Academic journal article Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics

America Undone: Sonallah Ibrahim's Intra-Imperial Investigations

Academic journal article Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics

America Undone: Sonallah Ibrahim's Intra-Imperial Investigations

Article excerpt

This article explores the way America--as a place both real and imagined--is constructed in the Egyptian novelist Sonallah Ibrahim's recent work Amrikanli. While this work openly critiques America's neo imperialist role in the Middle East and its history of self-interested intervention, it also offers another portrait of America, as a nation rife with social decay and lacking a coherent sense of national identity. In this reversal of the cultural encounter, this article attempts to move past misappropriations of Orientalism's methodological legacy by resisting a reading of Ibrahim's work as offering yet another critique of America as merely a flat symbol of power and hegemony. The complexity of the Arab gaze (as spectator, anthropologist, and writer) vis-a-vis the Americans reflects the need for a more critical examination of the paradoxes and incoherencies that mark such localized cultural encounters.

**********

The politics of culture is important, not because politics is only culture (or because culture is only politics), but because where the two meet, political meanings are often made. (1)

In the spring of 2003 the Egyptian playwright Khaled al-Sawi presented his new work al-La'ib fi al-dimagh (Mindgames) at al-Hanager, the experimental State theater in Cairo. The play was a raucous comedy offering a satirical portrait of the Arab media and its personalities and the ways in which American culture, media, and politics have impacted the Arab world. It was a lampoon with a clear message: an indictment of the US and a call for Arab unity and resistance in the face of American military and cultural hegemony. Among the musical numbers, al-Sawi led a song with the refrain "'awlama" or "globalization" where the cast sings and dances to the macabre march-like music, as if "globalization" were the boogeyman on the prowl. The play closes with the grand "hayigi yawm" or "there will come a day," a solemn harkening back to the optimism of the bygone era of Pan-Arabism and the hope for a brighter, more unified future for the Arab world. The play was only supposed to run for six weeks but the sold-out shows attracted more than the usual play-goers--many of them youths attending the theater for the first time upon having heard about the rap and dance numbers and the sophisticated imitations of various Arab celebrities--so it ran for another four months.

Of particular interest in the play was the caricature of someone who appeared to be General Tommy Franks, or "Captain John Fox," as he was dubbed, (played by al-Sawi himself) as the dominant American personality. Americans, in this work, are essentially scripted as Captain Fox, a military type who is overbearing, angry, powerful, and wholly ignorant of the culture and humanity he is pummeling with his military campaigns. At one point in an ominous turn, General Fox faces the audience and yells: "fuck the Arabs" in English. While the play is essentially a comedy that had the audience roaring with laughter, the caricature of Franks was disturbing. The two-dimensional portrait of the general was unsettling; not because it offered a political critique that was too coarse or radical; rather, it offered a recapitulation of the narrow, otherizing picture of America and Americans in yet one more venue. This representation of ignorant, wealthy Americans having their way with the Middle East was not only reductive, but out rightly eschewed much of the work that has been done in American Studies on literatures of the American working-class or emergent literatures from American immigrant groups (many of them Arab). In watching this play from an American point of view, one could not help but wonder: Were there no Arabs offering a substantial departure from this flat, tired image? Has the discourse on globalization and American empire, as taken up by the intellectuals and writers of the Middle East, been limited to analyses of the machinations of American power abroad? …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.