Vulgarizing Sounds: Tapes, Taste, and the End of High Culture in Modern Egypt

Friday, January 5, 2018: 2:10 PM
Columbia 10 (Washington Hilton)
Andrew Simon, Dartmouth College
“Pious” sounds have received significantly more attention than their “vulgar” counterparts in Middle East studies. In the case of Egypt’s cassette culture, religious recordings, though enjoying the lion’s share of attention from scholars, constituted only a small fraction of the audio content available to listeners. The widely ranging material in circulation in the mid-to-late twentieth century led many local commentators to argue that “crass” cassettes were poisoning public taste, undermining high culture, and endangering Egyptian society. This presentation breaks down these arguments and shows that tapes actually broadcast a vast variety of voices. Thus, underlying many criticisms of cassettes, I contend, was not simply a concern for the “wellbeing” of citizens but also a desire to dictate who created “culture” and what constituted “art” during a time of tremendous change. By critically unpacking these debates, this presentation enriches prevailing discussions of sound, mass media, and popular culture in Egyptian historiography. To intervene in these arenas, this research draws upon audio, visual, and textual materials from formal and informal collections that comprise a “shadow archive.” At the center of these sources is the state-controlled Egyptian press. Contrary to the claims of some scholars, who downplay or entirely dismiss the usefulness of the Egyptian press as a historical source following its nationalization in 1960, this presentation demonstrates how an incisive reading of articles, illustrations, and letters to editors in two leading magazines may shed new light on a period plagued by missing documents, shuttered state archives, and restrictive research clearances.