Popular Culture and the Decline of the Egyptian Middle Class
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In November of 1993 I attended a swearing-in ceremony at the Egyptian Bar Association. A friend's daughter was to be inducted, and I was asked to join her and her mother at the Bar Association's headquarters in downtown Cairo to photograph the event.
They were not a wealthy family, and a ceremony to commemorate their daughter having made it both through college and into the Bar was for them a momentous occasion. Unfortunately, in the view of the legal establishment it was just another first Tuesday of the month-the day when the swearing-in routine takes place and another group of unemployable lawyers is turned out into an impenetrable labor market.
Almost no pomp and circumstance were invested in the event-it was an absence of ritual where one was expected to take place. No attempt was made to tell the proud new lawyers what they should do, or when. Instead the entrance to the swearing-in chamber was forcibly barred, and prospective lawyers and their families pressed against the door in a frantic mob. The guards were letting small groups trickle in, but no attempt was made to convey information about how the ceremony was to be organized. It was survival of the fittest, and my friends were not willing enough to engage in physical combat to be among the first into the room. Finally we gave up and had a cup of tea while waiting for the crowd to thin out.
The young woman who was to have celebrated her professional triumph lashed out in irritation: "This is like trying to get on the bus-they treat us like a bunch of peasants. Before you know it they'll be taking off their belts and whipping us. I thought this was a respectable place, and what do I find? Chaos."
While we were having our tea the girl murmured to her mother: "zahma ya dunya zahma / zahma wi-tahu al-habayib" (how crowded is the world; crowded and friends lose their way).
Her mother smiled, and replied, "zahma wi-la-'ad-sh(i) rahma" (crowded and merciless).
I knew the next line, so I added, "mulid wi-sahb-u ghayib (a saint's festival without the saint—the point being that everything was utterly chaotic).
These lines were quoted formulaically, as one might a proverb. But "how crowded is the world" was no proverbial wisdom, or at least not the kind that comes from an imagined pristine folk culture. Rather it was a line from a popular song-the sort spread by modern technology such as cassette tapes or a microphone in a nightclub. Reciting a verse from "How Crowded Is the World" was an ironic way of commenting on a frustrating predicament. Part of the irony lay not just in the words to the song, but in the singer, Ahmad Adawiyya, who is scorned by the official media as hopelessly vulgar.
The song first became popular in the late 1970s or early 1980s. My friends in the Bar Association probably knew it from pirated cassette tapes because Adawiyya is rarely given air time on the radio or television. I knew him and the song not from a cassette, but from a 1980 film called Shaban below Zero. My friends had not necessarily seen the film because women, restricted in their movements by Cairene social conventions, go to the cinema less often than men. But on cassette or celluloid, the lowbrow associations of Adawiyya are well known.
Shaban below Zero was not just a vehicle for Adawiyya; it had a history that clashed strongly with the Bar Association's sober middle-class mission of law and order. Shaban was a remake of a 1942 movie called If I Were Rich. Both films had "Beverly Hillbillies" scenarios with a touch of chicanery: a poor man gets his hands on vast sums of money through a fraudulent inheritance, and promptly moves to the fanciest neighborhood in Egypt, leaving in his wake a trail of disappointed friends from his humble old neighborhood. In both films the hero dives gleefully into a life of sin marked by periodic visits to a nightclub where, in Shaban, Adawiyya sings, "How Crowded is the World." With the singers come an assortment of shady women and confidence artists who scheme to bilk the heroes out of their newfound wealth. The original protagonist is a barber who abandons his wife for the nightclub; in Shaban he is a lowly employee of the bureau of land reclamation who abandons a middle-class fiancée for a life of unrestrained self-indulgence. Events in the 1942 film come to a crisis when the barber buys a publishing house—an ideologically potent vehicle for promoting modernity—which he is manifestly unsuited to run. In the 1980 film the protagonist's foolishness again lands him in crisis, and in his misery he dreams impotently of doing good works with his quickly dwindling resources. But in the later version of the story he is told that there is nothing to do with his money except to invest in fraudulent real estate ventures. In the 1940s the film ends with all crises resolved and a new middle class triumphantly in control of the publishing house; the 1980 remake, in which Adawiyya sang "How Crowded Is the World," ends with the problems of its beleaguered characters unresolved, and anything as comforting to modernist sensibilities as a publishing company is simply absent.
