5. Playing It Both Ways
Local Egyptian Performers between Regional Identity and International Markets
Katherine E. Zirbel
Egypt has been in the grip of an ongoing national debate in recent years over the nature of authentic Egyptian culture and identity. Pressures of economic decline, increasing moral conservatism, corruption in the government, and Islamic revivalism have intensified this debate. Underlying a national dialogue over authenticity and legitimacy is a much older cultural standoff between the rural south and the urban north. At the same time, new regional and international cultural markets have commoditized particular regional performance genres and performers who stand in specific relation to these debates. Here I discuss how two regionally distinct performance communities, who have recently come into international markets, have fared amid transformations in local idioms of gender, authenticity, nostalgia, geographic movement, and regional and national identities. I also trace the use of such idioms in the promotion and profile of transnational and world beat markets in which these two communities now perform and in the ways in which audiences conceptualize their interest in such products. The contrasts between these two performance communities’ experiences in local and international markets provide insights into both Egypt’s cultural debates and the global commoditization of culture.
It seems evident that, notwithstanding the desire by many Egyptians for access to communication technologies that signal the globalizing impulse, such technologies are not available to most. Likewise, in relation to the international commoditization of culture through tourist, folk art, and world-music markets, this gap recurs between those nations who are the procurers and those, such as Egypt, whose cultures are subject to this commoditization.
For, although some local groups have benefited more from these markets than others, they do not have access to the means of production and thus are not controlling these markets. These international cultural markets’ obliviousness to their impact on local culture understates the mirage quality of the claims of globalization, especially in Egypt, where everyday life is inflected by the deepening struggle to reach a consensus over national identity and politics.
Local performers must be sensitive to changing morality and beliefs for their work to be well received, and this is particularly so in Egypt, where historically performers were socially marginal and their work was considered shameful according to religious and cultural beliefs. Partly as a result of such cultural beliefs, both of the Egyptian performance communities I have been working with are accredited with notorious historical images. However, the currency of such images in new moral and economic climates is now being put to very different uses with the development of international markets. The performance community of Muhammad ‘Ali Street is a nationally recognized historical site of popular culture in central Cairo, whose families have worked in the performing arts for many generations. Nightclubs are becoming their principal venues, and they perform before primarily Arab tourist audiences. They also contract work in the Gulf states. The community near the southern tourist town of Luxor is composed of hereditary musicians of alleged “Gypsy” ethnicity who provide popular entertainment in villages, performing vernacular epics and other genres that are now considered “folklore” within national culture. They have occasionally availed themselves to the tourist market by performing in hotels in Luxor. They also now perform in Europe as “world beat” musicians, and they have recorded several CDs that are distributed most widely in Europe and thus far not in Egypt.
I begin by exploring how these performers’ experiences reflect the north-south split in the cultural authenticity debate whereby these competing regions view each other through pejorative constructions that are likewise characterized through each other’s regional performance genres. Second, I examine how such regional characterizations of locale and populace are recapitulated to some degree in the relations between, on one hand, Cairene performers and their Gulf Arab audiences and, on the other hand, between the southern musicians and their Western European audiences. These emerging international markets feature gendered or ethnic-identified performance genres that gain contrastive meanings in two respects: (1) in relation to the changing gender expectations conditioned by Egypt’s new moral conservatism; and (2) in relation to the shifting balance between the Cairene center, its southern periphery, and new geoeconomic realities.
My own avenue into the world of Egyptian performers began in the clamorous urban heart of Cairo, through my association with an old established family of popular musicians and circus performers who lived on Muhammad ‘Ali Street. Through their indulgence I was able to acquire a degree of cultural competency and musical understanding necessary to the rest of my work in Egypt.
It was Monday evening, and Maha and I had been at the mosque of the Muslim saint Fatima Nebawiyya, to whom Maha is devoted. Maha, the unmarried daughter of my primary teacher and benefactor in Cairo, Hajj Ahmad, was my best friend in Cairo. The mosque is in the ancient winding neighborhood of Darb al-Ahmar, where many of Maha’s extended family still live among the minute local saints’ shrines with their brightly painted doors and the medieval madrasas (religious schools) of massive stone. On Mondays the Sufis hold religious song-and-dance gatherings in the ancient walled commons across from the mosque. These gatherings formed a louder male counterpart to the intense fervor of women whispering supplications to their saint inside the mosque.
The long black abayyas and head scarves that most women wore to the mosque still constitute the normal daytime street attire for women from the popular classes. These cover smocked housedresses that looked something like long nightgowns, complete with fake satin ribbons, little ruffles, and appliquéd characters. To Maha there seemed to be only two recognizable styles of public attire for women: the dour, veiled, and pious daytime look and the flashy, sequined, suggestive look that she metamorphosed into every evening.
Back at the family’s flat, after dinner and the evening prayer, Maha began her nightly application of thick and many-hued makeup. She sat in the living room with a broken mirror in one hand and a big plastic shopping bag of makeup paraphernalia by the other, alternately concentrating on her makeup and on the blaring television soap opera. In this episode the evil Western-appearing daughter-in-law was again lying to her honorable husband as she plotted to swindle her dying father-in-law. The orchestra minibus was to pick up Maha, her sister, and her older brother early this evening, as they were performing at a wedding party (this only happened about once a month), so she had to hurry. Maha and her sister had been singing backup vocals for about half a year in the orchestra where their brother ‘Abdellah had long played tenor sax for Jehan, a well-established belly dancer. Most often they performed at the midrange nightclubs in new suburban developments of eastern Cairo. Neither sister would have considered taking the job had not their brother or some other male member of the family also worked there. Maha was happy to be working. At twenty-eight, still unmarried and with few prospects open to her, she was now helping to support herself and her aged parents whose sons had their own families to support.
I sat with Maha’s father, Hajj Ahmad, who dictated musical compositions to me. Blind since the age of twelve, Hajj Ahmad could imagine complete arrangements in his head. Apparently I could not, because when I wrote down the notes of these melodies, I thought they sounded completely unlikely. Hajj Ahmad would become highly animated when he composed. He had taught all of his eleven children and several grandchildren the ropes of Egyptian popular music, and now he was teaching me. At seventy-five he was mostly retired, but people still came to him for advice and hopeful talent occasionally appeared at his door asking for appraisal, sponsorship, and blessings. He maintained a vast array of prominent connections, although many were now dying. Community members considered him to be an exceptionally good and kind man. Blindness had not diminished his full life, and he was perhaps the happiest person in his large family.
In the newly painted apartment below, we could hear Hajj Ahmad’s son-in-law Hosam giving a lesson on a failing electric piano to Samir, an optometrist with musical aspirations. At 10:00 P.M. Hosam would go to brofa—practice—with yet another belly dancer’s orchestra that was currently playing in a five-star hotel. Hosam met his wife, Amira, playing violin in the Balloon Theater, the government-sponsored venue where Amira sang in the chorus (along with most of her eight sisters at various times). Hosam has a university accounting degree, in addition to his musical training. His family opposed his marriage into a family of performers, but after almost ten years Hosam got his way and married the woman of his choice. Amira, now on maternity leave from the theater, collected her leave pay the first Monday of every month, which, after inflation and union dues, was small change. In this sense, she was in the same position as the thousands of other Cairenes employed by the government.
Mahmoud, Hajj Ahmad’s youngest son, was visiting Hosam. He still had several hours before performing that night with the pop singer Muhammad Fu’ad, whose new cassette had been number one on Cairo’s pop charts the previous season. Mahmoud was the only one of his generation in the family to have gone to the conservatory. He dropped out before finishing and for many years performed with a circus band in sub-Saharan Africa and in the Gulf states. He seemed ill at ease around much of his family.
