Mass Culture and Modernism in Egypt. – book reviews
By Walter Armbrust. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. $54.95 cloth; $19.95 paper.
Potential readers of this book should not be misled by its title. Mass Culture and Modernism in Egypt seems to suggest an austere, sociological study of this topic, quite different from the lively and innovative discussion, particularly of Egyptian cinema, which the book actually offers. Armbrust’s analysis of the two key concepts in his title emerges from a semi-autobiographical, ethnographic account of everyday cultural consumption in Egypt in the late 1980s and 1990s. The author is a declared fan of Egyptian cinema as well as an Arabic-speaking scholar. The methodology adopted is based upon the consumption, in Egypt and often alongside his (non-academic) Egyptian informants, of cultural artifacts which have been recommended to him as particularly important, controversial, or resonant. Current favourites are considered, as well as fondly remembered older films and associated songs and sound tracks still available on video or on audio cassette. From this basis, significant trends, historical changes in production and consumption, and taste hierarchies are outlined. Cinema is privileged in this discussion; perhaps unduly, given that its relative importance in relation to other media is never explored. However, even if the weighting may be uneven as far as the broader topic of mass culture is concerned, it is, from a film studies perspective, a welcome imbalance.
Armbrust’s immersion in and wide knowledge of Egyptian mass culture enables him not only to cross-reference extensively within Egyptian film history but also to locate the specific films discussed within wider intertextual networks. These include linguistic practices (i.e., social and cultural connotations carried by characters’ uses of different types of Arabic and foreign languages), dress codes, popular music, television serials, and of course star images which proliferate far beyond the boundaries of individual film texts (e.g., crossover music/film and theater/film performers such as the legendary singer Muhammad Abd al-Wahhab and, more recently, the extraordinarily popular actor/comedian Adil Imam). Since most readers’ familiarity with this material cannot be assumed, the narratives of the films discussed are always helpfully summarized prior to more detailed discussion.
In its diligent yet enthusiastic construction of a “thick description” of Egyptian popular cinema, Mass Culture and Modernism in Egypt represents something of a breakthrough in English-language studies of what has remained, outside of its country of origin, a largely unknown area of film history. The few previous books on Egyptian cinema, such as Muhammad Khan’s useful little The Cinema in Egypt (1969), have generally restricted themselves to discussions of the structure of the industry and surveys of critically acclaimed films. What is both novel and enjoyable in Armbrust’s work is that his approach is in certain respects closer to Jackie Stacey’s or Henry Jenkins’ concern with audiences’ appropriations and transformations of cultural resources drawn from the cinema. He pays careful attention, for example, to the significance of lines of dialogue or song lyrics which pass into everyday parlance, or to the adoption, by some urban male youth, of the haircut popularised by the hero of the boxing film Crabs (Khayri Bishara, 1990).
Armbrust’s methodological stance in Mass Culture and Modernism in Egypt is, on the whole, appropriately measured. He acknowledges his own liminality and attempts, as far as possible, to follow the lead of his Egyptian informants in terms of the selection of material as well as the interpretation of its significance to their understandings of themselves, their aspirations, and social situations. He avoids instant generalizations in order to underline important differences between the tastes of older and younger consumers, and he pinpoints conflicts, especially within the latter group, over the value of particular artifacts. For the first time in English, the role that Egypt’s vibrant popular culture has always played within struggles to define Egyptian identity and a distinctively Egyptian modernity is brought vividly to light.
Armbrust’s main thesis is that an older (pre-1970s) notion of Egyptian modernity constituted the central ideology underlying both relatively light-hearted films (for example, The White Rose [Muhammad Karim, 1933], a star vehicle for singer Muhammad Abd al-Wahhab) and more serious, critically acclaimed realist films (such as Resolution [Kamal Salim, 1939]). This Egyptian modernity was understood in general terms as a delicate balance between selected elements of an indigenously Egyptian heritage (turath) and certain Western cultural and technological influences. The social cement holding this together was an (imagined) alliance between the enlightened, reformist Egyptian middle class and ibn albalad (a complex appellation, broadly designating the ordinary, uneducated, but basically decent “common man” located in the poorer urban quarters). It is a version of modernity which, in the wake of the devastating 1967 defeat in the war against Israel and Sadat’s socially divisive 1970s “Open Door” free market policies, is seriously questioned or undermined by many more recent productions, and by some of the younger generation’s disillusioned, cynical, or ruefully nostalgic attitudes toward the older films. Ragab on a Hot Tin Roof (Ahmad Fuad, 1979), featuring superstar Adel Imam, is analyzed in some detail as a typical and very popular testament to the exhaustion of the older version of Egyptian modernity. The film’s peasant hero is disorientated and exploited within a deceptive, corrupt, and thoroughly commodified urban landscape which offers no potential for social integration.
