New book – Pop Culture in North Africa and the Middle East

Here’s a link to my new book, Pop Culture in North Africa and the Middle East, with a detailed content list and limited access to many pages. The first iteration of this book in 2005 allowed the phrase ‘Arab world’ in the title. Although I saw that as some kind of victory over the colonial nomenclature of ‘Middle East’, the fact is it is equally problematic and requires its justifications and correctives. This time round, the publisher, ABC-CLIO, preferred a geographically located regional title, and I think it’s a good thing that in that context we made a distinction between North Africa and the Middle East. There is no clear boundary between the two: some would include Egypt in North Africa from a purely geographical  perspective, while a Moroccan friend argued that Libya was more Mashriq, and so Middle East, than North Africa because he finds their Arabic dialects too difficult to follow. But recognition of the difference these two zones is a good thing in my view, so it works as an alternative to the unquestionably ideological ‘Arab world’.

The more important issue with this book is that it is written in the shadow of the Arab Spring uprisings and thus surveys the region and its cultural production in the context of those events. The Arab Spring as a failure or a bad idea in the first place has become fashionable in some areas of public discourse on the Middle East/North Africa/Arab world, but it’s a short-sighted and rather political analysis in my opinion. The popular protest movements of 2011 captured trends across politics, economy, religion and media which have reframed those fields and how we understand the region. Cliches of passive Arabs have been exposed for the manipulative discourse of which they were always a part and attention appears to have shifted in academia towards the dark arts of regime securitisation and sectarianisation, on the one hand, and new media as an arena of resistance and counter-resistance, on the other. The book is intended as both a Middle East Studies textbook and reference book, and a station for pausing to consider how we define this region at a point of intense conflict and change in its modern history.

When East doesn’t meet West at an art auction

farhad_moshiri_untitled_d5665810hMixing East and West has become such a cliche that first mention of it is enough to shut down interest in any given context. EastWest-ism is still doing well in the art world, though. One of celebrated Iranian artist Farhad Moshiri’s works, an untitled oil and acrylic on canvas that is part of his Numeral series, was unnecessarily subjected to it in the catalogue for the Christie’s Dubai auction this week. Lines of numerals are set against a background of shades of green that suggest the texture of unearthed artefacts from the past. As Christie’s notes, the numbers have a graffiti-like, Pop Art appearance but on a canvas skilfully manipulated by Moshiri to give an antique effect. But that alone seems to have led the authors to conclude baldly: “This example subtly melds Eastern and Western concepts.” It seems that Moshiri’s binary of the past and the contemporary has been liberally redefined as “east (past), west (present)”. The notes for another in the Numeral series from 2011 suggested more usefully: “the almost military alignment of the stylized numbers is visually overwhelming and inevitably raises questions on their role: do we live in a world ruled by numbers? Is history simply a long string of successive dates?” Continue reading When East doesn’t meet West at an art auction

The Human Touch in Jeddah: A Saudi Film

Ahd Kamel’s Sanctity was a real surprise at the Gulf Film Festival. Saudi cinema has taken off in recent years despite a multitude of obtacles – an informal ban on public cinema houses and state funding of cinema, and frequent interference from the religious police in attempts to promote cinema such as the Jeddah film festival that began in 2007. Individuals such as Saudi director Haifaa Mansour have, however, represented a beacon of hope for budding directors, with a series of works that have been well-received in international film forums, including last year’s WadjdaContinue reading The Human Touch in Jeddah: A Saudi Film

Revolution, Art and the Islamists

The rise of Islamist groups in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya as a result of the revolutionary movement in Arab countries this year has generated much angst about the fate of the arts, in Egypt in particular. The regimes in Egypt and Tunisia were fond of presenting themselves as protectors of the arts against conservative Islamic forces and now that both in are a state of transformation many in the entertainment industry are preparing for the worst. Egyptian directors and actors at the Dubai International Film Festival this month expressed those fears: not only the country was in a mess, they said in private, the future of cinema and television was bleak. Many are looking to get out of the country and the Gulf, not least Dubai, is an attractive exile. The specific fear is that actresses will be obliged to cover up and the subject matter of the arts will shift to more conservative and “Islamic” themes. The ethic of Egyptian state TV itself could change, with more veiled women appearing, and this would be part of a wider shift in society – those will-they/won’t-they reports of Salafis banning alcohol, enforcing the hejab, banning bikinis and introducing a version of Saudi Arabia’s Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice. Continue reading Revolution, Art and the Islamists