There is something about culture that comes alive in its circulation. 1 Whatever the private pleasures of reading a novel or watching a film – and whatever amount of solitude the artist occupied while he or she was creating the work of art – the interaction of reader or viewer with the creative work is inherently social.Anyone reading the words of another is put, however briefly, in a social interaction with their author – and, by extension, in a social relationship with others who also engage those words.
The same holds true with the audience of a film, as the Iranian film director Abbas Kiarostami remarked upon with particular grace on the centenary of cinema: Originally, I thought that the lights went out in a movie theatre so that we could see the images on the screen better. Then I looked a little closer at the audience settling comfortably into the seats and saw that there was much more important reason: The darkness allowed the members of the audience to isolate themselves from others and to be alone. They were both with others and distant from them. 2
This dual aspect of the cinematic viewing experience – both social and solitary – need not rely on seeing a film in the presence of others. As with the literary text, the conditions of viewing cinema are inscribed in the film’s very address. As author of these words, I am addressing you, even if I can’t see you, never meet you, and even if “you” do not exist at the moment I write these words. To be sure, I know that there is not one “you” who will encounter these words, and not one social context – particularly as I write these words for a publication destined to be circulated in both Qatar and the United States. There is not one “you,” both because the US and Qatar are inherently diverse and because these words might go beyond social situations that I can now imagine. Yet there is also a limit to how and where they might travel. Their circulation is not fully predictable – but neither is it limitless. 3
I begin with these remarks, abstract as they are, because the social aspects of the way literature and film make meaning are crucial to understanding how cultural products from the United States circulate in North Africa and the Middle East, and why and how it matters. As cultural products flow between the United States and the MENA region, and vice versa, they occasion responses that exceed merely private ones.
There is great interest, from news media to the realms of diplomacy, in what the popularity or notoriety of American cultural products and forms – which includes everything from cinema, TV, music and books to social networking sites and fast food outlets – means to the fortunes of the United States as a political entity in the Middle East and North Africa. Despite the fact that the circulation of American culture in the MENA region is frequently noted, the way it circulates and the meaning of that circulation is understood with too little nuance. This is because there is a popular consensus, at least outside of literature and film studies departments, that works of literature or film or art have a singular meaning, one that can be derived by examining the work in its original context, rather than multiple or contingent meanings that depend on the audience or context of the reception of the work.
The idea that a work of literature or film, or any cultural product from the United States, has an identifiable, legible and consistent meaning across contexts is, I contend, the basis for much of the misapprehension surrounding the ways in which “America” signifies in the Middle East and North Africa. There is a long tradition of collapsing the apparent popularity of American cultural products in the world with the alleged ability of the United States government’s diplomatic machinery to win over “hearts and minds.” Indeed, the latter has, at least since the Cold War, attempted to put the former into service, from State Department-sponsored jazz tours of the Middle East during the Eisenhower administration to hip-hop tours in the Arab world during the Bush and Obama administrations. 4
As then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton put it, commenting on the state sponsored tour to Damascus of hip-hop artist Chen Lo and the Liberation Family: “Hip-hop is America … I think we have to use every tool at our disposal.” 5 The problem is that we have been wed to an idea that cultural productions have “simple” meanings – that, by and large, they mean one thing, no matter how complex that thing may be – and have failed to account for the way meaning is altered and detached from its original object (as well as its nation of origin, in many cases) as the object makes its way into and through new contexts.
For example, the commercial success of Azar Nafisi’s international best-seller Reading Lolita in Tehran was sparked by the notion that the 1955 novel Lolita might offer a form of rescue for the oppressed Iranian women depicted on the former book’s cover – with a frisson of notoriety carried over from the controversies surrounding the original.6
Even though the very title of Nafisi’s book emphasized that American novels such as Nabokov’s regularly travel into new contexts, and the Iranian reading group at the book’s center dramatized the way foreign readers may approach American fiction from an unexpected angle, the stubbornness with which readers insist that literary texts have fixed, rather than contingent, meanings, ran deep. “[Nafisi] makes you want to rush back to all these books to experience the hidden aspects she’s elucidated,” commented the critic for Salon, an interpretation Random House evidently loved, since the publisher reprinted the quote in the paperback edition.
