Book Talk: Pop culture aficionado travels the Middle East

Wed Oct 20, 2010 7:33am EDT
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By Nick Zieminski

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Richard Poplak has traveled all over the Muslim world in search of a commodity many people don't consider particularly valuable: American pop culture.

The South African-born, Toronto-based writer met rappers in Palestine and Israel, punk rockers in Indonesia, Lebanese talk show hosts and exploitation moviemakers in Turkey. He describes his journey in "The Sheik's Batmobile," and shows how Muslim culture in the Middle East, Indonesia and elsewhere interacts with the West in often surprising ways.

Poplak spoke to Reuters about "The Simpsons," Pixar movies, and why junk entertainment can help offset extremism.

Q: Why did you set out on these travels?

A: "The catalyst was 'The Simpsons' being televised. It wasn't simply dubbing. It was an actual reculturation of the show. Homer is now Omar and does not drink beer or eat bacon. That got me thinking what happens to our popular culture when it's recultured by people that we're ostensibly at war with. The boilerplate is that American pop culture is imperialist and floods through other cultures like a tsunami. That is a poverty-stricken way of looking at how cultures interact.

"Cultures build on each other and in many places American pop culture has become authentic and indigenous. Kids in Palestine view hip-hop as Arab. They don't interpret it as American. There's an exchange going on. Kids in Iran, kids in Palestine, are staking their lives to their pop cultural choices. 'You cut hip-hop out of my life, you cut a limb off.' I found that just baffling that this music has become a part of people's soul. Pop culture is serious culture. We do a huge disservice when we dismiss it."

Q: What were some of the strangest things you came across?

A: "The punk scene in Jakarta was just bizarre -- long, weird nights. The weirdest moment I had was in a bar in Muscat, Oman. There I was in a conga line doing 'YMCA.' It was one of the most surreal moments of my life."   Continued...