Mass Culture and Modernism in Egypt could play into film and cultural studies debates about whether North American and Western European conceptualizations of postmodernity can adequately explain other cultural contexts, or whether the concepts themselves need to be revised or abandoned when these other contexts are taken into consideration. If Armbrust is correct in arguing that there is a tendency which can be described as “post” an earlier notion of modernity within contemporary Egyptian popular cinema and culture, then is this development unconnected with, differentially related to, or simply a pale imitation of parallel changes within Hollywood? One (and only one) of the distinctive elements articulated within contemporary Egyptian popular cinema’s structure of feeling seems to be an implicit recognition that the promises of an earlier modernizing ideology have broken down, perhaps irretrievably. Insofar as their reflection of this dissolution of old certainties is diffuse rather than focused, and more concerned with feeling than with intellection, popular Egyptian films differ from the condensed, multi-layered national allegories, with their invitation to critical reflection, which Fredric Jameson identifies in the limited (and possibly non-typical) sample of Third World texts discussed in his “Third World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism.” At the same time, contemporary Egyptian cinema does not indulge in quite the same kind of play with surface intensity, spectacle, and pastiche which Jameson posits as the dominant characteristic of much high-consumerist, late-capitalist Hollywood cinema.(1) Of course, only a more systematic comparative investigation could confirm or deny these speculations, and it would certainly need to nuance them. Nevertheless, this is an intriguing working hypothesis which potentially adds another dimension to the debate on Third World culture(s), postmodernity, and national allegory inaugurated by Jameson, contested by Aijaz Ahmad, and carried through into cinema studies by writers such as Ella Shohat and Robert Stam.
Apart from a brief ten pages of general introduction and a suggestive footnote (222, n.7), Armbrust’s work here largely eschews the kind of abstract theorizing I have tentatively linked it to in the preceding paragraph. Its strength derives from its richly textured, thoughtful observations of the quotidian cultural experiences of specific, named individuals whose responses and attitudes are related but not reduced to their position within social structures and sociological categories. One drawback is that on some occasions this generally enabling approach lapses into mere anecdote, and at times the emphasis upon the author’s immediate circle of informants is restrictive. For example, Egyptians allied with or sympathetic to Islamic social and political movements tend to be marginalized. Such figures hover as shadowy presences around the margins of Armbrust’s narrative, but their perhaps unavoidable absence does omit an important and powerful spectrum of taste and opinion from the discussion. Equally, the majority of the informants are male, and the ramifications of issues such as womens’ consumption of films within the home and on television and video tend to be neglected. Armbrust ignores issues of gender within Egyptian modernity, and this also leads to partial or weak readings of particular films. A case in point is the discussion of My Father Is up the Tree (Husayn Kamal, 1969). The casting in this film of the important female star Nadiya Lutfi, and her control of the gaze during key moments within the narrative, are not mentioned at all. Although Lutfi’s gaze is heavily marked as dangerous and deviant, and she is punished within the narrative at the end of the film when the hero (the singer Abd al-Halim Hafiz) abandons her for the bland and colorless “good” girl, she is nevertheless available to spectators as a potential point of empathy and as an ambivalent icon of modern, liberated sexuality.
The conceptual and methodological limit points traceable within Mass Culture and Modernism in Egypt do not detract from the overall importance of the questions which the book opens up and of the approach it takes to them. Armbrust’s work is of considerable relevance to film and cultural studies, and has much to contribute to debates about Third World cinemas, and about cinema, modernity, and postmodernity more generally. Discussion of African and Arab cinemas tends to revolve around the fairly small corpus of critically validated films already familiar to Western scholars, and to berate the restricted distribution of this canon within these Third World spaces. However, the current dispositions and tastes of audiences are rarely studied in detail. What happens to be popular at the moment should not, of course, be exalted over films which could and should be more widely distributed, but by the same token nobody can deny that a more sophisticated understanding of audiences is absolutely essential to furthering the debate. Mass Culture and Modernism in Egypt provides an engaging example of how this kind of work could be carried forward.[1.] As its final footnote indicates, Jameson’s much debated “Third World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism,” Social Text 15 (Fall 1986), was conceived as a companion piece analyzing the “other side” of the cultural condition diagnosed in his “Postmodernism or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism,” New Left Review 146 (July/ August (1984).
Martin Stollery is Lecturer in Film Studies at Southampton Institute in England.
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