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Unveiling Arab Popular Culture

It’s an area that once titillated the American imagination with its exotic and sensual tastes, its belly dancers, its harems, its dens for opium and hashish. But with decades of political and religious strife, with the reports of violence, the pictures of shrouded women and the events of September 11, the Middle East now summons a very different picture in the American mind — one increasingly framed by zealotry, intolerance and oppression. In their studies of Arab media and culture, three University of Arkansas researchers in the Center for Middle East and Islamic Studies — one historian, one anthropologist and one literary scholar — remind us that neither stereotype holds true. Though separated by geography and genre, an overview of their research on movies, music and poetry gives a more accurate picture of Middle East culture, one deeply reflective of politics but steeped in the passion and rebellion, the realism and hope with which Arab citizens regard their region and its future in the world.

Cairo, Egypt

On a cool evening after the Ramadan holiday people emerge from homes and hotel rooms to stroll the downtown streets. Couples and crowds intermingle, a mix of Western style and more traditional dress — some women in sun dresses, others wearing the hijab, or head scarf, to cover their hair.

Outside the Metro theater, a line snakes down the sidewalk where patrons wait to buy movie tickets. In pairs and groups, women cut to the front of the line — a privilege granted by tradition — while men wait to slide their money through the box office window and to follow an usher through the darkened theater to the seat assigned on their ticket.

Down the street, at one of Cairo’s grand, refurbished movie palaces, women in gowns and men in formal garb file into plush seats as if indulging in a night at the opera. And on the outskirts of the city, lights flicker across the screens of open-air theaters, where men gather in raucous, jovial crowds.

These audiences may have bought tickets to the same Hollywood blockbuster you and I watched last summer. But it’s equally likely that they’ve come to view one of the numerous original films produced by Egyptian writers, directors and actors. As the main production center of Arabic-language movies in the Middle East, Egypt boasts nearly a century of cinematic history. And although few Westerners have seen an Egyptian movie, it’s not for lack of material. At the height of cinematic production in the 1950s-70s, Egypt released more than 50 films per year.

Joel Gordon, an associate professor of history, is one of the first American scholars to critically examine Egyptian films in the context of political and social history. In the summer of 2001, during his last trip to Cairo, theaters announced the latest Hollywood action film, “Pearl Harbor,” on giant marquees. But Gordon sought the venues where Egyptian films, new and old, regularly hit the screen.

Because these films are nearly impossible to find in the United States, Gordon’s trips to Egypt require countless hours scouring movie listings, sitting in theaters and recording old films as they are broadcast on TV. He brings empty suitcases to carry video cassettes back to the States, and each time friends travel to the region, he equips them with a shopping list of movie titles.

“The ‘modernity’ of its musical texture and the insubordinate spirit of its messages earned pop Rai a substantial audience among a generation of disaffected and frequently unemployed youth, chafing at traditional social constraints and the lack of economic opportunities,” Swedenburg explained.

This fascination with Egyptian cinema grows out of research Gordon conducted through the 1990s for his book “Revolutionary Melodrama: Popular Film and Civic Identity in Nasser’s Egypt,” published in 2002.

“I collected a lot of video during my research, talked to Egyptians socially and watched television constantly for the reruns of old films,” Gordon said. “I conducted a lot of interviews with actors, directors, critics and government censors. But my most important research tools were a VCR and an antenna across the street that had to be jimmied once a week.”

Gordon’s book shows how, in the wake of colonial occupation, Egypt’s first independent regime attempted to shape national identity through popular culture. Just a few years after a 1952 military coup placed Gamal Abdel Nasser at the head of Egypt, the new leader moved the nation’s film industry under the authority of his Ministry of Guidance and Culture. Egyptian cinema had enjoyed a successful history dating back to the 1920s, but its new position in the Nasser government acknowledged its social influence while auguring a more official role in the development of popular opinion, national identity and civic pride.

There’s no question that popular culture makes a useful vehicle for the delivery of social and political messages. But what’s surprising about Egyptian film during this period — and throughout its history — is the messages it delivered. Stereotypes, particularly since 2001, have led many Westerners to imagine Arab culture as oppressive, full of social stricture and religious zealotry. But from the beginning, Egyptian film portrayed a different picture.

“Mass media culture in the Arab world is secular and liberal, sometimes to a fault,” Gordon said. “My students are aghast when I show them an Arab-language film on the first day of class, and it turns out to be a beach party movie. Here are Egyptian kids running around on the beach, not in bikinis, but showing plenty of skin. You could mistake it for an Elvis movie or Annette and Frankie.”

Throughout its history, Egyptian film reflected the nation’s hunger for social progress. Stars wore Western dress and acted out themes of forbidden love, youthful rebellion and political farce. Screenwriters explored sensitive issues ranging from class boundaries to the frustrations of young lovers growing up in a sexually conservative society.

