- Cultural Encounters in the Arab World: On Media, the Modern, and the Everyday
In this book Tarik Sabry takes the reader on an ethnographic journey of gazing and exploration through which the multiple meanings of being modern, or "modernness," are reconstituted and reinvented through — apparently mundane — encounters in everyday life, or "everydayness," in the Arab world. Before embarking on this journey, he makes it clear to his readers that its aim is "not a search for the certain, pure, absolute or any kind of origin/essence" (p. 2) and that it does not provide "a complete exposé, or even a coherent 'summary', of the 'modern' condition in the Arab world" (p. 7). Rather, he declares that it is a journey of searching into the process of "encountering" with all its complexities, paradoxes, and even contradictions, which subsequently, or simultaneously, give birth to equally complex, paradoxical, or even contradictory forms of "modernness."
In discussing how the "disclosedness of encountering reveals itself as an everyday phenomenon" (p. 11), he problematizes this apparently simple and taken-for-granted process through a nuanced cultural studies perspective and a rich ethnographic approach that examines its multifaceted manifestations across spatial, temporal, and cultural contexts. This ethnographic examination extends from gazing at the acts of "loveness" shared by couples on Qassr Nile bridge in Egypt, in an attempt to interpret how the "romanticisation of the bridge" (p. 72) and its "detraditionalisation" signify shifts in the socio-cultural landscape in contemporary Egypt, to participating in the experience of "queuing" outside the Italian and French embassies in Morocco, in an effort to understand how the queue, which is "a product of encounter with western modernity" (p. 76) became "a way of being: feeling mobile within a world of social, cultural and economic immobility" (p. 90) for desperate Moroccans.
The author's ethnographic journey also extends to cover the experiences of young Moroccans from different social and economic strata in receiving and interpreting mediated messages through satellite viewing and television, with the hope of understanding how they can possibly "encounter the West through television? How does this encounter alter their structures of feeling about the world? And how does stratification in habitus and socio-economic strata affect young Moroccans self-reflexivity about being modern in the world?" (p. 21) In attempting to answer these questions, the author provides examples of conversations and discussions that have been exchanged among youth in Morocco representing variations not only across gender and socio-economic background, but also, most importantly, across religiosity and secularism, as well as traditionalism and modernity.
In exploring these daily encounters of the reconstructions of "being modern" in the Arab world, through both interpersonal and mediated experiences, the author looks at this phenomenon as an elusive, mobile, and dynamic process that constantly oscillates between the poles of tradition and modernity and authenticity and hybridization, as they reinvent themselves through complex spatial, temporal, and cultural settings.
The most valuable contributions of this journey, despite its exploratory nature that leaves the reader with more questions than [End Page 523] answers, lies in the rich ethnographic images it paints for us of how, why, and when daily encounters give birth to new meanings and interpretations of what it means to be "modern" in the highly transformative Arab world today, as well as the equally rich and deep intellectual attempt to "bridge the contemporary Arab philosophical approach on modernity with a new field of enquiry, namely Arab cultural studies, so that the former is able to inform the latter and vice versa." (p. 7). Indeed, the value of both of these methodological and intellectual approaches, namely: ethnography and cultural studies, lies in their relative rarity and underutilization in contemporary Arab media studies, despite their obvious value and undeniable importance.
In looking ahead, we have to agree with the author that in re-envisioning the future of Arab media studies, in general, and Arab cultural studies, in particular, "The task that lies ahead ... is greater than 'de-Westernization' or internationalization: it is one of 'creativity'" (p. 192). It is...