One of the many things I love and hate about the Internet is its impermanence. The fixedness of texts is always suspect, and there are only limited ways to go back through the changes to discover the palimpsest of transformations by which the text you read three years ago on…say, Wikipedia, is transformed into another.
Okay, I don’t draw that example at random. About three years ago I visited Wikipedia among other sources for a set of notes I was putting together for myself on the concept of “media ecology.” I visited the entry today to discover two major changes:
First, the article now recognizes a “European” version of media ecology that derives from the work of the great Gregory Bateson, among others, which I recognize as cognate to how I use the term.
Second, I’m there. There’s a whole section derived from my paper “Egypt’s media ecology in a time of revolution.”
I knew I was going to be a writer long before I knew I what kind of stuff I was going to write. In spite of a couple of plays that got produced, two lousy novels, a handful of even lousier short stories, and a lucky chance that led to a six year stint as a political journalist made it clear that I was going to write about the people in the world around me, not the messy characters inside my head.
In the many years since my first stab at fiction writing in elementary school, I have spent a lot of time thinking about, and honing my craft as a writer. And I’ve spent a lot of time teaching students to write well.
So when people single out my writing for praise, I am particularly pleased and flattered.
Which is a long, roundabout introduction to say that there is a new review of Connected in Cairo by Gregory Starrett in a recent issue of the journal Contemporary Islam.
Starrett describes the book thus:
This book is an introduction to the way that ‘connectedness’ in its many senses is a key for understanding themarkers of socioeconomic class stratification and what many scholars call ‘neoliberal subjectivity,’ the cluster of aspirations, tastes, and capacities that define the self in terms of its role in the circulation of capital.
He goes on to say:
Pursuing this argument about consumption as a fulcrum balancing cosmopolitanism and authenticity – the argument itself is not a new one, of course, but is laid out here in a style so clear and unaffected that it might serve as a model for good academic writing – leads us through Arabic children’s magazines, the social meanings of computers, Pokemon, shisha and coffee shops, linguistic code-switching, shopping malls, male sociality, international advertising campaigns for condiments, and the cutthroat competition between Cairo’s pizza restaurants.
Wait. Let me repeat that in case you missed it:
“laid out here in a style so clear and unaffected that it might serve as a model for good academic writing “
As someone who made my living as a non-fiction writer before I became an anthropological writer, those are extremely high accolades indeed. It is what I strive for in my scholarly writing.
Fatema Mernissi, in her interesting book Scheherezade Goes West claims that Western women are no “freer” than Middle Eastern women.
In the Middle East, she argues, the harem is about family. Bodies are covered, to be revealed only to the husband, who marries you before he sees it. Femininity is thus largely invested in intelligence, wit, skills and education. How you look and what you eat does not define you. Mobility is circumscribed, however, to keep you—and your family–from shame.
In the West, women are freely mobile. Their harem, says Mernissi, consists of submitting themselves to the male gaze, of starving or exercising their bodies to meet a cultural code that places a woman’s prime value on her ability to display herself as a particular kind of woman, primarily to men.
Mernissi argues that neither cultural system offers women real freedom. Both systems constrain them in different ways. In both societies, she says, women have to seize their freedom.
It’s a sweeping generalization, but it sparks a lot of class discussion.
I was thinking about this claim when I read an essay by Lori Beaman in the most recent issue of Social Identities.
There was a very interesting editorial in Lebanon’s Al-Nahar newspaper Nov. 6. It’s in Arabic, but here’s my gloss:
The author, Monalisa Freiha, wrote essentially that the trial of Morsi was a show trial even though Morsi was guilty, and deserved to be tried and jailed.
She called it a “show trial” not just to mean that the trial is a public performance with strong dramatic interest, but in the traditional Cold War sense that the guilty verdict against the defendant has been more or less predetermined by political goals.
Morsi, the author pointed out, was guilty of the following:
- “Choose the one you trust more!” says this Imad Hajjaj cartoon.
I love this cartoon. It has so many layers.
At the most basic level, this is a cartoon about the elections. “Who do you trust more?” The man is turning away from the local politician to the cartoon character SpongeBob SquarePants.
At another level, this is a cartoon about cell phones. The guy is a not actually voting; he’s taking a picture. The cartoonist is using this everyday mediating activity to indicate who this man would vote for.
It can do this because cell phones–with digital photographic and sharing capacities–have become so ubiquitous. The object in the man’s hand is represented by just a few pen strokes, with no detail, yet any reader in Egypt will immediately recognize what he is holding and what he is doing with it.
At still another level, this is a critical comment on Arab politics and elections. The untrustworthiness of candidates a theme that Mahjoob has dealt with in many cartoons (Imad Hajjaj signs his cartoons “Mahjoob”)
One of the classic discourses of Arab politics is to blame unhappy circumstances on the activities of outside forces that want to see the country suffer and fail. The old regime and the next regimes alike would blame problems on Israel, the U.S., Iran, even all of them working in tandem. Here it is SpongeBob, who IS an outsider, a cartoon that comes from, and hence indexes, the United States…but still more trustworthy (or perhaps just cuter?) than indigenous politicians.
Or is SpongeBob an outsider? At another level, this is a cartoon about SpongeBob, a character who is enormously popular in Egypt and the wider Middle East these days. Choosing SpongeBob over the local politician is a wry commentary on the quality of local politicians, sure, but it is also a commentary on SpongeBob.
SpongeBob is everywhere in the Middle East these days. Don’t believe me? Check out the Tumblr website “SpongeBob on the Nile,” run by American students Andrew Leber and Elisabeth Jaquette, With the assistance of Egyptians, expatriates and travelers, it documents sightings of SpongeBob SquarePants in Egypt and to a lesser extent the wider region.