When, in 1962, Nasser pulled the film industry further under government control, subsidizing movie budgets through the state, the intent was not to clamp down on these frank depictions but to elevate their social impact. By defraying the costs of movie making, Nasser’s regime hoped to free filmmakers from their dependence on ticket sales and thus enable them to produce more socially conscious projects. Many directors took up the challenge, and over the following decade, they created films that pointed out social inequalities and criticized political shortcomings.

In effect, Nasser’s government used the cinema as a safety valve for political unrest. State censors monitored and approved all movies, ensuring that the criticism expressed in films remained constructive rather than rebellious.

“It was a way of letting the public see that the government recognized social problems, but it was also somewhat manipulative. After all, entertainment is not a serious political forum,” Gordon said. “Ultimately that sort of criticism is impotent because the artists and directors are working within the system. No matter how critical they are, they’re still complicit.”

Nevertheless, the legacy of that period opened Egyptian film to progressive themes and socially-minded plots. In ensuing years, film production in Egypt dropped to approximately 20 films per year, partly due to the import of American movies and partly to the loss of state interest and support. But Gordon has noticed new filmmakers entering the industry, bringing a new style of progressive and realistic filmmaking.

“The Nasser era was clearly the golden age of cinema in Egypt, and part of that was because the films of that era so closely reflected the realities of society. Now we’re starting to see a resurgence of the industry — films produced that reflect life as it is today, with kids hanging out, drinking beer or Coca Cola,” Gordon said. “There have been conservative forces trying to ban those images, but realism keeps asserting itself.”

Oran, Algeria

Westward, across the Great Sand Sea and the Tunisian Desert, another form of realistic expression developed, roughly synchronous with the origin of Egyptian cinema. Around the 1920s, in the colonial port of Oran, Algeria, a new music emerged from the taverns and brothels to be sung in the cabaret halls and the camps of migrant workers. Its sound was plaintive and shrill, and its words called to lost lovers, spoke of heartbreak, poverty and drunkenness.

The expressive style of this music earned it the name Rai, variously translated as “an opinion,” “a point of view” or “advice.”

“It’s hard to describe what Rai sounds like. The instrumentation is basic: a handheld frame drum like a tambourine, a rbab or one-stringed violin, and maybe a reed flute,” said Ted Swedenburg, a professor of anthropology who studies pop music in the Middle East. “What appeals about Rai is the vocals, their powerful, sustained sound. Even without understanding the dialect, those vocals are compelling.”

As a music of the disenfranchised, Rai recognized no boundaries. Over the course of eight decades, it incorporated sounds from Spanish, French and Hindi music and more recently has drawn in jazz, reggae and hip hop influences. Its instrumentation has expanded to include modern and electric instruments, from the accordion to saxophone and guitar. And although women originated the distinctive Rai vocals, some of its most popular artists are now men. Despite these changes, the rhythms, the secular, sensual focus of Rai’s lyrics and the wailing lament of its song remain.

In a volume titled “Displacement, Diaspora, and Geographies of Identity,” Swedenburg explains that, like Egyptian films, the development of Rai is inseparable from the evolution of identity and politics. Just as the Nasser regime co-opted movies to shape national identity, the Algerian state attempted to adopt, sanitize and promote Rai music in a bid to win popular support. But while “cleaner” versions of Rai are now available, the musical form, its artists, and its fans largely resisted mainstream integration.

The social commentary of Egyptian film could be used in support of the state because it was rooted in national identity. In contrast, the social commentary embedded in Rai called for a building of identity outside of religion and state. It was the identity of the migrating, working population, and with them it traveled outside Algeria into France, then Europe, and recently, the United States. According to Swedenburg, Rai is the only form of Arab music to have gained such a global following.

Rai’s foray into the United States is relatively new, but it’s gaining exposure and support through popular Western artists. Sting recently featured one of Rai’s most famous singers, Cheb Mami, on his album “Brand New Day.” And although it strikes an exotic sound in the Western ear, Rai resonates with distinctly American musical forms.

Aside from shared lyrics about heartache and drink, there’s a blues sensibility to Rai, Swedenburg said, and a parallel in the way the forms developed. The first decades of the blues tradition in America were marked by repetition — melodies recycled from singer to singer with new verses or lines only occasionally added. It wasn’t until blues musicians moved out of the delta towns of the South and into cities that new songs emerged. Rai originated from a similar shared tradition and remained highly formulaic until artists moved into urban centers and began adopting new sounds, new lyrics.

Rai also has been compared to rock n’ roll, mainly because its frank lyrics seem to defy traditional Arab paternalism and puritanism. This “defiance” lends an air of rebellion that Western music distributors have been keen to market. Indeed, in some ways, Rai has attracted a tough and rebellious crowd of listeners.