Or, as NPR’s Jacki Lyden put it, “Here, people think for themselves because James and Fitzgerald and Nabokov sing out against authoritarianism and repression” (again reprinted by Random House in the paperback). What was lost in these responses, even obscured by them, was the disconnect between an American understanding of Lolita – itself contingent and changing: The book had been banned in the US in 1955 because it ran against public mores (its first edition appeared that year in Paris), but was published in New York in 1958 to critical rave reviews, and would quickly enter the American lexicon to refer to prepubescent sexuality and the prurient desire for that sexuality – and Iranian readings of a novel that could only mean different things at both a temporal and geosocial remove.
To be sure, this disjuncture might seem natural to the Iranian readers in Nafisi’s original reading group, but the difference of their reading – what I’ll call below their process of entextualization – was collapsed when the account of their reading group itself became a cultural commodity for the US marketplace. In other words, a reductive image of Iran circulates within American culture that gave Nafisi’s book, from the very title and cover image alone, a foothold in the US market.
The circularity implied in the Salon quote – that reading Reading Lolita in Tehran would make American readers want to rush back to their own bookshelves to reread Western classics, rather than to learn more about Iran or read Iranian literature, including that which might challenge the shorthand Orientalism of Nafisi’s cover – is part of the deception of Nafisi’s work itself inside the covers, which promises education through armchair travel, but delivers more of the same. And the lesson of Reading Lolita in Tehran is that this circularity – this inability to question or break through the old stereotypes about Iran – is a pernicious pattern. In fact, the circulation of American cultural products offers a surprising opportunity to understand sociocultural settings like Tehran’s in their particularity.
Iranian audiences frequently take American cultural products and remake them as their own, a process which renders the text or object in circulation illegible to the culture of origin. This was the case I investigated in my essay “Watching Shrek in Tehran,” which I wrote as a rejoinder to Nafisi’s text (though I don’t name or discuss her work within it). 7 Struck by the great popularity of the DreamWorks CGI film Shrek in Iran, I followed the path of the Hollywood film’s circulation in contemporary Iranian culture, which led me to a vibrant series of competing dubbed versions, each with their own followers and some that were banned for reasons that had nothing to do with the original. As an Iranian woman explained to me when I inquired about the popularity of the Iranian Shrek during a time when political tensions between the US and Iran were high, the Shrek that Iranians loved was not really an American film any more at all. The film itself had become Iranian in its circulation.
This insight was learned in Tehran: that not only was the Iranian Shrek an Iranian cultural product, but indeed, it could be a vehicle to understanding more about Iranian film worlds as they engaged, recoded and remade the CGI film. This insight suggests the power of circulation to open up a nagging question at the center of discussions in public diplomacy and globalization studies. Namely, what is the impact of the digital revolution on the way American culture circulates internationally, especially in the Middle East and North Africa? For if much of what I have claimed thus far about the way literary texts and films are taken up by publics is generally true across the 19th and 20th centuries, there is no doubt that things have accelerated in the past three or four decades, and that texts have become more detached from their originally imagined public in the digital age.
Circulation is rapidly becoming a key term in comparative literary studies. 8 Literary scholars can learn much from sociocultural anthropology, where a vibrant discussion about what Edward LiPuma and Benjamin Lee influentially termed “cultures of circulation” puts needed pressure on the literary critic’s tendency to focus on the meaning of literary or film texts, rather than to note the massive, episteme-shifting circumstances that arrive with globalization (understood as economic process, technological revolution, etc.)
