It takes two hands to clap
Browsing through a new book, Sara Eid learns about the act of applause in ancient and contemporary times
Not many scholars may have thought of the act of applauding as a worthy subject for a research study. Surely no Arab scholar has considered it -- until today. Now Emad Abdel-Latif, a lecturer in rhetoric and discourse analysis at Cairo University, has tackled in meticulous detail the act of applause in his book Why Do Egyptians Applaud? Rhetoric of Manipulation in Politics and the Arts, published by Dar Al-Ain, Cairo, in 2009. Divided into two chapters and with a brief conclusion, the 300-page book discusses the concept of applause as well as its various types and applications, as the title suggests, in the arts as well as in politics.
In the first chapter the author introduces the reader to the phenomenon of applause in all its aspects. As he himself puts it in a recent discussion of his book at Dar Al-Oloum, a forum downtown Cairo: "Applauding is a human action; it is not innate but taught and, as every human action, it must be studied critically." The author discusses the origins of applause, which is believed to date back to ancient Egyptian times.
Abdel-Latif goes on to describe the history of applause and its development throughout numerous cultures such as ancient Greece, Rome and early Arab cultures. He also distinguishes between the uses of applause in the realms of religion, education, the supernatural, and specifically the arts, with a concentration on Egyptian song. The strength of his research further extends to his enumeration of a handful of types of applause such as "ascending applause" and "slow applause", as well as the nature of it such as anger, appreciation, despair and so forth. This first chapter, being extremely rich in substance, provides the reader with a comprehensive understanding of the act of applause as well as the cultural particularities of it in modern Arab society, precisely in Egypt.
This richness of information is proof of the author's ability to provide his readers with extremely well-researched data, but reading through it I found it somewhat lengthy and even tedious. There is a great deal of detail to keep track of, and I believe that the first section could have been shortened since it takes the reader more time than necessary to reach what I believe to be the more important part of the book, the second half.
The second chapter focuses on the relationship between applause and political discourse, which is the more analytical section of the book. Abdel-Latif approaches this section by investigating the post-revolution political arena in Egypt, when there was a marked escalation in the instance of applause. He successfully analyzes numerous speeches made by the four Egyptian presidents: Mohamed Naguib, Gamal Abdel-Nasser, Anwar El-Sadat and Hosni Mubarak. The fact that the author uses such a great number of speeches shows his skill in conducting some fine research, and this adds credibility to his writing. Abdel-Latif argues that in these speeches certain methods of manipulation of public response were used. Such manipulation, according to the author, is a form of restraint on the freedom of the audience. He believes that the response of the Egyptian public during these speeches, that is their applause, is triggered by linguistic traps and body language induced by the speaker to arouse false appreciation amongst his audience in order to solidify his position of power. He adds that these leaders have been successful in their power seeking endeavors because of the habit in Egyptian society of "applauding" their leaders out of fear (rather than respect). In this vein Abdel-Latif attempts to explain the growing phenomenon of applause in the Egyptian political discourse. However, it is one line found in his conclusion that ties it all together: "In most instances, the act of applause occurs without thought, without a real attempt to benefit from it. It is offered in a manner free-of-charge, maybe even to those who do not deserve it."
Throughout the book the author briefly alludes to the real power that applause might give the public. In the second chapter he says that politicians need applause, whereas applause is in the hands of the public. This notion, however, is not developed through the rest of the book, which leaves the text without a remedy for the problem.
In agreement with this point Hossam Akl, professor of rhetoric and criticism at Ain Shams University, suggests that not developing this idea that applause gives the public power is the major setback of the book. Furthermore Azza Shebl, linguistics professor at Cairo University, points out that the author completely overlooks a vital player in political discourse: the media, which, she argues, also posses the power to manipulate their audiences. She adds that she feels that women are absent from this study, and that no reference is made to them either on the cover of the book -- referring to the cover picture which is composed solely of young men -- or within the text. In this, Shebl feels that the book, while discussing political discourse, is not an accurate portrayal of the Egyptian political scene.
Despite their criticism of the book, Akl, Shebl and almost everyone present at the book discussion at Dar El Oloum could only agree that Why do Egyptians Applaud? is a scholarly work, unprecedented in its nature and scope. They also agreed that the author was extremely successful in creating a work that would become the central text in any discussion with regards to the subject of applause. Finally, one can argue that this book holds a deeper purpose. "This book is not just a linguistic analysis of the act of applause; it is not just a historic analysis of speeches; but it is a nationalistic analysis of applause in the Egyptian political discourse of our times," Akl stressed. However, as mentioned before, this "nationalistic" work would have been more complete if it had ventured to explain how the public could use applause to gain power in the political world.