Homer Simpson goes to mosque – Exploring the weird and wonderful progeny of American trash and Islamic culture – By GEOFF PEVERE
By GEOFF PEVERE
In 2004, the Save the Children organization conducted a survey of Afghan children. They were asked to name their greatest fears. Considering the wars that had decimated the country for decades, and the fact that much of the country is a landlocked moonscape embedded with countless explosive devices, the researchers were understandably surprised to see how many kids put sharks at the top of their list.
“It’s safe to say,” writes Toronto-based journalist Richard Poplak in his fine book The Sheikh’s Batmobile: In Pursuit of American Pop Culture in the Muslim World, “that among the various and awful ways in which so many Afghans have died over the course of their brutal history, not one has met with the business end of a shark.” But they had confronted the mass-market end of the Great White, in the form of much-bootlegged DVD copies of the 30th-anniversary edition of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws.
Poplak’s book, the product of a year spent pursuing the manifestations of U.S. junk culture in the Islamic world, is full of this kind of whiplash-inducing juxtaposition. In Kazakhstan, a country still freshly stung by the international notoriety occasioned by the release of Borat, he goes bowling with a state official and his 11-year-old daughter. In Istanbul, he meets the forlorn former movie star who once appeared as the bargain-basement superhero called “The Flying Man.” He has his skull softened by heavy metal in Cairo and his eardrums shredded by Indonesian punk. He meets the designer of a pro-Palestinian video game called Under Siege, and is proudly shown the design for a sheikh’s personal Batmobile by a displaced Texan car customizer in Dubai.
All of this is amusing. Surprising, not so much. You can’t read a book about globalization that doesn’t cite Hollywood as a key, odious agent in the spread of monoculture, and rare is the Hollywood comedy that can resist making fun of foreigners who love Hollywood movies. (Paging Borat.) By now, the ubiquity of American pop culture is itself a cultural cliché, and the real journalistic coup would be finding a corner of the planet where one can’t find a Homer Simpson figurine or a Britney Spears T-shirt.
But Poplak, author of Ja, No, Man: Growing Up White in Apartheid-Era South Africa, knows this, and I suspect he knows we probably know it too. Saying that American pop culture spreads is only to observe that it’s doing what it’s designed to do: reach the widest possible audience technology can create. The question is: What happens when it gets there? Does it compel other cultures to conform to its values? Or does it adapt and morph into something else? When Homer speaks Arabic, is something lost or gained in translation? Or are we talking about a whole new language?
The value of this book lies in its respectful inconclusiveness. It views pop culture less as an exported force of homogenizing imperialism – which either flattens all indigenous cultural distinctions in its path or foments violent backlash against it – than a kind of space that, in order to successfully flourish, creates its own local realities. As Poplak observes when pondering the otherwise baffling popularity of heavy metal in Egypt – a country where Metallica would seem as at home as cricket in Indianapolis – nothing can take root unless the soil permits it. “It occurred to me, from my space inside this crush of young people, that heavy metal made an important claim to local legitimacy. It filled a most surprising vacuum. The music cradled the ancient Arabic notion of tarab – the ability for music or poetry to transport the listener into a state of transcendental ecstasy… It is a prayer rug woven from sound.”
Disavowed of any reductive monolithic theories of pop culture and its influence, Poplak can see past apparent contradictions for the synthesizing phenomena that they are. In Palestine, hip-hop flourishes less as a borrowed form of ghetto style than an authentic expression of a different kind of ghetto reality. In Lebanon, an Oprah-derived talk show becomes a forum for conversation in a factionalized society. In Saudi Arabia, an Arabized version of The Simpsons (Al Shamshoon) bombs while an indigenously Arabic variation, called Freej, becomes a ratings sensation. On the other hand, Poplak meets Muslim kids who’d much rather play anti-Islamic American video games than their more cheaply made anti-American counterparts, and learns how the same Saudi Arabian desert landscape that gave birth to Osama bin Laden can provide roaming territory for so many expensively customized vintage American cars.
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