EGYPT-Performing Piety: Singers and Actors in Egypt's Islamic Revival

By Shannon, Jonathan H. | The Middle East Journal, Summer 2014 | Go to article overview

EGYPT-Performing Piety: Singers and Actors in Egypt's Islamic Revival


Shannon, Jonathan H., The Middle East Journal


EGYPT Performing Piety: Singers and Actors in Egypt's Islamic Revival, Karin Van Nieuwkerk. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2013. 320 pages. $60.

Reviewed by Jonathan H. Shannon

While much scholarly and popular attention in recent years has focused on the Islamic resurgence in Egypt and elsewhere in the Muslim world, very little has focused on the role of the performing arts in the fashioning of new public spheres. Drawing on extensive fieldwork among artists and performers in Cairo since the 1980s, Karin Van Nieuwkerk, an anthropologist and professor at Radboud University in the Netherlands, offers critical insights into the Egyptian piety movement through the lens of the performing arts, with a special focus on women performers who developed forms of an Islamically informed "art with a mission" (al-fann al-hadif). The result is an engaging and critically important study of the aesthetics and politics of the performing arts in contemporary Egypt.

Van Nieuwkerk arranges the text into three main parts corresponding roughly to her three fieldwork projects from the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s. Part I, "The 1980s: Celebrating Piety," explores the phenomenon of celebrity artists who retired in the 1980s and 1990s at the outset of the Islamic piety movement, with its emphasis on individual repentance and personal spiritual development. Van Nieuwkerk weaves a fascinating tapestry of stories of female performers in Cairo, from the traditional dancers of her earliest fieldwork1 to movie stars who renounced their art and donned the veil to devote themselves to the Islamic project of a pious self. These performers were at the vanguard of what would in the following years become a series of retirements among star performers, generating a rich corpus of repentance literature, dream interpretation, and visionary experiences at the heart of the piety movement in Egypt. The author explores the important, if often unacknowledged role of women artists in the creation of an Islamic public sphere through discourses of repentance (tawba), Islamic education and propaganda (da'wa), and charity and religious service.

Part II, "The 1990s: Debating Religion, Gender, and the Performing Arts in the Public Sphere," explores the consequences of the piety movement both for the emerging Islamic public sphere and for artistic practice. In the context of changes in Egyptian society in the 1990s, including such challenges as religious extremism, the growth in the number of repentant, veiled, and activist women in the public sphere challenged religious and political authorities as well as undermined secularist understandings of the role of the arts in society. Through analysis of mass media coverage of veiled celebrity artists the author advances a nuanced reading of the contradictions of religion, gender, artistic practice, and nation in the Egyptian public sphere. Her arguments complement and extend those of Saba Mahmood and Charles Hirschkind. …

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