CAIRO—What is the function of popular culture in Egypt today? Is it to show people themselves as they are, or to impose a national narrative? How should popular culture be understood, studied, conserved, and shared with the public?
And what is popular culture anyway? After all, as one of the participants in a recent symposium in Cairo, which raised these and many other questions, said: “It’s not like practitioners wake up in the morning and say, I’m going to go make some popular culture today.”
The two-day symposium, held January 17 and 18, was organized and hosted by the American Research Center in Egypt, a scholarly institution that supports conservation projects and awards fellowships and grants to conduct research on aspects of Egyptian history and culture.
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In one of the opening sessions, Mohamed Elshahed, the creator of the Cairobserver blog and the author of a new book on modern architecture in Egypt, and Marcia Lynx Qualey, the editor of the ArabLit website and quarterly magazine, discussed “producing knowledge for the public” with N.A. Mansour, a fellow with the nonprofit research center and an editor of the Hazine blog, which is dedicated to scholarly research on the Middle East and North Africa.
What those speakers’ projects have in common is that they are online, collective platforms. Other forms of knowledge production and criticism are also largely digital and often ephemeral these days: podcasts, YouTube channels, and forums on social media where people swap photographs, recordings and historical anecdotes. Collaboration helps these projects sustain themselves, but fragmentation is still a problem. “We’re all on our own little islands,” said Qualey.
“Museums should be liberated from the focus on antiquities.”Mohamed Elshahed
Creator of the Cairobserver blog and author of a new book on modern architecture in Egypt
Another challenge is that popular culture is generally understood to be “low” culture, and the discourse surrounding it needs to avoid being condescending or proscriptive, said Elshahed. Foreign scholars also should be careful not to be “parasitical,” he added—that is, not to produce knowledge in and on Egypt that is never made available here.
Local authorities, meanwhile, are often tempted to turn cultural heritage into a folkloric version of itself, for commercial and touristic purposes. That particular dynamic was discussed at some length in a panel dedicated to museums.
The conversation featured Elshahed, who has organized an exhibition of everyday modern objects from Egypt at the British Museum; Yasmin El Shazly, an Egyptologist who is deputy director for research at the American Research Center in Cairo and previously worked at the Egyptian Museum; and Karim Shaboury, who has designed a number of small new museums in Cairo, including the Gamal Abdel Nasser museum and the recently opened Naguib Mahfouz museum.
El Shazly argued that young Egyptian curators have more opportunities for training and for travel abroad and that this leads them to want to try out new ideas. She noted that every museum consecrates a few objects as iconic (such as King Tut’s mask in the future Grand Egyptian Museum) but that many more objects in the collection could have the spotlight turned on them.
Meanwhile Shaboury and Elshahed both deplored the extent to which museums are generally linked to tourism rather than to patrimony.
“Museums should be liberated from the focus on antiquities,” argued Elshahed, and be made into active spaces with exhibitions and programs. Shaboury explained that even when museums are designed to be dynamic spaces, they can turn into little more than “depots” because museum directors do not generally have the resources or the flexibility to initiate activities.
“Each museum should have a mission, a definite audience, a sense of how it will serve a community,” said Shaboury.
One older audience member noted that school outings to all major museums used to be mandatory during his public education, but said that that is no longer the case today. He seconded the suggestion that museums should take advantage of the huge local audience and “not count on tourists but count on 100 million Egyptians.”
Images and Aspirations
The question of who some cultural projects are aimed at and how they reach their audiences continued to be explored on the second day of the symposium, in which panels were largely organized by artistic categories (I couldn’t help but regret the absence of some influential fields, such as music or cartoons or even memes).
In a panel on photography, the scholar Lucie Ryzkova from the University of Birmingham, in the United Kingdom, gave a fascinating overview of the development of photography studios and family photography in Egypt. She noted in particular that photos from early-20th-century Egypt shouldn’t be taken as documentary evidence but as representations of social and personal aspirations.
“Studios were performance spaces,” argued Ryzkova, in which young people in particular enacted dreamed-of transformations. The repetitiveness and mimicry of many studio shoots can be used to identify important historical narratives, she said.
The photographer Heba Farid, who has recently created the gallery space and photographic art consultancy Tintera, noted the persistence of Orientalist tropes in depictions of Egypt. Images of veiled women and camels are as common on Instagram today as they were a hundred years ago, generated by locals as well as foreigners as part of a seeming “colonialist nostalgia.”
“Each museum should have a mission, a definite audience, a sense of how it will serve a community.”Karim Shaboury
Designer of several museums in Cairo
Challenges for Filmmakers
Egyptian cinema is also at times burdened with the expectation that it will show the country in a positive light, or show Egyptians themselves what they should aspire to.
Movies are often criticized for not giving the appropriate, positive image, said actress Rosaline Elbay. “There is a desire to control, censor, clean up what we see in films,” she said. But that can produce films that are not accurate representations of society, she noted.
The scripts for films in Egypt have to be approved by a censorship authority; even after they are approved, censors may intervene to remove a film from theaters.
Filming of all kinds also requires increasingly expensive permits. This means it is dauntingly difficult today to make a small, independent movie. And even established producers are very conservative in their choices, fearing they will waste money and time if they tackle a risky subject.
In fact, the elephant in the room throughout the symposium was the degree to which spaces, platforms, resources and distribution networks for culture in Egypt today—popular or otherwise—are increasingly censored, monitored, harassed and left gasping for breath.
Downtown Cairo, which used to be home to most of the capital’s cultural spaces—and a gathering place for protests—has come under such a security onslaught that bookstores, galleries, and theaters there have shut down one after the other. While independent publishers are sent to jail, the military has moved into producing films and TV serials. The goal seems to be to make the production of culture a state monopoly.