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Pop Culture in the Arabian Peninsula: Societal Expressions, Commercial Issues and State Cooptations

Introduction

Pop Culture in the Arabian Peninsula: Societal Expressions, Commercial Issues and State Cooptations
La culture pop dans la péninsule Arabique : Expressions sociétales, enjeux commerciaux et cooptations étatiques
Frédéric Lagrange, Clio Chaveneau et Laure Assaf

Texte intégral

A first version of this text was published in French as a theoretical introduction to vol.1 of Pop Culture in the Arabia Peninsula in Arabian Humanities 14. This English-language version was updated and revised by Laure Assaf for this issue.

1“How does one define 'pop culture' in the Arabian Peninsula? How does it relate to mass consumption, public media, censorship, religious expressions, and traditional popular cultures? Who produces and consumes it, and under what conditions? What kind of entertainment does it create? How does it fit into political contexts marked by autocratic power, repression, censorship, and the mobilization of culture for political purposes? Should it be read as the mass-produced expression of dominant cultures, or can it be a challenge to the hegemony of these dominant cultures? Does it enable the control of representations and individuals or, on the contrary, does it allow for their emancipation and empowerment?”

  • 1 The call for papers was written by Frédéric Lagrange and Pascal Ménoret, and the special issue was (...)
  • 2 Only a sample of the voluminous bibliography on these topics can be cited here. For Saudi Arabia, t (...)

2These questions appeared in the first call for papers on the subject of “Pop Culture in the Arabian Peninsula” launched in 2019, which gave way to the 14th issue of Arabian Humanities.1 At the time, a large body of literature had already been devoted to exploring regional popular cultures through the lens of folklore and heritage, notably the analysis of oral cultures and vernacular poetry.2 But this first publication was motivated by our shared feeling that the 'pop' side of the popular was still largely unexplored. We refer here to the part of popular culture that makes no claim to authenticity and exhibits its hybrid and transcultural nature on the digital media where it is disseminated. This pop culture is not a priori the object of appropriation by the state as a site of nation-building — although this does not in any way prevent its a posteriori instrumentalization as a strategy for containing youth, as we shall see later.

  • 3 Among the works that prompted our interest for contemporary pop culture are Pascal Ménoret’s analys (...)

3There is still little research on new media productions in the Arabian Peninsula, from the audio cassettes of the 1970s to online apps, television productions and YouTube.3

  • 4 This argument was made by Sultan Al Qassemi in a short article published in 2013, which gave way to (...)
  • 5 Al-Rashoud 2019; Gräf and Hindelang 2022.

4This second volume prolongs the investigation into pop culture from the Arabian Peninsula by questioning the cultural centrality of the region; the specificities of its popular cultural productions; and the way a “Khaleeji pop culture” is now acknowledged, exported, and addressed around the Arab world and beyond. The articles gathered here were first presented at the conference “Culture Made in Arabia”, jointly organized by CEFREPA, Paris Sorbonne Abu Dhabi, and New York University Abu Dhabi in 2021. Convened by Frédéric Lagrange, Clio Chaveneau, and Laure Assaf, this conference brought together 40 participants, and set out to examine the Arabian Peninsula as a “new contender” on the regional cultural scene. This expression denotes the shift that took place at the turn of the 21st century, when state-sponsored as well as private sector and individually-driven endeavors moved the Arabian Peninsula from the margins of contemporary Arab culture towards the center, where it competes for prestige and soft power with the traditional beacons of urban cultural hegemony, such as Egypt and the Levant.4 This does not mean, of course, that cultural productions started with the modern Gulf states: even under British domination, the region played an active cultural role within the Arab world. It produced musical records and literary publications; and, especially through the circulation of Gulf students and the development of educational networks, notably in Kuwait, participated in the intellectual effervescence of the pan-Arab era.5

5The early 2000s, however, marked a qualitative and quantitative shift, notably through the heavy investment of the Gulf states in the cultural sector. This move came earlier for some and later for others: while Kuwait had historically been the cultural center of the Peninsula, it is only in the recent years and the nomination of Mohammed Bin Salman as Crown Prince that the Saudi state fully embraced culture as an instrument of soft power. With the help of considerable capital and heavy investment in education and multimedia platforms, cultural productions are not only showcased for local consumption but also exported throughout the Arabic-speaking world. Works of literary fiction, poetry, theater, music, cinema, television programs and fine arts, from high-end productions to commercial pop culture, thus shape a Khaleeji identity in contemporary Arabic culture.

6Although the conference panels addressed all aspects of this cultural production, the articles presented here focus more specifically on popular or even marginal productions: ones that showcase both the cultural hybridity of the Arabian Peninsula, and its emerging centrality.

7Popular media productions can say a lot about societies of the Arabian Peninsula, how they translate apprehensions and bring forward certain types of discourses, negotiating their relationship to national narratives. Pop culture sometimes escapes the extreme surveillance to which cultural productions are subjected in the region, though in varying degrees depending on the states concerned. In fact, productions circulated online are generally subject to closer supervision than that imposed on literature. The latter, because of its elitist character, its small readership and also the legitimacy of the actors in its field, can allow itself more deviations from national norms and discourses.

