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As Joel Gordon remarks in a review article published in the International Journal of Middle East Studies in 2018, pop culture studies in our field have come a long way over the past two decades. Yet, it remains relatively understudied within Middle Eastern studies in comparison to what is generally considered ‘high’ or ‘elite’ culture and art – novels, poetry, theatre, and visual arts. Nonetheless, in the last decade, there has been growing interest in the subject, largely boosted by the uprisings and mass protests from 2010 onwards and the role of cultural resistance within them (amongst others, Abaza 2012, El Hamamsy and Soliman 2013, Swedenburg 2012, Valassopoulos and Mostafa 2014). Yet, popular culture remains almost totally ignored by political scientists of the Middle East.
Here, I aim to demonstrate that the study of popular culture can contribute toward the broadening of the concept of politics and ‘the political’ and is revealing of political dynamics, including the politics of the everyday, that are not discernible through the study of more conventional sites of politics (such as, parliaments, elections, political parties, Islamist movements, or civil society). Toward this end, I identify four different ways in which politics and the political are either implicitly or explicitly understood in the existing literature on popular culture in the Middle East and North Africa:
- Popular culture serves as a major site for studying the politics of identity and other sociocultural trends. Of major importance in this respect are conflicts over society’s relationship to modernity, often channeled through contestations over gender relations and norms, religious authority, as well as the morality of pop culture itself.
- Popular culture is an instrument through which the state as well as non-state groups seek to disseminate particular political ideas and political projects with the aim of mobilizing publics for their cause or aims.
- Popular culture has been understood as constitutive of politics, in that popular culture constructs, subverts and resignifies meanings and disrupts dominant aesthetics that are, in turn, productive of power relations.
- Popular culture has been studied in terms of its political economy, linking political power to ownership and regulation of the media and entertainment industries.
These different conceptualizations are not mutually exclusive and many works combine more than one of the above approaches. However, they constitute a useful schematic device for mapping the field and form the basis for my choice of the following suggested readings. Clearly, this means that many excellent studies of popular culture have not been included here because they do not fit with the above approaches. In particular, I have excluded some important works on the theoretical, methodological, and epistemological underpinnings of cultural studies in the context of the Middle East and North Africa (namely, Sabry 2010, 2012, Valassapoulos 2013) as they view politics as merely part of the general context that is crucial for interpreting Arab culture. Another important caveat is that the selection of readings is biased towards my research focus on Arab countries. Finally, given that there is no consensus over the definition of ‘popular culture,’ I have also included some works that address cultural and artistic production more broadly. In addition to the suggested readings, I also include links to some archives that explore the relationship between politics and (popular) culture in the context of the 2011 Arab uprisings and their aftermath.
A site for studying the politics of identity and other sociocultural trends
Walter Armbrust, Mass Culture and Modernism in Egypt, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.
Walter Armbrust is one of the pioneers of the study of popular culture in the field of Middle East studies and all of his books and articles are a must read for those who are new to the subject. His first monograph is remarkable for being one of the first academic works in the English language to take seriously popular culture in the Middle East and North Africa as a subject of study. The book provides rich and lively discussions of a range of mass mediated cultural works in the second half of the twentieth century, with a focus on film, television, recorded music, and the popular press. Armbrust explores how Egyptians appropriate popular culture in order to make sense of their lives and come to terms with the failures of the postindependence Egyptian state to fulfil its promises of national modernity and to secure social mobility and dignity, particularly in the wake of Sadat’s infitah policies. Of particular note is the way in which Armbrust reveals the layers of meanings of cultural texts through intertextual readings enabled by his encyclopedic knowledge of Egyptian popular culture.
Marwan Kraidy, Reality Television and Arab Politics, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
This book focuses on pan-Arab reality TV shows such as ‘Star Academy’ and ‘Super Star’, which emerged in the 2000s, arguing that they constitute a ‘social laboratory where rival versions of modernity are elaborated’ (p. 207). The book demonstrates how these shows have become a touchstone for controversy and debate over what constitutes ‘reality’ for Arab societies. As in the case of other studies suggested here, key themes are identity and the relationship to modernity, which, in turn, implicate religion, nationalism and gender roles. What is noteworthy is that the book treats popular culture as a field of contestation and interaction, demonstrating the diverse ways in which audiences, religious leaders, politicians and journalists react to the shows. It presents a deliberative-performative approach to understanding Arab media, which goes beyond a discursive approach to include the body and other performative actions.
