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.

TIME: In Egypt, It’s Street Art vs. State Soap

Before the street, there was the screen — and the stage. In Syria and Egypt pre-2011, citizens used soap operas, plays and songs to voice political commentary — slipping criticism in between lines and lyrics. Then, the Arab Spring began, collapsing this natural order and impaling the region’s most powerful and traditional motors of media production in Egypt and Syria. Continue reading TIME: In Egypt, It’s Street Art vs. State Soap

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