  • 6 Buscemi and Kaposi, 2020. 7.
  • 7 Socially, youth in the Gulf is highly interconnected and performs quotidian actions within a globa (...)
  • 8 Foley, 2019, p. 3, 8.
  • 9 The Kuwaiti National Library has recently produced a partial bibliography of the national theatre: (...)
  • 10 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4gTVnIJPsLw

8Our endeavours to solicit research on, and draw the contours of, a Khaleeji pop culture, have led to a few surprising observations. The first surprise was finding that although “pop culture” in the Arabian Peninsula does exist, it has not yet generated the interest that would allow its study to become a discipline in itself. It is therefore mainly young researchers, some of them local to the region, who take up the subject, working on media and productions that are consumed primarily by their age group. This youthfulness of the researchers reflects that of the local population: Buscemi and Kaposi rightly point out, in their collective volume devoted to youth cultures in the Arabian Peninsula,6 that the under-30s constitute 65% of the regional population. Despite the fact that they do not form a homogeneous group, they live in a globalized consumer culture, "where they adapt, in a transcultural way, the values and motives of a local culture to a wider scenario",7 regardless of their social class, nationality or ethnicity. Another surprise was the identification of subjects of previous studies as well as blind spots. It appears that, of the countries in the Arabian Peninsula, it is both Saudi Arabia and the UAE whose cultural productions elicit the most interest among researchers. Sean Foley, author of a 2019 monograph on arts, culture, and society in the Kingdom, argues that the focus on political and economic issues too often leaves out the cultural dimension but that, compared to other nations in the region, social science research has begun to address the subject of Saudi culture. A remark by this author noting that artistic creation is increasingly being expressed online, while the two previously distinct spheres of contemporary art (understood in the broadest sense, from stand-up comedians to filmmakers) and social media are gradually tending to merge,8 is, moreover, valid for the whole region. On the other hand, there is no large-scale study devoted to the Kuwaiti cultural industry, even though in the region – as will be seen below –the phrase “soap opera” or “theatrical creation”9 often goes together with the adjective “Kuwaiti.” This constitutional monarchy, politically more pluralist and open to debate than its neighbors, had taken a regional lead since the middle of the 20th century by making itself a receptacle for pan-Arab culture. It is also the primary center of production, notably of a Gulf “popular” music that synthesizes the folk and learned traditions of the peninsula on the one hand and the “oriental music” that was dominant in Egypt and the Levant on the other. The Al Andalus cinema – now transformed into a shopping mall – had hosted Umm Kulthūm in 1963 and 1968, Fayrūz in 1966, and ʿAbd al-Ḥalīm Ḥāfiẓ himself had donned a shmāgh and ʿigāl to record Kuwaiti compositions for local television,10 appearing before the pan-Arab recognition of a khaleeji genre that was yet to be invented.

  • 11 https://almadaniyamag.com

9Another notable absence is Yemen: the civil war and its historical, geopolitical, and ideological roots obscure the role of this nation in the cultural identity of the peninsula, whether it be the circulation of its creators and artists or that of its poems, melodies or cultural references more broadly. The online magazine Al–Madaniya,11 however, effectively documents contemporary Yemeni cultural activity both in Arabic and in English.

10Yet the existence of a peninsular “pop culture” object is obvious to anyone living in the region. For several decades, the Arabian Peninsula has become both a distributor and a producer of mass images, sounds, texts, and performances. It is home to a vibrant pop culture that uses formal and informal channels, analogue and digital media, and that targets a very wide audience in the Arabic-speaking area. TV series, web series, Twitter controversies, internet memes, comics, songs, pulp fiction, advertisements, all are disseminated and discussed, sometimes across regional borders.

  • 12 Ulaby 2010; Martel 2010; Alwāṣil 2013, 2014; Urkevich 2015; Muṣṭafā 2018; France 2020.
  • 13 See, among others, Hammond, 2007; Martel 2010.

11Because of the centrality of Gulf capital in contemporary Arab music production on the one hand, and the individual talents of artists and musicians who have been able to invent a compelling Gulf pop music on the other, songs are certainly the first pop product from the region to have found an audience not only within the Peninsula, but beyond its borders, and to have begun to be the subject of studies.12 The role of satellite channels, mainly MBC and Rotana, and the Riyadh-Dubai axis in the financing and dissemination of contemporary Arab pop culture is historically fundamental.13 As Richard Nedjat Haiem’s article in this issue demonstrates, this new centrality has also influenced the language in which pop singers perform; one that increasingly mixes and merges different Arabic dialects. Since the beginning of the 21st century, YouTube’s platform has undoubtedly been the main incubator of talent on a regional scale, and it is by proving oneself on the web that one is then integrated into the television, film, or music industries, in the Arabian Peninsula as elsewhere in the world. The focus on mainstream and mass media production, however, has left aside many unexplored “local” figures on the regional musical scene – such as the ṭaggāgāt, the wedding singers studied by Coline Houssais in this issue.

