Charles Paul Freund is a contributing editor at the libertarian magazine Reason in the United States, where he served as a senior editor until 2005. He wrote “The Zeitgeist Checklist” feature for the New Republic magazine during the mid-1980s, before moving on to the Washington Post, where he worked as an editor in the newspaper’s Outlook section until 1992. His articles have appeared in many publications, including Beirut’s Daily Star. Freund has written extensively about popular culture during his career, in particular more recently about the popular culture of the Middle East. It was to address this and other topics that Diwan interviewed Freund in late August.
Michael Young: You’ve long been interested in Arab popular culture, particularly music videos, about which you wrote in a much-quoted June 2003 article in Reason. More recently you’ve been looking at the political implications of Arab science fiction and fantasy, a field that’s largely unknown. Tell us more.
Charles Paul Freund: A lot has been going on in that area, with the result that it’s not as unknown as it used to be. Egyptian dystopian authors such as Basma Abdel Aziz, who wrote The Queue, and Mohammad Rabie, who wrote the violent Otared, have been featured in the New York Times. Film rights to Frankenstein in Baghdad, by Iraqi writer Ahmed Saadawi, were recently purchased by a British production company. Boualem Sansal’s 2084, an Algerian novel that is an homage to George Orwell, was a bestseller in France. A work of Syrian Magic Realism, Fadi Azzam’s Sarmada, was celebrated in the New Yorker. Anthologies in which Iraqi and Palestinian writers imagine their societies a century from now have been commissioned by British publisher Commapress. Iraq + 100 is out; Nakba + 100 is coming.
There’s enough recent Arab speculative fiction catching people’s attention for an Italian scholar named Ada Barbaro to have published a study about it in 2013. She was particularly interested in how Arab fantasists used time. She also suggested that some elements of science fiction are transgressive in conservative Islamic cultures. Anyway, quite a lot of this material is being translated for Western readers. There’s more international interest in the Arab imagination than there has been for some time. At least publishers think so.
MY: What do you find in the popular culture of the region that is so compelling?
CPF: I like much of it on its own terms, of course. There’s certainly a lot of great music that’s been coming out of the region. But it’s also hard to avoid some of the political and social implications. Within Arab pop culture there’s a culture of dissent. The New York Times’ piece on Middle Eastern dystopias drew a direct line from this wave of pessimistic fiction to the reactions—disappointment, despair, anger—in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. Of course, works like those are political by their nature.
The politics of the music can be a more controversial subject. Still, Egyptian mahraganat music, which emerged a decade ago, deals in frank terms with issues facing Cairo’s poor. It is hated by Egypt’s government and the country’s music establishment. Music like that is clearly a form of dissent, as is the outspoken hip-hop of North Africa. After all, the Tunisian rapper Hamada Ben Amor—known as El General—is credited with helping bring down the regime of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali. And for that matter Egyptian musician Ramy Essam provided the anthem for former president Hosni Mubarak’s exit, “Irhal.”
MY: What are some of the particularities of cultural dissent?
CPF: All societies generate cultures of dissent, because they all have grievances. But when direct and open dissent is dangerous, it gets channeled into unexpected places. Richard Darnton, an American scholar of the French Revolution, identified political dissent under the Old Regime in such material as utopian speculation, erotica, and what he called “political slander,” the scathing, gossipy pamphlets that targeted the king. Such works had many more readers than did Rousseau or Diderot—though come to think of it Diderot wrote pornography, too—and these worked in their own way to undermine the bulwarks of power.
In fact, these are interesting genres to look at in any culture of dissent. Check out the Arab case. Dissent can take many forms, from graffiti to popular jokes, and so on. But looking at Darnton’s three genres through a Middle Eastern lens may tell us something about dissenting cultures themselves. For example, when Darnton’s subjects were imagining a future world, they portrayed it as perfect to contrast it with the one in which they were living. Many Arabs authors are portraying future worlds, too, though they are using harsh future scenarios to criticize the present more directly.
MY: This is reminiscent of the Soviet Union, where science fiction was used to discuss contemporary politics, without actually doing so head on.
CPF: Latin America’s Magic Realism is sometimes said to have played a similar role. Nor is this the first generation of Arab novelists to turn to the fantastic to address politics. For all their numinous mysticism, some of the impressive fantasies of the great Egyptian novelist Gamal al-Ghitani are reactions to the late president Gamal Abdel Nasser. Naguib Mahfouz has at least one surrealistic story of a violent and chaotic world that is said to be a reaction to the June 1967 war.
In fact, in 1985, a pair of Egyptian anthologists named Ceza Kassem and Malak Hashem were preparing a collection of fantastic Arab tales, and they were surprised to realize that of the two-dozen stories they had chosen, all but two had been published after 1967. That was “a crucial year in Arab consciousness,” as they put it, one that they suggested had opened the door wide to the modern Arab fantastic. If we pair their view of the effects of the 1967 war with the New York Times’ interpretation of the new dystopias, we may have two cases of powerfully imaginative Arab storytelling as reactions to shattering events.
