Salman Rushdie’s story of Ismail Najmuddin — the former Bombay lunch-runner turned movie star, screen name Gibreel Farishta, the Muslim who played Hindu gods in numerous “theologicals,” migrant to London, victim of the bombing of flight AI-420, the man who fell from the sky and lived, only to dream of himself as Gibreel the revealing angel and sign over his dream-narratives to a movie mogul — is a tale whose Rabelaisian irreverence towards all fixed authorities, identities and truths offers an appropriate introduction to the question of contemporary popular culture in the Middle East.

Rushdie’s protagonists are constant border-crossers. They migrate back and forth, between London and Bombay, between stardom and death, good and evil, sanity and schizophrenia, human, animal and angelic form, dreams, movies and reality, never quite sure what boundary holds these opposites apart, or what meaning can reconcile them. “Anybody ever tries to tell you how this most beautiful and most evil of planets is somehow homogeneous, composed only of reconcilable elements, that it all adds up” Gibreel’s girlfriend was once advised by her father, “you get on the phone to the straitjacket tailor.”

Like its protagonists, The Satanic Verses has crossed borders, from England to the Subcontinent to the United States, transgressing cultural boundaries, upsetting truths and their clerics, causing riots and closing bookstores, until its author was cruelly forced, like many a Rushdie character, to arrange his own disappearance. Just as Gibreel Farishta cannot stop his dreams leaking into his waking world, his Indian past into his English present, his film career into his personal life, so Rushdie’s fiction has leaked at different corners of the globe into the realm of political conflict. No other recent book or film or piece of art, it would seem, has demonstrated so publicly the ways in which culture, like capital, has become a transnational arrangement of political forces and resistances.

In an earlier age, as Janet Abu-Lughod has remarked, a writer-migrant might have abandoned one world for another, written imaginatively and heretically of the experience, and have been read only within the new world. [1] His or her heresies, harmless in that new world, would never have traveled back to the old. Today, exiles never quite seem to abandon the place they leave, and their words move all too easily between the two.

Yet, the result of these expanded communications is no global village. Like its own protagonists, Rushdie’s novel has been transformed into something strange and different on each continent. In Britain The Satanic Verses, written to explore the experience of the Asian immigrant, of the multiple selves one develops and the racisms one endures, enraged and offended many of the victims of that experience. In India the book’s irreverent exploration of good and evil was found deeply insulting to people’s sense of the sacred, and denounced as an attack from the West. In Pakistan, opposition politicians used its pending US publication to attack the US presence in their country (the first victim of the Islamabad riots in February 1989 was a 14-year-old boy, Naveed Aalam, shot while trying to remove the stars and stripes from the flagpole of the American Cultural Center). [2] In Iran the book enabled a beleaguered clerical authority to reassert its political strength. In the United States it served as a vehicle for celebrating one’s own boundless broadmindedness and simultaneously as part of a general vilification of Islam.

Inventing the Authentic

The themes of The Satanic Verses, and its various transformations, suggest new ways of thinking about the concept of popular culture — people’s everyday music, stories, artifacts, jokes, performance, pastimes and poetry. Popular culture tends to imply all those purities that Rushdie distrusts. It suggests the purely local versus what is imported or cosmopolitan, the authentic versus what has been corrupted by outsiders, capitalism, tourists, or the West. Studying popular culture in a region like the Middle East has always seemed to promise access to the autonomous and untainted voice of ordinary people.

We should be wary, though, of celebrating in popular culture the expression of authenticity, of what is most unalloyed and original. As Rushdie’s fate reminds us, the clerics and other zealots, the Sadats demanding adherence to “village values” and enacting “laws of shame,” late-20th-century monarchs with their genealogies intact and irredentists with their biblical claims, have long ago turned authenticity and tradition into a vocabulary for enforcing the powerlessness of ordinary lives. The transformation of cultural production into a frozen “folklore” around which to construct a national identity, a system of schooling, or a tourist industry has been underway in the Middle East about as long as in Europe, the States and Japan.