12This contemporary media culture has even managed to make itself accessible to Western audiences, from the successful translation of Rajā' al-Ṣāniʿ’s Banāt al-Riyāḍ (2005) into French and English, the first inclusion in an Arabic novel of the internet dimension of interpersonal relationships, to the international distribution of the films Wadjda (2012) and The Perfect Candidate / Al-murashshaḥa al-mithāliyya (2019), written and directed by Hayfaa al-Mansour. These relative commercial successes – in the sense that the international distribution of a Saudi film is a breakthrough – may prompt a debate on the specificity of cultural products intended for export, which often revolve around themes of female agency that are sure to strike a chord with an audience eager for “unveiling”, according to the established cliché. But the distribution of these cultural products also reveals that their producers and sponsors have initially considered the hypothesis of their reception outside the Arab world, and therefore of the globalized cultural codes of reception that this implies. This only confirms the ambition of the richest countries of the Gulf to use the “soft” power that is linked to popular culture to modify their image, as shown in the conclusion of Frédéric Lagrange’s article in this issue. This is done in a more controlled and clever way in this third decade of the twenty-first century than had been done earlier, at the time of the national “product placement” of Abu Dhabi that was Sex and The City 2 in 2010…

13On a pan-Arab level, we know that Egyptian plays and films, their recurring stock characters (the teasing almah, the bawwāb, the Ṣaʿīdī, etc.), or the icons of the Levantine song, are all reference points in the “culture of everyday life” shared by (almost) everyone. But on a peninsular regional level, there is also a quantity of musical or audiovisual productions, cultural objects, gestures, clothing styles, common figures of the everyday postmodern urban space (or of the desert as a nexus of identity, as it is conceived in many national narratives around the region), which constitute a common thesaurus of cultural references.

  • 14 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=halD-DzLEMk.
  • 15 http://aloularadio.ae/ar/program/نادﻴﻣﻟا -ﺎﻳ-نادﻴﻣﺣ /.
  • 16 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wiDUfOCz1kw.
  • 17 https://www.amazon.sa/نادﻴﻣﻟا -ﺎﻳ-نادﻴﻣﺣ -ﺔﺑﻌﻟ/dp/B081TNP2KY.

14First of all, there is the language: the strong inter-intelligibility of the regional varieties of Spoken Arabic – with the exception of the most geographically or socially remote ones, which therefore only appear in these cultural productions as quotations or in a stylized form – ensures access of all citizen of the Gulf region to the finest semantic nuances of local Arabic-language productions, which is the first requirement of a regional cultural unity. The specifics of these dialects make them more difficult to grasp (at least without prolonged prior exposure) for speakers of other linguistic families in the Middle East (except perhaps for Iraqis) or North Africa. Common expressions are shared at the peninsular level and distinguish these countries en bloc from other regions: for example the expression used when throwing down a challenge, il-Mīdān yā Ḥmīdān (the battlefield, Ḥumaydān = action will confirm or deny claims) is understood from Kuwait to Tihama and from Najd to Hadramaut; it is used as the title of a TV wrestling show in Yemen,14 an Emirati cartoon episode15 and radio program,16 a Saudi board game sold on Amazon.sa,17 and so on. But this same saying remains totally obscure for a speaker of Moroccan, Egyptian or Lebanese Arabic…

  • 18 https://www.youtube.com/c/FahadSal/featured.

15Jeddah-based Saudi influencer Fahad Sal [Fahd Sāl], who has four million subscribers on YouTube,18 actually specializes in amusing 'dialectological challenges' (taḥaddī l-lahjāt). Himself a speaker of a Hijazian variety of Arabic closer to Egyptian or Sudanese than to Arabian East Coast speech, he invites other influencers, mainly from the peninsula (regional dialects of Saudi Arabia included) to throw around local words and try to make him understand them. What is remarkable is that, apart from the “trick words” that guests throw at each other, communication is perfectly assured during their discussions, paradoxically proving the regional unity beyond its diversity. Language indeed features prominently among the topics addressed by Khaleeji influencers; beyond heritage, it has also become a way to question, and sometimes challenge, the boundaries of the in-group (either defined through national or regional identity) in a highly diverse context – as illustrated by Corinne Stokes’ article in this issue.

16But beyond language, what makes pop culture possible at the national or regional level is the existence of a “network of referentiality” shared by a majority and in which the complicity of belonging to a group is revealed, since, as Richard Mèmeteau suggests,

  • 19 Mèmeteau, 2014, p. 7.

“All mass culture must present to the masses the massive and renewed history of their own convergence. Pop serves to make an indefinite people experience its own power of aggregation.”19

17And indeed, just as there are probably not many Arabic speakers raised in the Arab world who would not identify “metʿawweda, dayman” as a line from ʿdil Imām in the Egyptian comedy Shāhid mā shāfsh ḥāga (1976), few citizens of the Gulf would not identify “minu yāyna hal ḥazza” (who’s coming to see us at this hour?), said with a nasal, dragging ending, or “Jāsim bāg il-shirka yubba” (Jassem stole the company, Daddy) as the perennial clichés of Made in Kuwait TV soap operas, to the point of becoming a source of internet memes, or “ay ay ay... hāḏā llī ʿaṭūna yāh fil-madrasa” (I... I... I... what they taught us at school) as the hilarious repartee of actress Intiṣār al-Sharrāḥ unable to speak English in the Kuwaiti hit comedy Bye Bye London (1982).

