Culture and the Arab Revolts

When I came to Morocco in 2010 I restarted a subscription that I last had as a postgrad in the 1980s, to a magazine called MERIP – the Middle East Research and Information Project. It’s a useful and interesting quarterly magazine published in Washington DC, a left-of-centre counterweight to US political and foreign policy orthodoxies. It has reached issue number 263, a special entitled The Art and Culture of the Arab Revolts, which is of particular interest to culture-puzzlers in the British Council.

No. 263 is a bit of a medley, with articles on Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Tunisia and Morocco; but it raises some important themes and floats some interesting ideas. The cover story, called Culture, State and Revolution, (Sonali Pahwa and Jessica Winegar) deals with Egypt, and addresses the direction and shape of cultural policy after the revolution. Having traced the history of Nasser’s ideologized but substantial cultural policy, focussing on Egyptian theatre, and the Ministry’s gigantic cultural bureaucracy, they take the story forward to the often vapid pursuit of international fashion and foreign validation under Mubarak. Today, after the revolution, “in the hundreds of Ministry of Culture institutions, as well as coffee shops, living rooms and other intellectual meeting-points – there is a vibrant conversation about how to build a new cultural policy that succumbs neither to the market nor to state corruption, propaganda and inertia.” Not much doubt that there needs to be a state policy, but much discussion of how to protect the uncommercial, encourage creativity, inject democratic management and accountability, and avoid the apparently endless siphoning-off of funds.

Beyond and often above all this, though, is the $64,000 dollar question: “the relationship between religion, state and culture.” In Egypt as elsewhere there is fear of the potential for the repression of creativity and freedom of artistic expression once Islamists hold the reins of power, and the authors acknowledge this. But they also acknowledge that state policy has for many years nervously marginalized religiously-inspired creativity in the arts, and that there is a real negative balance to redress. There is a jostling for position between the secular-dominated Supreme Council of Culture (without a single Islamist member) and Hawiyya, a kind of parallel Supreme Council formed by the Muslim Brothers to promote religiously-driven art, and to defend popular cultural values (which, of course, the MB has a tendency to want to define). But the article makes the point clearly that there is a case to answer in the matter of historic cultural elitism; that there is considerable evidence of MB support for arts and culture; and that the Brothers’ position on censorship is far from monolithic. “Cultural production with religious values already exists; it remains only to be recognized by state cultural authorities.” There is cause for worry on the part of secular artists, and especially those whsoe work most obviously breaches popular taboos; but it may turn out to be as much about competition for resources as for survival, and it’s also interesting to see Islamist parties in government bending over backwards at times to show themselves safe custodians of the arts.

Two articles on Morocco (Festivalizing Dissent in Morocco, by Aomar Boom; and Protest Song Marocaine by John Schaefer) cover the exploitation of festivals (both traditional moussems and newer, created, festivals) to flag up a decorative but non-contentious diversity of culture and race, and to channel support for the monarchy, while becoming vital to local economies.. So it isn’t altogether surprising that the grand-daddy of Moroccan festivals, the Mawazine, widely seen as a royal event and (perhaps a little unfairly – it has much else to offer, on its Africa stage for example) notorious for its big name hires, the Shakiras and Elton Johns, has become a focus for artistic and political opposition under the umbrella of the February 20 Movement. Schaefer’s article traces the evolution of language and meaning in the song Fine Ghadi Biya Khouya, first sung by Nass el-Ghiwane in 1973, revived by another band in 2003 and then surfacing again in a new version as background music to the demonstrations of 2011. Schaefer traces the language evolution from darija in 1973, through a rich macaronic of darija, French and fusHa in 2003, to 2011’s return to darija. He looks for changing meanings reflected in language and imagery..

A similar but more exciting exploration is undertaken by Elliott Colla (The People Want), this time of the iconic phrase Ish-sha’b yurid …, the people want. I remember watching on You-tube in the spring of 2011 a group of young Americans marching through New York’s financial district chanting Ish-sha’b yurid isqat Wall Street – the people want the fall of Wall Street – and marvelling at how the meme, with its familiar rhythm of chant had escaped from North Africa and swum upstream like a salmon to new homes.

What I, like most Westerners, didn’t know, was where it came from. Colla traces its journey from a 1933 poem by the Tunisian poet Abu al-Qasim al-Shabbi, through first publication in 1955 to its embedding in the anthem (Defenders of the Nation) of the New Dustour Party. Briefly the Tunisian national anthem in 1957-58, the song was replaced by a more personalized Bourguiba anthem but remained popular and much performed. In 1987 Ben Ali, keen to remove traces of the supplanted Bourguiba, reinstated it, and its words grew rich in bitter irony as the regime grew more oppressive over the next quarter of a century. So when it emerged in Tunis and Cairo in January 2011 it was already heavy with resonances, as well as being “more than famous. These are words that would be known by any educated person anywhere in the Arab world.”

This story is embedded in an account of protest as repertory, of how actions and slogans emerge as tenacious memes, cultivated, practised, orchestrated and selected. In the end though, it is the journey of this single phrase that fascinates: it is hard to imagine protest in North Africa without it, and its assertive claim to ownership of the Will of the People. “The logic of repertoire says nothing about the coherence or truthfulness of these claims – it respects only success. Given the success of popular claim-making, no party to the revolution can afford not to speak in the name of the people, and it is unlikely that this slogan will disappear anytime soon.”


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