The community of Muhammad ‘Ali Street is a part of Cairo’s old performance district. The street saw its heyday in the beginning of the century with the hasabolla brass bands and flourished through the 1970s as the performance-networking center. The community has been famous for its well-known women performers since the nineteenth century and has been distinctive as a community where women have often been primary breadwinners. As home to families of musicians, dancers, actors, singers, and circus performers, it was a neighborhood that gained quasi-bohemian associations with its intersection of working-class identification and popular arts, along with stories of licentious living, prostitution, and drugs. By the 1970s most of the neighborhood theaters and performance venues had closed. Newer nightclubs were flourishing across the Nile on the touristic Pyramids Road, playing increasingly to Gulf and Saudi Arab tourists. Many younger performers and their families subsequently moved to the Pyramids Road area, including some of Hajj Ahmad’s family.
The community of Muhammad ‘Ali Street identifies with the height of the nationalist period through historical, economic, and urban cultural links. The forty-odd years surrounding the 1952 revolution (from the 1930s to the early 1970s) was also the golden era of Egyptian song. Music and well-loved singers of the time such as Umm Kulthum, ‘Abd al-Halim Hafiz, Ahmad Fawzi, and Layla Murad played a central role in the development of a national consciousness, unity, and pride. Furthermore, for performers, historically marginalized and morally compromised by their craft, the modern nation became their foundational and forgiving narrative. The secular liberalism advocated by the governments of this era accommodated the performance arts and reimagined this community as a colorful, nostalgic site in the mapping of national culture.
In the apartment next door to Hosam and Amira, members of the national circus troupe were gathering at the home of Zuba, the trapeze artist, and her husband, Magid, a cousin of Amira and Maha. I was warned not to interact too much with them by Maha’s mother, who felt that circus families were improper because of what girls and women wore and did in the course of their acts, not to mention other allegations.
Down the way, Maha’s nephews waited on a balcony, watching for their uncle Sabr’s minivan. Sabr was an impresario—leader of a neofolkloric drum and bugle corps, one of many that in recent years have become “traditional” entertainment for the first half hour of virtually all wedding party festivities. The nephews were occasional members of the troupe. On Thursdays, dressed in bright green and gold satiny outfits, the troupe might perform at seven or eight weddings, zipping from one performance to another in the minivan with their drums piled on top.
From the balcony, one of the boys yelled that the orchestra bus had arrived down below. Maha was slowly clacking down the stairs in high-heeled clogs, hair whipped up, burning with bright makeup, and dressed in hot pink with a showy black blazer whose sequins were coming unsewn. At the bottom of the stairs, she giggled nervously over her nightly discomfort at being seen by people who had known her to veil and those who did not know her at all, which was potentially worse. There were many overlapping communities on the street below, and in this era of growing moral conservatism, not everyone would recognize a difference between a vocalist from a pious family whose craft required exotic dress and a prostitute from the same neighborhood. Indeed, some might even intentionally refuse to recognize the difference. Being a pious woman meant that Maha should not know or reply to people on the street who were not directly associated with her family. This left her silently vulnerable to men’s comments if she were so unlucky as to make the dash to the bus at the wrong moment.
Maha had begun veiling four years before, partly as a token of her piety, but also because the man to whom she was engaged at that time wanted her veiled so that other men would not think she was available. Generally once a woman commits to wearing a veil, whether for religious reasons or under social pressure, the decision is not considered reversible. In a time when many women performers in the community who could were quitting their work and putting on the veil, this job had forced Maha to make the unusual decision to take off the veil. There was no place for a veiled woman on stage.
Maha was thankful that she was only singing backup vocals and could sit behind the orchestra at nightclub engagements. For not only did lead singers and dancers have to parade in front of drinking, foreign Arab audiences, but they often had to play up to nightclub management to keep their jobs. Maha and her sister, contracted directly by Jehan, the belly dancer, had only to sing their vocals and hope to get home in time for fagr, the dawn prayer.
Two coinciding problems now face this community. The first is economic. With the legitimizing of performance through secularized nationalism, performers began to emerge from outside the craft and popular classes in the last generation. The Arabic Music Institute on Pyramids Road, nationalized after the revolution, promoted professionalism and created competition for jobs, which have come to override the old family and neighborhood networks. At the same time, audience tastes have changed. The community’s primary historical market, performing for weddings and other ritual family celebrations, has diminished as live entertainment at local weddings has been replaced for the most part by cameo-appearance folkloric fanfare groups such as Sabr’s, followed by a night of high-tech sound systems blaring recorded music. This has eliminated a large market for conventional musicians, as have weddings that now feature singers or recordings of religious songs as entertainment. Furthermore, in the pop music scene, new music from outside Cairo, including Western pop, Nubian, and Bedouin music, has become influential. The musicians on Muhammad ‘Ali Street say they do not like this music and suggest that the newcomers are inauthentic, whereas they, the old recognized performance families who helped create national popular culture, are the true heirs of Egyptian popular music. But their grasp on the market continues to slip.
The second problem is moral. It appears that elements of a long-standing debate over the status of music in Islam have come back to haunt this community. The economic depression resulting from market shifts and professionalization has coincided with the growing moral conservatism of the last twenty to twenty-five years in Egypt. The loss of their primary local market over the last ten years has had dramatic effects on the community’s self-image. The community members cannot escape their historical notoriety or their affiliation with secular liberalism, which is now under attack. Thus many have come to feel uneasy about the work remaining to them in nightclubs. With the economic decline and increasing moral conservatism, fewer Egyptians now frequent nightclubs. The audiences are made up mostly of Gulf and Saudi Arab tourists, whom performers generally do not like. These Gulf and Saudi Arabs often come to Cairo for the cosmopolitan life and entertainment it provides. Both my musician friends and nonperformer acquaintances in Cairo depicted these Arabs as rich, debauched men who try to lure young Egyptian women with their wealth. Nightclubs are one of the few public sites where such allegations concerning Arab men’s pursuits gain substance.
While these performers’ old markets at weddings were famous for a kind of ribald, communally sanctified (and almost camp) gender play between men and women, the sense of shared community and fun does not exist at nightclubs. The gender “play” between performers and their Arab audiences has a serious, sultry, unsmiling aspect that seems to have more to do with seduction than art. Musicians feel that this cosmopolitan image of Cairo, which is responding to Arab audience predilections, is increasingly anachronistic in this time of increasing moral conservatism. While they feel bound to this work by economic need, they also feel compromised. As Mahmoud said once when he was working in a belly dancer’s orchestra, “It is bad work, but I do not have a choice. If people wanted to listen to good music, real music, then we could all play as we liked. But they do not care about art now. They just want to see what women can do on stage.”
Just as the Gulf comes to Cairo in search of a good time, so some Saudis and Gulf Arabs have sought to bring the good times back home. There is a quickly growing market for Cairene musicians, singers, and dancers in the Gulf, and many have responded to the local economic decline by contracting work there. Their work is part of the massive labor migration over the last two decades to the Gulf and Saudi Arabia. The primarily male Egyptian laborers work under denigrated conditions of reduced rights and liberties in Saudi and Gulf societies. For migrant performers the situation is worse, as there is no historical precedent for a liberal cosmopolitan nightlife in the Gulf. The brunt of the stigma falls on women performers, who are often equated with prostitutes there.
