Discotheques and taxicabs all over Egypt last January were playing the songs of a new pop star. No one knew exactly where “the Earthquake of ’88” (his biographer’s term) had come from, but everyone seemed to think Ali Hemida was a Bedouin. Some said he came from Sinai; others said Libya. His music was unusual, his dialect not Egyptian, and his lyrics ("wearing silk, she’s like a gazelle, henna-painted hands") evoked the life of desert Arabs.

It turned out that he was from the Awlad ‘Ali Bedouin region of Egypt's Western Desert, where I had been doing research on oral poetry and song. Egyptian schoolgirls were going wild over him. I became curious, since Awlad ‘Ali cultural production rarely made it into the Egyptian media. The only exception was a weekly radio program called Alexandria-Matruh, which broadcast Bedouin popular poetry and personal greetings of little interest to the more than 99 percent of Egypt’s population who are non-Bedouin.

The Western Desert Bedouin have been quite marginal to Egyptian state culture. The sudden appearance of Ali Hemida’s Lolaaky, the best-selling cassette of an original sort of electric Bedouin pop music, signalled a greater permeability of regional boundaries and a new kind of transculturalism. Modern technologies of public culture — cassette tape recorders, radios, televisions and VCRs — have made this possible. Within Egypt, most of the permeability has been on the Bedouins’ side. In the 1950s and ’60s, proponents of “modernization” saw in these media hope for the rapid assimilation of diverse “traditional” groups into an enlightened modernity. Critics, on the other hand, were quick to deplore the cultural homogenization such national or transnational cultural forms might produce. Both groups shared certain questionable premises about the tremendous ideological power of these technologies and the passivity of the public in the face of this onslaught. The only difference was in whether their evaluation of an idealized, timeless and previously untouched “traditional society” was arrogant or nostalgic.

There are valid criticisms to be made of the impact of these technologies on marginal groups, but they require a careful analysis of the historical conditions under which the impact occurs. No group, however marginal, is ever untouched or culturally or politically isolated before the introduction of these technologies. For hundreds of years the Awlad ‘Ali have moved between what are now Libya and Egypt; they were removed in the early 1940s to camps as the European battles of World War II were fought on their soil. They made their fortunes by collecting scrap metal left over from the war and by taking advantage of the political and economic differences between pre-Qaddafi Libya and Nasser’s Egypt to develop the smuggling business. They name children after visiting dignitaries like Khrushchev. A critical evaluation of the new technologies that make crossing cultural borders so easy must take this sort of history into account.

New Technologies, New Relations

Two criticisms liberal nostalgics make, especially about the introduction of television into the Third World, are that these technologies cause social relations to atrophy and limit cultural creativity. People no longer talk when they get together in the evenings; they just stare at the television set. People no longer produce their own popular culture; they passively receive what is sent from commercialized and often government-controlled centers.

For the settled Awlad ‘Ali Bedouins, as far as I could tell, tape recorders, radios and televisions have not eliminated sociability. Because there are still not many radios and tape recorders in the community, and fewer televisions, listening or watching together can become an excuse to do more socializing. Whenever a tape player or radio is played, at least among women, everyone crowds around in a dense circle, leaning on each other, arms across legs or around shoulders, heads in laps. They may be more quiet as they listen but the event is certainly sociable. In any case, many times it is family members who listen or watch together. Since they spend most of every day together they do not miss talking.

These new technologies do sometimes realign social relations, however. This is most noticeable in households with televisions. The mixing of the sexes and the muting of age hierarchies may be becoming more commonplace, since both men and women, young and old, are tempted to watch certain programs together. Other everyday social changes result from showing videos at local cafes (a practice recently banned by the government). In the region where I worked, young men and boys who lived nearby were attracted to the cafes, away from the home where they would ordinarily have spent their evenings with their families. Besides separating them from their families, this activity increased the edge they had on their sisters in experience of the media.

If fears that social life was atrophying seem unwarranted, laments about these technologies being agents of destruction of cultural creativity and distinctive cultural heritages seem even less so. It is not just that people themselves seem to embrace the technologies and actively use them for their own purposes, but that they select, incorporate and redeploy what comes their way.

