Popular Culture in the Middle East and North Africa: A Postcolonial Outlook

By Ramadan, Yasmine | Arab Studies Journal, Spring 2014 | Go to article overview

Popular Culture in the Middle East and North Africa: A Postcolonial Outlook


Ramadan, Yasmine, Arab Studies Journal


POPULAR CULTURE IN THE MIDDLE EAST AND NORTH AFRICA: A POSTCOLONIAL OUTLOOK Edited by Walid El Hamamsy and Mounira Soliman New York: Routledge, 2013 (x v + 284 pages, bibliographica l references, index) $125.0 0 (cloth)

The edited volume Popular Culture in the Middle East and North Africa: A Postcolonial Outlook sets out to address a perceived lack in the scholarship on the region. Editors Walid El Hamamsy and Mounira Soliman bring together scholars from a variety of disciplines in the hope of amending what they contend is a consistent tendency within the field, both in the West and the Middle East, to downplay the significance of popular culture. Broad in geographical and disciplinary scope, the volume places literary and film scholars, anthropologists, and ethnomusicologists, among others, in conver- sation about the production and position of popular culture in the Middle East within the contemporary moment. This enterprise is all the more sig- nificant given the monumental events that continue to unfold in the region; in a post-September 11 world, and in light of the revolutionary movements taking place in the Arab world, the chapters of this book raise fundamental questions about the role of popular culture as a vehicle for the expression of possibilities of social and political change and also as a form of resistance to prevalent stereotypes about the region and its people.

Drawing upon the work of pioneering scholars in the study of popular culture in the Middle East, such as Rebecca Stein, Ted Swedenburg, Andrew Hammond, and Walter Armburst, the writers in this collection extend and expand the existing discussion about the significance of popular forms of expression and their position within the cultural sphere. Above all, it is the work of Stuart Hall that underpins this intellectual project. In their attempt to bridge the gap between "high" and "low" culture, El Hamamsy and Soliman argue for what they call "border crossing," an "approach to the study of culture that has at its core a conception of cultural production as a fluid process." They further explain, "Rather than a view of mainstream and popular culture that sees both and the relations between them as fixed, this is an outlook that perceives these forms of cultural production as more malleable and flexible" (3). "Mainstream" here refers to the dominant form of cultural production, that which is seen as high, elite, and canonical, in opposi- tion to popular culture, which is seen as less intellectual, less substantial, and more commercial. With Hall's work in mind, the editors understand popular culture as produced within a context shaped by processes of "containment" and "resistance," in which power structures marginalize certain cultural forms. For El Hamamsy and Soliman, there exists an ongoing struggle between the forces of "high" and "popular" culture over which one is to occupy a position of prominence. This struggle cannot be divorced from the larger political, social, and economic issues that influence what is privileged and what is marginalized. Here is their take, for example, on Egyptian singer Sha'ban 'Abd al-Rahim's position within the cultural sphere:

What is perceived by many as Shaaban Abdel Rahim's crudeness and vulgarity have made of him the butt of censure by the elite, disregarding his immense popularity among the majority-of mostly underprivileged- Egyptians. However, it is easy to see in him a popular cultural icon who is of the masses and speaks their language. The song is an embodiment of the power dynamic between dominant and subordinate cultures, especially the latter's constant attempts to gain a foothold on the cultural map. (7)

Within this collection, the different kinds of music, literature, dance, graffiti art, and film are thus read, both explicitly and implicitly, as different examples of resistance. What makes these chapters so compelling is the way the authors present diverse artistic practices as resistance against both dominant mainstream culture and different kinds of social, political, and ideological injustices. …

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