Ordinary Egyptians: Creating The Modern Nation Through Popular Culture (2011)
On June 8, 2010 an Egyptian Google executive based in Dubai, named Wael Ghonim, was stunned by a YouTube video that featured a fellow citizen by the name of Khaled Said, bloodied and disfigured.It turned out that the Egyptian police had beaten Said to death and mutilated his body. Appalled by this short video that ran viral through Arab social media, Wael Ghonim created a Facebook page that came to symbolize the involvement of ordinary people in creating change. “We are all Khaled Said” was the name of the Facebook page, adding the motto “today they killed Khaled, and if I don’t act for his sake, tomorrow they’ll kill me.” This internet-based movement contributed to fomenting the uprising in Egypt that ultimately overthrew the corrupt, 30-year regime of Hosni Mubarak. Throughout modern Egyptian history, the media and popular culture have played a crucial role in shaping and informing major political events, as Ziad Fahmy makes evident in Ordinary Egyptians: Creating the Modern Nation Through Popular Culture.
Fahmy argues that the illiterate and lower classes played an important role in forging Egyptian nationalism. Drawing on otherwise unconsulted sources in colloquial Egyptian, such as songs, popular poems, vaudeville plays, and other sources in the spoken and vernacular Cairene dialect, Fahmy shows that popular culture was instrumental in helping to create a new national identity. Fahmy’s study of these sources fills a sizable gap in the historiography of Egyptian nationalism by lending a voice to the majority of the population. While previous research on Egyptian nationalism was built on intellectual history (Gershoni, Rethinking Nationalism and Smith The Ethnic Origins of Nations), Fahmy’s Ordinary Egyptians turned the approach to Egyptian nationalism from elites to nonelites.
The primary problem that Fahmy raises relates to many third world societies. How can we investigate nationalism in societies with more than 90 percent illiteracy? Focusing on Egypt in the last quarter of nineteenth century and the beginning of twentieth, when no more than 6.8% of the population was literate, Fahmy unequivocally discards Eurocentric theories as counterproductive when applied to illiterate societies. Thus he supplements the study of print capitalism by a more inclusive media capitalism, which is better able to account for unnoticed or undocumented cultural occurrences. “Cultural products,” writes Fahmy in the preface, “are not socially relevant unless they are communally and socially activated.” In other words, Fahmy is concerned with the ways individuals and communities communicate with and digest cultural information. Print capitalism was a luxury in late-nineteenth century Egypt. The illiterate population, who couldn’t relate to a written newspaper, still actively participated in creating national identity through the new mass media and entertainment industry. Earlier theories of nationalism that dismissed “orality and direct social interactions” ignored not only the experiences of the vast majority of the population, but more importantly, as as Fahmy notes, paraphrasing Mikhail Bakhtin,they ignored the “social life of discourse outside the artist’s study, discourse in the open spaces of public squares, streets, cities and villages.”
Fahmy stresses the centrality of Cairo and to a lesser extent Alexandria as hubs of cultural activity that radiated and distributed the popular Cairene dialect throughout Egypt. Thanks to the new industrial infrastructure (railroads, telegraph, and post office), the urban areas and the countryside became more connected. New musical and comedic theater troupes could reach more isolated populations. Editors of popular journals, Ya’qub Sannu’, ‘Uthman Jalal, and ‘Abdellah Nadim, defiantly used the colloquial Egyptian language, jokes, azgal (colloquial poetry), and cartoons as a counterhegemonic tools to include the masses in the nascent Egyptian identity.
The second half of Ordinary Egyptians shows popular national identity developing political significance. The more the British colonial authorities (and the elite who were complicit with them) attempted to staunch the press and forcefully impose the press law, the more popular illicit publications became. The masses that took to the streets in the spring 1919 revolution provided undeniable evidence of popular culture’s effectiveness.