This was the context of a brief invocation of a popular song: middle-class people feeling humiliated at the hands of an institution that is supposed to enable their upward mobility. They respond by reciting words from a song denounced by the sort of people who control institutions like the Bar Association, not to mention the establishment media, in which canons of taste are defined. The song itself was bought and sold in a particular context which included a range of potential associations of place and person, also considered unsavory in highbrow society. "How Crowded Is the World" occurred in a film that reverberated with connotations of class; and finally, the film resonated with historical significance—comparative snapshots of the middle class separated by almost forty years.
Popular culture features in the lives of most Egyptians and, to some extent, in the lives of people in all of the Arabic-speaking Middle East. Something like a "postmodern condition" in which reality and images blur into each other, perhaps even define each other, has come into being under our noses. This cannot be the same postmodern condition as pertains to the West. Or can it? So far academics have made only the most minimal attempt to analyze the phenomenon or even to comment on it.
Egyptian popular culture eludes our attention because it is commercial and oriented toward an Arabic-speaking market. Commercial culture is sometimes depicted as erasing authentic non-western cultures, and in Egypt the dilution of local culture by western influence is, in fact, a common element in both artistic performance and critical opinion. But to interpret Egyptian popular culture either as a straightforward imitation of the West, or conversely, as cryptic resistance to hegemonic power, would be misleading. A concern with Egypt's relationship to the West is one of the defining characteristics of Egyptian popular culture, yet blind adoption of Western culture has never been an unambiguous or uncontested feature of modern Egypt.
The commercial nature of Egyptian popular culture automatically excludes it from the incipient canon of "Third World" cultural productions which is defined by western scholars in metropolitan institutions, and tends to include only works that make sense to monolingual audiences in that context (Ahmad 1992, 78-81). Many of the works slotted into the Third World canon are critical of the West, and endorse nationalism as the only effective strategy of potential resistance (Jameson 1986). This implies either that the only difference between works selected and those not selected is aesthetic sophistication—as if attributions of sophistication or naiveté were unproblematic—or that works not selected are rejected on some unspecified ground (Ahmad 1992, 107).
Critics who point out the metropolitan character of the "Third World literature" category, however, offer no satisfactory alternative. Aijaz Ahmad, for example, touts "genres which are essentially oral and performative, sites of production located at a great remove from the great cities, entire linguistic complexes as yet unassimilated into grids of print and translation" (Ahmad 1992, 80-81). Ahmad's nonmetropolitan text, in other words, is what Egyptians call folklore, which in an Egyptian context is a nonstarter as an unclassified site of resistance to either colonial or postcolonial nationalist hegemony. Since the 1950s such "oral and performative sites of production" have been part of the Cairo University curriculum. The process of classifying Egyptian folklore—whatever the character of the folk texts themselves—fits comfortably within a nationalist discourse. To search for uncontaminated texts "located at a great remove from the cities" would be pointless; an archive for such material exists already.
In Egypt the texts which have received the least academic scrutiny are not the primordial utterances of the noncolonized, but those produced and disseminated in the new media: cinema, television, radio, cassette tapes, lowbrow magazines. Much of this material is implicated in nationalist and modernist disourses, but both the arbiters of metropolitan Third World canons and their critics consider it unworthy of comment. Consequently only a tiny fraction of Egyptian films, for example, are shown in the West, and usually those selected are least representative of what most Egyptians actually consume. If these films are shown they are usually classified with other "Third World films," many of which are made under radically different (non-industrial) conditions.
Until fairly recently even anthropologists resisted analyzing material outside the incipient metropolitan canon on methodological grounds. Consequently a recent review of the state of the art in anthropological approaches to mass media began with a disclaimer: "There is as yet no 'anthropology of mass media'" (Spitulnik 1993, 293), and later noted that "recent developments [in the anthropology of mass media] have been criticized for being still too theory-driven, biased by populist agendas, and merely unknowing rediscoveries of earlier approaches in communication research" (Spitulnik 1993, 299). It is common for anthropological analyses of media to carry a heavy theoretical superstructure, but no references to non-western literature or bodies of mediated popular culture, no sense of what dialogue or lyrics are like, and no attempt to convey any sense of the conditions under which popular culture is made or consumed. "Mulid wi-sahb-u ghayib" as Ahmad Adawiyya would say—a saint's festival without the saint, or in this case textual analysis without the text.
