- By Joelle Hatem
In 2013, Tarik Sabry, Reader in media and communication theory at the University of Westminster, joined the Arab Council for the Social Sciences (ACSS) Working Groups Program as the coordinator of the Media Working Group, which was one of the three groups that were formed for the cycle of the program on Producing the Public in Arab Societies: Space, Media and Participation
. That same year, Joe Khalil, Associate Professor of Communication in Residence at Northwestern University in Qatar, also joined the group to work on a project on the tempos of cultural politics in times of uprisings. As the work progressed, Sabry thought of turning the group’s research and discussions into a book and invited Khalil to join him as co-editor.
In this book titled Culture, Time and Publics in the Arab World: Media, Public Space and Temporality
, Sabry and Khalil use subjects as varied as anthropology, media studies, philosophy, political economy and cultural studies to look at the relationship between culture, time and publics in an Arab context, whilst also laying the foundations for a much more nuanced picture of Arab society. The research in the book exposes how Arab publics combine the media and technology to create a rich experience that shapes their collective imagination and social structure.
As the book was recently published by I.B. Tauris, we reached out to the two scholars by email to learn more about it.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
What made you decide to produce this book?
JOE KHALIL: The main goal, I think, was to capture the dynamics that emerged during various meetings of the working group. It was a shared feeling that the research was too valuable, and the theme was of such an importance that they needed to be shared with the public. It was then that Tarik decided to develop this into a book and to use a publisher with an excellent reputation regarding Arab and Middle East topics.
TARIK SABRY: The telos of the book was driven by urgent theoretical and philosophical questions that had been brewing for a while and that had become especially insistent since the Arab revolutionary moment of 2011. We wanted to make sense of the historical moment we lived in and its implications for shifts in meaning at the level of culture, politics and intellectual history.
What particular issues does it address?
SABRY: Most of the empirical chapters in the collection deal with a clear, yet difficult question: How can we make sense of Arab temporality and publicness using an everyday life approach or what the French refer to as the quotidian? This epistemic move meant we had to think with and against current theorizations of Arab publicness and temporality. As for the issues addressed by the book, these vary considerably from time and occupation to language, identity, tradition, intellectual history and popular culture. But the question of Arab cultural temporality remains the core issue throughout the book. It is the thread that gives the book (and its varied themes) its intellectual coherence.
KHALIL: The book offers contextual and historical dimensions to understanding Arab intellectual history. It offers an examination of themes (time and publics), communities (philosophers, rappers, musalsalat audiences) and locations (from the Atlas Mountains to the Arabian Gulf).
How does the book make a contribution to existing literature and knowledge on the topic(s) it examine(s)?
KHALIL: As we argue in our introduction, Arab media have long been studied as social, political and economic instruments but have rarely been treated as part and parcel of everyday Arab life. Each chapter makes individual contributions to existing debates, for example, on the impact of the Arab uprisings on political, philosophical and intellectual discourses or how musical genres or drama shows are re-articulated in young people’s activities. Collectively, these chapters invite readers to question temporality and publicness at this juncture in Arab intellectual/cultural thought.
I could not have put it better. However, I need to add that this book is not an isolated intellectual effort, but part of the much larger project of “Critical Arab Cultural Studies”, a project we have been working on as a group of scholars, and in different capacities, for a good decade now. There’s an earlier collection I edited, Arab Cultural Studies: Mapping the Field
(I.B. Tauris 2012), and another I coedited with Layal Ftouni called Arab Subcultures: Transformations in Theory and Practice
(I.B. Tauris 2017). This book is a continuation of this project. I would say delineating ‘the everyday’ as an approach to understanding publicness and cultural temporality and doing this using a multi-disciplinary approach, makes for, I hope, a good contribution to the developing field of critical Arab cultural studies.
Who is the book for?
KHALIL: This book is written with a broad multi-disciplinary audience in mind. Experts on the Middle East will find interest in the theoretical debates and methodological approaches. Others, particularly graduate students, will be attracted by the contributors’ diverse roadmaps for studying culture.
SABRY: This book is for academics and graduate students researching contemporary Arab media, cultures and societies. There’s certainly something in it for scholars doing anthropology, politics, media and cultural studies, philosophy and literature.
What kind of impact do you hope it will have?
KHALIL: I hope that readers, particularly emerging researchers, see this as an opportunity to explore questions of time and publics from various disciplines. If anything, this book demonstrates how communication scholars, anthropologists, philosophers, literary critics can learn from one another. So, I hope that our experience would encourage the ACSS and others to continue developing working groups to tackle some of the most pressing cultural and intellectual dilemmas of region.
Can you tell us a bit more about your experience coordinating the Media Working Group as part of the Producing the Public in Arab Societies cycle of the Working Groups Program and how it led to the production of the book?
KHALIL: I will let Tarik answer this question. But let me note that I was honored that he asked me to be his partner on this project. The support of the ACSS was instrumental in terms of connecting and supporting Arab scholars. It would have been difficult to find an interest in these topics and a commitment to independent research elsewhere.
SABRY: The ACSS was fundamental to the success of our research project and the production of the book. The ACSS created the perfect conditions for us, as a collective of Arab scholars, to think critically and dialogically about the main themes of our research. The ACSS was just brilliant at valuing and accommodating critical debate and even when I decided to steer our ‘media group’ towards a non-media-centric approach, the ACSS completely understood what we were doing and were so supportive throughout. Joe and I have dedicated a large part of the introduction to documenting the collective’s research journey.
What are you working on now?
KHALIL: I am currently working on a single authored book manuscript tentatively titled Youth Generated Media, The Cultural Politics of Arab Millennials. In this book, I explore how and why young people engage in the development of self-expressive artifacts. It is the result of fieldwork conducted in Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Tunisia.
I have just published a book with Palgrave (co-authored with Dr. Nisrine Mansour) titled Children and Screen Media in Changing Arab Contexts: An Ethnographic Perspective
which was based on a three-year research project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council in the UK. I will take a brief pause then turn my attention to a subject that has been preoccupying me of late: The study of alterity and cultural difference in the Arab region. Who knows? I might convince the ACSS to take this endearing idea on!