But back to Darnton’s genres. “Political slander” and its denigration of repressive power is another, and it’s an easy one for us: Arabs have a bottomless taste for political satire. YouTube has long been full of clever amateur satire at the expense of repressive Arab regimes. Syrians were especially good at it. Talented unknowns in the region can draw huge online audiences, move to television, and become national celebrities. That’s what happened to Bassem Youssef in Egypt, though of course now he’s living in the United States. Ahmed al-Basheer, who did a similar show for Iraqis out of Jordan, is off the air, too. The targets of both men were not amused.
MY: What about the third genre? Are you suggesting that erotica has a role in Middle Eastern dissent?
CPF: It’s worth raising the issue. The region has a rich history of erotic texts, but I’m talking about the modern cases. You have a small number of obvious examples, such as the writer who called herself Nedjma and who published an erotic novel called The Almond a few years ago. She described her book as “a cry of protest,” writing that she wanted to give Arab women back the speech that their male relatives had “confiscated.” But she was an expat publishing in France, so maybe her dissent doesn’t help make our case.
In the region, you’ve had the Lebanese erotic magazine Jasad, edited by another woman, Joumana Haddad. It was smart and playful, with a set of handcuffs dangling from the logo. But Haddad says advertisers were wary about being associated with it. Should we take viability into account? The indispensable Cairo-based critic M. Lynx Qualey has noted some Arab authors who have written quite explicitly in recent years, including Egypt’s Mona Prince and Lebanon’s Hanan al-Shaykh. Actually, explicit scenes in Arab fiction are no longer very surprising.
Now, look at all the women we’ve mentioned so far. Maybe we’re beginning to make a case for some erotica as dissent. We could approach this as an issue of marginalized voices using erotica to push boundaries. If so, then we should also note gay authors such as the Palestinian writer Abbad Yahya and his novel Crime in Ramallah.
But all this has a spectacular flip side that we can’t ignore: the region’s ubiquitous, commercially successful, and often notorious music videos, especially what we might call the Haifa Wehbe school of the musical arts. These can be provocative and sometimes scandalous. They also have a far larger audience than the writers have. Whether they use the erotic to objectify women or to empower them is a matter of debate. Maybe they manage to do both.
Obviously, nobody watches these videos as an act of conscious dissent. But then nobody read underground 18th century pornography as a revolutionary act, either. Anyway, Western culture was reshaped in the 20th century not only by canonical authors such as D. H. Lawrence writing about Lady Chatterley’s desires, but by the commercial reappearance of 18th century erotica such as Fanny Hill, a work that lacked any cultural prestige whatsoever. Maybe Haifa Wehbe, Nancy Ajram, and all the others are, in terms of popular reception, the Fanny Hills of the Middle East.
MY: One of your arguments about Arab music videos focused on a different side of them. That in their willingness to stretch socially permissible boundaries, they allowed viewers to shape and assert their own identities. What did you mean?
CPF: I meant that they were an individualizing medium. Group identity is a powerful force in the region, and these ubiquitous videos provided a seemingly endless string of alternative Arab worlds. These were also usually worlds without fatalism or determinism; instead they offered a celebration of individual possibility. Unlike most television series and Egyptian movies, which tend to be rooted in social realism and frequently in family melodrama, many of these glitzy video productions were wild flights of fancy, including forays into miniature science fiction.
A few years ago a German-Iraqi writer named Ahmed Khammas described Arab society as lacking in what he called “future-ness.” Well, many pop videos have featured a lot of Arab future-ness, sometimes by presenting a literal future world, but more often by inviting their viewers to consider their future selves, and how they might fashion them.
MY: Your interpretation came earlier this century, at a time of somewhat greater optimism in the region when it came to the idea of liberty, personal or otherwise. Do you still view the possibilities in popular culture in as hopeful a way?
CPF: It’s a dark hour in the region. But the desire for more liberty that was unleashed a few years ago hasn’t dissipated. I don’t think that’s how it works. It’s been frustrated and contained—for now—by force, and it will find a way of reasserting itself. Dissent continues to express itself culturally in the ways that we’ve been talking about.
It’s not so dark in the Gulf, where Arabs from all over the region are building quite a striking model of that future-ness we were talking about. It’s actually a “science-fictionish” place, the Gulf, not only in its architecture but in what you can find in its desert. Skiing? Rainforests? And look at the Arab tech world there. It’s thriving more successfully than anyone expected, with women especially active in the field.
MY: As you look ahead in the region, with its politics of devastation, what will you be watching to provide a way out of the gloom? Can popular culture provide one possible path away from the bleak situation?
CPF: We’ve seen popular culture do so elsewhere. In the Soviet Union, the unofficial dissenting culture reflected the kinds of lives people actually wanted to live—shaped not only by dissenting underground publications, or samizdats, but by a love for jazz, rock, and jeans, and all that this implied. It eventually overwhelmed the official culture, which reflected only what the state wanted. Pop culture helped delegitimize an imperious authority while bringing people pleasure. That’s an impressive achievement.
These dissenting genres we’ve been discussing, what are they ultimately about? They’re about hope in the future, wariness of power, and challenging moral stricture. That’s an agenda that’ll keep you busy in all circumstances, and the culture-makers of the Arab world have been pursuing it in the face of appalling terror and opposition from brutal police states. They’re a courageous lot, so what I’ve learned to look for is yet more such audacity.