo, to see whether these alternative cultures function as the means of distinction both in the sense of political activism and class identity. Similarly, the connection made between popular classes and political/revolutionary songs of Eskandarella, as well as the identification of the state as the protector of bourgeois interests, would benefit from a more thorough exploration of class identities within the activist musical scenes. Culture Pop en Egypte: Entre Mainstream Commercial et Contestation offers a refreshing account on popular culture and is definitely a must-read for everyone willing to update oneself with the latest developments of Egypt’s cultural scene.