MIDEAST: Egypt Makes Cultural Clout Count

  • by Adam Morrow and Khaled Moussa Al-Omrani (cairo)
  • Thursday, October 29, 2009
  • Inter Press Service

'Culturally speaking, Egypt continues to dominate the region, even if its influence has waned slightly in recent years,' Khyria Al-Bishlawi, culture critic and former editor of Egyptian cultural weekly Sheshaati told IPS.

Since the Pharaonic period, Egypt has more often than not been a net exporter of art and culture. This has certainly been the case since the first decades of the last century, when Egypt - the most populous Arabic- speaking country - re-emerged as the region's cultural wellspring, thanks in part to the appearance of novel art forms such as the cinema.

In the 1920s, Egypt became the first Arab country to produce and distribute Arabic-language films, which were enthusiastically watched by audiences from Morocco to Baghdad. Egyptian stage plays, meanwhile, often borrowing the style of their western counterparts, enjoyed enormous popularity throughout the region.

By the mid-century Egyptian singers - such as Um Kalthoum, Mohamed Abdel Wahab and Farid Al-Atrash - had revolutionised contemporary Arab music. Aspiring singers from across the Arab world had to cut their teeth in front of Egyptian audiences if they wanted to make it big.

'Egypt was considered the Hollywood of the Middle East,' said Al-Bishlawi. 'Any Arab artist or performer that wanted to succeed in show business - be they actors, singers, poets, writers or directors - was expected to perform in Cairo.'

By that time, Egypt's cultural influence in the region had become a reflection of its leading political position under its charismatic president, Gamal Abdel Nasser. Along with other famed Egyptian singers, opera diva Um Kalthoum - whose fame spread far beyond the Arab world - sang on themes of Arab independence and the glories of Nasser's revolution against colonial British rule.

'During the Nasser era in the 1950s and 60s, Egypt became the undisputed political leader of the Arabs,' said Al-Bishlawi. 'And this was reflected in its enormous cultural influence in all Arabic-speaking countries.'

At the same time, the novels of celebrated author Naguib Mahfouz, often written in Egyptian colloquial Arabic and featuring Egyptian themes, were becoming widely read, with several being later adapted into successful films. In 1988, Mahfouz became the first Arabic-language author to win a Nobel Prize for Literature.

The 1970s, however, saw the first real challenge to Egypt's longstanding domination of Arabic-language culture and mass media. It was at this time that oil-rich states of the Gulf, envious of Egypt's cultural ascendancy, began pumping money into rival film and television industries in Beirut and Damascus.

'It was a way of offsetting Egypt's cultural ascendancy, which was a reflection of its political ascendancy, in the region,' said Al-Bishlawi. 'Especially within the last ten years, the Gulf states have launched numerous satellite television channels promoting Lebanese, Syrian and Gulf performers at the expense of Egyptian ones.'

'With their enormous reserves of oil money, some Gulf States have tried to diminish Egypt's cultural role in the Arab world,' says Mohamed Mansour, professor of media studies at Cairo University.

Nevertheless, media experts say the attempt has failed so far to diminish Egyptian influence on Arabic-language mass media and culture, which, they say, remains institutional.

'Given Egypt's enormous reservoir of talent, even rival Lebanese and Syrian television channels are forced to rely mostly on Egyptian TV serials and actors,' said Bishlawi.

'Even though the advent of (Qatar-based Arabic-language satellite news channel) Al-Jazeera and other stations has reinforced the idea that Egyptian media has been marginalised, most employees working at those stations are Egyptian,' noted Mansour.

The experts also point to the ubiquity of the Egyptian dialect of Arabic, which is widely understood across the region due to the proliferation of Egyptian mass media, especially television serials.

'Egyptian TV serials have enjoyed unrivalled success throughout the Arabic- speaking world,' said Mansour. 'This is despite the fact that they are all performed in Egyptian colloquial, and generally tackle issues of concern to Egyptians.'

'It's understood that the best Arabic-language television serials continue to be produced in Egypt, despite recent competition from Syria,' said Al- Bishlawi. 'Egypt produces at least ten successful serials every year; Syria rarely produces more than one.

'Meanwhile, no artistic or cultural festival in the region can succeed without the participation of Egyptian films, actors, directors and singers,' Bishlawi added.

Some observers took the defeat last month of Egyptian culture minister Farouk Hosni's bid to the secretary-generalship of the UN culture organisation UNESCO as an indication of Egypt's diminished cultural standing. Prominent Egyptian screenplay writer Osama Anwar Okasha, however, challenges the assumption.

'Modern Egyptian culture has led the region for ages and shows every sign of continuing in that role,' Okasha told IPS. 'Just because Hosni lost the UNESCO election - by a mere four votes - doesn't mean that role has waned.'

© Inter Press Service (2009) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

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