18Kuwaiti comic theatre or soap opera (featuring Bahraini, Omani, Emirati, Saudi actors and actresses...), Saudi TV drama, Emirati song, Nabaṭī poetry and its “popified” version in the TV show Shāʿir al-Milyūn are, among a thousand others, shared references from Muscat to Taiz and Kuwait-City to Jeddah. Who in the region did not discover with amazement, and then listen to, the hits of Firqat Miami, the first (Kuwaiti) boy band founded in the early 1990s? Who has not heard and empathized with, in anticipation of the regional weekend, the hit Halā bil-khamīs (Long Live Thursday, 2016) by the Syrian resident in Saudi Arabia, Maʿan Barghūth, and used the phrase themselves? And is it not known throughout the region that nsīr al-barr is the weekend rallying cry to go camping in the desert?

  • 20 Dakkak 2022.
  • 21 Lenze 2021.

19The similarities of urban spaces from Riyadh to Manama, beyond the particularities of this or that iconic skyscraper, also create common driving-related expressions: would the term “service road / shāriʿ khadamāt” make sense to anyone who doesn't live in the post-modern cities of the Gulf, designed for the car and where businesses are lined up in these side roads branching off from expressways? The recurring humans one encounters there are also trans-peninsular figures: one recognises, from crazy film comedy to satirical video produced on the internet, the Indo-Pakistani barber, garage owner or grocer and the pidgin Arabic he speaks, a common comic spring of cultural productions from a region in constant contact with the Indian subcontinent. Frédéric Lagrange’s paper in this issue, draws a panorama of the various places attributed to these “familiar others” in Gulf cultural productions, marked both by their alterity and proximity to the Khaleeji self. An increasing number of cultural productions play on the many humoristic possibilities offered by the confusion or transgression of this distance. They are either produced in the Gulf – sometimes to draw attention to the mistreatment of migrant labour, like in the viral 2015 music video “Mā fī khōf min kafīl”, where Saudi comedians embody South Asian migrant workers20 – or among diasporic communities, where returning migrants or long-term Gulf residents are made fun of for acting like Khaleejis.21

  • 22 See https://www.youtube.com/hashtag/راوﺳ_بﻴﻌﺷ.
  • 23 See https://vimeo.com/492862773.
  • 24 The podcast includes an episode devoted to the rapper Lil Eazy (available at https://podcast51c813. (...)

20Among the most compelling indications that this peninsular pop culture has reached “critical mass” is the fact that it is beginning to talk about itself, to discuss itself, analyse itself, and this from a regional Khaleeji perspective (quite readily reduced to the GCC and excluding Yemen), not just a national one, even though the presenters favour cultural actors from within their entourage. Such are the web-interviews of Kuwaiti journalist Shuʿayb Rāshid in his YouTube series Siwār Shuʿayb,22 discussing advertising, Instagram, TV soap operas or racism and social segregation, or, in the United Arab Emirates, the Khaleeji Thread programme on the Samā Dubayy channel,23 usually more inclined to yūla (a dance with acrobatic gun throwing) contests and other folkloristic celebrations. As for the Saudi internet, it is full of original columnists, such as Amy Roko, a bad girl in a niqāb mixing her Hijāzian accent with perfectly mastered American English, and presenting a podcast on the Deezer platform about pop culture in the kingdom.24

  • 25 Mama Hissa's Mice, Seattle, Amazon Crossing, 2020. Sawad Hussain. The author is the winner of the p (...)
  • 26 See [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y8406n5ZS5Y].

21Another indication of the maturity of regional pop culture can be found in its echoes in the highbrow culture of the region. An example of this would be Fi'rān ummī Ḥiṣṣa (Mama Hissa's Mice, 2015) the exciting dystopia created by Kuwaiti writer Saʿūd al- Sanʿūsī.25 Noted and censored from its publication until 2018, this novel imagines contemporary Kuwait in the grip of a Sunni–Shi'a (and atheist) civil war, at the same time tracing communal tensions from the 1980s onwards and taking in the deleterious effects of the Iraqi occupation. The key phrase of the novel, “the rats are approaching, protect the people from the plague”, is taken from a Kuwaiti television soap opera (ʿAlā l-dunyā l-salām, 1987)26 with which the narrative maintains a permanent intertextual relationship, right down to the paratext, as the cover of the novel clearly refers to it.

  • 27 This soap opera is analysed in detail by Pepe, 2020.

