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Political Uses of Cultural Forms

Session VIII-11, 2022 Annual Meeting

On Saturday, December 3 at 11:00 am

Panel Description
  • The Ottoman Sultan Murad II (r.1421-1444, 1446-1451) sponsored an extensive range of translation projects from Persian and Arabic into Turkish. Among the most important publications from his period is Yazıcızâde ‘Âli’s Tevârîḫ-i Âl-i Selçuk (“History of the House of Seljuk,” 1424?). This is a prosimetric chronicle of Anatolian Seljuks (c.1081–1307) that comprises Turkish translations of Persian texts. “Translation as Rewriting” presents an analysis of the verse sections in this work on the premise that the lyrical fragments, whether translated or composed, mirror the author’s ideological views. ‘Âli’s project was geared toward disentangling the memories of the Seljuks from the Iranocentric rhetoric and processing them into a linear history of Turks and Mongols. In his work, ‘Âli omitted a considerable number of poems that describe the Seljuk state as a Persian empire. He instead included his own compositions that articulate a genealogy from Oğuz Turks to the Seljuk Sultanate and then to the Ottoman Empire. It must be noted that ‘Âli’s interests are confined to Oğuz Turks, not the Turks as a whole. Meanwhile, ‘Âli is biased towards the geographical location of Rūm and the Mongols. He summons "selāṭīn-i Rūm" (Rum sultanates) multiple times in his poems while removing "memālik-i Rūm" (Rum states) in his translation when the original poem uses it in a negative sense. ‘Âli also venerates Chinggis Khan and Ilkhans throughout his work. In terms of language, Turkish poems, including both translated and inserted ones, account for 80 percent of the whole poetry. They function as the medium through which ‘Âli expresses his pro-Oğuz sentiments. In contrast, most Persian and Arabic poems play a marginal role as fillers. Translation strategies employed in the poetry sections of Tevârîḫ-i Âl-i Selçuk aim to legitimize the Ottoman Turkish rule by associating the dynasty with non-Iranian, but highly admired, Islamic rulers of Anatolia. “Translation as Rewriting” argues that this project was designed to neutralize the rebellious ideas of Sufi scholars. After a devastating insurrection by Shaykh Bedreddin (1359-1420), Murad II had a deep distrust of local shaykhs, who as “holy men” wielded huge influence on the masses. Their mystic teaching was rooted in Persian literature that contrasted civilized Iran with the savage others. By publishing Tevârîḫ-i Âl-i Selçuk, the Ottoman court officially refuted the common belief that dynasties of non-Iranian origin must be domesticated, or Persianized. The revised history demonstrated that Anatolia had been essentially Turkish and it always would be.
  • In Spring 2018, a professional Russian belly dancer known in Egypt as Gohara was arrested, charged with “inciting debauchery,” and nearly deported when a video of her Cairo disco performance went viral. After her release, Gohara catapulted to stardom in Egypt and is now by far the most popular professional belly dancer on Instagram, where her account regularly features sexy and glamorous photos and videos of her. Gohara’s story encapsulates the entanglement of mobilities and embodiment with changing cultural politics and economies in Egypt that my research investigates. Gohara is one of many foreign dancers working in Egypt today and one of many female performers charged with inciting debauchery due to viral videos. Based on 19 years of participation in Egyptian dance and the global belly dance community, ongoing participant observation in Cairo and social media relationships with dancers, as well as 50+ interviews with people in and around the dance industry, this article will argue that dance in Egypt has always traded primarily in attention, but social and political shifts are changing attention and corporeal economies in Egypt and Egyptian dance. Recent events, including COVID-19, have pushed dancers online and to change the nature of their performances in person in order to succeed in new types of attention economies. By attention economies, I mean the activities in which people engage to capture or deflect others’ attention to get or generate other necessary resources and forms of capital . These new dance business strategies sometimes make them targets for political attempts at directing the attention economy. For dancers in Egypt, the attention economies are inextricably intertwined with corporeal economies – the accumulation and circulation of bodily labor and value (Wacquant 2004), since the service/product that they offer is inseparable from their bodies (Wacquant 1995, Tuchman-Rosta 2020). This article will theorize the interweaving of attention economies and corporeal economies in the digital and physical lives of dancers in Egypt, arguing that foreign dancers have an advantage overall due to ongoing global inequality.
  • Drawing on the recent tropes of pride and profit (Heller 2010; Duchene and Heller 2012; Heller and Duchene 2016; Gal 2012; Urla 2012), this project examines the ways that particular languages can convey “ethnolinguistic” pride but also be commodified and appreciated for their market value. Motivated by the syncretic re-archaization (Naficy 1993: 25)—idealization of Iranian past in the present—by controlling and organizing the diaspora’s symbolic, ideological and social milieu through the “collective solidarity based on descent” (ibid: 64), Iranian diasporic media gradually commodified their audience with the assistance of fetishizing the home, past, and there (vs. here). The fetishized language became a cultural treasure for participants of the Persian poetry classes, deployed to rationalize the hierarchies of speakers. Controlling over the interpretation and textual processes (Bauman and Briggs 2003), the medieval Persian