Not every popular act, song, or poem, however, should be construed as counterhegemonic or helping in creating the new nation. In Ordinary Egyptians, Fahmy leaves no space for what Rogers Brubaker coined, “National Indifference”. For Brubaker people can be mostly indifferent about their identity and ethnicity. Certainly, people sing national songs, but they also sing and recite poems out of pleasure in the first place, rather than to express sympathy for the nation or animosity toward the British.
Fahmy succeeds remarkably well in discrediting the top-down understanding of cultural diffusion, though he over estimates the role of the capital cities, Cairo and Alexandria, in originating and disseminating culture. His strong point, however, is the discussion of the role of popular culture in Egyptian nationalism. Thus, the contemporary uprisings in Egypt that ousted Housni Mubarak can be seen as a current reincarnation of previous revolutions that were driven, at least in part, by public mass media and popular culture.
All images courtesy of the Library of Congress
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Yoav di-Capua’s blog post about political and social conditions in Egypt eight months after Mubarak’s ouster in February 2011.
Posted on July 27, 2012
People Are Not the Same: Leprosy and Identity in Twentieth Century Mali (1998)
This book follows an academic tradition that illuminates the historical experience of everyday people, particularly individuals and groups hidden from the limited vision of African nationalist historiography. Eric Silla, scholar and leading member of a think-tank on African Affairs in the US Department of State, brings his skill to an assessment of leprosy, otherwise known as Hansen disease, in Mali. His primary objective is to situate bodily transformations and the social identity of Malian lepers within a broad context of human experience, especially within a framework that accounts for historical changes marked by ‘big events’ such as migrations, technological innovations, bio-medicine, colonialism, political evolutions and economic innovations. The events described follow a detailed chronological order that covers much ground in the pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial history of Mali.
Silla’s central argument is that from a historical point of view, lepers in Mali have been accorded a “stigmatized social identity.” This identity, rooted in human fear and lack of medical understanding, reduces the social power and humanity of carriers of the disease. Silla explains, for instance, that during the pre-colonial era, some agrarian communities in Mali restricted lepers from participating in ritual activities and getting married. French colonial administrators and health officials took the stigmatization of lepers a step further during the colonial period, especially when they labeled lepers who moved too close to European settlements or urban areas as “vagabonds and criminals,” instituted penal codes to restrict the migration of lepers, called for the physical confinement and segregation of lepers to agricultural leper villages and segregation camps, and created medical institutions such as the Institut Central de la Lepre, in which health directors and medical doctors fostered a martial atmosphere which made the surveillance and social control of lepers possible. The stigmatization of leprosy patients did not end with the termination of colonial rule. In Mali today, most lepers have been reduced to a beggarly status, becoming easy targets for police ‘round-ups’ and victims of unlawful incarceration.
Silla’s analysis is elevating and satisfying mainly because it gives credence to the historical agency of Malian lepers. He argues that in spite of social and political constraints, lepers in Mali found creative ways to negotiate their identity and make their demands and discontents known. For instance, during the colonial period, segregationist policy backed by French administrators failed as a result of the resistance put up by lepers. Lepers who chose to remain within medical institutions fostered a sense of communal identity and organized revolts to protest against oppressive medical administrative policies. In the post-colonial context, a number of informal associations were created by former leprosy patients to lobby for medical assistance and welfare services. The Association des Malades Lepreux du Mali instituted by leprosy sufferers in Dijkoroni quarter of Bamako serves as a clear example.
Two significant attributes make this study stand out in historiography on leprosy in Africa. First, the author delivers great scholarship with the use of a wide variety of historical materials. Archival sources consulted include French missionary documents, letters, and diaries located in Bamako, Dakar, Aix-en Provence and Rome. Other non-conventional sources used in the study include Arabic texts, linguistic evidence, and oral testimonies. Silla provides a multi-voiced narrative by conducting interviews with leprosy patients and health practitioners at Bamako’s leprosarium known as the Institut Marchoux. Second, the book offers a remarkable comparative perspective that links the experience of lepers in Mali to that of lepers in China, Brazil, Hawaii, Europe, India, West Africa and the United States.