22In parallel with this link between “pop fiction” and highbrow literary fiction, one of the novel’s protagonists connects all the events that Kuwait went through from the 1980s up to the present day to the songs of Kuwaiti star ʿAbd al-Karīm ʿAbd al-Qādir (1947–2023), which serve as historical markers. This device of linking certain cultural products that have marked an era’s pop culture to the socio-political phases of the Nation’s history is recurrent in Egyptian TV dramas. One thinks, for example, of the way in which two ambitious Ramadan dramas, Bint ismaha Zāt (script by Maryam Naʿūm, 2013)27 and Nīrān ṣadīqa (script by Muḥammad Amīn Rāḍī, 2013) use specific songs to date events, with the landmark music pieces of the 1952–2011 era in the former, and in the latter specifically with the Arabpop hits of ʿAmr Diyāb (1961–). But the fact that specifically Khaleeji references enable this historicization is certainly a recent phenomenon.

  • 28 https://www.madamasr.com.
  • 29 https://cpa.hypotheses.org.
  • 30 Gonzalez-Quijano, 2018.

23However, if pop culture in the Arabian Peninsula is indeed a valuable object of study, an evaluation of the academic literature devoted to it is quickly done. If some productions are likely to be presented, analysed, praised, or attacked in the Arabic-speaking or international press, blogs with an intellectual and academic aim rarely take up articles from the region. In Arabic, there is no online publication covering the whole Arabian Peninsula comparable to the Egyptian Mada Masr,28 whose team regularly analyzes films, soap operas, songs, web-series, memes, etc. in depth. It is exceptional for Pan-Arab sites generally open to cultural issues, such as Jadaliyya or Raseef22, to devote their analyses to Khaleeji pop culture productions. Before it was discontinued, it was in Yves Gonzalez-Quijano’s French-language blog Culture et Politique Arabes29 (2006–2018) that one could regularly find short but useful articles devoted to media productions from the region – coincidentally, the blog’s very last post analyses the Saudi TV series Al-ʿṣūf,30 a typical current-period retelling of the ṣaḥwa “parenthesis” of the 1980s in the (then) Wahhabi kingdom.

24In fact, the angle most commonly taken by social scientists to deal with popular cultures in the region is that of nation branding and nation building, that of the collection of heritage and the creation, under state leadership, of a national culture based on a selection of cultural facts that are certainly real but essentially linked to Arabness, Islam and Bedouinism, and which are based on identity markers. As Hélène Thiollet points out:

  • 31 Thiollet, 2016.

“The Gulf States initiated a response strategy in the 1990s in the form of defending Khalījī identity as well as certain local characteristics (political, cultural, linguistic and social) presented as traditions and elements of heritage (turāth). This ideological and political attempt was clearly aimed at widening the disparities between nationals and foreigners and was practised in several areas (culture, education, labour and migration policy), in order to build the nation on the basis of an ‘invented tradition’.”31

25The exploration of this collection and of the subsequent invention of tradition in the Gulf monarchies was the subject of the pioneering work, Popular Culture and Political Identity in the Arab Gulf States (2008). Its editors noted that:

  • 32 Alsharekh and Springborg, 2008.

“An interesting, possibly unique, feature of Gulf culture is its ability to synthesize traditional and modern forms within the Gulf vernacular and then to project them into the Arab world beyond, by means of the vast media resources based in the Gulf.”32

26But at the same time, Alsharekh & Springborg question the power of resistance of this “stylistic dialect” used by local cultural productions in the face of global norms, eroding what might remain of traditional beliefs and ways of life.

  • 33 Vora, 2013, p. 175.

27Anthropologists have noted that the sifting and selection of various local, regional, and foreign elements operated by modern Gulf nations in order to create a homogeneous national identity draws a dividing line between citizens, holders of the national passport, and other indigenous people. Neha Vora points out that: “In the United Arab Emirates, the category of citizen and the idea of the nation as an imagined community are produced precisely against the foreign resident bodies.”33

  • 34 Khalaf, 2005, Roche, Roche and Al Saidi, 2014, AlMutawa, 2016, Akinci, 2019.

28Thus the black/white “national costume”, which is almost unified in its female version (ʿabāya), despite various names and subtle nuances of cut, while its male version remains a variation on the white dress (thōb/dishdāsha/kandūra) and headgear (ghitra/shmāgh/ʿaṣma-kumma). This pattern is identified as a standardization and uniformity marking out those who wear it as citizens and establishing the boundary with those who do not.34 Interestingly, Clio Chaveneau’s study, in this issue, shows how the national dress can be used, within an Instagram page dedicated to a pan-Arab audience, to denote the Gulf as a whole, regardless of the national variations that are so significant for Gulf citizens.

  • 35 Buscemi and Kaposi, 2020.

29But the installation of a modern national and regional popular culture is the ever-shifting result of a dialectical relationship between a vertical (top-down) model of diffusion of national identity politics and the spontaneous initiatives and creations of the actors. In this respect, Buscemi and Kaposi highlight the contributions of youth who, “in the process of developing their personal identities, are also actively contributing to the construction of a renewed Khaleeji and transnational identity.”35 They suggest that young people’s practices are innovative while remaining bound to traditions, and that their ways of socializing, both online and face-to-face, challenge and contest dominant narratives and social taboos, and explore emerging practices of inclusion. A prominent example of these practices is the gambūʿa, the fashionable hairdo sported by young Khaleeji women in the 2010s and studied by Laure Assaf in this issue.

