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Revisiting the Arab Sixties

RoundTable VI-1, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Friday, November 3 at 4:00 pm

RoundTable Description
To many in the Arab world, the 1960s remains a site of nostalgia and trauma, of bittersweet longing for a lost future and lingering fear of a haunting past; for scholars, it is a decade of major transformations, one extensively dissected in the pages of many works. The 1967 defeat, the Arab cold war, and ideological rivalries hold the lion’s share of academic interest resulting in a focus on military, political, and economic dimensions of the period and, to a lesser extent, on the social and intellectual spheres. While these works have been instrumental to our understanding of the Arab sixties, they often exist in isolation from other perspectives and experiences of the period. Recent historiographical ventures in the histories of gender, medicine, science, environment, and culture have enriched our knowledge of that period, yet many potential narratives that proffer alternative orderings of this decade remain untapped. This roundtable brings together scholars from an array of disciplines to discuss new research and possible approaches to the study of the 1960s in the Arab world. The inaccessibility of state archives and the scattering, if not scarcity, of available material in different locations have compelled scholars interested in this period to rely on and engage sources such as film, music, literature, magazines, sound, etc., which, in turn, paved the way for the possibility of posing new research questions. Building on these initiatives and trends, this roundtable seeks to address the following questions: How can new research contribute to a re-assessment of the 1960s, one not overshadowed by the blunt rupture of 1967 nor flattened by the weight of romanticization, but one far more sensitive to the various experiences and expressions of the period? What can new histories of the period reveal not only about the nuances of solidarity but also about the specificities of everyday experiences of life, love, leisure, and the pangs of grief and defeat? What types of new sources and methodologies can be deployed to showcase unique perspectives of the period?
Media Arts
  • As a presenter in this roundtable, I wish to revisit the socialist project in Egypt through the lens of cinema. Egypt embarked on its socialist journey, officially in 1961, with high hopes for its future and the promise of building a modern, progressive, egalitarian, self-sufficient, and free society. This journey did not only entail changes in the political, economic, and social arenas; culture, too, had to be transformed, and cinema was expected to be both the subject and object—the agent and product—of socialist goals. Most of the existing scholarship on socialist Egypt explores the state’s intended meaning and implementation of socialism. By contrast, my research focuses on concepts associated with socialism as reflected and expressed in Egyptian films produced during the socialist period. It seeks to explore (1) how Egyptian film creators, bureaucrats, critics, and sometimes moviegoers perceived, translated, and transformed socialism and (2) the role of film as a medium on and through which socialist values, concepts, and hopes were molded, projected, and disrupted. In this presentation, specifically, I employ various sources such as official documents concerning cultural and film affairs, popular and specialized periodicals, press books, books, film reviews, memoirs, interviews, contemporaneous essays, and films to examine what I refer to as the socialist compass or the newly propagated human values that Egyptians were supposed to cultivate for their society to become modern, progressive, and socialist, particularly the sanctification of labor and science, cooperation, solidarity, and self-abnegation.
  • In my contribution to this roundtable, I would like to consider the place of leisure and the role of memory in the context of 1960s Egypt. While there is much work on Egyptian cultural production during this period, the histories of those who experienced, enjoyed, and/or danced under its kaleidoscopic lights have yet to be fully examined. Specifically, the histories of cinema audiences have been completely neglected in favor of in-depth analysis of films. Often historians use films as sources to assess the social or political 'mood' of a particular period or examine the ideological slant of directors without much attention to box office success or audience response. How can we fully understand cinema, however, when we neglect the very people – the audience – who made it a success? In this paper, I’d like to share my work on oral histories of cinema-going in 1960s Egypt, and raise questions about what everyday details of movie-going and cinematic culture - the intimate and sensorial - might tell us about the period and about cinema’s place in people’s live. I argue that oral histories – alongside other neglected sources such as gossip magazines - not only allow us to get a better view of the intimate lives of people, but can fundamentally destabilize some oft-repeated claims about the period – about the ostensible popularity of certain films or assumptions about reception, exhibition, and broader leisure practices.
  • Historians seeking to make sense of modern Egypt following the fall of the monarchy immediately confront multiple challenges, from inaccessible state archives to restrictive research clearances to missing documents. In my contribution to this roundtable, I wish to contemplate the opportunities inspired by these obstacles. How might we overcome the absence of the Egyptian National Archives and challenge the attempts of local authorities to monopolize the past in the present? What might multi-sensory histories add to our understanding of the Arab sixties? How might media technologies and the stories told by them serve as more than narrative details and deepen discussions of this period? In the spirit of addressing these questions, my remarks will center on a single mass medium: radio. The origins of state-controlled Egyptian radio may be traced back to 1934, but the technology took on added importance under Gamal Abdel Nasser. A skilled orator, Nasser invested significantly in the medium to reach a mass audience across Egypt and at a distance from it. For my contribution to this roundtable, I will reflect on the role played by state-controlled radio in the 1967 War. Taking into account both contemporary broadcasts concerning the conflict and the afterlife of what was said on the airwaves, I wish to consider how Egyptians experienced the war in real time and remembered it years later. Drawing on BBC transcripts, television shows, declassified reports, audio recordings, and social media content, I hope to show how a historically rigorous account of Egyptian radio may shed new light on a key moment in the making of the modern Middle East and demonstrate how misinformation is by no means new.
