Middle East Report authors and editors have been thoughtful in their portrayals of the complex entanglements of culture and politics. But as Timothy Mitchell wrote in “Culture Across Borders” for the “Popular Culture” issue in 1989, “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…is to retain a sense of the primacy of certain social relations and the historical forces they generate.” “Popular culture,” when understood as “people’s everyday music, stories, artifacts, jokes, performance, pastimes and poetry,” appears to “promise access to the autonomous and untainted voice of ordinary people.” Mitchell insists though that states “long ago turned authenticity and tradition into a vocabulary for enforcing the powerlessness of ordinary lives,” and “[e]ven those popular cultural forms in the Middle East that seem most traditional and unchanging turn out to borrow, mix and invent.” Over the past 50 years, MERIP authors have sought to address these complex entanglements of culture, politics and material history. Here we focus on how MERIP particularly covered aesthetic expressions and artistic performances, while recognizing that culture has other dimensions as well.
MERIP’s first major effort to cover aesthetic culture was the 1976 special issue on “Resistance and Culture.” After this issue the magazine’s regular coverage of aesthetic expression and artistic performances increased, mostly focusing on film but also gradually addressing poetry and novels (and to a lesser extent music, photography and graphic arts). The graphic design of the magazine and the regular inclusion of illustrations and photography as modes of cultural representation and critique was an aesthetic contribution of its own—originally led by Palestinian artist Kamal Boullata—recruited by founding editor Joe Stork—and later by graphic designer Jimmy Bishara and photo editor Michelle Woodward. Starting in the mid-1980s, Barbara Harlow and Anita Vitullo (Khoury) regularly contributed essays on film and literature over a span of 15 years. Anthropologists, art historians and literary scholars likewise expanded MERIP’s coverage of expressive culture—including cartoons, music, painting, photography, poetry, television serials and theater—from the late 1980s forward. In addition to two groundbreaking essays on Arab exile and diasporic filmmaking, Miriam Rosen used her base in Paris to conduct a series of interviews with Middle Eastern filmmakers, media professionals, political exiles and writers (including Tahar Ben Jelloun) from 1989 to 1993.
Indeed, throughout the 1980s and 1990s, it was rare for an issue of Middle East Report not to dedicate some space to cultural performance and production. Key essays included Martin Stokes on Turkey’s Arabesk music, Mehdi Abedi and Michael M.J. Fischer on Iranian revolutionary posters and Lila Abu-Lughod on Egyptian television serials—the latter two appeared in the 1989 issue “Popular Culture.” These efforts culminated in a 2001 issue on “Culture and Politics” with essays by Ziba Mir-Hosseini on Iranian cinema, Anthony Shadid and Shiva Balaghi on Iranian photography, Ted Swedenburg on Arab “world music” and Hosam Aboul-Ela on Arabic literature in translation. In the years that followed, culture reviews became less regular in Middle East Report—with the notable exception of the 2012 issue reflecting on the art and culture of the Arab uprisings—but continued to be published relatively frequently as contributions featured on MERIP’s website.
The issue on “The Art and Culture of the Arab Revolts” implicitly responded to the unbridled mainstream enthusiasm for the uprisings as a victory of the “people” over the regime. Sonali Pahwa and Jessica Winegar, in their lead article “Culture, State and Revolution,” emphasized the “crucial function of ministries of culture” for Arab artists and writers who make common cause with regimes they may despise in order to access funding, professional legitimacy and cultural authority. While John Schaefer and Shayna Silverstein detailed the ways in which gnawa song and dabka dance gained new radical meanings in Moroccan and Syrian protests, Aomar Boum underlined the processes by which the Moroccan state has historically “festivalized” dissent. In her article “In Between, Fragmented and Disoriented,” Nada Shabout explained how Gulf states took over funding and regulating the Arab art world in the context of a disintegrating Iraq. Shabout went on to detail the urban revitalization efforts around the naming of Baghdad as the 2013 Arab Capital of Culture, which she characterized as a “systematic destruction of identity and erasure of national memory,” amounting to a “larger policy of denationalizing Iraqi history.” In the past decade, other authors such as Sinan Antoon, Susan Slyomovics, Patricia Blessing and Ali Yaycıoğlu and Nidhi Mahajan, have critically examined how states build and destroy monuments and museums in attempts to master inconvenient and uncontrollable histories of pluralism, political prosecution and slavery.
To be sure, the bulk of the essays in any given issue of Middle East Report have been devoted to political and economic matters. For years at a time, the attention of writers and readers was captured by critical world events and violent geopolitical confrontations, from the 1973 October war between Israel, Egypt and Syria and the 1979 Iranian Revolution through the first and second Palestinian Intifadas, enduring Lebanese civil conflict, Gulf wars, US invasion and occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq, coups and state terror in Turkey, North African uprisings and ongoing civil wars in Syria and Yemen. The United States increasingly became a direct actor in these conflicts, shifting the position of US-based authors and readers from one of distant solidarity and allyship with Egyptian workers and Palestinian militants to one of immediate proximity and ethical accountability, particularly given the domestic anti-Arab and Islamophobic violence of the War on Terror. At such times, writing about cultural issues might appear to be an unwarranted luxury, and it is not accidental that those issues explicitly on “culture” appeared during liminal periods between the first Intifada and the second Gulf War, just prior to September 11, 2001 or in the optimistic horizon of the “Arab Spring.” These moments have been important but rare.
At the end of the day, culture cannot but be political, inevitably framed, as it is, by struggles over the production and distribution of material and symbolic resources. But culture is never only political and certainly not simply a by-product of politics. In a review of Stranger at Home, a documentary of Kamal Boullata’s return from exile to Jerusalem, Miriam Rosen recalled a 1970s forum on Palestinian cultural resistance where an audience member asked what relevance the cultural artifacts discussed by panelists had to the Palestinian proletariat. Boullata responded that Picasso’s experiments with Cubism did not directly reflect workers’ experience, but they did change how people have seen the world ever since. Taking culture seriously on its own terms—with all its playfulness, ambiguities, affective intensities, everyday practices, performative effects and, yes, political economy—will remain an ongoing challenge for MERIP authors as they try to honor the creative ways people in the region seek to actively engage and transform the world and not simply survive life’s everyday struggles.
[Ted Swedenburg, professor of anthropology at the University of Arkansas, belonged to the MERIP collective from 1976 to 1978 and was a member of the editorial committee from 1997 to 2002 and 2007 to 2012. Paul Silverstein, professor of anthropology at Reed College, chairs the MERIP Board of Directors.]