  • 36 AlʿAbbās, 2013.
  • 37 Albishr, 2007.

30Saudi television satire is historically one of the earliest examples of the appropriation by Arabic-speaking intellectuals of the pop culture object: the essayist Muḥammad al-ʿAbbās devoted an article to the comedy series Ṭāsh mā ṭāsh as a cultural discourse,36 and the feminist novelist Badriyya al-Bishr made a more ambitious analysis of the same programme in a lengthy essay on the “mentality of prohibition in Saudi society.”37

31Each era, however, has its own media of choice: the most nearly subversive material is no longer broadcast on satellite channels but on the internet – and since very recently, is getting new exposure and global distribution via the Netflix platform, whose Made in Arabia programme offering has markedly expanded, and is now offering programmes initially intended for the net, such as Takkī (2012) or Masāmīr.

32States in the region are well aware of the challenge posed by cultural productions that do not originate from elite high culture and the need to control it. Authoritarian regimes are now seeking to appropriate pop culture, from cinema to music and from electronic music festivals to influencers operating on social networks. This appropriation goes hand in hand with the control and repression of popular cultural productions whose claims do not fit in squarely with national narratives.

33Saudi stand-up comedian Fahad al-Butairi, creator of Lā yikthar, was, on the one hand, the husband of feminist activist Loujain al-Hathloul, imprisoned in Saudi Arabia from May 2018 to February 2021, and himself disappeared from the artistic and media since his wife’s arrest in March 2018; on the other hand, he is one of the main actors in the tragicomic road movie From A to B / Min Alif li-Bā' (2013), an Emirati production (which nevertheless has no Emirati characters) that offers a bittersweet reflection on the echo of the Arab revolutions for Arab residents leaving the cozy comfort and certainties of Abu Dhabi (A) to travel to Beirut (B).

34The repression of Butairi and Hathloul in Saudi Arabia, the censorship of Al-San'ūsī in Kuwait or of the Sharjah Art Foundation in 2011,38 the stifling of influencers during the pandemic,39 the multiple red lines that vary according to regional crisis (Iran, Qatar, Yemen, Palestine, etc.) in addition to stable taboos (moral or political), all raise the question of whether regional creators have any choice other than state appropriation. Sean Foley believes that:

  • 40 Foley, 2019.

35The tactical choice not to challenge the system has given Saudi artists the social space to explore controversial topics while appearing to be apolitical. At the same time, this approach has compelled them to address the views of all of society, not just the members of the royal family and that portion of the public that happens to share their outlook. Saudi artists cannot cherry-pick views on social media that support their position and assume that they are in the right. Their vision can only work if everyone is included and invested in it, a process that is facilitated by a conception of art and culture that is the product of a group rather than a single person.40

36The fact remains that this vision of the artist as spokesperson for the group is a little hasty in ignoring the arbitrariness of power, which is quick to crack down even on those who seem to be moving in the favored social direction but are acting without its authorization.

37The need for rigorous analysis is therefore more pressing. In particular there is an urgent need to examine the relationship between mainstream pop culture, the niche subcultures that may be tacked on to it or that remain on its margins, the traditional popular cultures it is constantly borrowing from and referring to, the high culture with which it is in dialogue, and the protest counterculture in the region.

***

38The first volume on pop culture in the Arabian Peninsula noted, as one of the particularities of peninsular pop, its remarkable multilingualism, which is expressed not only through the permanent code-switching it maintains with English, but also with the various Arabic dialects used in the region, whether indigenous or that of immigrants, as well as the languages of non-Arabic speaking residents, particularly those of the Indian subcontinent. This reflection of the diversity of the inhabitants, discernible in all the audio-visual productions of the region, questions the paradigm of culture as a tool for differentiating and separating the local and the non-native: language is a permanent testimony of a hybrid reality.

39The six articles that make up this second volume all address this hybridity in depth. Through the case of TV series, sartorial practices, social media pages, influencers, pop stars, and wedding singers, the complex demographic make-up and multilingual reality of Arabian Peninsula societies appear particularly salient. It is perhaps not surprising that, within a conference dedicated, in part, to the exploration of state-produced cultural centralities, popular cultural productions are shown to constitute, by contrast, the place where mixed and complex identities are being expressed, and where monolithic narratives are challenged – though they can also be affirmed and reinforced.

40Clio Chaveneau traces the new centrality of the Khaleej among pan-Arab artistic and social media productions, by examining the artworks posted over a year on the @arabic.pop.art Instagram account. The trajectory of the popular page itself reflects a common path among artists: it was started in 2014 by a Syrian citizen living in Saudi Arabia, who has since moved to Norway. Chaveneau shows how Khaleejiness is increasingly indexed among the pop artworks published on the page. By referencing everyday items and figures, pop art supposes spectators who are familiar with the cultural context in which these items are situated; therefore, the growing representation of the Gulf among pop artworks implies that clothing styles, architectural patterns and landmarks, or consumer goods from the region are now recognized by a large viewership around the Arab world. Symmetrically, Chaveneau notes how, when presented in the context of a broader Arab world, representations of the Gulf/Khaleej tend to fall back on national narratives that associate the Peninsula with the Bedouin heritage and the standardized national dress.

