Everyday Technologies: Toward a History of Mass Media in the Middle East

AHA Session 115
Friday, January 5, 2018: 1:30 PM-3:00 PM
Columbia 10 (Washington Hilton, Terrace Level)
Tarik Sabry, Communication and Media Research Institute, University of Westminster

Session Abstract

Scholars have shed no shortage of ink on social media and its significance in the aftermath of the mass uprisings that shook the Middle East a few years ago. Indeed, a quick survey of recent scholarship reveals that Facebook, Twitter, and other online communities have supplanted al-Jazeera as the subject of choice for many studies on the region’s media. Although offering important insights into the intersections of activism, authoritarianism, and contemporary politics, these works collectively lend the impression that only the most recent media matter in the field of Middle East studies. The speakers on this panel strive to enrich this body of literature and to reorient prevailing discussions of media in the Middle East by expanding the conventional parameters of its study. Specifically, we will look beyond satellite television and the Internet to earlier technologies whose impact on politics, religion, cultural production, and everyday life remains largely unknown. In so doing, we will consider what a historically rigorous discussion of print, audio, and visual technologies may contribute to our understanding of the Middle East. To accomplish this aim, this panel will revolve around four different case studies that span the 20th century, center on select mass media, and incorporate a wide-range of places, people, and ideas.

The first paper, “The Politics of Images: Cartoons in the Late Ottoman Empire,” considers how political cartoons in satirical journals managed to circumvent increasing press censorship during the years following the Young Turk Revolution. The second paper, “Kabul Cosmopolitan: Radio Afghanistan & the Politics of Popular Culture, 1960-79,” calls attention to the historical development of radio in Afghanistan as an important window onto Afghan public life and the social, cultural, political, and economic processes that unfolded in a thriving cosmopolitan city. The third paper, “Vulgarizing Sounds: Tapes, Taste, and the End of High Culture in Modern Egypt,” explores how the widely-ranging material circulating on audiotapes under Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak led many local commentators to argue that “crass” cassettes were poisoning public taste in an effort to dictate who created “culture” and what constituted “art” during a time of tremendous change. Lastly, the fourth paper, “The VHS Medium in 1980s Revolutionary Iran: A Window Onto the World Outside,” contributes to our understanding about the ways in which people through everyday consumption of uncensored content – on a now defunct media format – critically engaged their political realities and constructed utopias of belonging.

A number of broader questions guide this inquiry into mass media in Middle East historiography. Why, for instance, is the history of everyday technologies important? What fresh insights may the historical study of mass media contribute to Middle East scholarship? And how may historians challenge the tendency of their peers to treat media technologies as objects without histories? In the process of addressing these questions, this panel’s members will contribute to larger debates on popular culture, transnational exchanges, and political discourse in and outside of Middle East studies.

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