Overall, this study is an important and consequential piece of scholarship that students of history would be advised to read. Its impressive innovative ideas set an agenda strong enough to engage the attention of social historians, medical practitioners, international organizations and policy makers for a long time.
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Posted on February 22, 2012
A Bend in the River (1979)
Much like its eponymous waterway, V.S. Naipaul’s A Bend in the River meanders steadily through the dark reality of postcolonial Africa, alternately depicting minimalist beauty and frightening tension. Like Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, subtle prose reveals the timelessness of the continent’s remote corners alongside human corruptibility. Yet, Naipaul moves his narrative closer in time to contemporary Africa, demonstrating that the horrifying legacies of colonialism did not end with Europe’s retreat. In A Bend in the River, the struggle to establish national identities in the wake of Western imperialism takes center stage, with “black men assuming the lies of white men” in order to govern.
The work follows Salim, an ethnically Indian trader who moves to the newly independent hinterland of an anonymous Francophone state modeled on the former Belgian Congo. The rise and fall of African modernity occurs slowly under the disembodied image of the dictatorial “Big Man” – a depiction eerily similar to Mobutu Sese Seko – who introduces relative security through the constant threat of violence. While building his mercantile business and conducting an affair with a married woman, Salim witnesses the nation devolve into a state of xenophobia, corruption, and general malaise. The character’s growing feelings of alienation and the struggle to maintain his livelihood provide the novel with narrative momentum. They also demonstrate the divisions that often emerged during the creation of postcolonial national identities and the problems common to the despotic state. Thus, Naipaul’s insular setting serves as a symbol of the transitory nature and uncertain future of the continent as a whole: “This piece of earth – how many changes had come to it! Forest at a bend in the river, meeting place, an Arab settlement, a European outpost, a European suburb, a ruin like the ruin of a dead civilization, the glittering Domain of new Africa, and now this.”
More than just a piece of fiction, Naipaul’s work offers an introspective reflection on the practices of western modernity and the meaning of life in a period of upheaval. Essentially likeable, Salim becomes the vehicle for trenchant observations on morality, passion, and progress. A cast of supporting characters represents the failures of contemporary society: Metty, the naive servant clinging to abandoned social conventions; Mahesh, the superficial franchiser of the first western fast food chain in the bush town; Ferdinand, a malleable and ultimately disenchanted youth who becomes an African nationalist; and Raymond, the satirical former colonial who desperately seeks to portray the mercurial Big Man as the savior of Africa. Relatively uneventful and filled with intentionally unresolved subplots, the novel moves from one life experience to another as the protagonists seek only to survive under trying circumstances. Yet, the author’s eye for detail and crisp writing adeptly create a sense of tension and drama that pervades even the quietest corners of the book, culminating in an ambiguous ending reminiscent of Marlowe’s journey on an older river. Meditative, challenging, yet wholly engrossing, Naipaul’s novel deserves its fame as a monument of postcolonial literature.
Posted on November 15, 2011
Gender and Decolonization in the Congo: The Legacy of Patrice Lumumba (2010)
In the 1960s the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) emerged as a political ‘hot spot’ in Africa. The transition from decades of Belgian colonial brutality and paternalism to independence, as historical records reveal, did not go smoothly. Gender and Decolonization in the Congo departs markedly from most work on this process by focusing on gender. There is a tendency on the part of scholars to neglect gender in their histories of decolonization in Africa. Political scientists, for instance, are apt to focus on the rise of the Cold War rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union. Much historical scholarship on the DRC shows enthusiasm for resolving puzzles arising from the perennial question: who assassinated Patrice Lumumba? Karen Bouwer delivers on her stated goal, to draw attention to Congolese women’s active role in the politics of decolonization. Overall, the study goes a long way toward presenting the first truly groundbreaking investigation of women’s political participation in the DRC.
