October 20, 2010 / 10:07 AM / 8 years ago

Book Talk: Pop culture aficionado travels the Middle East

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.”

Q: Religion is in the foreground but a lot of American pop culture is seen as secular. Is there an inherent tension?

A; “The second you dig beneath the surface of sitcoms or pop songs, America is a very conservative culture. There’s craven and crass stuff, but it’s a family-oriented culture. Look at ‘Modern Family.’ There’s a gay couple and interracial marriage but ... the values aren’t that far off, and that’s why this stuff resonates, especially in the (Persian) Gulf. Sitcoms like ‘Two and a Half Men,’ ‘Everybody Loves Raymond,’ ‘Friends’ in particular travel well. Hip-hop travels very well. Heavy metal travels well.”

Q: Disney and Pixar movies have indirectly led to a revival of the classical Arabic language. How did that happen?

A: “Traditionally, a lot of pop culture was Arabized into the Egyptian dialect. Now that’s changing. Basically the Saudis own the license and they own the license for the Disney Channel. Saudis are trying to introduce classical Arabic as the lingua franca of popular culture. It’s this bizarre case of using American product as a cudgel for Saudi (influence).”

Q: Are the makers of American pop culture, like movie studios, aware of this audience, and influenced by it?

A: “They understand a large part of their gross comes from the international marketplace. That said, they have no cultural understanding, and that’s hugely problematic. We’re losing an opportunity to speak to people. One of the huge examples is how often Arabs are portrayed as villains.”

Q: You note that nostalgia is one of the defining aspects of Muslim pop culture. In the West, arguably irony is dominant. Does American irony play abroad?

A: “We tend to be put off by nostalgia in the West, but it’s very real. One of the things I love about Arab popular culture is that nostalgia is a legitimate aesthetic impulse for good art. You have things like hip-hop being bridged by ancient Islamic poetry. In these links, some sort of cultural conciliation is built-in.

“The Egyptian guy who was Arabizing ‘The Simpsons’ argued forcefully that irony can exist in Islamic culture, that Homer is as much an Arab as an American. He’s both a total idiot and completely alive. He lives in a world of mistakes where the average guy gets a rotten deal. That’s a universal message.”

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