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Minorities and Popular Culture in the Modern Middle East (1): Examining Middle Eastern Societies from the Edge

Woolf Institute Visiting Fellow Dr Hanan Hammad reflects on the workshop, Minorities and Popular Culture in the Modern Middle East, that she organised collaboratively with colleagues at the Woolf Institute and the SOAS Centre for Cultural Literary and Postcolonial Studies.

Poster for the film School Girl (1942) which starred Layla Murad and was directed by Togo Mizrahi

Poster for the film School Girl (1942) which starred Layla Murad and was directed by Togo Mizrahi

Examining modern Middle Eastern societies through the lenses of minorities and popular culture, a group of international scholars from multiple disciplines presented fifteen research papers in the workshop Minorities and Popular Culture in Modern Middle East. Held in London on June 12-13 and co-organized by the Woolf Institute (Cambridge) and SOAS (University of London), the Workshop focused on mass-mediated popular culture as a site of contradictions and contestations and as a crucial tool in constructing public imagery of both majorities and minorities. Among important questions the workshop examined are: how modern popular cultures have represented minorities in the modern Middle East, how Middle Eastern minorities have contributed to the popular culture industries, and how to understand tension between minorities contributing to the entertainment industry, while minorities have been misrepresented in the media? Answering these questions relied on case studies that covered many religious and ethnic minorities from Morocco to Iran and Turkey, in addition to Middle Eastern Diaspora in the United States and Europe. Some papers approached their topics from historical perspective covering different periods since the nineteenth century.

Agency in employing music, cinema, and TV shows to signify identities, aspirations, and hopes of minorities in rapidly changing societies formed the core question of Ángela Suárez-Collado’s research on Rif song in Moroccan music and Berber protest and Yehuda Sharim’s paper entitled “Mizrahi Industry: Reconsidering Mediterranean Jewish Memory & Aesthetics in Contemporary Israeli Culture”. Ali Sadidi Heris analyzed cases from Iranian cinema between the 1990s and 2000s to answer the question whether the minority filmmaker could be national, while Vivian Ibrahim reversed the question to discuss how mainstream Egyptian cinema has discussed the Coptic question and the sectarian rift in Egypt. Some hope about the Libyan Arab Spring sparkled in Leila Tayeb’s examination of the Amazighi performance of the Libyan-Serbian female singer Dania Ben Sassi.

Discussions on agency of minority groups did not overshadow the state’s role in making a particular representation of minorities in popular culture. Cafer Sarikaya gave a telling example from the Ottoman Empire when the state represented itself and its minorities in a play entitled the Kurdish Drama performed during the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. The Works and life of the nineteenth century Armenian writer Hagop Baronyan was another Ottoman case discussed by Saro Dadyan. Dadyan’s work conceptualizes how changing historical contexts reproduces powerful meaning of the popular cultural content many decades after the writer’s death.

Foreign entrepreneurs in the Middle East and Middle Eastern diasporaic communities worked in specific contexts that influenced the production and consumption of old traditions and self-imaging. Omar Sayfo’s research on pioneer animation artists in Egypt and Morgan Corriou’s research on Jews and Italians in Tunisian film industry revealed some historical episodes of the making modern Arab cinema industry. Religious minorities from the Middle East living in the West have redefined their national and communal identities in a more complex and fluid socio-cultural ambiences. Their utilization of home popular traditions has acquired new meanings, as Niloofar Mina discussed in her survey on Jewish and Armenian Iranian pop musicians in North America. Similarly, Sami Everett discussed art, activism and nostalgia among Maghrebi Jewish Diaspora, and as Kenan Cetinkaya examined the Assyrian pop culture in Turkey. All these three cases destabilized the boundaries between the national and the communal, and between origins and diasporic homes.

Poster of the film Layla, Daughter of Elite (1953) shows Layla Murad in a very traditional urban working class outfit

Poster of the film Layla, Daughter of Elite (1953) shows Layla Murad in a very traditional urban working class outfit

Finally, gender and nationalism are two categories that no analysis of modern society could escape. Minority women in national imaginary constructed through popular literature as in the case of Turkey and through cinema and popular press in the case of Egypt. Sevinc Elaman, Hanan Hammad, and Deborah Starr underscore discourses and legacies of three individuals – Halide Edib, Layla Murad, and Togo Mizrahi respectively – to show how ambiguous and unrepresentational nationalism have gloomed high in late-colonial and post-colonial Middle East. Participants, organizers, and audiences received an exceptional treat at the conclusion of the workshop: screening Karim Miské’s film Jews and Muslims: Intimate Strangers followed by Q&A with Miské. Thought provoking and visually beautiful, Jews and Muslims narrates the transformation of harmonious relationship between both religious communities into hostility during the last century.

This post is written by Dr Hanan Hammad, Visiting Fellow at the Woolf Institute. Hanan is Assistant Professor of History of the Middle East at Texas Christian University. Her primary research focuses on the socio-economic and cultural development of the modern Middle East with special emphasis on gender, sexuality and popular culture in modern Egypt. She is currently writing a book on the late Egyptian starlet, Layla Murad (1918-1995).

3 thoughts on “Minorities and Popular Culture in the Modern Middle East (1)

  1. Very intriguing article by Ms.Hanan HAMMAD.. & G R E A T too !! Just, and in sheer modesty i would like to make few additions?! Jews+Armenians… in case of the Arab-land Jews mostly in North Africa+Lebanon/Syria+Yemen…had great impact on local cultures there..but most didn’t cross its boarders,as it did in Egypt as exceptional case,be it in Cinema/Theatre/Music/Arts ?!.. ALSO in Lebanon but much low-profiled way??…as some Jews had Arabic names that obscured their I.D.s .. Armenians on contrary were easy to single THEM out by their Old traditional names and family names ending by>> I A N < IAN/ the infamous Tele-Liban’s CHANNEL 7&9s,1st BEST ever director that came from Iraq in 1959/ sadly died by suffocation while helping/rescuing others from blast& blaze during shooting his 5th big screen movie KOULLONA FIDA-EE-YOUN/about the birth of Palestinian fedayeens raid -movie scene- in a basement nightclub in AL HAZIMIYEH/Beirut suburbs in 197O when fireworks turned into real flames,SADLY enough and nearly 20 people/actors+extras gave their YOUNG lives!… As Respectful Ms HAMMAD mentioned late/great Madam LEILA MOURAD < NAHARAK SA-IID(Good day to you) a comic talent never seen before…even HE reminds me of FRENKEL Brothers’ MISH-MISH Effendi cartoon character of 1930s…, FINALLY/ i’ve got toooo>>>> much to add, but don’t like to be a bore or a nuisance? Yours truly fromLondon/Is-hak Barsoumian

  2. The Armenian T.V directors name was LATE/GREAT Mr. GARY GARABETIAN..Tele-LIBAN’s channel 7+9 Genius 1959->?1970 -That went missing above!-sorry!!

  3. Madam LEILA or LAYLA /Lilian/MOURAD(Maiden name)WAGDI+ABDEL WAHAB..as SHE wedded 3 times ,twice to Great films Director Late Mr. ANWAR WAGDI & Late,Director too, Mr.FATEEN ABDEL WAHAB/Lady MOURAD had a younger Multi talented brother named Mr. MOUNEER MOURAD /a comedy-actor +songs composer+Impersonator ,70% of every TOP-HIT song heard between1950->1980 were HIS
    composition,Believe it or not?! HE acted in 1 maybe 3 movies such as NAHARAK SA-IID(A good day to you)>>>>>>

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