These changes necessarily force us to consider literary “meaning” within a different context. 9 Elizabeth Povinelli and Dilip Gaonkar meant to provoke when they went so far as to claim that we leave behind the analysis of meaning at all, and focus on the motion of text and other cultural artifacts in their transnational circulation: what processes of abstraction are required, what routes of transit, etc.10
For my part, I have been concerned especially in tracing how meaning is made around cultural objects in motion. (I am interested in what Iranians say about Lolita and Shrek, for example, more so than I am interested in the different ways in which Lolita as novel and Shrek as digitally encoded CGI film prompt different circulatory matrixes and allow access to different communities of meaning-makers, though this must be noted as well.) In order to negotiate this apparent double-bind, I borrow from linguistic anthropologists Michael Silverstein and Greg Urban who remind us that texts are in fact processes of entextualization. Urban and Silverstein argue that texts are not simply codes in which history and “cultures” are embedded, but instead processes of social interaction within and against which meaning is created.11
By extension, I maintain, literary and film texts and other cultural products must be read again and again in their new contexts. The various and manifold ways Iranians entextualize Shrek or Lolita, then, is part of the (Iranian) meaning of the text. For me, this fulfills and extends Edward Said’s important injunction, three decades ago, that literary critics be worldly in their criticism, which for Said meant avoiding the monocentricism that comes from not following the movement of texts into different contexts, both temporal and geopolitical.12
The theoretical discussion I have foregrounded here informs a historical argument about the circulation of American cultural products and forms in the MENA region, and how that circulation differs from antecedent moments. To be sure, American culture has made its way around the world and been consumed abroad for at least a century. 13 For students of US cultural history, it has been particularly interesting when American cultural products are consumed in places whose governments or majorities are politically opposed to or resistant to the United States.Cold War scholars have documented the way US cultural production was consumed in the Soviet Union and Soviet-aligned nations, where it was generally either rejected as corrupt (by authorities) or embraced (by dissidents) for its putative freedom, as with jazz music in the Soviet Union. While there was a greater range of responses present and possible than has sometimes been documented, it seems that, in general, the United States as a political entity was associated with American culture – whether positively or negatively – fairly closely. It was difficult, in other words, to separate the “meaning” of American culture from attitudes toward the United States. 14
With the end of the Cold War and especially in the wake of September 11, 2001 – two turning points in perceptions of the United States as geopolitical entity – American culture has been increasingly popular and available in Iran and the Arab world. More often than not, these are cultural forms in circulation, rather than individual cultural products, films, music or texts (though via piracy, there is certainly a surfeit of individual works). A soon as I include Facebook and Twitter as American cultural forms, the increasing popularity of American cultural products becomes clear. There would seem to be analogues to the Cold War, but in the Middle East and North Africa, it is much easier to separate American culture from US politics – the detachment of the two is notable.
Why? What has changed in the meantime? My argument is that the arrival of the “digital age” has created such profoundly different conditions for living and for engaging with culture and cultural production – both in making it more accessible and malleable, and in fracturing the relationship between place of origin and artifact – that the detachment or separation of the American cultural product from US politics results.
As young Iranians, Egyptians and Moroccans consume American cultural objects and forms and make them their own, they are not beholden to the cultural values that supposedly accompany the products, even while they may often employ the foreign forms to critique aspects of their own nation – from both “liberal” and “conservative” positions. It is not the case, for example, that the putative freedom of a social networking site, call-in talk shows on Al Jazeera, Gulf reality television programs or genre-breaking comic books leads to a world remade in America’s image.15
Sometimes the American forms in circulation have led to calls for greater freedom and democracy, such as in Magdy el Shafee’s Metro, the first Egyptian graphic novel, and the works of the young generation of Egyptian novelists and writers, who had a role in sparking the discussions that lead to the #Jan25 movement. But this is accidental, and it is just as common that those in Egypt or elsewhere interested in promoting a very different organization of society (such as a conservative version of Islam) have used forms that emerged from the US, from Osama bin Laden’s technologically advanced use of encoded JPEG images to transmit messages to his lieutenants and sophisticated manipulation of global satellite television through the circulation of his video recorded statements, to the popularity of Islamist websites and chat rooms on the Internet. 16
Though digital media and social networking sites are important parts of the context for the realms I treat in my current book project, I give extended analysis on what will seem at first blush to be more traditional areas of cultural production: cinema, literature, and essays and columns from print media, as well as the discourse of public intellectuals and activities on university campuses in the region. The technologies and spaces of the digital age run through all of these settings, and my readings of individual films and works of fiction need to be oriented around the public discussions and debates about them that played out or were visible on the Internet.