literature became commodified by a particular group of people in Los Angeles, purchased through membership, at the cost of granting participants exclusive knowledge about these texts. Participants also benefit from the social capital that has been produced and circulated in these places, distinguish themselves from others, and benefit from upward mobility in the diasporic society of Iranians in Los Angeles. This project examines how the commodified Persian language and poetry helped Iranians retain national, communal, and individual boundaries, which were once weakened after the second wave of immigration of Iranians to Los Angeles. While the studies of pride and profit provide insights to understand how ethnolinguistic pride can be commodified, such works have not attended to the role of textuality (Hanks 1989; Bauman and Briggs 1990; Briggs and Bauman 1992) and performance (Bauman 1977, 1986) in the process of commodification of a language. This project seeks to demonstrate how the Persian language conveys ethnolinguistic pride for Iranians in Los Angeles and becomes commodified through exercising exclusive control over textual processes alongside the authority over the calibration of the intertextual gap (Bauman and Briggs 1990; Briggs and Bauman 1992; Bauman 1975, 1999; Bakhtin 1986).
  • In 1959, the American writer Paul Bowles secured a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to record folk music of Morocco. Bowles presented his project as a “fight against time” to rescue rural Amazigh traditions from both the rising tides of modernization and the Arabization policies of the newly independent Moroccan government. Recently re-released in collaboration with the Library of Congress, Bowles’s Music of Morocco is now praised by both Western writers and the Moroccan government as a daring act of preservation. But of course, Bowles’s recordings of “purely autochthonous” Berber music were anything but authentic and untouched. The archive resulting from this project is a political text reflecting both Bowles’s own idiosyncratic Orientalism and the cultural policies of colonial and postcolonial governments. While French administrators, Arab nationalists, and Bowles himself held differing views of the proper role of Amazigh people in Moroccan identity, they shared in the construction of an Arab-Berber dichotomy which violently erased hybrid and heterodox cultural forms. The collection and recording of indigenous musical practices usurped meaning-making power from local artists and placed it in the hands of men like Bowles eager to deploy ‘Berber culture’ for their own rhetorical purposes. Bowles sought out “primitive” music, which he saw as the most authentic, and characterized hybrid styles as “schizophrenic” or “ethnically degenerate.” A close reading of the archival notes reveals that Moroccan musicians performed at the whims of Bowles and local government officials, often for meager compensation and sometimes under threat of violence. Although historians have begun to use musical sources to recover subaltern roles in the formation of Moroccan subjectivities in the late protectorate and early independence periods, the Bowles Moroccan Music archive has received scant attention. This may be due to the stature of Bowles himself, whose bohemian celebrity has precluded attempts to honestly reckon with the racism which underpinned his exploitative relationship with Morocco and Moroccans. This paper analyzes how conflicting discourses politicized Berber heritage and identity, incorporating Bowles’s Moroccan Music archive into the ongoing project to recover the voices of indigenous people in the modern history of Morocco.
  • The memoir of Kemal Tanyolaç (1924-1995) mentions that he kept a record of all his sexual activities throughout his life, using a secret code in his unpublished diaries. Such record-keeping is not unheard of, appearing in diaries ranging from that of 18-century Jamaican slave owner Thomas Thistlewood to that of 20th-century Canadian writer Robertson Davies. Tanyolaç’s memoirs cover his childhood in Turkish Thrace in the 1920s, his high school and college years in Istanbul and elsewhere, and his working life as an accountant and economist for various state enterprises in Ankara from the early 1950s on. He says in his memoir that he thinks his records of sexual activity might be of interest or of use to the medical profession, suggesting he thought this information should be made public. The period during which his coded symbols appear in his diaries runs from January 1940 to December 1988. Thus it covers an important, culturally transformative period in Turkey’s history. This paper looks at what we can learn from this specific archive. The symbols give us much more than a simple tally of types and frequency of sexual activity. They show us more than the maturation of a single individual. In conjunction with other information in the diaries and the memoir, these symbols tell us about differing cultural and moral conditions in different parts of Turkey. They say a great deal about the availability of sexual partners in what is generally considered a sexually conservative society. They are also suggestive of changing social mores in Republican Turkey. There are periods of activity or lack of activity that can be associated with travels to or stays in specific locations, offering information about those locations. Given the nature of his code, Tanyolaç says little in the diaries about who he was engaging in sexual activities with, although in a few instances he either mentions a name or a location. More of that information can be put together from the memoir, and the two in conjunction are a very rich source. This is a resource that, although it is very specific to one individual and one type of activity, at the same time tells us much about the times and society of the man who kept these records.