Even those popular cultural forms in the Middle East that seem most traditional and unchanging turn out to borrow, mix and invent. Oral epic poems, such as the great saga of the Bani Hilal, still retold throughout the Arab world, would appear from their formulaic structure and celebration of the heroic values of a pre-capitalist age to be something thoroughly traditional. But as Susan Slyomovics has shown, the epic’s allegorical narrative lends itself to contemporary political allusion as easily as its ephemeral oral performance escapes police surveillance. In versions told in the Palestinian camps in Jordan in the 1970s, for instance, the curved medieval sword with which the hero Abu Zayd undoes his enemies was replaced with the klashen, Arabic for kalashnikov, the preferred weapon of the Palestinian guerrilla. [3]

The popular cultural forms explored in this issue of Middle East Report — from Sephardic “cassette music” that incorporates an Arabic vocabulary and motif to Bedouin storytelling that weaves into the narrative the plots of recent soap operas — illustrate a similar richness of borrowing and inventiveness. Popular cultural expression is sometimes actually formed around this borrowing, as with the genre of Egyptian humor known as Marlboro jokes, analyzed recently by Sabra Weber: A man goes to a grocer and asks (in Arabic), “Do you speak English?” “No,” replies the grocer. He asks a second grocer, and receives the same reply. A third grocer answers, “A little.” “Good,” says the man (still in Arabic). “Give me a pack of Marlboros please.” [4]

Although the rate of mixing and invention may have been slower in the past, it is safe to assume that — as with an example of popular culture that Sami Zubaida has discussed, Middle Eastern cuisine — the purity of the authentic is a modern illusion. [5] Middle Eastern culinary culture, which added new ingredients and methods over time according to changing patterns of long-distance trade, military conquest and social relations, illustrates well how a cultural tradition can continually mix, borrow and replenish from elsewhere and yet remain unmistakably characteristic of a given geographic region.

Instead of interrogating popular cultural forms for signs of the authentic, it is better that we see authenticity as a modern innovation. Kamal Boullata, writing here on Palestinian art and craftsmanship, provides an instance of why and how this innovation occurred and considers the history of creativity and borrowing that it overlooks or denies.

Culture and Resistance

Because we think of popular culture as that which is most local and authentic, we also associate it with the idea of popular resistance. No doubt this link is often accurate. Popular cultural forms are usually improvised, small-scale and close to everyday experience. This makes them suitable means for expressing political commentary and protest, and enables us to discover in them new forms and locations of political dissent.

But by linking the popular with the authentic, we risk attributing political consciousness only to those who demonstrate originality. In fact, as Michael Fischer and Mehdi Abedi argue in this issue, the power of popular political slogans, graffiti or visual imagery is often derived from the creative mixture of local and imported traditions. Also, the notion that popular expression can reveal a self-formed political consciousness ignores how popular consciousness always embodies its own inequalities and hegemonies, for example of age or gender. In their recent study of Palestinian folktales, Ibrahim Muhawi and Sharif Kanaana argue that the overturning of social or moral convention in the folktale reasserts the authority of older women, to whom the art of telling tales belongs. [6] There is never a pure autonomy. Indeed, as Lila Abu-Lughod’s article suggests, a cultural identification used to resist one form of authority can sometimes back one, unawares, into something worse.

The study of popular culture, therefore, must beware of limiting its explanation to those social meanings available to the social actors themselves. Interpretation should not be restricted to the actors’ own understanding of and reflections on their world, to the exclusion of forces and structures they respond to but do not articulate. Popular voices may tell us more than they consciously say. This is particularly true of those living intolerable lives, trying to resolve the incompatible demands of different social and historical forces. [7]

Many people today live like Rushdie characters, caught up in unresolvable double binds. The Moroccan women described in this issue by Hannah Davis are an example, trying to accommodate within themselves irreconcilable social demands. Ammiel Alcalay’s discussion of Sephardi cultural productions illuminates the contradiction of lives that bring together within a single individual the two identities that Zionism sets apart — the Arab and the Jew. We can examine, through popular culture, how individuals manage somehow to fabricate a coherence in themselves that is absent from their social world.