But I choose to privilege these spaces, too, because they allow for more extended and nuanced portrayals of the situations they emerge from or represent, which is perhaps why they have been largely ignored or simplified in mainstream accounts. A novel such as Ahmed Alaidy’s cyberpunk account of contemporary Cairo, Being Abbas al-‘Abd, an Iranian romantic comedy such as the 2007 film Ezdevaj be Sabke Irani (Marriage Iranian Style), or Moroccan films such as Laila Marrakchi’s Marock or Faouzi Bensaïdi’s WWW: What a Wonderful World, demonstrate more complex responses to the arrival of American forms, technologies and cultural products than Facebook postings and discussions.
That their challenges to Egypt, Iran and Morocco have occasioned vibrant debate at “home” (which in the digital age includes the various diasporas via chatrooms, Facebook groups and the blogosphere) suggests that American forms in circulation end in such as Egypt, Iran and Morocco, and have been difficult to translate back to American debates or concerns. That is precisely my point.By showing in detail how creative individuals in three settings have engaged with American and Western culture and cultural forms – and the debates and responses they have provoked among their contemporaries – I hope to provide a more nuanced portrait of contemporary Egypt, Iran and Morocco, with care to distinguish what is particular about these settings and the communities of individual artists and audiences in them. But it is not merely to help complicate our understanding of these settings that motivates my study.
Rather, by focusing on the moments when global culture – most frequently American or American-identified – has played a significant role in local contexts, I am taking on terrain that has been largely overlooked by specialists of the Middle East and North Africa and been distracting to non-specialist American commentators who have had occasion to comment on the contemporary Middle East.The very foreignness of these cultural objects and forms has either been reason to pass over them – for the Middle East specialists, the comic book in Egypt or the CGI film in Iran seem too foreign or hybrid to be worth an Area Studies approach – or too distracting to the journalists and columnists writing about the region for American audiences. As I have discussed elsewhere, for example, the overwhelming response in American media to the Egyptian mobilization against Hosni Mubarak in the winter of 2011 was to focus on the role of Facebook and other social networking media in producing the conditions for change. 17
Implicitly (and sometimes explicitly), the Western focus on Egyptian use of these media was a way of giving credit to the West (the good side of the United States – its technological innovation) as a way to counteract the bitter memory of the militaristic side (whether US financial support for Mubarak himself, or the invasion and occupation of Iraq). This is a vestige of what I call “American Century” thinking, putting America’s role and influence at the unquestioned center of the account. And it exhibits the stubborn persistence of the logics of American Exceptionalism when thinking about the international sphere.18
The subject has been neglected by those with the expertise to put it in the context of contemporary Moroccan, Egyptian or Iranian culture and society. And it has been misunderstood by those who find themselves in utterly foreign locales and grab onto the familiar as a foothold. The latter include major columnists (Thomas Friedman, Fareed Zakaria) and cultural journalists such as the Canadian writer Richard Poplak, to pick a paradigmatic example, who attempted in 2004 to interpret Tripoli, Libya under Gadhafi by tracking down stories about the popularity of Lionel Richie, which led him to dead ends both physical and in terms of Poplak’s ability to understand his setting.19
Fareed Zakaria’s best-selling essay The Post-American World might seem at first a more promising guide to the world after the American century. But in Zakaria’s book, India and China – which he calls “the rest” – are threats to the American “world” because they are beating America at its own game, which maintains America at the center of a world he claims to be post-American. Zakaria fails to understand how the rules of the game have long been lost (or tossed), like a found board game without its paper insert.
I am addressing those interested in the contemporary Middle East and North Africa, to whom I want to show a dynamic region as it grapples with – and often savors and remakes – global culture and digital media.
But I also address those interested in the fate of the American project in the 21st century. Too often the latter have believed arguments such as Zakaria’s post-American world, or earlier, Benjamin Barber’s Jihad vs. McWorld, Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations and Thomas Friedman’s The Lexus and the Olive Tree, that were based on caricatures of the region, or based on the evidence drawn from what social scientists correctly call the elites of a culture.
Here, I attempt to move back and forth between these influential representations and more local figures and texts to frustrate those grand narratives that have been charismatic but deceptive. To do so requires leaving American logics behind, and to immerse oneself in the local – its languages, its domestic politics and social meanings. And what remains, it is hoped, is an account of the contemporary that is not only more sensitive to its operative logics, but more hopeful about what it means to take up elements of American culture and make them your own.