Behind the Unveiled
I had often wished aloud that my Cairene performer friends and I could form an all-woman band in Cairo and threatened to start one, which always got my friends roaring with laughter. It was inconceivable; there had been no such thing in the Egyptian music scene in any of their lifetimes. But as luck would have it, the day I got my ticket to go back for a visit to the United States, Maha called and told me to come over immediately. We had been offered a contract to sing in an all-woman band in the Emirates for three months. The Egyptian middleman, ‘Abduh Fathi, who had contracted Hajj Ahmad’s old orchestra to play at an Emirati wedding years before, had called to inquire about women musicians, knowing that Hajj Ahmad had many daughters who were in music. Maha wanted to go to the Gulf primarily because it sounded exciting, but she would not go unless I went also. The family would not let either of us go unless we went with ‘Abdellah, Maha’s brother, who could act as manager and guardian. We would make substantially more than she was making as a vocalist at the time in Jehan’s orchestra. We negotiated with ‘Abduh Fathi, but in the end we decided not to take the offer.
Several months later when I was back in Cairo interviewing some Bahraini and Emirati men about performances in Cairo, I mentioned that episode. Their reactions made me realize I had touched a live wire. So I began to ask about performances in the Gulf. Most Bahraini and Emirati male audience members I interviewed insisted that any woman who chose to work as a performer in the Gulf was either completely misled or, more likely, already morally adrift. Some said that even if these women were not already prostitutes in Egypt, they became prostitutes when they went to the Gulf. Two alternating narratives—both occasionally told by the same men—were given to support this assertion. According to the first one, women who came to the Gulf came only for the money. As performers, they would be continuously propositioned for large sums that would be unbelievable in Egyptian terms and difficult to pass up. These women would come to prostitute on the side, reasoning that no one at home would ever know. Second, there was the narrative about forced prostitution. Because of sociopolitical structures of power in some parts of the Gulf, if a prominent sheikh in the audience wanted a female performer for sexual relations, neither the performer nor the management could refuse, according to the men interviewed.
In either case, according to these men, the role of the women performers was to appear desirable and desirous on stage. Part of the pleasure men expressed finding in performance was the apparent availability suggested by the women. In most cases, these men readily acknowledged, there were no true feelings behind these performers’ flirtations on stage, or relationships offstage. The women only desired money. However, several of these Gulf Arab men sheepishly claimed to have had feelings for, if not relations with, the female performers from Cairo (although none were from the community on Muhammad ‘Ali Street). One man was hoping to contact a former dancer from Cairo during his stay there.
I had to wonder at, but not discount, the differences between these men’s stories and the concerns with morality that made up so much of my female performer friends’ lives on Muhammad ‘Ali Street. While many of the men had worked in the Gulf, I never heard of any women from the community contracting work there except for some celebrations, when they had been specially flown in for a few days’ work at weddings or special occasions. According to both audience and performers’ accounts, the women who contracted work in Gulf nightclubs were from a different, and much lower, class. At least for those I knew well, the offstage reality behind the image played onstage by women most often involved a higher degree of moral constraint than that which I found among many nonperformer women from similar socioeconomic backgrounds.
Musicians’ experiences in the Gulf, while economically rewarding, have further undermined their pride in craft. In response to such moral and economic inroads, members of this community legitimate their identity through nostalgic narratives that depict the community’s past as both morally purer and economically more affluent. In the nostalgic narratives of Cairene musicians, I was often told about a time of burgeoning resources and markets and a rich musical culture led by almost superhuman individuals who were able to move national and pan-Arab sentiment in the years surrounding the 1952 revolution. The community of this earlier era is depicted as brimming with life, art, and friendship. In contrast, the circumstances today are described in terms of moribund possibilities, all morally impinged, where groveling for work and mistrust between community members is becoming the norm.
Nostalgia can be a comforting venue for dysphoria over, or resistance to, the present through displacement of desire onto an imagined past, often invoked via distinct places, individuals, practices, or acquisitions. Nostalgia can also become a habit and disposition. This seemed to be especially the case both for younger members of the community who were born as it began to slide and for those who were peripheral to actual performance activities. Even the most successful younger members of the community, who received formal training, remain deeply nostalgic for old times, old music, old “traditional” values, and old markets. Looking back is safer, especially in uncertain times, than looking ahead to the future. Susan Stewart (1993, 139–43) suggests that nostalgia can be a veiled critique of the present. In regimes in which oppositional politics are tolerated, or in which, as in preindependence Egypt, political sentiment was mobilized through performers and performances, these performers perhaps could use their public forum to speak the minds of their local audiences. They could thereby respond to, and perhaps partially resolve, the economic and moral pressures that now pull them in opposite directions. However, they are implicated through their work in national troupes and their reliance on secular principles that allow them to perform.
Intrusions from the remembered past constantly belie the completeness of nostalgic assertions made by younger community members. Hajj Ahmad, among other things, played in orchestras that performed both Egyptian and Western pop in the 1940s for the British, and he continued to play some big band and jazz through the 1960s, after which these genres essentially disappeared from Egypt. When happiest he still sings “In the Mood” by Glen Miller and cackles gleefully if I harmonize with him. “Dadada—dadada!—dadadadada—Da! Dadada—dadada—dadadadada—Da!…” This is the heart of his own nostalgia, more cherished perhaps because this music gets no airtime, unlike the late great Egyptian stars whose songs remain on television and the radio decades after their deaths. While most musicians are passionate about old Egyptian hits from the 1940s, almost no one recalls the once-popular big band music, historically associated with the British, from before the revolution.
Cairenes who know the community of Muhammad ‘Ali Street best through the frequently rerun mass-media portrayals of its past are quick to forgive the morally skewed activities associated with the community precisely because these index an era that can be readily distinguished from the present. Cairenes share a nostalgic reminiscence for the glory years surrounding the revolution, forgetful that the libertine cosmopolitan image of Cairo that Gulf Arabs now seek was nourished in that era. However, for community members, this past is relived in their nightly work, the community’s often-filmed public space, their own family histories, and the selective tools of nostalgia that the media constantly employ. In the current moral climate, the community’s historic notoriety, while contributing to the distinct flavor of Cairene public life that provides work for performers, is becoming their albatross.
The community’s dilemma reflects an ongoing national dialogue on the legitimacy of the state, which Islamists have extended beyond rhetoric in the south of the country. Cairenes in the north tend to be more closely tied to the state than southerners, as most state apparatuses, jobs, and services are carried out within Cairo. While affected by the Islamist-influenced religious conservatism, many Cairenes make a sharp distinction between their religiosity and that of the Islamists. These Cairenes contend that their values are more authentic and firmly rooted in Egyptianness. They stake their moral and identifying claims within the nation’s past, and sustain a faith in the ideologies that have generated hopes in the past for the nation’s future. This mental leap hops over the present, shedding a nostalgic limelight of the past into the future, and thus stabilizes the centrality and authenticity value of secular national culture. This remains the case for many Cairenes despite the fact that political liberalism has no currency with most present-day Egyptians and that many (including Cairenes) have lost faith in the current government. According to southern Islamists’ religious interpretation, secular government is false a priori. Egypt’s corrupt secular government provides them with the perfect example of the inadequacies of secularism.
Again, it is important to consider the underlying regional debate that predates the Islamists, forming along an urban-north to rural-south axis. For many Cairenes, Cairo is the nation, the center to be emulated. Cairenes’ allegiance to the city itself is often a fundamental orientation of Egyptian identity that undercuts other ideological affiliations. Cairene acquaintances who argued against the Islamists rejected their claims as misinterpretations of the Qur’an, but also because of their underlying rural southern identity. Southerners are often identified as Arabs by Cairenes, as well as by southerners themselves, based on some fairly ancient migrations. Cairenes describe southerners stereotypically as “hot-blooded” and crude, prone to violence—all pejoratively male images—and describe their lifestyle, customs, and music as “folkloric” throwbacks to an earlier, uncultured time. As a result, many Cairenes I knew felt that southern Islamists had no claim in Egyptian discourses on whither the nation because, in their view, southern Islamic “fundamentalists” were neither historically or culturally Egyptian nor properly Muslim. The media, both newspapers and films, depict Islamists as terrorizing, relentless, and inhumane men. Islamists, in turn, describe the center through the already salient corrupt, feminized images of Cairo’s nightclub performance genres, writ large. While many southerners might not agree with the ideologies of their fellow southern Islamists, they do concur on this image of Cairo.