  • As a discussant on this roundtable, I plan to locate my intervention in the Beirut-based publication Jins (Sex), which began an almost two-decade print run in the late 1960s. Featuring a multitude of (female) nudity and material such as articles, jokes, and informational essays, translated from English- and French- language adult magazines, Jins’s editorial board nevertheless took pains to flirt with but also separate their project from the latter and to craft their magazine for an Arabic-speaking readership. One way they did this was by emphasizing the multi-faith religious advisers who made up the editorial board; another was to describe the magazine as a “scientific” endeavor by emphasizing that it was a majalla ʿilmiyya, rather than a more entertainment-centered erotic magazine. In this panel, I am interested in asking questions of the magazine itself: how did Jins present and legitimize itself to its readership? How did Jins imagine and interpellate this readership, and what cultural assumptions did the editors, writers, and publishers bring into constructing the image of what today we may call sex-positive Arab masculinity (albeit an ostensibly cis-heterosexual one)? I also want to use the case study of Jins to open up questions of archive and access. How can we access and study magazines like this, whose content may be marginal even within the already-marginzalized world of ephemeral popular print culture from the Arab world? What can we learn of their histories of publication and their reception, particularly as print publications outside the mainstream?
  • I approach the 1960s as part of a longer process of post-colonial nation building shaped by gender in ways that informed political, economic, social, cultural, and intellectual life. The Tunisian state’s brand of liberal feminism contributed to these transformations but did not define them, and can be fruitfully compared to state feminist projects in Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, and Yemen. Women’s organizing alongside the Women’s International Democratic Federation or the Pan-African Women’s Conference disrupted Cold War and Arab alliances while feminist scholarship challenged nationalist and development logics by valorizing the experience and knowledge of rural women. While the inaccessibility of archival documents presents material and logistical challenges for researching the post-independence era in Tunisia including the 1960s, it also creates possibilities for de-centering state perspectives. Women’s magazines may not have contained the political manifestos and calls for decolonial activism as did the more well-known literary reviews of the era, but they crossed national borders and built communities, nonetheless. Turning to the women’s press, and the advice column, I consider how these unlikely sources offer insights about social transformations and their gendered contours, especially among young people. While each letter offers only a representation of emotional states, collectively they navigate the boundaries of normative behavior and illustrate possible range of everyday experiences and constructions of love, romance, and companionate marriage. The advice column was a relatively novel phenomenon of the mid-twentieth century. In the 1960s, not only did ideals about marriage continue to shift, but novel understandings of love departed from earlier romantic traditions in their associations with youth and progress as a facet of modernity. Marriages of choice were touted as an act of self-determination marking a departure from the colonial past (associated with youth, seen as hallmark of generation born after independence). By offering advice and responding to letters, journalists and their audience formed an emotional community within which to deliberate the gendered behavioral norms; norms that were uniquely heterosexual and often informed by racialized constructions of desire. Magazines were in conversation with the cultural constructions and representations of love as represented in film and fiction.
  • The historiography of the 1960s for Palestine often focuses on the temporal, political, and ideological rupture caused by the Naksa in 1967. It was in the 1960s that a distinct Palestinian nationalism emerged outside the earlier frameworks that often linked Palestine to the wider pan-Arabism movement. Part of this nascent nationalism was through cinema by and of Palestine. Cinema on Palestine articulated a distinct nationalism that demonstrated how the Palestinian state envisioned itself as a nation-state without physical territory as well as one slotted within a wider pan-Arab movement. Often, the Naksa in 1967 foregrounds the imagining of the Palestinian state. However, this fixation on the military loss of the various Arab armies forecloses how Palestinians chose to represent themselves and their nation. With Fatah and the PLO emerging during this time period as well as the later Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, we saw how various Palestinian movements chose to represent thsemlves. Likewise, Arab governments sought to bolster their pan-Arab credentials by supporting the Palestinian cause and produced films as well. Together, it becomes possible to contextualize these emergent visions of the state without fixating on certain overarching trends that dominate preexisting historiography. In my roundtable, I seek to challenge this fixation on the Naksa in understanding the Palestinian national project. Rather than treating the 1967 war as a rupture, I seek to explore how Palestinian nationalism operated within a different temporal frame and discourse. This is not to discount the importance of the Jordanian loss of the West Bank and East Jerusalem nor the Israeli gains in territory on the orientation of Palestinian nationalism, but to situate those events within a larger trajectory. Rather, we can interrogate how the 1960s represents a break from some earlier patterns and represents the emerging of a distinctly Palestinian nationalist ideology. How do we understand the 1960s as a time for developing the Palestinian nation in an ideological manner? This is not to celebrate or exalt the era as the only imagining of a potential Palestine but to situate it temporally as a development of the state and society, while also inquiring how postcolonial nation-states in the Middle East North Africa gain salience and relevance for peoples via media such as cinema.