A problem in writing about Egyptian popular culture is that the audience does not discuss it as an academic might. Its social significance is masked by the mention of, for us, unfamiliar names: entertainers and the performances associated with them, lines from films or songs, titles of well-known works, which are used in everyday life as a kind of shorthand for the narrative or text in which they occur. This does not mean that talk of popular culture is reducible to a code language of textual fragments—people quoting Ahmad Adawiyya in the Bar Association, for example. People also engage in direct conversation about a given film or television show. Such conversation, of course, also assumes familiarity with key texts. When I engaged Egyptians in conversations about popular culture such interaction was "synthetic" in the sense that I, an outsider, initiated it. But such conversations could only make sense after I had learned something of the names that dominate any exchange on popular culture, and something of the structured rhetoric that informs both the texts behind the names and the way the names are deployed in social interaction.
But to focus entirely on such discussions would give the impression that the social context of popular culture is circumscribed, that popular culture is like a ritual that somehow recapitulates the social order in certain well-defined situations. The names of entertainers can be mentioned in almost any context to make a point. To approach even a rudimentary understanding of how Egyptians deploy their common stock of imagery and personalities requires a familiarity with popular texts that is more like what orientalists do with medieval texts—relating them to each other, comparing them with other textual traditions, juxtaposing them, classifying them—than like the anthropologist's fantasy of spending a year with "informants," "picking up the language in the field," and relying on "theory" to do the rest.
Egyptian popular culture has no up, no down, no beginning or end. We can start with If I WereRich and end up with Shaban, Adawiyya, and a host of other mediated local referents. With minimal effort we can even wend our way to the Bar Association, which suggests that the hypertextuality of popular culture implicates what is conventionally known as high culture, as well as the officially (and academically) despised categories of non-metropolitan low culture. This does not, however, mean that the mad hypertextuality of popular culture is without structure. If I WereRich and Shaban below Zero implicate each other-are variations on the theme of modernity gone wrong. In the earlier film it is put right again, but not in the later version. Both films imply an ideology of modernity inherent in their own narratives and constructed through numerous other narratives and an increasingly pervasive institutional structure. Together the films exemplify a broad distinction between two periods in modern Egyptian history. They are, on one hand, from around the turn of the century (when modernity began to be a pressing concern in Egypt) until 1967, and on the other hand, after 1973.
The transitional years between 1967 and 1973 were tumultuous. At the earlier date, 1967, Egypt experienced a confidence-shattering defeat at the hands of a foreign power (Israel), which caused Egypt and the Arab world to reexamine the cultural assumptions through which their modernity was constructed. At the end of this transitional period, in 1973, Egypt reestablished its honor on the battlefield, but military respectability coincided ironically with the twin shocks of regional power shifting away from Egypt toward the oil-producing Arab Gulf countries, and what many saw (and still see) as economic surrender to the West —forced adoption of a market economy known in Egypt as the Open Door. Before 1967 Egypt, in its own estimation and in the opinion of many outsiders, seemed to be on an inexorable path to modernity; after 1973 the pace of change has, if anything, accelerated, and yet it has become more difficult to discern a unifying logic beneath the transformations.
After the early 1970s an image of social unity carefully constructed through such films as If I Were Rich began to come undone. The contrast between the 1980s vintage film Shaban below Zero and its 1942 predecessor illustrates the distinction between pre-1970s modernist popular culture and more ambiguous later productions which reject social unity and are therefore more threatening to cultural elites. The style of the two films differs markedly, as do certain crucial elements of the plot. For one thing, If I Were Rich depicts a relatively clean-looking brand of debauchery. The nightclub women who lure the suddenly wealthy barber to ruin could pass for respectable women on the street; the film never rubs the audience's nose in decadence, which was depicted with a relatively light touch in 1942. By contrast, the 1980 Shaban shows its money-besotted bureaucrat wallowing through a series of coarse prostitutes. There can be no synthesis of highbrow and lowbrow cultures because in the world of Shaban all is vulgarity.
These contrasting imageries of corruption match other significant differences in the films. Each story brings its protagonist to a state of crisis, but If I Were Rich resolves all the contradictions in class and taste. In that film an implausibly hard-working aristocrat comes to the rescue of the beleaguered barber, who has been taken so far out of his league by the advent of sudden wealth (and the acquisition of a publishing house) that he threatens to ruin his own life and those of all the people around him. Highbrow, in the form of the aristocrat, meets lowbrow, in the form of the barber, and the union is symbolized by having the aristocrat marry the barber's daughter. The film ends with happy print shop workers dancing in the streets celebrating a perfect merger of high and low culture in the service of modernity.