I jumped on the 7:30 A.M. train to Luxor out of Ramses, Cairo’s main station, without a ticket or a seat. It was my third attempt to obtain a ticket in as many days, and by now it was three days before the end of Ramadan. All the southerners living in Cairo were going home for the holidays. I had promised to spend the end of Ramadan and the holiday with my southern musician friends. I found myself crammed with half of Egypt in between two train cars. Squished next to me was Sawsan, who soon became my bosom travel partner. Sawsan was a twenty-year-old biology student at al-Azhar University who was on her way home to Nag‘ Hammadi to visit her family. Without sleep and exhausted, I was not in the mood to talk, but Sawsan held forth. I had sensed that she was not Cairene from her talkativeness and a kind of naive, open excitement in her approach.
Within an hour we were beyond the troubling rubble of jerry-rigged hovels that line the tracks in Cairo. The whole of Egypt rolled by along the train tracks—beautiful, flat, serene, a golden green glow of living wealth, ruled by luxuriant palm trees and dotted with occasional villages, spread out to the sandy brown bluffs and low mountains marking the lifeless desert on either side of the valley. Every time the train stopped, Sawsan and I, along with fifty others at the end of each car, hoped for a place to sit in one of the cars, but more people with tickets kept pouring on. Happy Holiday: “Kull sana wa-anti bi-khayr!” So we remained thoroughly uncomfortable as the midday heat rose, bumping ever less easily along in the crowded space between the train cars, along with fellaha (peasant) women, old men with huge cartons, and numerous shabab (young men) uncharacteristically not smoking because of Ramadan.
It was late afternoon before we got seats. By this time the surrounding seats were occupied entirely by southerners, mostly laborers or soldiers on leave, plus some assorted elderly men and women. Soon everyone began talking to each other. As each individual joined in, there was an exchange of village and family names and delight over discovering they knew people in common, or that they had heard of each other’s families. Along with the fun of placing each other within known families and communities, each person was thereby bound to behave honorably according to their standing, so unlike the often-brusque anonymity of Cairo. The young men began joking together—ribald but harmless exchanges—and Sawsan joined in. The camaraderie was refreshing and felt very unnuanced by dubious innuendoes that might have interceded in a similar exchange in Cairo. (Cairenes consider themselves relatively relaxed in regard to gendered interactions when compared to southerners.) These southerners seemed relieved to be out of Cairo, and it was as if they had removed their masks together as they laughed away the tension of the city. The camaraderie was remarkable, and after most of the travelers disembarked in Nag‘ Hammadi and in Qena, the train felt very empty.
As it happened, in the hour before arriving in Luxor a fellow introduced himself as a nephew of Rayyis Ahmad, leader of one of the mizmar (Upper Egyptian oboe) bands whom I knew from the village of the mizmar players. He said he had seen me before at a village wedding and knew I was studying mizmar. He proceeded to entertain me with stories and conversation until he disembarked at Qus, the town before Luxor. Thus I too was treated to the peculiarly southern neighborly recognition and arrived feeling a happy surge of homecoming.
The Peripheral Gaze Downstream
Southern villagers tend not to share the sense of national identity or unity found in Cairo, and, on the whole, have been made marginal to national history and lore. Earlier in the century a whole genre of Egyptian literature developed around the theme of poor, bright southerners overcoming the odds by migrating north to become successful in Cairo. However, in the mid-1990s, national culture seemed to be cast in a kind of photo negative by southerners I knew whereby the national government and culture was believed to be corrupt and irrelevant to their lives. And for many of them, even those who attended school or work in Cairo, the center was losing its gravity because of labor migration outside the country and the appeal of the Islamist movement.
The rural southerners’ lack of admiration for Cairo and the state often becomes a bastion for their own claims to authenticity and legitimacy. To them, Cairo is fraudulent, greedy, and capricious—a courtesan to surface whims of passing movements. It is both dangerous in its strengths over its subjects and weak in its moral composition. Southerners I knew would often point to differences between their ways and those of Cairo. They often identified their “traditional” dress as a signifier of the difference between the south and Cairo. Their modest dress had not changed over time, and many women in the south had always worn veils, while Cairenes had taken off the veil in the 1920s but now were putting it back on. My southern friends felt that Cairene women who now wore the veil and acted pious did so either out of fear of the Islamists or as a fashion. The southerners I knew best lived in the area around Luxor, which, until 1997, was comfortably south of the area most severely affected by the conflict between the Islamists and the state. In stories about Cairo by Luxorite men who had worked there, Cairene women were made to stand for cultural corruption. The only Cairene men ever mentioned came up in jokes about national political figures, where they were most frequently depicted pejoratively as having homosexual leanings. Southern men considered themselves to be masculinized by comparison, and both men and women felt they were more grounded, whole, and less compromised by dependency than were Cairenes. Southerners depicted their own culture as true, unswerving, and hospitable by comparison to Cairene culture, despite the jealousies and anxieties that attended being peripheral to power.
Likewise, in contrast to the sense of cultural demise expressed by Cairene musicians, things are going well for southern rural musicians who live in and around the town of Luxor. They are not subsidized by the state, unlike Cairenes such as the circus performers on Muhammad ‘Ali Street, who work for government troupes in Cairo. They have been ignored for the most part by Islamists, at least for now. All the performers are men, so they experience none of the gender-related condemnation to which the Cairene performers are subject. Their aspirations are in the international music market. While Cairo has long been the media production center of the Middle East, these southern rural musicians are now recording CDs that are not even marketed in the Arab-speaking world (see the discography). Paris has become their center.
For such musicians, the idea of touring abroad appears to become a geographic frame for contending ideologies about value and morality. Within this frame, the world outside Egypt is characterized by unlimited opportunity that increases with cultural distance, in juxtaposition to an increasing moral order and diminishing economic opportunities associated with Egypt. Presenting themselves as “authentic” folklore artists, while using the most up-to-date recording and promotion technologies, these musicians have developed a strong following in Europe, as a part of the world beat music market, under the name Les Musiciens du Nil (The Musicians of the Nile). The image they present belies xenophobic beliefs about Middle Easterners that have prevailed in Europe. Rather, they evoke a timeless, nostalgic prenation past. Their identification as authentic “Gypsies” from Egypt—an identity that they agree on for foreign marketing purposes only—along with their un-European performance, becomes their prime selling point.
As interest by Western Europeans in non-Western cultures has grown, along with the concomitant process of commoditizing them, international music festivals, shows, and a whole new recording industry and subculture have come to flourish around world beat music (Feld 1994). World beat music producers and audiences have focused most on ethnic minorities and peripheral groups to the exclusion of national popular culture, and this is also the case with regard to Egypt. The musical genres and performances of rural Egyptian “Gypsy” music—genres presumed nearly dead nationally—are marketable in the West for their authentic and traditional value. This authenticity is exhibited in promotional materials and CD covers featuring pictures of the musicians in “traditional” garb and dramatized ethnographic liner notes about their lives that, however, do not refer to the wider social context of Egyptian national culture. There are good ideological and economic reasons for promoting marginal groups. First, cultural difference, the world beat industry’s product, is most plausibly found in marginal groups. Second, this marketing also feeds into well-founded concerns expressed in leftist and activist discourses about oppressed minorities and marginal groups. The implication is that as part of a marginal ethnic group, such musicians must therefore be oppressed. Thus buying their CDs will help to lift their oppression. Yet preference by foreign audiences for music from the peripheries of Egypt is a political and aesthetic choice that obliquely denies, or perhaps simply fails to recognize, the legitimacy of modern Egyptian national culture.
