A new book by the American academic Andrew Simon documents the explosive effect of the arrival of the audiocassette on Egyptian society in the 1970s and ’80s.
Published by the Stanford University Press, “Media of the Masses: Cassette Culture in Modern Egypt” is primarily for academics and sociology students of Egypt. But the book comes into its own when discussing the class tensions the audiocassette inspired, particularly with the arrival of the popular sha’bi music.
Simon recounts how state-controlled radio and TV had been the arbiter of what music should be played. But with the arrival of the audiocassette: “Both ordinary and elite Egyptians, based in small apartments, in prominent recording labels and everywhere in between, engage in the making of Egyptian culture by way of cassette technology.”
This “enabled an unprecedented number of people to become cultural producers,” he writes. “… Working-class citizens, ranging from electricians to carpenters, used the money they earned from Sadat’s economic opening to become cassette producers.”
Disapproval in High Places
This noisy new freedom of the masses, however, was not welcome everywhere.
Simon reprints a cartoon from a 1983 edition of the magazine Rose Al-Yusuf with the caption “Singers, our heads are killing us”, taken from a poem by Bayram al-Tunsi in the 1940s. “Originally directed at overly sentimental singers, the phrase, in this later instance, addresses inferior ‘artists’ whose meaningless words make listeners ill.”
“Working-class citizens, ranging from electricians to carpenters, used the money they earned from Sadat’s economic opening to become cassette producers‘‘.Andrew Simon
Simon also quotes Ahmad Haykal, Egypt’s minister of culture from 1985 to 1987: “Art without obligation is like a river without banks: in the end it leads to drowning.”
In Haykal’s view, Simon writes, “those responsible for submerging Egyptians with purposeless, ‘vulgar’ art committed two sins. They shirked their obligation to protect the values, morals and taste of their compatriots and they preyed upon Egypt’s ‘climate of freedom’ and Sadat’s economic opening ‘to introduce cheap laughter they called art.’”
Simon also describes how Ibrahim al-Musbah, who oversaw musical works for the Radio and Television Union in the same period, ruled that only ten poets among 5,000 writers could create proper songs. “Those not fortunate enough to earn the approval of al-Musbah and other cultural elites like Abd al-Wahhab, who assisted the radio in determining who deserved to be aired, were forced to find other ways to be heard.”
Mahfouz’s More Nuanced View
You sense Simon himself is sympathetic to the “more nuanced stance” of Naguib Mahfouz toward Ahmad ‘Adawiya, one of the pioneers of sha’bi music. “At times the Nobel laureate criticised ‘Adawiya’s music for its ‘triviality’ and ‘crudeness’ … but in other moments the author recognised his ‘strong, sorrow-infused voice’ and recalled several of ‘Adawiya’s songs with ease, only to wish their lyrics were more meaningful.”
“Art without obligation is like a river without banks: in the end it leads to drowning.“Ahmad Haykal, Egypt’s minister of culture from 1985 to 1987
Andrew Simon spent a year in Cairo on a fellowship at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad in Egypt where he witnessed the downfall of Hosni Mubarak in 2011. He is now a lecturer and research associate in Middle Eastern studies at Dartmouth College, in the United States.
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He explains early in the book why he decided to write about Egypt from the angle of the audiocassette:
“Carl Ipsen has engaged cigarettes to cast new light on twentieth-century Italian society, Kerry Ross has employed cameras to unpack the making of an everyday activity in Japan, and Marie Gaytán has harnessed tequila to chart the rise of a national emblem in Mexico. Meanwhile in Middle East studies, academics have detailed the social life of olive oil, an ancient statue and a sought-after stone when empires prevailed.”
His book takes a cue from these works, he writes, to “explore what the untold story of one mass medium may teach us about the history of modern Egypt.”