Bouwer illustrates women’s contribution to politics with a narrative woven around the life and popular representation of Patrice Lumumba. Bouwer privileges Lumumba’s legacy, writing, and personal experience not to glorify his image, but to expose the complex system of social and political relations that shaped Congolese women’s lives. This gendered analysis integrates a wide variety of evidence in a compelling manner, including Lumumba’s writings and speeches, literary works such as Aime Cesaire’s A Season in the Congo, and cinematic works dealing with Lumumba’s legacy. Of particular importance is the discussion of films produced by Haitian director Raoul Peck such as Death of a Prophet, Sometimes in April, and Lumumba.
These critical assessments of film and literature are some of the strongest passages in the book. Equally interesting are the chapters that testify to the high level of women’s involvement in politics. These include the life portraits of frontline female politicians such as Leonie Abo, Andre Blouin, Pauline Opango, Martine Mandinga and Madeleine Mayimbi. In addition, the author brings into sharp focus the role of women as preservers of historical memory: we learn about efforts on the part of Leonie Abo to preserve the memory of the slain revolutionary, Pierre Mulele. We also learn about Justine M’poyo’s effort to preserve Joseph Kasavubu’s memory by all means necessary.
Perhaps the greatest achievement of this study lies in the fact that it offers a promising new approach to the history of decolonization in the DRC. It offers a valuable new perspective on interesting subjects such as the Kwilu Rebellion of 1963-1965 and Haitian migration to Congo. Decolonization in the Congo will be able to stir the minds of anyone interested in gender studies, history, politics, diaspora studies, development studies and literary studies. It presents rich documents including a useful index, an impressive bibliography as well as extensive notes and rare photographs of Congolese female activists.
King Leopold's Ghost by Adam Hochschild recounts the grim history of Belgian rule in pre-decolonization Congo.
A 2002 interview with Pauline Opango.
Posted Tuesday, July 12, 2011.
The Power of African Cultures (2003)
In The Power of African Cultures, Toyin Falola presents his wide ranging scholarship on the relevance of African cultural history to a general readership. One of the book’s innovative aspects lies in its acknowledgment of the cultural experiences of continental Africans and Africans in the Diaspora in places such as North America, Latin America, and the Caribbean. Likewise, the study broadens the temporal horizon by demonstrating the enduring influence of African cultures on contemporary Africa’s political, economic, and social realities. Falola states that the major aim of the study is “to present the relevance of culture to Africans in the modern era.” Enormously ambitious in its scope, the study connects such significant themes as Africa’s economic development, religion, ethnicity, nationalism, language, migration, international relations, and gender to a cultural frame of analysis. The scholarship is marked not only by the different geographical borders it straddles, but by the author’s ability to take the reader with fluent ease through more than three centuries of Africa’s cultural history.
In his introductory section, Falola provides elaborate interpretative guidance to the trend of his analysis. Of particular relevance is the author’s definition of culture in relation to the African experience. Culture “is really the single word that explains and justifies most things, from the organization of private domains to complicated political institutions. Culture is treated as a package of social heritage.” The author emphasizes the heterogeneous cultural composition of Africa. One tantalizing element in the study is the focus on the ways in which Africa’s past traditions continue to interact with contemporary modern ideas brought about by colonialism. Using the Yoruba ethnic group as a case study, the book demonstrates how Africa’s indigenous political cultures continue to shape modern political frameworks. The Yorubas, at different historical periods, drew on long-held traditions and historical memory in order to position themselves as a powerful and social unit within Nigeria. Falola brings into sharp focus the negative effect ethnic nationalism has on the creation of a pan-Nigerian identity.
One of the chief achievements of this work is the treatment of some big historiographical questions that have dominated public and scholarly discussion in the field of African history: How can Africa use its cultural identity to develop? How can Africa develop without losing its identity? Can Africa construct progress without a vision of its past, or can it link its future development with its historical traditions? Can it ignore its legacies of domination in dealing with the wider world? What political ideology provides the best answer for solving Africa’s culture of underdevelopment? Can African languages and religious traditions survive in the twenty-first century? What strategies could be employed to ensure Africa’s cultural survival in the Diaspora? In response to some of these questions, Falola makes poignant recommendations throughout the study. He emphasizes the need to domesticate borrowed technological and scientific ideas; the need to adopt and circulate African languages; and the need for African leaders to come to a full understanding of economic and political calculations that guide Western interaction with African nations. Overall, The Power of African Cultures is a valuable and provocative piece, loaded with relevant information that will generate debates among readers with diverse interests. The author covers familiar and unfamiliar territories, and the meticulous analysis is particularly elevating and rewarding.