Beyond such exoticism and the investment in solidarity politics that patronizing culturally peripheral music often implies, there are aesthetic issues that are more specific to world-music listeners’ comparative rejection of commercial Egyptian popular music. These listeners describe such music as a quirky kind of disco music that is consistently off kilter. Popular Egyptian music exhibits structural and percussive similarities to Western popular music while differing from Western “pop” by use of three-quarter tones, voice resonance, and embellishment in musical expression. Such differences are also present in the “folkloric” music of the southern musicians, but apparently listening to Egyptian popular music requires more of an aesthetic stretch for Western listeners than does the more complete unfamiliarity of the southern music.
I came to see these influences when Maha’s father, Hajj Ahmad, made a demo tape for me to promote in the United States that included both older genres and new disco-sounding songs. He dictated a letter to me, introducing himself as a composer and arranger from Cairo who was able to work in all Egyptian and many Western genres. He was offering the tape as a gift to the recipient, a producer I was to seek out, in the hope that the producer would capture the U.S. market for Hajj Ahmad’s modern Egyptian popular music. He knew about the success of southern musicians with whom I had been working. I did not think his music would work, even if I could get someone to listen to it. For all my struggling to understand the aesthetics of Egyptian music, it was only then that I consciously came to realize what kinds of music could be promoted in the new global markets, along with the agency allotted to such chosen musicians in making aesthetic and production decisions. Thinking about what might interest such audiences, I suggested that Hajj Ahmad might best market his music by noting his age and position in relation to the rich history of his community and Cairene popular culture in his letter. I also suggested that he explicitly feature his daughters, who sang on the demo, for the market that women’s music might capture. He was not interested; it was not professional. He was interested in selling music and his skills. It was incomprehensible to him that these Western markets are interested in selling exotic cultural difference tinged with counterhegemonic politics. At least at this point, as an urban composer from the country’s modern-affiliated culture, Hajj Ahmad had little chance of breaking into the world-music scene without a word of explanation that might show him to be either marginal to Egyptian society or oppositional in relation to political hegemony. He did not realize that while the world-music market produces an image of equalizing world relations, this is only how the market markets. Even in the case of the southern musicians, the agents controlled marketing and production, despite the implied politics that signaled a return to an imagined world moral economy, in which audiences, agents, and performers, along with the cultures that they represented, were equal players.
In some real sense, the creation of such markets does hold a potential for mobilizing activism to promote economic justice and greater equality. It is a market that thrives on popular recognition and ratification of fissures in the idea of bounded territorial identities—such as in Senegalese fusion rock or Rai music (the Algerian diaspora music that became electrified in France)—through developing certain kinds of intercultural familiarity and appreciation. However, it is not clear that this political and cultural appreciation translates into action. With few exceptions (like rain forest and German antiracist activism), the market has arisen amid growing despondency in regard to grassroots local and global activism, suggesting a kind of faux politics or what Walter Benjamin called the “aestheticization of politics.”
Thus, instead of attaching to some kind of an authentic hook, Hajj Ahmad’s professional earnestness—his authenticity—actually worked against him. Dutiful as I could be, back in the United States, I did try to get some folks interested in his music, but they just did not get it. I even had a segment recorded for a radio interview, but the producer cut it out and only used the southern musicians’ music. As he said, the urban music was not exotic enough.
The image of Egyptian performance rendered for Europeans is a kind of pure rogue “Gypsy”-ness that is strikingly different from that conjured for Gulf Arabs in Cairene nightclubs that feature alluring and allegedly licentious women. Yet the sights and sounds that the southern musicians deliver in Europe are different enough to turn aside critical aesthetic assessments by audiences and turn on, instead, a kind of exoticism that, to European audiences who understand little about the local context of the musicians or the music, has a stamp of authenticity.
Kinds of Authenticity
The idioms of authenticity and nostalgia are central to both the identity of the Cairene and Luxor performance communities and the international commoditization of their performances, by way of either economic or moral reasoning. In Cairo performers identify with the glory of the national period. The southern musicians have benefited from being identified by the international music market as authentic Gypsies who appear to be isolated and unaffiliated with national identity and unimpeded by local morality.
There are several levels at which competing claims to authenticity operate. I have discussed links among regional, historical, and moral claims to authenticity. At the same time, in the tensions played out in performance and in audience expectations, we begin to see cultural, economic, and political relations that move well beyond performance. There are at least four dispositions of the “authentic.” Here I clarify the term’s uses to make sense of how the concept of authenticity is used by different constituencies in making claims to various kinds of legitimacy.
First, there is the kind of authentic artistic product by a known artist who produces his or her works self-consciously, for example, an “authentic” Rembrandt. Such works carry the pleasure of recognition for the viewer. A second kind of authenticity, related to the first, is the philosophical notion that refers to inner truth of self, that which feels intuitively correct, ringing a bell of familiarity. Third, there is authenticity of knowledge that is based on historically verifiable fact. This is the kind of authenticity on which the Cairene musicians base their claims through national cultural history—as do Islamists in the south, through their interpretation of Islam. This debate between religious and secular nationalism forms the central nexus in the current ideological battles over the nature of authentic Egyptian culture. Fourth, there is presumed authenticity regarding the complete unknown: artifacts or events whose aesthetics are so far outside of accepted criteria that their authenticity becomes the very unfamiliarity and inability of an audience to find a common ground in understood delivery, which therefore must indicate an authentically “other” worldview.
This last kind of authenticity appears central to the southern Egyptian musicians’ market in Western Europe. French and Swiss audience members with no previous contact with this music repeatedly said that they enjoyed the performances because the sounds and melodies were so different from music they had known. Some felt that, hearing the music, they could imagine Egyptian village life there. Within what I will call this exotic-authentica, Shelley Errington (1994, 213–15) has noted two opposing Western perspectives on the truth-value potential of non-Western art: it is perceived as signaling either the naive ignorant (which the West left behind) or the sublime (which somehow the West also left behind). This infinitely varied category just never seems to be on equal footing with the procuring West; that is to say, “ethnic” art is apparently either deep in pagan darkness or well beyond nirvana. But in either case, or at least in this case, it becomes excellent fodder for imaginative and wishful nostalgic projections by Europeans.
In the art world there is much anxiety and suspicion wrapped up in production practices and in the possibility of “fake” ethnic goods. But in the case of live ethnic performance, there is less doubt that these performers are who they are billed to be. However, fears of somehow being outwitted, attacked, or swindled offstage are present. Moreover, such fears are often bound up in the very construction of pleasure. In the West temporary exhibits and “celebrations” designated as foreign, exotic, or exciting, whether in the form of music festivals, circuses, or world fairs, contain elements that would be considered dangerous, frightening, and dubious, if allowed offstage. The stage here becomes a kind of double-bind holding tank, turning anxieties into pleasurable contemplation.
The ambivalence that attends such exotic-authentica was demonstrated quite clearly in the media and community response surrounding the “Gypsy” music festival held as part of the classical festival in Lucerne to which the “Gypsy” Egyptians were invited in 1995. In response to community concerns, it was rumored that festival organizers had to sign an affidavit promising to reimburse all goods stolen or damaged by the visiting “Gypsies,” before they were allowed to come. The festival itself was considered a popular and critical success.
