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Staging Performance and Music

Panel VII-30, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Saturday, November 4 at 8:30 am

Panel Description
  • In recent years, scholars of the Middle East have paid increasing attention to the quotidian ways that people experience their world through music. Historians of modern Egypt have examined radios, cassette players, and other sound technologies that changed how a vast public heard its favorite singers (Fahmy 2020; Simon 2022). Scholars of the Maghreb have lent a similarly ground-level ear to the ways in which recorded music moved across national borders, creating a regional listenership for many early-twentieth-century divas (Silver 2022). Yet, little work has considered how audiences engage with music beyond listening, the many things they do and that often form a distinct fan culture. As a result, scholarship overlooks a broader array of practices through which ordinary people across the region interact with music and popular culture. This talk investigates music fandom through the lens of the Egyptian singer Abd al-Halim Hafiz (1929-1977). Fandom has long been a part of Arab music culture, its development intertwined with the popular press and cinema industry from the early twentieth century. Ardent admirers collected song lyrics of their favorite singers, sent them fan letters, and adorned bedroom walls with photos of their visage torn from magazines. Fan culture around Abd al-Halim, however, went far beyond. Following his death in 1977, devotees began meeting at the singer’s tomb each spring to celebrate his life, an event that now attracts tens of thousands from across Egypt and beyond. In this talk, I draw on print sources, private archival materials, and a variety of fan “texts”—memorabilia, graffiti, homemade art—to examine how ordinary people interact with the memory and music of Abd al-Halim. I trace the rise of Halim fandom after his death and development of his “zikra,” or annual commemoration. As I show, central to the singer’s affective power for fans is the notion of proximity, that he remains tangible. Fans themselves foster this feeling, but I also argue that it is rooted in the music Abd al-Halim made during his lifetime. Ultimately, this talk sheds light on the unique afterlife of one of the region’s most iconic figures while bringing into new focus people’s everyday engagement with music and popular culture.
  • When the Turkish War of Independence started in 1919, the ongoing wars, massacres, and genocides had resulted in a surge in the number of orphans. General Kâzım Karabekir (1882-1948), who commanded the troops on the Eastern Front, perceived these children both as a pending security threat and potentially utopian subjects who could create a prosperous nation-state. Karabekir thus recruited approximately four thousand children and established what he called “the Army of Robust Children” [Gürbüzler Ordusu]. The Army of Robust Children comprised children of diverse ethnic backgrounds. Nevertheless, they were all raised as Sunni Muslim and Turkish. Karabekir dressed the children like soldiers, fed them with military rations, and made them follow an intense physical exercise regimen based on military training. Combining modern education with vocational, military, and artistic training, Karabekir desired to transform the children into patriotic citizens who were committed to rationalism, science, and industrialism as well as economic nationalism and militarism; wary about the dangers of excessive Westernization; cautious about public health; and had healthy and strong bodies. As the project grew, Karabekir transformed Sarıkamış, a town close to the Armenian border, into a “children’s town,” which the nationalist feminist Halide Edib Adıvar explicitly defined as “utopian.” Theatre and performance figured a crucial role in Karabekir’s project. The children performed the patriotic historical plays, pedagogical monologues, and musicals Karabekir wrote for them. To showcase the children’s bodily transformation, Karabekir also organized a sports festival. These spectacles, where artistic performance amalgamated with the everyday performance of citizenship, were crucial for Karabekir’s negotiations with different publics as well as the performance of his paternal authority. This presentation builds on archival research to analyze how The Army of Robust Children’s performances became a site of militaristic paternal care and discipline. Studying the theatre as a site where ubiquitous and artistic performances converge, I examine how the children rehearsed and performed desirable Turkish citizenship, and how theatre practices shaped their everyday performances and their visions for the future. My research demonstrates how orphans of mixed and ambiguous ethnic backgrounds, who were also threateningly secular and Western in the eyes of conservative Sunni Muslims, used these performances as they precariously negotiated the politics of belonging and how their efforts were prone to failure. Finally, this case study presents an important opportunity to review and revise the tendency in the scholarship to associate utopian performances with liberal or progressive politics.
  • ‘Aiṭa jebliya, a popular genre of sung poetry indigenous to the Arabic-speaking Jebala region in the Rif Mountains of northern Morocco, has perennially held a peripheral status in the music culture of the Kingdom—stemming from decades of European Protectorate rule and the resurgent postcolonial hegemony of Moroccan elites. How do the musicians performing this genre confront its marginalization by embodying the aesthetic of their distinctive music and poetry, hence asserting identity and pride in Jebli culture and overturning lingering presumptions of the “backwardness” of the region (cf. Vignet-Zunz 2014)? My presentation, based on direct observation and interviews conducted during my fieldwork in 2022-2023, addresses this question by examining the performance practice of Lahcen Laaroussi Tanjaoui, a prominent local vocalist whose command of the repertoire and technical mastery have earned him an unofficial attribution of Sawtu Jebli (“his voice is of the mountains”). Interlocutors in the Jebala region particularly point to the quality of beḥḥa (hoarseness), which makes his voice “ḥərsh (rough) but ḥəluw (sweet) at the same time.” I explore what this paradox signifies for his listeners as a marker of local identity, and discern the ways in which his voice evokes—and valorizes—a rural Jebli ethos perceived as “authentic” by audiences in varied performance contexts. My ethnographic research in the seldom-studied Jebala region complements recent scholarship on ‘ayyu’, an improvised poetic form and sub-genre of ‘aiṭa jebliya (cf. Curtis 2015 and Gintsburg 2018), and interrogates the class-related cultural hierarchies and abiding Western encroachment which corroborate the “antagonistic forces at play within Moroccan popular culture” (Sabry 2005). By focusing on the agency of the culture-bearer in mobilizing identity and pride within a marginalized region, my project invites parallel inquiries from those in other formerly colonized cultures throughout the Global South who seek to reclaim their indigenous voices.
  • Co-Authors: Siavash Rokni
    The pursuit of agency and empowerment by Iranian women has been a persistent and evolving process spanning several decades. The movement for women's agency has influenced and been influenced by other important aspects of Iranian culture, social norms, politics, and religion. One of the red lines that was drawn by the Shia Islam jurisprudence in Iran after the 1979 revolution came in the form of banning women to sing solo in public. At the same time, the female voice has been allowed in public so long as it is accompanied by other voices (either a man’s voice or other female voices). As decades passed, changes were made to the rules pertaining to female solo singing whereby women were able to organize concerts where they would sing to female-only audiences (Siamdoust, 2017). Moreover, women have continued to find ways to have their voices heard in public. In this paper, we would like to look at the cultural practices that are pushing back at this red line. In other words, what types of strategies and practices have female vocalists in Iran employed over the past four decades to challenge seemingly immutable laws governing women’s public performances? To answer the question, we first problematize what “female solo singing” means by looking at how this concept is interpreted in Islam and the ambiguities that rise when this question is asked. Theoretically, we frame our question within the field of cultural studies (Hall, 1992; Williams, 2001) and argue that small and seemingly insignificant cultural practices lead to a slow change in society, a long revolution. In this sense, the site of negotiation between cultural norms and political power is in ambiguities that arise from the interpretation of what “female solo singing” means for the Iranian government as well as cultural practices that negotiate what is or is not allowed. Our paper pushes this idea further by looking at three forms of cultural practices: persistent (Rokni, 2021; Siamdoust, 2019), resistant (Olszewska, 2013), and defiant (Khosravi, 2008) practices. Methodologically, we will be analyzing several music experts and show how the female voice is integrated into the music (orchestration, usage of recording technology, social media and alteration of public space).