- Cultural Encounters in the Arab World: On Media, the Modern, and the Everyday
We read not only from our disciplinary locations but from our geographic ones as well, so it was with pleasure and a sense of immediacy that I read Tarik Sabry's Cultural Encounters in the Arab World while doing research in Morocco and Cairo, two of the book's key sites. Cultural Encounters makes a bold and convincing argument for an Arab Cultural Studies that attends closely to the stuff of everyday life, be it lived in Cairo, Casablanca, or (in one of his case studies) an Amazigh (Berber) village in the Atlas Mountains. Sabry's task is formidable, because he attempts to make an argument within Arabic philosophical systems while also creating an epistemological "bridge," as he calls it (an actual bridge is also one of his research sites) between Arabic philosophies and a Cultural Studies which engages but does not simply replicate that practiced in other contexts. In balancing his philosophical interventions with ethnographic fieldwork in Cairo and Morocco, Sabry builds a compelling argument for an Arab Cultural Studies of the everyday that might perform a renovation within Arab thought, the better to equip it for the challenges of the here and now.
The first chapter (effectively, the book's introduction) begins with the claim that the very history of Arab culture is a history of cultural encounters with others. Rather than search for an "authentic" Arab identity, Sabry's aim is to embrace these ongoing histories of encounter and thus the possibilities and contradictions that they bring. In this respect he shares company with others who have fought to distance Arab thinking from a hermetic model of cultural identity, such as the [End Page 173] late Samir Kassir, whose book Considérations sur le malheur arabe (somewhat misleadingly titled Being Arab in its English edition) also embraces the long history of intellectual and cultural exchange between the Arab world and its others.1 Sabry also looks to other models that take seriously encounters outside the Arab world, such as Al-Jabri's Critique of Arab Reason, which he leans on heavily throughout his book, Ibrahim Abu-Lughod's Arab Rediscovery of Europe: A Study in Cultural Encounters, and earlier firsthand accounts of travel such as those by Al-Tahtawi and Al-Saffar, or even as far back as Ibn Khaldun and Ibn Batouta.2
Having established this starting point, then, Sabry suggests three realms within which to understand encounters with and through "modernness": thought, everyday life, and self-reflexivity. These terms structure the collection of chapters that follows: chapter 2 deals with contemporary Arab thought; chapters 3 and 4 expand on the argument about everyday life; and chapters 5 and 6 (the latter functioning as a conclusion) concern questions of self-reflexivity in Arab thought and the question of an Arab Cultural Studies. Chapters 1, 2, 3, and 6 are the more theoretical ones, debating the intellectual positions around modernness and the everyday that the book takes as central, whereas the remaining two chapters detail Sabry's fieldwork in Egypt and Morocco and do the serious work of connecting concrete examples of the everyday to the book's overall argument.
In its explorations of contemporary Arab thought, this book does an enormous service for Cultural Studies scholars. While declaring a bias toward the influential work of Maghrebian philosophers like Abdullah Laroui and Mohammed Abed Al-Jabri, Sabry ranges far and wide in his engagement. His book addresses in English material originally published in Arabic, thus introducing for an Anglophone audience (as does Kassab) debates and intellectual positions that are not always available in translation.3 Moreover, rather than just outlining their positions (which he also does, and clearly), he actively engages and critiques the work of his sources, bending their insights into new areas of relevance. Most important, he argues that when Arab philosophy has approached questions of modernity, it has stayed within what he calls the "whatness" of modernity while leaving out the...