A perfect example of the way viewers interpret in their own terms what they watch or hear is a Cairo schoolgirl’s discussion of the TV series “Dallas.” [1] Asked whether she went to the cinema, the pious student in Islamic dress said no, explaining that films contained scenes contrary to the teachings of Islam. Asked if she watched television, she readily admitted yes and that she enjoyed “Dallas.” She liked the family but found J.R. objectionable because of his illicit love affairs. Bobby, on the other hand, was a good person whose “conduct was close to Islamic behavior.”

In the Western Desert people likewise interpret and evaluate the cultural products broadcast their way. [2] Most of the Bedouins I knew well have become comfortable with radios and tape recorders and increasingly familiar with television. Young people tell jokes about people from the Git’an tribe (presented as country bumpkins in the manner of Polish jokes in the US or jokes about Upper Egyptians in Cairo) which assert their own superior comfort with these technologies as signs of their sophistication.

One joke goes as follows: Once a Git’ani in the desert turned on a radio. When the announcer said, “This is Cairo,” he threw the radio down, saying, “Get lost, you idiot, this isn’t Cairo, it's the desert!” Another joke made fun of Git’ani ignorance about television: A Git’ani who had just bought himself a TV turned it on and began to watch. Suddenly a soccer match came on the air and he shouted at the players, “Get out, go play outdoors!” When they didn't he threw a rock at them to chase them out and broke his TV set.

The young boys who told these jokes found them hilarious, but it is not only the young who feel at home with technology these days. Two women, one in her late 50s and the other in her 60s, told about another older woman of their acquaintance. She was a childless widow who lived alone in a small tent, subsisting on a few goats. Her nephew had recently decided she was too old to live by herself and invited her to move in with his family in the city of Marsa Matruh. But two months after she had sold her goats, packed up her things and gone to live with him, she returned.

Of the annoying elements of city life that drove her back, she singled out television as the most offensive. “It wailed, day and night,” she complained. “I’d say to them, ‘please turn it off — it's talking in my head. Stop even for an hour or two.’ They’d be sitting in the living room until two or two-thirty in the morning. I’d say to them, ‘it’s going to blind you, it’s bad for your sight. Television, electricity — it saps your vision.’ I’d say, ‘Why don’t you sell it?’ But my nephew’s wife asked how I could say that. ‘I’m imprisoned, day and night we can’t go out. And you tell me to sell it?’ So I said, ‘Fine, leave it. But I swear you’re all going to go blind.’”

At this the other two women laughed and explained to her that television was entertaining and passed the time. But she retorted, “Tape recorders are better, at least you only have to listen when you want…. Television never stops. Television runs on electricity, not on — what do you call them? — batteries.” Laughing, the other two women tried again to explain that you could turn the television off, but she protested, “I swear by God I don’t know where it comes from and I don’t dare go near it. I’m afraid if I go near it it’ll kill me.”

Weaving Stories

She was right that tape recorders and television are different, but most people are afraid of neither. And rather than limiting cultural creativity, these media even seem to provide people with new material for conversation and storytelling, new experiences and information to recount. Plot summaries or descriptions were effortlessly woven into vivid narratives reporting “real” incidents.

A middle-aged woman, just returned from a visit to her family to celebrate her younger brother’s engagement, told many tales of her adventures in the agricultural town where they lived. She told of the engagement party; she reported that her brother’s family had had their television set stolen and had done two divinations to locate its whereabouts. She described how everyone, especially the children, watched television all the time and how it had given her a headache. But then she swore that she had seen a rooster playing soccer and a woman with no arms — Chinese, or was she French? — who did everything — sewed, baked bread, dressed her children — with her feet.

Smoothly, her stories turned to her brother’s work as a driver and how he had refused an offer to work in the Gulf because it would mean being away from his family. She reported his adventures, including a story everyone found shocking. Do you believe this? They had been hungry, he and some friends, after delivering a shipment from the markets to the airport. They found some cartons, ready to be loaded onto a plane. They opened one of them, hoping to find apples or something good to eat. Instead they found little balls with tape around them — turned out they were frogs, live frogs! He said that there is a country where they eat frogs. This story suddenly brought to mind a fish she had seen on television. “Let me tell you, girls, about this fish,” she said. “It had a huge mouth and teeth and its mouth was wide open, like a ghoul’s. What a thing!” One of the women listening joked, “Hey, maybe even frogs would taste better!”