Posted Monday, April 4, 2011.
Securing Africa: Post-9/11 Discourses on Terrorism (2010)
Islam has a long tradition in Africa dating back to the seventh century. Today, Islam plays a crucial role in the political, socio-cultural, religious, and economic lives of the population.
The inhuman event of the 9/11 attacks and the upsurge in terrorism in the world have forced western countries, especially, the United States, to re-examine their relationship with Africa. Securing Africa: Post-9/11 Discourses on Terrorism, scholars from Africa, Canada, and the US contribute cogent discourses on the significance of Africa to the US. They especially emphasize the ways that Africa is represented in public discussions of political violence and terrorism. The authors address the impact of 9/11 on Africa, and how 9/11 has informed American policies and attitudes towards Africa.
Securing Africa begins with Malinda S. Smith’s examination of the historical context in which terrorism can be placed. She claims that 9/11 gave impetus to scholars, politicians, and civil society to view terrorism as an attack on ‘civilization’ by ‘evil men’ and she engages readers on the ironies of this construct. She cautions against wholesale labeling of peoples as terrorists. She draws instances from the past such as Africans fighting colonization and the African National Congress fighting apartheid, which in her rationalization, were legitimate means of securing freedom, though labelled by the West as acts of terrorism. She analyzes how violent attacks on US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania (1998), and flight bombings in Libya, Spain, and India were not treated with the same urgency as terrorist attacks.
This opens discussions in “Part I: 9/11, Terrorism and the Geopolitics of the African Spaces,” that examine the role of intellectuals in questioning political authority, the place of Islam in Africa, and the impact of post 9/11 American rhetoric and policies on Africa. These chapters present the extent of the US war on terror on the African continent, especially in East Africa and the Sahel region. They also show that Africans’ inability to perceive European machinations perpetually leave them in a position “Part II: Africa in Post 9/11 International Relations” deals with the Cold War paradigms of relationships between democracies and containment, America’s interest in the oil reserves of the Gulf of Guinea and how oil factors into US security measures, and how the US foreign policy is linked with its economic interests in Kenya and Somalia.
The authors employ a rich selection of books, newspaper articles, and online materials to discuss such controversial issues such as Africa’s position in the war on terror, the significance of Africa to America’s security, and America’s foreign policies towards Africa. Cross-cultural and territorial comparisons enable readers to understand the authors’ points. The multi-disciplinary approach used by these contributors situates their arguments in specific contexts and reduces abstractions, bringing the issues at stake to non-specialist readers.
The US recognizes Africa as an important arena in its bid to win its war on terror but more importantly, African intellectuals also recognize that the US fight against terrorism has ideological, socio-economic, and political implications for Africans. This book is an important addition to the literature on terrorism. I recommend it for everyone interested in Africa.
A short essay from the Metropolitan Museum of Art on the spread of Islam into Africa.
The Atlantic Monthly on terrorism in Uganda.
Posted Friday, March 24, 2010.
The Rebel's Hour (2008)
Lieve Joris recounts the true story of Assani, a student, rebel, soldier, and statesman, in a genre she refers to as literary reportage. Joris begins Assani’s story in Kinshasa during the fragile peace of 2003, when he is serving in the disparate forces that constitute the Congolese military. From this touchstone Joris recounts Assani’s life through a series of biographical flashbacks -- from his youth as a cowherd in the turbulent Eastern Congo of the 1960s to his rise to generalship in a new Congolese state. Throughout, the reader is given a passionate and often disarming portrayal of the book's scarred but loyal subject as he struggles with the complex ethnic and political dynamics at work in the frail but enduring Congolese state.