Mark Levine, Heavy Metal Islam: Rock, Resistance, and the Struggle for the Soul of Islam, New York: Three Rivers Press, 2008.
This was the first book-length treatment of the independent music scene in the Middle East and North Africa. It is written for a wide audience, rather than as an academic monograph, as a corrective to monolithic and reductive representations of the region, particularly in the post-9/11 era. Despite the title, the book not only explores heavy metal but also grunge, rock, Sufi-rock, hip hop, rap, and experimental music. Based on participant observation amongst musicians and fans, the author views independent music as a lens through which to understand cultural and political dynamics amongst Middle East youth, highlighting how, ‘The MENA’s metal and rap fans are converting their musical communities into spaces where they can carve out a bit of autonomy, if not freedom, within which they can imagine alternatives to the status quo’ (p. 11) . The book is distinguished by the large number of country cases included: Morocco, Egypt, Israel-Palestine, Lebanon, Iran, and Pakistan.
Popular culture as an instrument for disseminating political ideas and political projects
Lila Abu-Lughod, Dramas of Nationhood: The Politics of Television in Egypt, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.
This seminal work explores the reception of Ramadan TV series amongst villagers in Upper Egypt and domestic servants in Cairo. As Abu-Lughod demonstrates, state officials and TV producers view these series as a means of imparting developmentalist messages, including state feminist developmentalism, and reinforcing national identity. In this respect, she highlights the significance of popular culture in a postcolonial context. However, the credibility of these messages is undermined by the actual life experiences of the women whom Abu-Lughod studies. In this respect, Abu-Lughod’s work mirrors Armbrust’s in revealing the disappointment of citizens with the unmet promises of postcolonial development, whilst highlighting the state’s use of popular culture to mobilize citizens in support of its modernizing agenda. In light of the current Egyptian regime’s moves to dominate the production of Ramadan TV series, this area of research remains highly relevant.
Walid El-Hamamsy and Mounira Soliman, eds. Popular Culture in the Middle East and North. Africa: Postcolonial Perspectives, New York and London: Routledge, 2013.
This volume takes up the work of the late British cultural studies theorist Stuart Hall, foregrounding the politics of representation. Specifically, it explores popular culture in the Middle East and North Africa as a form of cultural resistance against local and global forms of domination (p. 7). Whilst a conceptualization of popular culture in terms of resistance may be considered somewhat reductive, nonetheless, the strength of this volume is in theoretically centering different scales of power relations and their corresponding ideological projects in relation to cultural production. The volume is also distinguished for the great variety of empirical cases presented, not only from the Arab world, but also from Iran and Turkey, and the diaspora, alongside examples of the representation of the Middle East in the West, in addition to the wide range of popular cultural output considered, including music, film, dance, cartoons, and the different themes discussed, including political struggle, gender and the body, religion, orientalism and the Arab uprisings.
Charles Tripp, The Power and the People: Paths of Resistance in the Middle East, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013: Chapter 6, “Symbolic Forms of Resistance: Art and Power”
Although not primarily dealing with popular culture, nonetheless this chapter considers the role of art and culture in political resistance, not only in the contemporary period, but going back to the early decades of the postindependence period. The author examines political posters, graffiti, visual and literary arts, and artistic movements, from Palestine, Iran, Lebanon, Turkey, Algeria, and Iraq, dealing with resistance to occupation, war, dictatorship, and censorship. The chapter also considers the ways in which the internet has impacted upon visual culture and its political implications. Overall, the chapter demonstrates how art links to political resistance in three ways: signaling presence and claiming public space; creating and sustaining collective solidarities; and, representing identities and narratives that would otherwise be suppressed.
