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Egypt as a Mixtape: Shaykh Imam, Official Stories, and Recomposing the Recent Past
Decades before social media platforms entered our daily lives, audiocassettes, composed of little more than magnetic reels, plastic cases, and a few metal screws, empowered an unprecedented number of people to create culture, circulate information, and challenge ruling regimes. The creative power and circulatory potential of this everyday technology is no more evident than in the case of one Egyptian artist, Shaykh Imam, a blind performer and political dissident who set the poetry of Ahmad Fuʾad Nigm and others to song and undermined the stories told by the Egyptian government. Taking aim at several state-engineered accounts of seminal events, from the 1967 War and American President Richard Nixon’s visit to Egypt in 1974 to French President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing’s arrival in Cairo the very next year and the 1977 Bread Riots, Shaykh Imam composed Egypt’s history anew on informal cassettes recorded and distributed by individual listeners within Egypt and well beyond its borders. In this talk, I will focus on the 1970s and how Imam’s music serves as an unsanctioned mixtape to a momentous decade. I will consider the potential of popular culture to radically reshape our understanding of history, as opposed to simply complementing what we already know about it. Likewise, I will place Imam’s songs into conversation with state-orchestrated spectacles and watershed moments to contemplate how we might make sense of such occasions in the absence of the Egyptian National Archives. Lastly, I will examine both the life and afterlife of Imam’s subversive anthems, which continued to resonate with listeners for years to come, including after Imam’s passing in the 1990s. Here, I will introduce the revival of Imam’s music during the 2011 Egyptian Revolution, performances that are part and parcel of his wider resurgence on-the-ground in the Middle East and online, where the preservation of his legacy assumes the form of a collective enterprise to which anyone may contribute. By taking Imam as a starting point, I will address the politics of public knowledge in modern Egypt and demonstrate how “fake news” and the crafting of counternarratives are by no means new. To illustrate these points, I will rely upon a wide array of materials in the absence of the Egyptian National Archives, including memoirs, Egyptian magazines, audio recordings, and social media content, items that make new stories about Egypt’s recent past possible.
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