Sting (third from right) featured Rai star Cheb Mami (front, in red scarf) on the album Brand New Day. The two toured together extensively, including performances at the 2000 Grammy Awards and the 2001 Super Bowl. Photo submitted

But in reality, the lyrics represent less defiance than observation, and Swedenburg argues that associating Rai with rebellion and youth misrepresents the form. In Algeria and throughout much of the Middle East, people across generations enjoy the music. It’s a staple at wedding celebrations and social events as well as in night clubs and bars. What Americans mistake for rebellion is actually an acceptable and appreciated form of expression.

“The subjects that Rai addresses aren’t atypical of Arab music. It’s just more characteristic of the unofficial traditions in Middle East culture,” Swedenburg said. “Our perceptions of this region are under the influence of stereotypes. Rai music proves that you can’t take a trend — for example, social conservatism — and assume it represents 200 million people. Culture is not homogenous throughout this region. It’s extremely diverse and complicated.”

Damascus, Syria

Collections of Nizar Kabbani’s poetry illustrate the sensual focus of his work: top, “The Poem of Maya”; below, “Fifty Years in Praise of Women.”

Of all the popular artforms, none is more cherished, more steeped in the culture of the Middle East, than poetry. With a 1600-year history of myth making and story telling, it records the nightmares and dreams of a vast civilization. And of all the poets who have written in Arabic, none is more widely quoted, savored, recited or shared than the Syrian-born poet Nizar Kabbani.

“Poetry is the privileged artform of the Arab world,” said Mohja Kahf, an associate professor of English, herself born in Syria. “When I give talks at local high schools, I ask how many students have attended a poetry reading in the past six months. It’s rare to see a hand go up. Then I ask how many have seen a sports event, how many have gone to a movie? When all the hands are raised, I tell them that’s comparable to how many people would attend a poetry reading in the Arab countries. When Kabbani read, thousands of listeners came.”

Kahf, whose parents brought her to the United States as an infant, was nonetheless raised hearing Kabbani’s name at the dinner table, his poetry recited around her. His work was part of the atmosphere of being Arab, she said: “I breathed that poetry in at an early age.” Now a scholar and poet herself, Kahf has translated many of Kabbani’s works and studied his career, which spanned a 50-year period from the 1940s to his death in 1998.

The release of each new Kabbani poem amounted to a news event, Kahf said. His poems were published in Arabic newspapers, memorized by millions. It was quite a different reception than that which heralded his first collection in 1944. Filled with sensual details and luscious depictions of women’s bodies, Kabbani’s early poems gained popularity among the young, who covertly passed his book to others and relished his poems on the sly.

Over the next five decades, Kabbani’s work became even more risqué, but it also gained a substantial following, particularly among women. His poems reveled in the feminine form and spirit, but his work was more than wanton celebration. As it admired women’s bodies and minds, it also called for their liberation. It urged women to take charge of their futures, to resist the slavery of traditional marriage. And its frank sexuality taught women to appreciate their femininity at a time when the oppressive sexual mores meant to protect them taught them, instead, to be ashamed of their bodies and impulses.

“Nothing before had been so perfectly able, as this poetry was, to narrate to woman the story of her plight, not film, not media: these were either taken as pure figments of the imagination or dubbed as foreign, not worthy of the Arab woman,” explained Salma Khadra Jayyusi in an introduction to “On Entering the Sea: The Erotic and Other Poetry of Nizar Kabbani.”

The form of Kabbani’s messages amplified their power in a society that so revered its poetic tradition. But despite writing in a traditional form, the poet broke with tradition in subject and style. His language — idiomatic, inclusive of foreign concepts and words — gave a mellifluous, modern cadence to formal Arabic, a style that shocked some Arabs, who considered poetry a bastion of cultural purity.

While it alienated some Arab readers, Kabbani’s innovative use of Arabic language also made his poetry difficult to translate, limiting its exposure to readers worldwide. Even today, only two volumes of Kabbani’s work have been published in English, and those greatly abridge the poems, according to Kahf.

Kabbani’s strident politics also challenged Arab tradition. Interwoven with his call for women’s rights and freedom, was a call for Arab nationalism, for solidarity and cooperation among Arab nations to determine their destiny, free of imperialism or outside rule. In matters of both sex and state, Kabbani advised liberation and self-determinism. Often, the sexual and political are inextricable in Kabbani’s work, Kahf said. They interchange language and metaphor, and within the aesthetics of poetry, they share a common goal — beauty.

“Aesthetics unites politics and erotics. Beauty’s erotic form is love. Its political form is freedom,” she said. “The premise of Kabbani’s erotic poetry is that people can’t attain joy in sex or love without freedom, equality and dignity. And they can’t attain freedom, equality or dignity in a political system that denies those things. What you do in bed is related to what is going on in the state because the state sets the boundaries of freedom.”

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