The way tape recorders have fostered a kind of cultural revitalization also gives the lie to dire predictions of the sweeping cultural homogenization promoted by such technologies. I had thought, when I left Egypt in 1980 after my first period of research, that the kind of traditional Bedouin poetry I was studying was dying out. The adolescents I knew did not sing or recite this poetry and were beginning to prefer, or at least listen to, Egyptian songs on the radio. Older people explained that poetry and song were dying out because there were no longer occasions for singing or reciting. Weddings had become sex-segregated events lasting only a couple of days; very different from the week-long celebrations at which men and women exchanged songs. Young people were not learning the songs.

But I had underestimated the impact of the popularization of cassette players. By the mid-1980s, semi-commercial cassettes by quasi-professional Bedouin singers, mostly young men, had begun to proliferate and were eagerly passed hand to hand. These local stars had even begun performing at weddings, their songs blasted on battery-run microphones. This revived young Bedouins’ interest in these cultural forms, and everyone began taping themselves.

One of the most popular of the local Bedouin stars, a man named ‘Awadh al-Maalky (identified by his tribal affiliation), was so creative that his wedding performances attracted people from all over and his new cassettes were eagerly awaited. As it happened, when “the Earthquake of ’88” shook the Egyptian scene, ‘Awadh had just released a new tape. During the evenings in the Bedouin household I was visiting in January, we listened to and enjoyed the Cairo tape. But eventually someone would always say, “Let’s turn that stuff off and listen to ‘Awadh.”

There was a certain pride expressed when someone reported that ‘Awadh had been approached by a Cairo studio interested in recording him but that he had refused, saying he was only interested in playing for the Bedouin community. What people knew about Ali Hemida, on the other hand, was that he was from a less respected tribe (many of whose members have taken advantage of educational opportunities to escape the Bedouin social world), and had become educated and Egyptianized. They liked his music but seemed to prefer their local star.

They may have felt ‘Awadh’s music was more authentic. Yet it was by no means a return to the past. His songs touched on contemporary problems — from smuggling to arranged marriage — confronting the Bedouin community and its youth in particular. In fact, despite the fact that his music, like that of the other local singers, followed traditional forms, it was beginning, like rock-’n’-roll in the West, to be a powerful means of challenging the authority of elder kin to determine, as they had in the past, the lives of young men and women.

Cultural Defiance

This traditional Bedouin poetry, in its new cassette form, is becoming a discourse of youthful defiance in a situation where elder kin are gaining more absolute power over young men and women because of recent changes in the political economy of the Western Desert. Increasing monetarization and the shift from tribal to private ownership of land and animals over the last 15 to 20 years have made family patriarchs powerful, and their financial dependents more powerless.

Yet the new technology makes this discourse primarily masculine. Cassette tapes, unlike recordings of personal singing, are truly public and cannot be controlled. Modest women would never want their songs heard by strange men and would not enter a recording studio in town. So they are precluded by the new technology from actively contributing to the revival of Bedouin popular poetry with its radical force.

Television and radio play into these emerging generational and gender differences in even more interesting ways. When parents and older people object to young people’s increasing interest in Egyptian television and radio programs, especially the highly popular serials, they frame their objections in terms of morality. Conflating morality and cultural identity, they assert the superiority of Bedouin values by condemning the sexually immoral behavior they claim these programs represent as acceptable Egyptian behavior.

One urbanized and educated Bedouin woman confided to me that when they had guests from the traditional Bedouin areas they always rented the video of an Arab film about the Libyan anti-colonial struggle to entertain them. They hid their Egyptian films, she explained, because they had improper scenes. A conservative Bedouin patriarch who refused to have a television in his household likewise defended his choice by arguing that he did not want his children seeing men and women kissing and acting immodestly. To him, to become Egyptianized was to become morally lax, something from which he wanted to protect his family. His wife scolded her daughters for wasting so much time listening to radio soap operas, stories that were usually about love.

