Al-Ahram Weekly Online   21 - 27 July 2005
Issue No. 752
Books Supplement
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

National dramas of television

Dramas of Nationhood: The Politics of Television in Egypt, Lila Abu-Lughod, Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 2005. pp319

Click to view caption
TV factory, 1960's Egypt

Television. Isn't that the screen collecting dust in the front room or just some background noise? Who actually, seriously, watches it? Well, according to statistics, between 73 and 90 per cent of us. Television, some might say, has been the disease of the century, spreading like spores in living rooms, bedrooms, on the streets, in cafeterias. It's true. They're everywhere. "It is often said that television has altered our world," Raymond Williams once commented. However, he continues, "We have got so used to statements of this general kind, in our most ordinary discussions, that we can fail to realise their specific meanings."

Recently a number of anthropologists, Lila Abu-Lughod and her Dramas of Nationhood included, have become very excited about the prospects of taking on the delightful variety of Egyptian popular culture, and drawing out the possible effects it might have on the equally varied population. One wonders at what point processing the information, and the series of encounters researchers have with their subjects, ends, and where more pressing concerns of expunging junk like television soaps from the minds of their recipients might begin.

For those who study the anthropology of the media, the concern is with the ways in which these technologies, already a marked presence globally, might have an impact on the lives of television viewers. In terms of viewers' engagement with them, the question is how these technologies might contribute to and become a part of everyday lives, and how such lives might in turn contribute to understandings of them. As the editors of a collection on the subject put it, "Media anthropology thus comprises ethnographically informed, historically grounded, and context-sensitive analyses of the ways in which people use and make sense of media technologies."

One cannot help but welcome a book like Dramas of Nationhood. Indeed, Abu-Lughod has contributed numerous works on modernist and Islamist trends in Egypt and their impact on women. Professor of Anthropology and Women's and Gender Studies at Columbia University, Abu-Lughod has worked on women's issues in the Middle East for over 20 years. Dramas of Nationhood, like her other studies, is a well- researched, scholarly work. In her study of "immediate viewing contexts", Abu-Lughod suggests that it is not enough to concern oneself simply with the significance of the programmes screened on television, but rather that these should be viewed in terms of their reception. In so doing, one would be able more clearly to discern how it is that what might be considered the mouthpiece of the government is actually reshaped and modified according to the lives and contexts in which it is viewed. Abu-Lughod in no way confines herself to viewing subjects alone, but rather discusses and researches her topic in a broader context, including powerful producers, well-intentioned writers and press coverage, and she traces the trajectories of over 30 soap operas screened on Egyptian television during the 1980s and 1990s.

Customarily, soap operas in the West tend to be associated with elaborately emotional and somewhat unrealistic storylines presented in exaggerated acting styles. Egyptian soap operas vary in both form and content. While sometimes guilty of the exaggerations of Western soaps, Abu-Lughod argues that Egyptian soaps often contain the added dimension of being very 'real' in their presentation of a historical as well as a socio-economic, and by extension political, context.

"These serials are unquestionably 'modern' in drawing directly upon modernist literature, film, and radio. They are mostly about the everyday and involve ordinary people. Their characters are not the universally known heroes of poetry or folktales but representations of the common citizen," she writes. Abu-Lughod argues throughout that Egyptian serials are very much part of endeavours to shape national identity -- despite the inherent paradox in attempting to reconcile modernity with authenticity. This can be most clearly discerned in the characterisation and the values of the idealised, traditional figure of the 'true' Egyptian, the ibn el-balad, presented in them.

Dramas of Nationhood emerges as a rigorous interrogation of the ways in which such identities are formulated and disseminated. The author argues that "Television messages ... throughout this book are deflected by the way people frame their television experiences and by the way powerful everyday realities inflect and offset those messages." Abu-Lughod's study is divided into two main sections: the first entitled "National Pedagogy," in which she explores the national agenda of 'developmentalism' and the limitations of education and 'feminist' projects, and the second entitled "The Eroding Hegemony of Developmentalism," in which she explores how this reveals a marked shift in the content of Egyptian serials.

This shift, the author argues, exposes social, economic, and political changes, prioritising a more capitalist and consumerist nation at odds with its own claims of authenticity. Indeed, the latter is a discourse that is increasingly irrelevant to the lives of those who are unable to access the glamorously enlightened lifestyles depicted in the dramas, or in the advertisements punctuating the airing of them.