It would be doing this work a disservice, however, to view it simply as a biography. While Assani's story itself is fascinating, it serves a far more vital service as a guide through the turbulent history of the Great Lakes region of Central Africa. The vast majority of Western readers are unaware that in the late 1990s two horrific wars originated in the Great Lakes region, with the Second Congo War (1998-2003) involving eight separate African nations and claiming the lives of 5.4 million people. As a descendant of the Tutsis who settled in the Eastern Congo, Assani's story traces these wars from their earliest rumbling to their conclusion in the peace agreement of 2003. From its origins in the 1960s Tutsi resistance to the Mobutu government, to the violence between the Hutus and Tutsis of Rwanda that reignited the conflict; from the war waged by Laurent Kabila to seize power from Mobutu in 1996, to the horrific and confused regional struggle of 1998 to 2003, Joris uses Assani's life to tell the history of what is now known as “Africa's World War.” With so little otherwise written on the subject, this serves as a necessary narrative of what is certain to be a defining period in Central African history.
Overall, Joris has created a masterful work. In Assani the reader is given a sympathetic but controversial figure, through which they can absorb the history of one of the world's most conflict-riven regions. By the end of the work even readers new to the subject will have a solid understanding of the complexity of the region, the harrowing prosecution of the region's wars, and the fragile peace that even now appears to be unraveling. This understanding is facilitated by an excellent glossary and index of historical figures provided by Joris at the end of the book. Given the continued difficulties of the region and yet the almost complete silence of the media on the topic, The Rebel's Hour is a necessity for any reader interested in the tides of conflict and renewal in Central Africa.
Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood (2003)
Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight is Alexandra Fuller’s coming of age memoir set in the midst of a war-torn African nation. She recounts, in often vivid detail, the harsh realities of living in a violently polarized society and the deep scars that war leaves upon its survivors. Most importantly, her memoir captures the confusion she feels about her own identity and the inherent contradiction of being a white African.
Alexandra “Bobo” Fuller was born in 1969 in Derbyshire, England. In 1972 her family moved from the relative comfort of the English countryside to the arid and inhospitable climate of the Rhodesian bush and into a civil war that had been raging for close to six years. While being white afforded the Fullers a certain degree of privilege, the harsh landscape and constant threat of guerilla fighters from neighboring Mozambique meant that night raids, land mines, and basic survival were a part of daily life. On several occasions, Fuller describes her childhood as one of ever present danger. She remembers helping her father, a reservist for the Rhodesian Army, load magazines before he went on patrol, convoying in armored trucks to the grocery, and the reflection of guerilla binoculars from the hills surrounding their farm. When the war ends and Rhodesia becomes Zimbabwe in 1980, the Fuller’s farm is mandatorily auctioned under the new government’s land redistribution policy. Everything that the family had toiled for eight years to build vanishes. From Zimbabwe, the Fullers move to Malawi and then Zambia, struggling to find a place in an Africa where they no longer hold a privileged status. As the world around them changes, the Fullers are forced to confront their own prejudices and personal demons.
The strength of Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight is its ability to portray many of these trials with a dark and honest humor characteristic of one who has known crippling fear and refused to let it conquer her. The foundation of the book is not its portrayal of the war, but how the Fullers are able to move forward despite the hardships and disappointments they face every day. Unfortunately, tragedy constantly befalls the family. Fuller’s dedication is not only to her parents and sister, but also to three siblings who died (a sister who drowned, a brother who died of meningitis, and another who was stillborn). These deaths and the constant uncertainty of life play heavily into the family dynamic, especially as Fuller’s mother descends deeper into alcoholism and mental illness. Fuller’s witness to her mother’s inner turmoil is at the center of the narrative and is reflected in the title, taken from a quote by H.P. Herbert. Ultimately, it is the figure of Nicola Fuller that is the key to understanding the true purpose of Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight. Some would see the book as a lamentation for Africa. It is, in actuality, an attempt to understand where and who we come from.