The younger generation, many of whom had been to government-run Egyptian schools, made finer distinctions about morality. The teen-aged daughters of the patriarch who refused to get a TV protested that their father did not understand. European shows did include immoral behavior, they admitted. But Egyptian films were always moral tales: if a girl did wrong, they explained, she would suffer in the end. In that way they tried to teach you to behave properly. And, unlike him, they made distinctions among Egyptians. As a couple of teenagers and I flipped through an Egyptian women’s magazine smuggled into the household by a school-going daughter, one of the girls explained approvingly that a particular film star who used to wear low-cut dresses had gotten breast cancer. After they removed her breast, the star had begun wearing Islamic dress, announcing that it had been God’s punishment for her immorality.

The girls desire certain aspects of Egyptian life as they understand it. They are especially intrigued with the possibility of marrying for love and having a marriage of companionship in which the couple lives apart from the extended family. These are the images of love and marriage idealized in the soap operas they listen to and watch. In aspiring to these forms, which involves separating themselves from relatives and bypassing the authority of those parents and uncles responsible for arranging their marriages, young Bedouin women end up using cultural productions of the dominant Egyptian society as a language of resistance.

The young women’s resistance to their elders’ authority and the moral system of sexual modesty that backs up this authority nevertheless involves them in a set of new power structures of which they seem to have little awareness. The same is true of the young men who express their defiance by recording and playing tapes of new popular songs. Both share the beginnings of a desire to break away from the extended family. This process of disengagement, though, facilitates the extension of government control over the community and opens the way for the culture of capitalist consumption.

One of the main barriers to government regulation of the Western Desert has been the tightness of kin groups who controlled resources together, had their own methods of resolving disputes, shared responsibility and covered for each other. For decades the Egyptian authorities have been trying to undermine this form of tribal organization and to get individuals to become tax-paying, school-going, licensed, law-abiding, loyal citizens of the state. Those who challenge their elders, even in fantasy, by adopting ideas of romantic love and individual choice, are hastening the state's success.

The middle-class lifestyle and values promoted in Egyptian songs and soap operas involve something else as well — consumerism. Women must be unique and attractive; intimate families must have nice homes. In the Western Desert, as towns are growing, transportation improving and many more goods becoming available in the markets and through travelling peddlers, shoddy versions of material goods other Egyptians possess have become status symbols. Because the desire for and availability of consumer goods has come at a time when women have become financially dependent on individual men (rather than kin groups), a host of technologies of a new sexualized femininity — from make-up to lingerie (if only 15-cent nail polish and five-dollar nightgowns) — are also coming to be considered essential. Older women denounce these items, aimed at pleasing men, as frivolous and improper.

Penetrating Images

These goods, as well as the mirrored dressing tables, beds, wardrobes and watches that every bride now wants, bind people of the Western Desert irrevocably to the Egyptian economy and commercial world. The government requires that tribally-held lands, now reached by irrigation canals, be converted into privately owned and titled property or else be confiscated. This penetration of capitalism is furthered by what television and radio purvey. As they come to need more and more items they must purchase, from basics like cooking kerosene to new items like washing machines and bobby pins, the Awlad ‘Ali Bedouins are becoming further enmeshed in this larger system which they enter on unequal terms.

The crucial importance of considering the historical moment in which new technologies of public culture are introduced is clear in the case of the Awlad ‘Ali Bedouin. The introduction of tape recorders, television and radio coincided with the extension of Egyptian political control over the population and the transformation of their economy from one of herding mixed with smuggling, mostly organized around kin groups, to a monetized one based on privately owned land (made enormously valuable by government irrigation projects), commerce and some wage-labor. The new economy also features a sexual division of labor that consigns women to the increasingly privatized home and denies them independent access to money. Cairo-based mass cultural products and revitalized local forms play into generational conflicts produced by these transformations. The young take them up to struggle against an organization of power and social life that is already, for other reasons, weakening.