In juxtaposition to such fears and pleasures that European audiences associate with “authentic Gypsy” Egyptians, it is instructive to note the inverse feminized image of inauthenticity in Cairene and Gulf nightclubs and in narratives by Gulf Arab audience members about Egyptian female performers. Male audience members acknowledge that especially female dancers are inherently duplicitous in their erotically suggestive dances that they perform for money before men for whom they have no true feelings. Nevertheless, these men describe their ultimate fantasy as the possibility of engaging in relationships with these women offstage. In this case, it is the acquisitive audiences against whom performers have to guard. Figuratively speaking, here the foreign male audience comes to morally plunder haplessly weak Cairo, which is feminized discursively by both Egyptian and Arab audiences.
At the same time, southerners, masculinized by Cairenes and depicted as uncultured ethnic wild men (with musical leanings) by Europeans, are making inroads into Western European cultural markets. These two Egyptian musical migrations, especially that of Cairenes to the Gulf, where the investment is greater and more performers are involved, reflect the ongoing gendering of desire, region, labor, migration, and capital. Although very different visions of Egypt emerge in these international contexts, both are “Orientalizing.” Changes particularly in the Cairene music scene have played into the hands of Islamists through the intensified characterization of morally charged difference between genders on nightclub stages. According to neoconservative religious views, the nightclubs should be shut down and more rigid forms of gender segregation reasserted. Below the surface of such discourses lies the imputation that both Cairo and its women, like Ibn Khaldun’s center, are inherently inauthentic and corrupt and must be disciplined by masculine religious authority, austere and untainted by such women (or centers).
It is difficult to avoid being caught in structuralist neatness when so many phenomena appear to line up, as they do here. If Cairo is debauched, there is an implicit expectation that the south, along with its cultural products, is pure. To provide a more balanced view, when southern musicians play locally in the vicinity of Luxor at weddings and haflas (parties), the tunes are not drawn just from local music and ancient epics to which Western audiences are attracted. They play an eclectic mix “on request” that includes older Cairene music, transformed into these musicians’ own rambunctious performance genre. The music is supposed to set the tone for a bit of wild partying. At village weddings and haflas, some villagers are liable to bring out as much liquor as flows at the nightclubs in Cairo, along with hashish for men (most of these parties are gender segregated, with the women and children celebrating inside). This is their home culture, the apparently “authentic,” and it stands in contrast to their performances before the sober and respectfully quiet Western audiences that have come for a “cultural event,” to enjoy the unfamiliarity of their music. It is for such reasons that the musicians compare these Westerners favorably to local village audiences.
None of the southern musicians I know admitted feeling any direct pressures from Islamists, although they have lost some local audiences to religious singers and dhikrs (Sufi musical performances) that are becoming popular as wedding entertainment. While Islamists condemn Cairo’s nightclubbing, Western-dressed urban tradition that is not theirs, perhaps they have a regionalist blind spot for these local, fellow southerners. It does appear from these interregional and international cases that exotica, and in other power arrangements, threat and danger, can only exist as clearly distinguishable from one’s own identity. The kind of authentic culture on which the Islamists are focused is concerned with how morality ought to combine with power within the state. Although their staunchest support is found in the south, the political power they have directed their efforts to obtaining resides in Cairo. In the meantime, southern musicians playing for drunken villagers pass through the moral fire unscathed.
Viewed together, these performance communities dramatize the changing power relationships between peripheral “authentic” regional community, national center, and outside constituencies in the context of shifting market and moral economies. There is a definite split within Egypt and Egyptian culture, between national identity of the center, constantly in need of revival through nostalgia, and the burgeoning of regional identities, which, in the south, seem to be riding on the older regionalist biases between the urban north and the rural south. The interregional perceptions of performance reflect changing gender, political, and cultural relations within Egypt. At the same time, the historical power relations between Egypt and the Gulf states, on the one hand, and Egypt and Western Europe, on the other, resonates in the kind of performance genres audiences from these regions choose as representative of Egypt. These two very different Egypts to which international audiences are responding—the folkloric, ethnic prenation wild men or the feminized cosmopolitan hot spot—reflect specific historical and economic relations between these regions and Egypt. While it would not seem to be in these countries’ political interest to further destabilize Egypt, Arab and European audiences have become active participants in the current debate over authentic Egyptian culture and identity. They accomplish this through their selective patronage of performance genres that either contest Egypt’s current moral climate or celebrate a marginal past that claims no national currency.
In Cairo there is now growing support for much of the Islamists’ platform. Politically aspiring Islam provides a new model that is marketed as truly authentic living, backed by historical precedence, moral order, and God. This provides an alternative for a growing number of disenfranchised Egyptians, in a time when the government has often appeared morally unhinged and ineffective in domestic issues. Egyptians I knew considered government efforts toward reform and democratic rule as shallow impulses directed more toward maintaining foreign aid than signaling substantive change.
In this milieu the community of Muhammad ‘Ali Street in the corrupt old center is feeling the chastening of bad times. Performers in the community have responded to the changing economic and moral circumstances as best they can. Many women, feeling morally pressured and wishing to express their own growing religiosity, have quit performing and donned the veil. Maha initially removed her veil to sing in response to her family’s economic needs. When Maha became engaged to a bouncer from a nightclub, her fiancé forbade her to continue working, demanded that she wear the veil, and made her promise not to let his family know that she had been a nightclub singer. Although she relished the independence derived from her work, she agreed, anticipating that with marriage she would be able to distance herself from her family’s demands on her time and that this would constitute a greater freedom. Even Jehan, the belly dancer in whose orchestra Maha sang, is rumored to be retiring soon, despite her success in the nightclub scene. Men are likewise responding by shifts in their work aspirations. Hosam, Maha’s brother-in-law, is working on a Western “lite music” repertoire, hoping to get work in Western tourist hotels, where he no longer will have to back up belly dancers or play for Arab audiences. Maha’s impresario brother-in-law, Sabr, gave up his folkloric troupe altogether to pursue unrelated work in Eastern Europe. Maha’s brother Mahmoud got married to a woman from a family of nonmusicians and moved to Pyramids Road near most of Cairo’s nightclubs. He works hard in nightclubs and recording but rarely plays for belly dancers. He is paying for his nephews’ music institute tutors since their mother lost her singing job. Hajj Ahmad is still hopeful that I will find a producer for his compositions in the United States, despite my insistence and the ample evidence that I am not the one to ask.
Meanwhile, the southern peripheral musicians are on the move, staking claims in European centers, and celebrated another musical CD release in 1996. The genres and images of these two communities of performers, in conjunction with the nostalgia and authenticity issues that surround them, reveal increasingly incommensurate notions about national identity and cultural history in Egypt. This, in turn, reflects a morally laden perception of cultural decay in the center, on one hand, and the recognition of flourishing opportunities by peripheries through international markets that appear to be morally exempt from local Islamist scrutiny, on the other.
I have demonstrated the value of closely examining the local and international components of these entertainment markets that have emerged at the interstices between cultures, to elucidate both the influences that create these markets and their local impact. This analysis reveals that such “global flows” flow only in certain directions, apparently specializing in the commoditization of festively rendered economic inequalities, aesthetic discontinuities, and orientalizing fantasies. Although such markets appear to be driven by international interests, the debates around which these two communities define themselves cannot be understood only, or even primarily, within a globalizing framework. Rather, they must be seen within the context of the moral and political processes that make up Egypt’s intense and complex cultural disputes. At the intersections of such national disputes and international capital, the idioms of nostalgia and authenticity, movement, gender, and national identity become the trading cards of performers and audiences, producers and nations, that signal ambivalent yet ineluctable participation in local, national, and international transformations.