41The field of music reflects this emerging centrality, while making the internal diversity of peninsular societies particularly salient. Coline Houssais rightfully underlines the historical “intersection of race and musical performance in the Arabian Peninsula”, with the Sumr, i.e. populations of sub-Saharan African origins, making up the majority of the traditional performers. She contends that this association between Sumr artists and musical entertainment showcases a “visible invisibility”: while Gulf citizens of sub-Saharan origins are erased from official narratives – along with much of the history of slavery in the Peninsula – they also increasingly embody cultural heritage through music. This new visibility of Sumr performers, if it has provided an entry into the pop musical scene, still confines them to the margins of the industry.

42It is this pop music industry and its female stars which feature at the center of Richard Nedjat Haiem’s article. Analyzing the language(s) used by some of the most famous contemporary Arab pop singers – Assala, Balqees, but also Hind al-Bahrainiyya or Ahlam –, he shows how they reflect a linguistic hybridity that is characteristic of the urban landscapes of the Gulf metropolises. This cosmopolitanism is reflected both in the careers and lives of transnational artists, who foreground a diversity of belongings (rather than the identification to a particular nation); as well as in song lyrics, which increasingly mix various dialects or use a standardized form of Gulf Arabic, erasing idiomatic expressions and overly local markers so it can be understood around the region and beyond (the “white dialect”).

43By contrast, the Khaleeji influencers studied by Corinne Stokes do not seek to erase linguistic variations or quid pro quos; on the contrary, these constitute some of the main comedic devices at the heart of their Instagram skits and elicit numerous comments from their audiences. These skits use language, dress, and social etiquette to play on the boundaries between the groups that compose Khaleeji societies, and on the assumptions often made about belonging or unbelonging on their basis. They mobilize young people’s ability to code-switch as a way to call out and unsettle these assumptions, showing how appearances – especially in the Gulf – are not always what they seem: a foreign-looking youth can turn out to perfectly master one of the dialects from the Arabian Peninsula and, conversely, a seemingly “typical” Khaleeji can reveal, when he speaks, a Khodmouni (Iranian) origin or an “American vibe.” The success of these skits, in turn, relies on the ability of their audience to recognize and understand the languages they mobilize and the various ethnic origins they connote; thus pointing to a shared knowledge of this diversity which goes far beyond what is portrayed in official discourses.

44Frédéric Lagrange’s article sheds light on a specific figure of alterity within Gulf societies: the “trans-peninsular figure of the South Asian barber, car mechanic, baqāla owner, or, for its female counterpart, the Indian nanny or bishkāra.” Tracing the different representations of the South Asian other in cultural productions, and their evolution through time, he first demonstrates how the longstanding connections between India and the Gulf create a “close otherness” – one that is intertwined with familiarity, and portrays the South Asian worker a familiar presence, both through historical ties and through contemporary cultural flows, particularly visible in the Gulf’s fascination for Bollywood. These representations demarcate South Asian characters from other migrant groups – notably Europeans and North Americans, rarely if ever a part of these cultural productions. At the same time, familiar otherness is still otherness: Lagrange examines notably how language, and in particular the use of South Asian Pidgin Arabic, is mobilized to keep these characters at a distance from the Gulf “self.” In turn, South Asian characters become a touchstone through which the modernity and tolerance of this self is being showcased and tested.

  • 41 Herzfeld, 1997.

45Finally, Laure Assaf explores how the discourses around the gambūʿa – a trendy beehive hairdo worn by young Khaleeji women in the mid-2000s – portray it both as an intrinsically Khaleeji fashion trend, and as heterogeneous to the dominant norms and values in the region. Condemned by older generations and by religious and moral authorities, the hairdo soon becomes an online meme; its portrayal then goes from morally reprehensible to simply ridiculous. In turn, online representations allow young women to counter moralistic discourses, and to voice their own opinions and practices. Through the circulation of online jokes, memes, and cartoons about the gambūʿa, the hairdo thus becomes a shared element in a Khaleeji pop culture, and becomes re-signified as an instrument of a regional “cultural intimacy.”41

  • 42 AlSuwaidi, 2021.

46The articles in this volume all illustrate, in one way or another, elements that make up this regional cultural intimacy. They therefore highlight the importance of a study of pop cultural productions: while this regional identity has lately been claimed, notably in the works of artists and writers dissatisfied with narrow national narratives,42 official cultural productions still very much draw boundaries along national borders. Pop culture and its online diffusion thus brings forward an alternative type of heritage: one based on everyday experiences and on the diversity of Gulf societies – both the internal diversity of the citizenries and the cosmopolitan urban societies. It also allows for a more conflictual representation of these experiences; one which, against the polished discourses of tolerance and diversity that have now made their way into political discourse – at least in the UAE and Saudi Arabia – gives way to online debates and disagreements around how these societies are represented and who gets to represent them.