Popular culture as constitutive of politics
Rebecca L. Stein and Ted Swedenburg, eds. Palestine, Israel and the Politics of Popular Culture, Durham: Duke University Press, 2005.
As the excellent introduction to this book argues, existing approaches to the Israel-Palestine conflict tend towards monolithic understandings of power and a notion of struggle reduced to resistance versus domination. Instead, the editors put forward a framework based on Antonio Gramsci’s conceptualization of hegemony, thereby theorizing popular culture ‘as frequently constitutive rather than merely epiphenomenal, as a crucial locus of political engagement, although not in static or necessarily resistive ways, and always working in articulation with broader social forces, political process, and modalities of difference, in fluid and variable ways across a range of institutional locations’ (p. 9). The volume covers a range of popular culture across time, located not only within the borders of Israel-Palestine but also beyond, demonstrating how popular culture may both challenge and strengthen nationalist ideologies and belonging as well as contributing to class formation through the expression of new tastes and practices.
This short article revisits the so-called ‘blue bra incident’ of December 2011, when Egyptian military police were caught on video brutally beating a female protester and dragging her by her abaya, along the floor, revealing her blue bra. The authors use this mediatized event and various reactions to it to explore the intersections of cultural representations, power, politics, and gender in revolutionary Egypt. Drawing on the work of Antonio Gramsci and the late Stuart Hall, they view popular culture not only as a site of struggle over the meanings of the 25 January 2011 revolution but they also link contested meanings to ideological struggles between competing sociopolitical forces.
Sophie Richter-Devroe and Ruba Salih, eds. ‘Cultures of Resistance in Palestine and Beyond: The Politics of Art, Aesthetics, and Affect,’ special issue of the Arab Studies Journal, 22:1 (2014).
This special issue explores the complex relations between culture, aesthetics, affect, and resistance, emphasizing the significance of the local and global, material and structural context in understanding the political meanings of cultural creativity. The editors’ substantial introduction raises important questions about how we understand cultural resistance and provides a useful mapping of the different ways in which the relationship between culture and politics has been theorized. Of particular interest is the way they bring in the work of French philosopher Jacques Rancière on art and politics to understand politically resistive art as that which creates ‘dissensus’ – that is, that challenges dominant aesthetics and representational regimes, enabling new ways of seeing the world. The articles making up the special issue focus on Palestinian art and culture, including visual arts, theater, graffiti, poetry and literature, and the internet, in addition to an article on prison writings in Morocco. Together, they cover themes of agency and its limitations, audiences (both local and international), commodification and global art markets, and transnational solidarity.
Political economy and popular culture
Naomi Sakr, Arab Television Today, London: I.B. Tauris, 2007.
This book is a detailed exploration of the television industry in the Arab world, highlighting the emergence of new actors and trends. It seeks to understand whether the growing complexity of institutions and interest groups have opened the way to increasing independence from governments and decreasing censorship. The overall picture is mixed, demonstrating the ways in which political and financial calculations and regulatory frameworks shape the industry. This book, along with Sakr’s other works, notably her 2001 book, Satellite Realms: Transnational Television, Globalization and the Middle East (London: I.B. Tauris, 2001), provide outstanding examples of how a political economy approach to popular culture can reveal important insights into emerging political dynamics, shifts in the balance of political power between governments and business and the implications of this for democratization and human rights.
This archive of raw video footage shot by various Egyptian citizens, during the period 2011-2013, is curated by the media collective Mosireen, who were part of the revolutionary protest movement. They sought to challenge the official state media narratives, which were hostile to the revolution. In particular, the group wanted to document violence and human rights abuses perpetrated by the security forces. In creating this archive, members of Mosireen aim to keep alive the memory of the revolution, which the current Egyptian regime is working to destroy. The name ‘858’ refers to the number of hours of footage contained within the archive.
This very rich archive, in English, French and Arabic, created by Syrians, documents all forms of artistic and cultural expression during the Syrian revolution. It includes a wide range of outputs, including, music, graffiti, cartoons, protest banners, films, paintings, photography, and theatre. It aims to reflect the experiences of the Syrian people and the meanings of their revolution, to highlight the role of cultural resistance and to disseminate its messages, and to protect the intangible heritage of the revolution for future generations of Syrians.