1. There are long strings of edicts and laws from the Middle Ages to the end of the nineteenth century in Egypt circumscribing the lives of performers. See van Nieuwkerk 1995 for an excellent historical review of women performers’ status and Racy 1977 and Danielson 1997 for a historical understanding of the changing status of performers in this century. See also Nelson 1985 on sama‘ (listening) for debates surrounding the propriety of musical performance in religious discourses. [BACK]
2. For many Cairene women, visiting saints’ tombs and mosques serves as both social outings and popular religious practice. Relations between devotees and their saints are often very intense. [BACK]
3. By this I mean sha‘bi, literally, “popular”. This term carries connotations of both class status and adherence to practices understood to be traditional, patriarchal, and socially conservative. The term tends to include the urban working class, urban trade and craft classes, peasant immigrants to the city, and also those from the petite bourgeoisie who work in offices by day but return to traditional home lives in the evenings. Sha‘bi also has nationalist overtones, similar to those evoked by the term awlad al-balad (sons of the country), those who staunchly support the nation in opposition to the infiltration of the inauthentic and foreign cultural and political agendas (see El-Messiri 1978). Cairene musicians I knew felt that awlad al-balad were rarely found among younger generations today. [BACK]
4. Historically sons were expected to help provide financially for aging parents. This practice is becoming attenuated, in part as a result of the increasing nucleation of families. Still, older people express both acquiescence and dismay that sons often do not make an effort to respect the older ways or their parents’ needs. This is especially the case in this community, where extended families and occupational collaboration between generations endured until recently. Now modern practices and ideologies linked to professionalism, to which the younger generation aspires (as they must in music to be competitive), forms a rift between the elderly and their children. [BACK]
5. The Muhammad ‘Ali Street neighborhood is composed of a half kilometer of music stores, lute-crafting workshops, and musicians’ cafés. Performers live in the six- to eight-story buildings above the stores and cafés with other crafts families and small workshops. The street begins at ‘Ataba Square, a traffic-jammed transport and market nexus on the border between Islamic and downtown Cairo. It climbs two kilometers through famous old neighborhoods of Islamic Cairo to the paired mosques of Sultan Hasan and the Rifa‘i Mosque, right below the Citadel that crowns the summit. Approximately a kilometer west of the community is Ezbekiyya, once the main theater district. Its private and state-sponsored venues once produced shows ranging from classical taqasim music to popular plays and opera. The street was named after Muhammad ‘Ali, the Albanian-born ruler who governed Egypt from 1805 until 1848, whose plans for the street were part of his attempt to reshape Egypt based on modern principles and concerns about military access, sanitation, and leisure entertainment (see Abu-Lughod 1971; Behrens-Abouseif 1985; Mitchell 1988). [BACK]
6. While the development of a pan-Arab press was crucial in Egypt to early nationalist thinking (as Benedict Anderson  might suggest), wider public sentiment during this time of incomplete literacy was sparked by vernacular nonprint media such as film and live entertainment. Especially Umm Kulthum’s concerts are remembered as having been imbued with nationalist sentiment. Even for those born after she died (in 1973), her voice has remained the voice of Egypt, or rather what was great about Egypt in the twentieth century (see Danielson 1997). Cairenes consider taxis to be the popular “venue” for the current recorded music scene, and until the early 1990s, Umm Kulthum prevailed “there.” For a detailed discussion of the relationships among nationalism, language, and popular culture during the nationalist era, see Armbrust 1996. [BACK]
7. Many performance-related terms like impresario, brofa (practice), and theatro (variety show), along with music composition terms found in Cairene Arabic, are derived from Italian. [BACK]
8. Veiling means neo-Islamic veiling, which is composed of a longish triangular scarf that covers the hair and is pinned under the chin. For a thorough discussion of the cultural politics of veiling, see MacLeod 1991. [BACK]
9. In the past, and occasionally still, for a small minority of people, a wedding typically lasted three days and included several live orchestras, dancers, and singers. In the 1990s, on any given Thursday night, the family I have partly described above would have been performing at these weddings, which were usually held outside in smaller streets (where many weddings are still held). The rented sound systems now used in wedding entertainment are notable for ever-increasing decibels, a trend that musicians and listeners attribute to Western “disco” influences. Most musicians I knew did not like these trends in popular music but believed this is what people expect. Many are aware of their own hearing loss caused by the high-powered sound systems. [BACK]
10. Their uneasiness is not fully reflected in most nonperforming Cairenes’ view of their community. Cairenes characterize the community as a remnant of a fading popular life and of entertainment that was family based and seem unaware that performers still live there or that they now perform in nightclubs. Karin van Nieuwkerk (1995) found that nonperformers considered members of this community to be good people, because of their historical work at weddings and ritual celebrations. However, the same interviewees felt that singers and dancers who lived and worked on Pyramids Road were little better than prostitutes and only interested in money. [BACK]
11. There is a pattern of Saudi men marrying Egyptian women when on vacation in Cairo. Although some marriages are contracted in good faith, others allegedly only last for the period that the Saudi vacationer is in Egypt, after which time he repudiates his wife. (Divorce is relatively easy in Islamic law.) To the degree that such “summer marriages” do occur (no statistics are available), they are seen as proof of the immoral, predatory (and male) character of Arab tourists. There are also stories about wives of such Arab men who, unattended and with access to excessive money, are left to spend their time luring young Egyptian men into relationships. These stories mostly circulate among young Egyptian men, and their telling almost always contains an element of astonishment, whereas the “summer marriage” stories are considered common knowledge. [BACK]
12. Does nostalgia have a center? As a narrative vehicle, nostalgia points to what is not there, making the past fan in and out of self-chosen points. Nostalgia works, for those who cannot afford to criticize, to separate oneself from a present, whether due to a sense of complicity or a sense of helplessness in the face of present problems. It also serves to derive legitimacy or show association or difference through emotive historical means, perhaps to substantiate or invalidate the present. Nostalgia is one of the few choices that subordinated people have: if there is no ascertainable future, one might thus at least choose one’s conception of the past. [BACK]
13. This is reflected in the postindependence ascendancy of Egyptian mass culture and political leadership across much of the Middle East, which dissolved in the wake of Sadat’s signing of the Camp David Peace Accords with Israel, Egypt’s subsequent expulsion from the Arab League, and recurrent economic uncertainty. [BACK]
14. Even with all the recent nostalgic fascination with departed Egyptian royalty—who were essentially powerless under the British and were finally booted out by the revolution—there is no public nostalgia for any past cultural items brought in by the British. [BACK]
15. While I was living in Cairo, one of the most popular long-running musicals was called Shari‘ Muhammad ‘Ali. Perhaps the best-loved and longest-running Ramadan series, called “Layali al-Hilmiyya” (Hilmiyya Nights), is about the community on al-Hilmiyya Street that converges with Muhammad ‘Ali Street. For an excellent discussion of such television serials, see Abu-Lughod 1995b. The many classic films set in the community include Ahibbak ya Hasan (I Love You, Hasan; 1958) about a young woman (played by Na‘ima ‘Akif) who comes to the community on Muhammad ‘Ali Street and rises to fame; Shari‘ al-hubb (Street of Love; 1958), in which ‘Abd al-Halim Hafiz plays a young man who exceeds his sha‘bi Muhammad ‘Ali Street background and becomes famous; and Khalli balak min Zuzu (Pay Attention to Zuzu; 1972), about a student at the university who, amid rampant classism, redeems her worth (and wins her sweetheart) after being revealed as a dancer from a sha‘bi family of dancers on Muhammad ‘Ali Street. [BACK]