Berlin Wall

There remains the risk, particularly in making popular culture into a special issue of a magazine, of taking for granted the split between the cultural and the material, between the world of ideas and the world of things. The real challenge, as Raymond Williams reminded us, is to retain a sense of the primacy of certain social relations and the historical forces they generate, without slipping into the simple dualism of objective versus subjective realms or the very 19th century architectural metaphor of base versus superstructure. [8] Salman Rushdie's border-crossing characters are all exploring how “that Berlin Wall between the dreaming and the waking state,” between movies and real life, play and work, culture and the material world, symbols and reality, ideas and things, gets built and rebuilt.

A recent Middle East Report on the Palestinian uprising (#154) opened with an essay by Joe Stork on “The Significance of Stones.” The title alone is a reminder that a political struggle proceeding by means of rocks and roadblocks, flags and graffiti, general strikes and vegetable gardens, is an inseparable mixture of what we all too easily separate into a physical and symbolic confrontation. No popular movement or mode of expression ever belongs exclusively to one or other sphere, one labelled cultural and the other material. People’s lives are not constructed so neatly. To be caught up in an economic market, a kinship system, a tourist industry, a bureaucracy, an agribusiness operation or a military occupation is to be caught up in a dominant system of meanings — a cultural matrix — as much as in a matrix of physical constraints and determinations. The cultural and the material are not separate dimensions, one superimposed upon the other, for each implies the other at every point: they are different ways of describing the same arrangement.

To escape the mechanical metaphor of base and superstructure, of ideas superimposed upon things, is important because the organization of global capitalism has come to depend precisely on this technique of separation. The material world of work has been constructed in seeming opposition to the realm of culture, ideas and emotion — the world of schools, museums, film, music, restaurants, television, sport, tourism. We are persuaded to overlook the way the workplace is also a system of dominant ideas (hierarchy, discipline, value) and the school or museum a material arrangement. Once freed from its associations with the authentic, the traditional and the pure, popular culture offers a field of analysis that can disrupt the boundaries between these realms, crossing and confusing them as deliberately as a character in a Rushdie novel.


[1] Proceedings of a Conference on Global Culture, SUNY Binghamton, April 1, 1989.
[2] The Muslim (Islamabad), February 13,1989, p.6.
[3] Susan Slyomovics, “Arab Folk Literature and Political Expression,” Arab Studies Quarterly 8 (1986), pp. 178-85. The Palestinian example is taken from Abderrahman Ayoub, “The Hilali Epic: Material and Memory,” Revue d'histoire maghrebine 35-36 (1984), pp. 189-217.
[4] Sabra Weber, “The Social Significance of the Cairene Nukta,” Newsletter of the American Research Center in Egypt 138 (1987), pp. 1-10.
[5] Sami Zubaida, “Components of Popular Culture in the Middle East,"” in Georg Stauth and Sami Zubaida, eds., Mass Culture, Popular Culture and Social Life in the Middle East (Boulder: Westview, 1987).
[6] Ibrahim Muhawi and Sharif Kanaana, Speak, Bird, Speak Again: Palestinian Arab Folktales (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989).
[7] See Hermann Rebel, “Cultural Hegemony and Class Experience: A Critical Reading of Recent Ethnological-Historical Approaches,” American Ethnologist 16 (1989), pp. 117-36.
[8] Raymond Williams, “Base and Superstructure in Marxist Cultural Theory,” New Left Review 82 (1973), pp. 3-16.

How to cite this article:

Timothy Mitchell "Culture Across Borders," Middle East Report 159 (July/August 1989).

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