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Notes

1 The call for papers was written by Frédéric Lagrange and Pascal Ménoret, and the special issue was directed by Clio Chaveneau and Frédéric Lagrange. See Chaveneau and Lagrange, 2020.

2 Only a sample of the voluminous bibliography on these topics can be cited here. For Saudi Arabia, the main references are Sowayan 1985, 2000; Kurpershoek 1994-2005, etc. For Yemen, see Caton 1990 and for poetry on audio cassettes, Miller, 2007; Dufour and Maloum, 2015. For the UAE, Al ʿAmīmī-, 2009; Holes & Abu Athera, 2011 and the publications of the Akādīmiyyat alShiʿr -of Abū Dhabī. For Oman, Audebert & Bakhouch, 2015, etc.

3 Among the works that prompted our interest for contemporary pop culture are Pascal Ménoret’s analysis of a Saudi comedy series, the now-classic Ṭāsh mā ṭāsh, (1993–2011) as well as the short kasrāt, sung poems in which a subversive statement can be discerned in the background, such as around the problem of tafḥīṭ (Ménoret 2004, 2016); and Frédéric Lagrange’s exploration of what an Emirati animated cartoon intended for adults, Freej, said about the questioning of national identity in relation to the migrant communities in a non-integrative context (Lagrange 2013).

4 This argument was made by Sultan Al Qassemi in a short article published in 2013, which gave way to a debate in the columns of the online news media Al Monitor (Al-Qassemi 2013). It is also part of the thesis defended by Abdulkhaleq Abdulla in his book entitled Laḥdha Al-Khalīj (The Gulf Moment) See Abdulla 2018.

5 Al-Rashoud 2019; Gräf and Hindelang 2022.

6 Buscemi and Kaposi, 2020. 7.

7 Socially, youth in the Gulf is highly interconnected and performs quotidian actions within a globalised and Western-oriented environment, repeatedly transculturating values and motives from the local culture to a wider scenario”, p. 4

8 Foley, 2019, p. 3, 8.

9 The Kuwaiti National Library has recently produced a partial bibliography of the national theatre: Bībliyūghrāfiyā mukhtāra ʿan almasraḥ -alkuwaytī fī l-fatra ma bayn 1971 ilā 2020, Kuwait, Maktabat al Kuwayt al-Waṭaniyya, 2020.

10 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4gTVnIJPsLw

11 https://almadaniyamag.com

12 Ulaby 2010; Martel 2010; Alwāṣil 2013, 2014; Urkevich 2015; Muṣṭafā 2018; France 2020.

13 See, among others, Hammond, 2007; Martel 2010.

14 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=halD-DzLEMk.

15 http://aloularadio.ae/ar/program/نادﻴﻣﻟا -ﺎﻳ-نادﻴﻣﺣ /.

16 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wiDUfOCz1kw.

17 https://www.amazon.sa/نادﻴﻣﻟا -ﺎﻳ-نادﻴﻣﺣ -ﺔﺑﻌﻟ/dp/B081TNP2KY.

18 https://www.youtube.com/c/FahadSal/featured.

19 Mèmeteau, 2014, p. 7.

20 Dakkak 2022.

21 Lenze 2021.

22 See https://www.youtube.com/hashtag/راوﺳ_بﻴﻌﺷ.

23 See https://vimeo.com/492862773.

24 The podcast includes an episode devoted to the rapper Lil Eazy (available at https://podcast51c813.podigee.io/6-new-episode), discussed by Kareem, 2020. One of her YouTube posts also shows her at the MDL Beast festival: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AbA_1DziSy4. See Derbal 2020.

25 Mama Hissa's Mice, Seattle, Amazon Crossing, 2020. Sawad Hussain. The author is the winner of the prestigious International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2013 for his novel Sāq alBāmbū.

26 See [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y8406n5ZS5Y].

27 This soap opera is analysed in detail by Pepe, 2020.

28 https://www.madamasr.com.

29 https://cpa.hypotheses.org.

30 Gonzalez-Quijano, 2018.

31 Thiollet, 2016.

32 Alsharekh and Springborg, 2008.

33 Vora, 2013, p. 175.

34 Khalaf, 2005, Roche, Roche and Al Saidi, 2014, AlMutawa, 2016, Akinci, 2019.

35 Buscemi and Kaposi, 2020.

36 AlʿAbbās, 2013.

37 Albishr, 2007.

38 https://www.e-flux.com/announcements/35699/an-unwarranted-dismissal-in-sharjah/

39 Lagrange, 2020.

40 Foley, 2019.

41 Herzfeld, 1997.

42 AlSuwaidi, 2021.

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Frédéric Lagrange, Clio Chaveneau et Laure Assaf, « Introduction », Arabian Humanities [En ligne], 18 | 2023, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2023, consulté le 18 avril 2024. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/cy/11405 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/cy.11405

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Frédéric Lagrange

Sorbonne University / CEFREPA

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Clio Chaveneau

Sorbonne University Abu Dhabi

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Laure Assaf

New York University Abu Dhabi

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