Filming Revolution is a collection of interviews, film clips and thematic texts on the subject of documentary and independent filmmaking in Egypt after the 2011 revolution. It includes interviews with 30 filmmakers, artists, activists, and archivists, who share their thoughts and experiences of filmmaking during this period. The creator, Alisa Lebow, constructs a collaborative project, joining her interviewees in conversation to investigate questions about the evolving forms of political filmmaking.
This digital archive documents the 25 January 2011 uprising and its aftermath through the lens of popular culture. It has been designed for both researchers and students interested in the 2011 Egyptian revolution, as well as contemporary Egypt and the relationship between politics and popular culture more broadly. It contains over 200 items, including songs, graffiti, films, cartoons, performance and TV shows and seeks to create a greater understanding of the significance of the 2011 uprising and its aftermath for everyday Egyptians as well as the relationship between politics and popular culture in a revolutionary context. The archive was curated by Nicola Pratt, University of Warwick, Dalia Mostafa, University of Manchester, Dina Rezk, University of Reading, and Sara Salem, LSE.
The study of popular culture in the Middle East is a growing field that brings attention to the amazing creativity and diversity of the region. However, as the above discussion illustrates, there is no consensus over what constitutes ‘popular culture.’ Rather than being an obstacle to its study, the contested nature of popular culture can be intellectually productive, obliging us to think through the academic as well as political significance of distinguishing ‘popular’ culture from other forms of culture and whether theoretical and methodological approaches to cultural production in general are relevant for the study of popular culture specifically.
The readings and other resources suggested here have aimed to highlight the multiplicity of approaches to understanding how popular culture intersects with politics and how it can lead us to rethink the political. In particular, they have underlined the need to view politics not only as a competition over power and resources but also as a struggle over identities, meanings, and aesthetics that may normalize or challenge existing relations of power. This leads us to think more about the political significance of certain forms of cultural representation and aesthetic choices as well as the political implications of state regulation and censorship of culture and harassment of cultural producers beyond the direct political messages they may communicate. In addition, all of the suggested readings have highlighted the importance of context in understanding the relationship between popular culture and politics – pointing not only to the contemporary environment of authoritarianism, settler colonialism, neoliberal globalization, regional geopolitical dynamics, and technological advances, but also the sedimented memories and ongoing legacies of anticolonial struggle and postcolonial modernizing ambitions. Looking to the future, popular culture represents an important terrain of study for understanding political dynamics, trends, and outcomes in the ongoing struggles between revolutionary movements and counterrevolutionary forces in the Middle East and North Africa, particularly in a context of growing repression.
Gordon, Joel, Review Article: Pop Culture Roundup, International Journal of Middle East Studies, 50:4 (2018): 787–794.
El Hamamsy, Walid and Mounira Soliman, The aesthetics of revolution: popular creativity and the Egyptian spring, in Popular Culture in the Middle East and North Africa: A Postcolonial Outlook, Walid El Hamamsy and Mounira Soliman, eds. London and New York: Routledge, 2013: pp. 246-260.
Sabry, Tarik, Cultural Encounters in the Arab World: On Media, The Modern and the Everyday, London: I.B. Tauris, 2010.
Sabry, Tarik, ed. Arab Cultural Studies: Mapping the Field, London: I.B. Tauris, 2012.
Swedenburg, Ted, Egypt’s Music of Protest: From Sayyid Darwish to DJ Haha, Middle East Report, vol. 42, no. 265, (2012): http://www.merip.org/mer/mer265/egypts-music-protest
Valassopoulos, Anastasia, ed. Arab Cultural Studies: History, Politics, and the Popular, New York: Routledge, 2013.
Valassopoulos, Anastasia and Mostafa, Dalia S., Popular Protest Music and the 2011 Egyptian Revolution. Popular Music and Society, 37:5 (2014): 638–659.