In a shorter article on the same subject, Abu-Lughod writes, "When someone like Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz laments the decline of the Cairo coffee house, explaining [that] 'People used to go to the coffee shops and listen to story tellers who played a musical instrument and told of folk heroes. These events filled the role played by television serials today,' he forgets that this older form of entertainment, with the imaginary non-local worlds it conjured up, was only available to men. Television gives women, the young, and the rural as much access as urban men to stories of other worlds."

It is not just 'men's stories' of other worlds that TV drama has brought to the private sphere of domestic households, but also values of education, health, history and politics. While the surroundings of the coffee shops enabled social interaction and debate to take place, television has ensured that the main debates would be national ones, and it has been able to ensure its presence in intimate contexts with the flick of a switch. In any case, it is Abu-Lughod's focus on rural villagers and domestic workers in Cairo, and the interrogation of the intelligentsia who write the serials for them, that ensures that something which always comes up in the serials is of substantial significance: class and education.

So it seems that when people have talked about Egypt and nationalism in recent decades, the question of literacy is always around the corner, and this is never more so than with discussions of television. On this, Abu-Lughod makes some important points, notably that television often talks down, patronising those conceived as not being educated enough. In a chapter entitled "Rural 'Ignorance' and the Virtues of Education," for example, the author explores the complexities of the national drum of education, which might ultimately leave "uneducated or undereducated villagers" finding it difficult to identify with the hero who is construed as "cultured and educated." She argues that "The negative views of rural Egyptians that are associated with the positive view of modernity and education continue to underwrite projects that could have difficult consequences for particular communities."

The most interesting moments in the study emerge when the distinctions between the narratives of TV dramas are played off against the real lives of those who watch them. In a chapter entitled "Development Realism, 'Real Melodrama,' and the Problem of Feminism" Abu-Lughod once again questions the presumptions of a feminism that leaves a significant portion of society aside. She laments "the entanglement of feminist ideals of personal emancipation with the patronizing developmentalism that makes education not just a means for personal growth but the measure of authority."

It is when she touches on the links between the characters in TV dramas and the circumstances of her subjects that Abu-Lughod pinpoints a thought-provoking feature of Egyptian serials. As she discusses the observations of some of her disenfranchised television viewers, one can see how many of them find the overplayed emotion, tragic twists and disasters in the serials similar to events in their own lives. There is something decidedly wrong when dramatic excesses are the norm. This, one might add, is not confined to the disenfranchised, and also applies to other social groups left out of Abu-Lughod's study.

Nevertheless, the author captures the contradictions held in place by the genre: "such consciousness-raising projects, even when promoting worthy ideals, are first of all usually patronizing, reaffirming the superiority of the middle classes; second, mostly misleading because of the current political-economic circumstances of life in Egypt; and third, sometimes received ambivalently, especially because there are other alternatives, including the Islamic piety movement."

It is such alternatives, discussed in the chapter entitled "Managing Religion in the Name of National Community," which, Abu-Lughod says, television soaps themselves have sought to reckon with. She points out that "Islam has come to be debated in the public sphere because it is a matter of national concern. Whether through vilifying Islamic extremists, modeling Coptic-Muslim relations, or recapturing Upper Egyptian traditional values, treatments of religion in television drama reaffirm the primacy of the nation. Defining good or bad versions of Islam depends on and upholds a value: national integrity. Even when contentious disagreements occur, they occur within a public sphere defined largely by the parameters of the nation." Again, as with education, she warns that "the dramas may expose divisions more than they smooth them over."

All in all, there is no doubt that this is an important subject, and as Abu-Lughod dissects the lives of her 'own' anthropological soap characters, it is often interesting to view moments in the lives of subaltern, or disadvantaged people. Such moments offer a clearer understanding of the effects of media and technologies which, though frustrating, have become a matter of everyday life, and ones that are so often present that they go unnoticed.

It is sometime now since Abu-Lughod spent many a dedicated hour in front of the television, which she did back in the 1980s and 90s. Many other programmes have since sprouted from TV screens, each of which might beckon analysis in the same vein or otherwise. Meanwhile, Dramas of Nationhood is full of lessons to be digested until further studies are on the table. At times, however, it is difficult to unpack much of Abu-Lughod's analysis, and there is often the desire to re-categorise the information presented according to the different types of soaps, the different 'types' of women, or even the different sets of national projects interrogated.

Categorised differently -- more simply perhaps -- Abu- Lughod's work would have revealed yet other dimensions of the significance of TV dramas, considering their effect on conceptions of the world for example, or on the relationships they might have with acting styles in cinema, or even on their impacts on alternative groups and classes.

By Iman Hamam

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