Playing It Both Ways
Local Egyptian Performers between
Regional Identity and International Markets
Katherine E. Zirbel
Egypt has been in the grip of an ongoing national debate in recent years over the nature of authentic Egyptian culture and identity. Pressures of economic decline, increasing moral conservatism, corruption in the government, and Islamic revivalism have intensified this debate. Underlying a national dialogue over authenticity and legitimacy is a much older cultural standoff between the rural south and the urban north. At the same time, new regional and international cultural markets have commoditized particular regional performance genres and performers who stand in specific relation to these debates. Here I discuss how two regionally distinct performance communities, who have recently come into international markets, have fared amid transformations in local idioms of gender, authenticity, nostalgia, geographic movement, and regional and national identities. I also trace the use of such idioms in the promotion and profile of transnational and world beat markets in which these two communities now perform and in the ways in which audiences conceptualize their interest in such products. The contrasts between these two performance communities' experiences in local and international markets provide insights into both Egypt's cultural debates and the global commoditization of culture.
It seems evident that, notwithstanding the desire by many Egyptians for access to communication technologies that signal the globalizing impulse, such technologies are not available to most. Likewise, in relation to the international commoditization of culture through tourist, folk art, and worldmusic markets, this gap recurs between those nations who are the procurers and those, such as Egypt, whose cultures are subject to this commoditization.
For, although some local groups have benefited more from these mar-