16. The problem is that there is still cachet in these images and their uses that together, in some contexts, form a kind of symbolic capital (à la Bourdieu 1977). Such images have served to reinforce the community’s precedence in the—albeit diminishing—wedding market, although these antiquated images also typecast community members as throwbacks in a professionalizing market. The idea of symbolic capital gains special use in contexts that include mixed class, ethnicity, and special groups, especially in historical perspective. To the degree that symbolic capital is publicly identified with, or attributed to, a special group (in this case, a performance community), it can also become an ideological burden at different points in that group’s history. Such contexts point to the potential double valence of symbolic capital. [BACK]
17. Islamists are composed of several related groups, most based around the southern city of Assiut, that have worked to bring down the government through preaching against corruption, offering social services that the government has failed to provide in the south, and waging a guerrilla war with the government. They have gained most publicity through their campaign to terrorize Western tourists, on whose money the government relies heavily. Many Cairenes I knew felt that Islamists’ violence was wrongly guided by misinterpretations of the Qur’an, which, they felt, provided proof that Islamists were not Muslims. Patrick Gaffney’s (1994) work provides excellent insights into this movement. [BACK]
18. The religious conservative movement touches a deep vein for many lower-class communities like that on Muhammad ‘Ali Street, who have not fully shared in the benefits of educational and economic liberalism to the same degree as the aspiring middle classes. [BACK]
19. Images of southerners come in two major forms. In films, from the 1930s to the present, southerners most often appear as clever but uncultured and ruthless men. These men either form excited roaring congeries in an outrage wrought of their own misunderstanding of some sequence of events (usually concerning honor) or are singular figures of treachery who attempt to kill, kidnap, or trick a hero or heroine. In the background small groups forever drink tea and yansun (southern anise tea). A more contemporary image comes from migrant male laborers to Cairo from the south. They are recognizable by their southern dress, and they dominate certain lower-class service and unskilled labor jobs. They are the frequent butt of Cairene jokes. [BACK]
20. Nag‘ Hammadi was originally famous as a tourist destination both for the significant Pharaonic sites in the vicinity and for the discovery of the Gnostic manuscripts there. However, in early 1995, when gunmen attacked Italian tourists, it had become the southernmost site of Islamist-connected violence up until that time. The attack was widely publicized, but no one said anything about it on the train, which had been attacked numerous times and was heavily guarded. Later, southern friends of mine interpreted this incident as a case of innocents who got caught in blood-feud crossfire. They likewise interpreted much of the violence between Islamists and government forces as rooted in older feuds and vendettas. [BACK]
21. This migration genre is most famously exemplified by Taha Husayn’s autobiography (1932). [BACK]
22. My Cairene friends were well aware of the changes in their habits, and women were often embarrassed to show me pictures of themselves from years past that showed them dressed “immodestly.” Twice, when religious talk got serious, two of my Cairene friends asserted that they thought the world was likely coming to an end soon and they felt the need for repentance. When I was in Cairo, I could see their point, with the high level of environmental pollution, social pressures, illness, and lack of prospects. This feeling would melt away after a day in the south, despite the poverty that also existed there. [BACK]
23. Southerners tell rumors of migrating female immorality from Cairo to the south. Some Coptic men friends of mine once got together to warn me of the impending peril I faced were I to return to Muhammad ‘Ali Street. They claimed that though I thought I knew those women, I could not really know or trust them. They told me that unsupervised women from that neighborhood used to come down south in traveling shows and essentially act as prostitutes in the 1930s and 1940s, comparable only to the visiting nurses of the same period, who were also known for their alleged debauchery. Although none of these friends were born before 1950 or had ever been to Cairo, they assured me that they knew better than I did about the famous neighborhood in Cairo. [BACK]
24. ‘Afifi, a local man, was sometimes hired for his cross-dressing performances of singing and dancing for men at wedding parties. Men regarded him as a subject for hilarity rather than for serious moral scrutiny. [BACK]
25. These ideations take up conceptual coordinates similar to early explorers’ perspectives on travel as discussed in Johannes Fabian’s (1983) discussion of time, space, and culture. [BACK]
26. Their appearance in a recent French movie, Latcho Drom (1993), about Gypsy/Romany music from the Indian subcontinent to Spain gave precedence to this marketed identity, although their own identification with this ethnicity at home is much more ambiguous. Gypsies seem to call up romanticist nostalgia for many Europeans, resonating with an imagined prerationalized, preindustrial age (see Hoggart 1958; Williams 1973). [BACK]
27. This rather optimistic view of commoditization as a practice in which everyone benefits finds its theoretical source in Simmel (1978), who focused on productive exchange to the neglect of productive labor. A similar spirit animates the popularized enthusiasm surrounding the issue of globalization. [BACK]
28. See Benjamin 1969. I do not mean to somehow condemn the liberatory possibilities of listenership. It could be argued that willingness to listen, buy, and imagine the people behind world music in itself constitutes political engagement that has subtle agency in the way we align our international politics and the degree to which we may be less willing to “otherize” particular groups. [BACK]
29. Because of their proximity to Luxor, which is a major tourist center for Westerners, these musicians are used to being scrutinized for glimmers of an authentic past, the original Egyptian Pharaonic culture. Tour guides and guidebooks often depict residents as essentially unchanged since Pharaonic times. Luxorites working in the tourist markets make blatant use of such tendencies to sell their wares. [BACK]
30. See Barthes 1975 for provocative commentary on the pleasure of recognition. [BACK]
31. Charles Taylor (1992) discusses this in depth, noting that Rousseau first articulated this as an intuited moral evenness. Such self-awareness also has bearing on romanticist understandings of the artist’s sensibilities that are present in narratives of Cairene musicians who have had conservatory training and southern musicians who have traveled abroad. [BACK]
32. That is to say: “Look at the stems [stains, spittle] still hanging to the headpiece, it must be the real thing.” Larry Shiner discusses criteria for authenticity in tourist art, remarking that “in the context of the ‘primitive art’ market, the art-versus-craft distinction undergoes a paradoxical reversal” (1994, 227). In the case of performance, there is yet more shifting about and aesthetic confrontation, both visually and aurally. [BACK]
33. See Coco Fusco’s Couple in a Cage: A Guatinaui Odyssey (1993). Robert Rydell’s (1987) work on the world fairs provides historical instances of staging others. Mary Douglas’s (1966) discussion of boundaries and danger is also helpful here, as is Ray Bradbury’s fictional Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983), which explores the lurking fearful fantasies that have typically surrounded traveling circuses. [BACK]
34. I am extending Gregory Bateson’s (1972) use of the term in his discussion of schizophrenia here to indicate a kind of culturally shared schizophrenia. [BACK]
35. These women rely on management and hired guards to protect them from audiences in Cairo, but apparently do not have such protection in nightclubs in the Gulf states. [BACK]
36. Ibn Khaldun (1958), the great social historian of the fourteenth century, described the rise and fall of polities, believing that urbanity was inherently corrupting while rural tribal life was moral and politically strengthening. His model suggested that these two sociospatial entities provide foils for each other. As the urban center’s defense is gradually weakened by increasing moral and political decay, it is easily attacked and conquered by disciplined peripheral groups. In turn, such conquering groups over time become urbanized, weakened, and corrupt and eventually fall to conquering peripheral groups. [BACK]
37. Recognition by these musicians that their foreign audiences did not understand the words that they were singing would occasionally lead to mischief in the lyrics. [BACK]
38. This resembles Redfield’s (1956) great/little tradition. To refresh that concept, consider the American tradition of the synthesizer player at reunions, anniversaries, and some weddings, who performs everything from old rock (Beatles) and musical hits (the themes from Dr. Zhivago and The Sound of Music) to Ave Maria, all set to the same digital rumba beat. [BACK]