Middle East Report no. 159, July-August 1989. Cover art by Muhammad Ben Miftah, design by Kamal Boullata.

Although MERIP is best known for political economy critiques of systems of resource extraction, imperialism and authoritarianism, artwork, creative texts and cultural reviews have never been merely supplemental to its project. Elevating cultural expression and aesthetic performance from the Middle East and North Africa can be an act of political defiance, pushing back against a Eurocentric narrative that denies the region artistic agency and access to the sublime. But how to approach cultural expression without reducing it to an instrument of hegemony and resistance has been a persistent challenge in MERIP’s cultural analysis.

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.

Over the past 50 years, MERIP authors have sought to address these complex entanglements of culture, politics and material history.

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.

Middle East Report no. 263, Summer 2012. Cover photo by Nasser Nasser, design by James E. Bishara.

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.


Poetry in Middle East Report
Beyond simply covering expressive culture, MERIP has also served as a site for elevating cultural production, particularly poetry. In the late 1970s, MERIP reported on the imprisonment, hunger strike and trial of Egyptian poet Ahmed Fuad Negm. The magazine also published two of Negm’s “calls” for international action against the repressive policies of President Anwar Sadat’s regime, translated several of his social critique poems and covered his 1978 trial (with his artistic collaborator the singer Sheikh Imam). In subsequent issues, MERIP continued to translate contemporary Middle Eastern poetry. Poems by Andrée Chedid, Nazik al-Mala’ika and Marzieh Ahmadi Ookswi accompanied a 1979 Marisa Escribano photo essay on Egyptian women. Verse by Israeli Mizrahi poets Erez Bitton (interviewed for the magazine by Ken Brown in 1980), Sami Shalom Chetrit and Shelley Elkayam accompanied Ammiel Alcalay’s 1989 essay “Wounded Kinship’s Last Resort.” These poems provided vivid examples of how Israel’s Oriental Jews were drawing on themes and traditions from the Arab and Mediterranean world to redefine and challenge dominant Israeli culture. MERIP published several poems to accompany its coverage of the first Intifada, including Mahmoud Darwish’s 1988 poem, “Those Who Pass Between Fleeting Words,” with an essay by Alcalay unpacking the hysterical reaction to the poem when it was first published in the Jerusalem Post. Additional Intifada poetry came from Palestinian poets Taha Muhammad Ali in 1990 and Sherif Elmusa in 1988 as well as Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani, whose 1988 “Children Bearing Rocks” memorialized the iconic young stone-throwers of the uprising.

In the late 1980s, verse by Iraqi poet Ahmad Mattar and Nizar Qabbani provided graphic illustration for a special issue on human rights in the Middle East. Lebanese American poet Etel Adnan’s “It Was Beirut, All Over Again” appeared in an issue on Lebanon’s seemingly unending civil strife. (Poems by Adnan also appeared in 1989 and 1997). Darwish was interviewed on the situation in Palestine in 1995, and MERIP later published two of his poems (“Mural” and “At the Station of a Train Which Fell off the Map”) to mourn his passing in 2008. Other poets to appear in the magazine in the pre-War on Terror era include the Sudanese writer Mohammed al-Mahdi al-Majdhoub and Syrian-American Mohja Kahf in 1997 and 2000, among several others.

MERIP led its coverage of the September 11, 2001 attacks and the War on Terror aftermath with Palestinian Brooklynite spoken-word poet Suheir Hammad’s heart-wrenching “first writing since.” Most recently, in 2021, Lisa Wedeen published three short poems by Osama Esber in bilingual form addressing the Syrian conflict, the first time MERIP had published extended text in Arabic. These poetic texts published across the years do not simply illustrate the social and political events covered in the magazine but constitute interpretive engagements on par with the analytical essays that surround them.


[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.]




How to cite this article:

Ted Swedenburg, Paul Silverstein "Culture and Politics, Culture as Politics," Middle East Report 300 (Fall 2021).

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