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Popular Culture and the Performing Arts

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-Ethnicity and Identity
-Arab Americans
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-Family and Society
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-Geography, Demographics, and Resources
-New Media
A website for K-12 educators featuring innovative resource on the culture, geography, history and religions of the Middle East, including essays, classroom activities, downloadable multimedia content and interactive Google Earth tours.


This unit deals with popular culture and the performing arts, especially music, film, dance and theater. In popular culture there are many traditions and styles that are influential throughout the Arab world and even beyond its borders. There are also styles and methods specific to individual countries or even regions within a single nation. Techniques that have been around nearly as long as there have been people in the region remain vibrant and adaptable, allowing themselves to be reinvented within popular culture and manifested in new media. While some philosophers and scholars have engaged in a discourse of "tradition" versus "modernity," Arab culture clearly demonstrates that the two terms need not be mutually exclusive. Arab popular culture is a rich living tradition that has been almost completely bypassed by the academic community, and it merits greater attention, alongside political, social and economic issues.

Arab music is probably the most familiar aspect of Arab culture in the western world today. It has slowly been gaining popularity in the "World Music" scene for some time, but as visitors to this unit will discover, there has been a veritable explosion since the release of the pop star Sting's duet with the Algerian singer Cheb Mami. However, as you will discover in exploring this unit, the style of music represented by Cheb Mami, known in Arabic as Raï, is only one small part of the music scene in the Arab World. The article "Arab Musical Life throughout History" will provide you with a brief survey of the importance music has played in Arab culture. Historical perspective is also provided in "Maqam: Cordoba to Baghdad" a series of interviews conducted by Barbara Nimri Aziz with the celebrated lutist Simon Shaheen. Three articles, "Arab Pop on the World Stage" and "The Musical Pulse of Tunisia" discuss recent developments in Arab Music, particularly in relation to the genre of World Music and the reception music from this region is receiving in the West. In a video interview, UCLA professor Dwight Reynolds talks about his research on Egyptian epic poetry, the basis of the Arab musical tradition, and demonstrates some of the instruments that are used to perform it. But perhaps the most exciting part of this unit is the chance to listen to some of the most well known performers in the Arab World. On the audio/video page for this unit you will be able to hear great classic vocalists such as the legendary Umm Kulthum, or instrumentalists such as Abdesadek Chekara; explore the folklore of the Sinai Penninsula or Morocco; be introduced to some of the stars in Arabic popular music including Cheb Mami, Assi Al-Hilani, or Hakim.

Cairo, Egypt is a center of cinema that is rivaled only by Hollywood and India's "Bollywood" in terms of the sheer volume of films produced each year, and there are accomplished and celebrated moviemakers in virtually every corner of the Arab World. Yet few Americans, even those who enjoy foreign cinema, have ever seen a film from the Arab world. This unit will provide a small taste of this rich cinematic tradition. The AV section of the unit allows you to see how this manifests itself in short clips from some of he most artistically accomplished films from the Arab World. These clips include important films from the history of Arab cinema such as Youssef Chahine's 1958 film Cairo Station and his 1963 film Saladin; as well as more recent works such as the 1998 film Living in Paradise, directed by Algerian director Bourlem Guerdjou and Silences of the Palace by Moufida Tlatli.

Closely related is the last section of this unit, which deals with theater or, more specifically, theater as performance. This discussion should certainly be cross-referenced with the section on drama in the literature unit, but while that module focuses on the significance of drama within the larger literary tradition of the Arab World, this unit focuses on aspects of theater that transcend the written page. Theater as a popular art has a long tradition in the Arab world and remains a medium of extraordinary artistic accomplishment. You will find a discussion of the importance of theatrical performance in the article by Debbie Folaron. In the Audio /video Section you will also be able to watch short excerpts of two plays staged by the Arab Theatrical Arts Guild in Dearborn, Michigan. The first is a production of a play by the Egyptian Playwright Tawfik Al-Hakim, the other is an original adaptation of a Chekhov play

Dance, a key element of Arab performance tradition, is represented in this unit by video clips showing folk dance from Morocco. Additional web-based resources are mentioned in the links section. We hope to add more substantive resources to this site in the near future.

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