Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Pop Culture Divide

Posted by Chris at 9/7/2008 4:50 PM ...

During our discussion of Playing Cards in Cairo, Tim, Grandmasta and I pondered whether Cairenes (or other Egyptians) really interacted with American pop culture in the way Hugh Miles indicated. Grandmasta argues that only upper class Egyptians would have the kind of contact with American media to identify Oprah or other celebrities. I can't disagree, as he and Tim are the ones with actual experience of Egypt, and it also makes sense. How many poor people will have access to satellite television, or be interested in American shows?

Still, people in other nations are familiar with American pop culture in ways we are not with theirs. This applies to both industrial and developing nations. We still don't have an explanation for why, other than parochialism of ourselves and our media. Tim's example was of Umm Kulthoum, an Egyptian star of the 1950's and 1960's. One source claims she was the most popular musician of the last century in the Middle East, but I had not heard of her until Tim mentioned it. I might have heard her name before, but if I did, I certainly don't remember it. Still, you would think that at least educated Americans would know her name.

I imagine that these days the only way for a celebrity from the Middle East to penetrate the awareness of modern Americans is to appear in an Hollywood film, or to die tragically in a scandal involving an important politician, as did Lebanese star Suzanne Tamim, who was recently murdered in Dubai. Despite the location of the article on, I imagine most people in the United States skimmed right over it. In fact, I probably only clicked the link due to my conversation Tim about just this issue.

Why care? Mostly this is a symptom of Americans' isolation from the rest of the world, similar to, but less problematic than, not learning a foreign language. Being more familiar with the pop culture of other nations can only help us understand them better, which to me would reduce the fear of the unknown most people get when they encounter folks from distant places, or when those places pop up on the news. And, no, anime, manga, and Iron Chef, don't count.

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