The more recent Shaban below Zero, like its 1942 predecessor, throws its characters into a whirlwind of problems, but this time there is no educated aristocrat to appear as deus ex machina. There is no image of a successful middle class, just a low-level employee of the bureau of land reclamation whooping it up with prostitutes who are, for all their stunning variety of shapes and sizes, faceless compared to the temptresses in If I Were Rich. The erasure of the middle class-the focal point of modernist and nationalist ideology-is in fact the most striking theme in Shaban below Zero. The 1942 film ends with a wedding and everyone living happily ever after; the 1980 film also ends with a wedding—of the land reclamation bureaucrat, educated heir to the modernist tradition, and his middle-class fiancée, who somehow forgives his adventure in decadence. But in 1980 the man says his vows in manacles, just before the authorities take him away to prison.
Putting films like Shaban below Zero and singers like Adawiyya in a wider social and artistic context makes an invocation of "How Crowded Is the World" in the Bar Association comprehensible. The film and the singer are emblematic of a time when the old formulas of popular culture no longer seem as meaningful because the institutions and ideology they sought to buttress no longer seem entirely plausible. Popular culture, properly contextualized, reveals much about the state of contemporary Egypt. In this case the hiccup of disgust expressed by my friends' quotation of a vulgar song at a polite occasion gone sour was prescient.
In May 1994, a few months after the swearing-in ceremony at which my friend's daughter was inducted, the Bar started agitating for a general strike when Abd al-Harith Madani, one of their members, was tortured to death for defending Islamists in court. The state responded to the threat of a strike just as, in Shaban below Zero, it responded to a bureaucrat's guilty plunge into debauchery: with incarceration. Tear-gassing and mass imprisonment of lawyers might well be popular in postmodern America, but one should keep in mind that it is very nearly the last thing we should expect to see. In Egypt it actually happened, and the event was far from popular. The crushing of the Bar Association was, however, an indicator of the growing irrelevance of the ideology and institutions associated with Egyptian modernity. So, for that matter, is the rise of the nonsynthesizing popular culture so common in post-1970s Egypt. Ahmad Adawiyya's "How Crowded Is the World" has a definite appeal, at least when one's symbolic entry into the middle class resembles nothing so much as trying to get on a crowded bus.
Walter Armbrust was visiting professor in anthropology in fall 1995; he will be a Fellow of the Institute for Transregional Study of the Contemporary Middle East at Princeton University in 1996-97. This article was adapted from Mass Culture and Modernism in Egypt (forthcoming, Cambridge University Press).
The title role of Shaban was played by Adil Imam, who is by far the most commercially successful actor in the Arabic-speaking world. Highbrow critics despised Imam until two years ago when he made a slavishly pro-state anti-Islamist film titled The Terrorist. As the memory of his pro-state political deed fades one suspects his old reputation as a vulgar clown will again come to the fore. The protagonist in If I Were Rich was played by Bishara Wakim, a comedian who rarely played leading roles. Wakim was popular in his day, but his appeal never compared to the following built by Adil Imam.
In If I Were Rich the songs are performed by a woman named Soraya Hilmi, who had a nightclub act roughly comparable, in the view of highbrow society, to Adawiyya's 1980s popular performances. Both films use songs to mark shifts in the narrative - from honorable poverty to monied corruption, from blithe corruption to crisis, and in Shaban (which has three songs to the earlier film's two), crisis to remorse.
Some examples of the writers to whom Jameson and others concerned with the idea of Third World literature refer are: Salman Rushdie, Lu Xun, Ousmane Sembène, Mario Vargas Llosa, al-Tayyib Salih, Achebe Chinua.
The best example of this tendency is the post-1960s work of director Yusuf Shahin. With Shahin a few other directors dominate Egypt's limited presence outside the Arabic-speaking market, including Yusri Nasr Allah, Muhammad Khan, Khayri Bishara, Atif al-Tayyib, Salah Abu Sayf. Most of these directors have done popular work within Egypt, but their films exhibited abroad tend not to be their most successful films at home.
In some ways non-Western filmmakers from other countries have greater difficulties than Egyptian filmmakers-Sub-Saharan and North African filmmakers, for example, must make do with minimal national filmmaking infrastructures. However, this also means that the films they do manage to make are produced with heavy European involvement, which gives them some advantage in marketing their product to European audiences, and an enormous advantage in film festivals. See, for example, Film and Politics in the Third World (Downing 1987), which contains ten articles on Sub-Saharan and North African filmmakers, but not a single article on any aspect of the Egyptian film industry.
The late 1960s to early 1970s are considered by many to mark a transformation in the West from modernist to postmodernist sensibility (Harvey 1989, 39-65). The extent to which Egypt is part of or influenced by the same postmodernity is an open question.