A final aspect of the present historical moment that seems also to be inflecting the Bedouins’ responses to these technologies is the popularity, in Egypt as elsewhere in the Arab world, of the Islamist movements. These provide a vocabulary and set of practices, including dress, that differ in key ways from those of the educated Egyptian bourgeoisie who produce the soap operas and of Egypt's somewhat Westernized popular singers. Religious piety carries tremendous moral weight in a community that prides itself on superior morality. Prayer was always important and recitations of the Quran on the radio were always somewhat popular. Now the amount of religious programming on radio and television has increased, and it carries a more transnational and transcultural message — one the Awlad ‘Ali are not oblivious to and which better fits the identity they always stressed: as Arabs, not Egyptians.

Bedouin youth are also beginning to see in this alternative a more viable form of resistance to their elders, tempering the young's enthusiasm for what their parents condemn. The great advantage of asserting their difference in a religious medium is that they can struggle for a relaxation of the control of kin groups without laying themselves open to charges of immorality. At the same time they are not forced to retreat into the old forms of Bedouin cultural identity of which the authority of kin was part. Whether this will eventually lead them to reject some of the new ideas and consumerism they have picked up remains to be seen.

For now they stand poised at the intersection of these two wider forms of identification and modes of living brought close by the media, using both to try to escape the recently consolidated power of their elders. One young Awlad ‘Ali woman I knew well perfectly embodied these contradictions. The only female in her community to have pursued her education through secondary school, she is literate and interested in the world. Now that she has graduated, she has no reason to leave the house, so she begs her brothers to bring home newspapers. She confided to me that she wished she had been allowed to go to college and study politics; she is an Egyptian patriot who shares none of her father’s ambivalence about the Egyptian government and nation. She does, however, share his sense that Bedouin morality is superior.

Waiting at home for a marriage to be arranged for her, she has made it known to everyone in the community that she does not wish to marry any of her cousins, none of whom is educated. She does not expect to choose her husband, but she hopes desperately that her father will arrange a match with someone educated, someone who will, as she puts it, understand her, and with whom she will be able to talk about their mutual goals for family. She vehemently rejects the traditional distance between Bedouin husbands and wives and their respective involvements in the sex-segregated world of extended families.

All day long, as she goes about her household chores or sits idly, she listens to the radio. She knows all the Egyptian singers, she follows all the radio dramas — about movie stars whose husbands have left them, about young women who have escaped arranged marriages to wealthy old men to elope with young ones whom the old tyrants try to destroy, and, as in the program called “Bride by Computer,” about young men who seek (to no avail) through computer matchmaking appropriate brides when their mothers will not allow them to marry the woman of their choice. She daydreams about a boy she knew in school, a boy who said he wanted to marry her.

Yet when she showed me photographs of her friends at school, she pointed out that she was the only one of the four Bedouin girls in her high school not to wear Islamic dress. She said she would have liked to take on the veil, if only her family were not so conservatively Bedouin. If she was lucky enough to marry outside the immediate community, she asserted, she would take on modest Islamic dress as soon as she married.

In both her soap-opera-inspired daydreams and her desire to adopt Islamic dress, she seeks ways to loosen the hold of her parents’ and elder relatives’ authority. But she would never dream of defying them or breaking with them. She is caught between several worlds whose borders the new media technologies can cross but most individual lives cannot. Once when she put on some earrings I had brought as a gift, I commented how elegant she looked. We had just been looking at magazine photographs of glamorous movie stars at glittering parties. I joked that she looked ready for a soiree. It was sunset, just the time the rats attracted by the new irrigation canals start scurrying around outdoors. She laughed. Spreading her arms out toward the peaceful desert, she commented, “Yes, we’ll have a soiree, just us and the rats.”


[1] Interviewed by anthropologist Nadia Atif in the BBC documentary, “A Sense of Honor” (1984).
[2] Foreign programs are less watched there simply because so many people do not know how to read and cannot follow subtitles.

How to cite this article:

Lila Abu-Lughod "Bedouins, Cassettes and Technologies of Public Culture," Middle East Report 159 (July/August 1989).

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


Pin It on Pinterest

Share This