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Musharaka [ Cooperation ]  Calligraphy by Khaled Al-Saai

Popular Culture and the Performing Arts

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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 section contains full-text readings from a variety of sources. Many of these texts have never been offered online before. They represent a range of scholarly views and interests, and are intended to offer a more in-depth view of selected topics covered in this module. Please be aware that these texts may not be reproduced in any way without the express permission of the original copyright holder, as indicated at the head of each reading.

The readings listed in grey are currently unavailable, as we work toward renewing copyright permission from the publishers.


  • Arab Musical Life Throughout History
    Habib Hassan Touma

    This essay by Habib Hassan Touma is from one of the few books published in English on the rich tradition of Arabic music. In this chapter Touma briefly sketches a musical history of the Arabs, from the pre-Islamic era to the present day. He breaks his study down into the following categories: the pre-Islamic era; the early Arabian Classical tradition; the period of revival in Cordoba and Baghdad; the Thirteenth to Eighteenth centuries (which he characterizes as the “Era of Decline”); the cultural reawakening of the Nineteenth Century; and the Twentieth Century. The essay focuses on a fairly narrow section of the Arabic music spectrum, i.e. on what might be called the Classical tradition. It does not deal with popular or folk music. The conclusion of the essay is highly critical of Arabic music in the twentieth century, maintaining that it is characterized by alienation and that it has lost its authenticity. You may want to evaluate this assertion for yourself, by exploring the contemporary Arabic music in this site.

  • Making Music in the Arab World-Excerpts
    A. J. Racy

    This excerpt is from a book by A.J. Racy, Professor of Ethnomusicology at the University of California, Los Angeles and an accomplished composer and performer of the musical tradition he describes here. Tarab is what western scholars often refer to as “Art music” from the Arab world but Racy argues here that the term has no direct equivalent in English, and is more often understood in the Arab world as referring to the state induced by the music. Racy then proceeds to discuss in more detail the culture of tarab including the interaction between the audience and the performers, the training of new generations of musicians, gender roles, and other aspects of the music. For more about this tradition and samples of some of the music, see the reading “Arab Musical Life Throughout History” and the “Concert of Arabic Music” and series “Maqam” in the AV section.

  • Arab 'World Music' in the US
    Ted Swedenburg

    This article deals with the reception of North African music in the United States, particularly Raï from Algeria and France; the Gnawa and Jajouka from Morocco; and the Sheikh Yasin al-Tuhami and the “Musicians of the Nile” from Egypt. He argues that when this music is presented to Western audiences, its social context is distorted in an effort to ensure the appeal to such audiences. This is particularly the case with the Islamic context of the music. For example, Raï singers are presented as anti-fundamentalist rebels, the Gnawa are presented as hearkening back to African folklore, the Jajouka as a 4,000 year old rock band, and the Musicians of the Nile vested with a gypsy like-motif. Very much grounded in the tradition of Edward Said’s Orientalism, Swedenburg’s reading is also accompanied by some interesting information on these groups and the milieu from which they spring

  • Women in Raï Music
    Marie Virolle

    Reprinted here is the text of an article that appears elsewhere on the web accompanied by photographs and sound samples. The article is adapted from Marie Virolle’s book La chanson raï (Kathala, Paris 1995), one of the few book-length studies on this style of music that has so forcefully exploded on the world scene. The article focuses on the origins of Raï in Western Algeria, and on women as performers. The first part of the articles focuses on the social position of women as singers in a relatively conservative social environment; the second part analyzes the lyrics in some detail, documenting the focus on taboo and transgressive topics. The original online article is also accompanied by a supplemental reading list and a discography of Raï recordings.

  • The Musical Pulse of Tunisia
    Thorne Anderson

    This article focuses on the “classical” music of Tunisia, known as Maluf. Said to have its origins in Al-Andalus when it was under Muslim rule, each part of the Maghreb has its own version of Maluf. The lyrics are based on poetry and the music, though constantly developing, is still very much based on the same principles that were used in the 16th century. It is believed that once there were thousands of pieces in the repertoire, but only a handful still exist today. The article provides a description of the music, a short history of its origins and development, and a glossary of key terms. Some of the photographs taken by the author can be seen in the gallery of this unit. You will find an example this music’s Moroccan cousin in the film clip from Lutes and Delights.

  • Arab Pop on the World Stage
    Louis Werner

    This essay by Louis Werner begins with a very brief discussion of the development of “World Music” as a genre, then moves on the survey the success of music from the Arab World within in. The bulk of the discussion of Arab music focuses on Raï, arguably the most popular Arabic music genre in the world today, but also touches on Sudanese and Nubian rhythm, as well as the songs of the Egyptian pop star Amr Diab, all of which are finding a degree of success in the World music charts as well as in their homeland. The article is, however, very brief and readers may find themselves wishing for a more developed and probing discussion of the reasons why Arabic music has been slow to gain popularity amongst non-Arabs or for more information on the musical genres presented here. But if your interest is aroused, there is much more in this unit for you. To learn more about the development of Raï music, for example, you may wish to consult some of the more developed discussion by Ted Swedenburg or Marie Virolle. To discover the music itself, enjoy exploring the many multimedia materials in this unit.


  • Oral Narrating and Performing Traditions in the History of Modern Middle Eastern and Maghrebian Theatre and Drama
    Deborah Folaron

    In the unit on literature, drama is considered as written literature, but the importance of “theatrical” performance in Arab culture would be hard to overestimate. It goes back centuries, and even today storytellers and street performers attract large crowds in public squares such as the famous Jemaa El F’naa in Marrakech, Morocco. In this essay Deborah Folaron looks at the oral traditions of the Middle East and the Maghreb. She analyzes the social role of oral narration and performance, provides description and classification of the types or performances represented, and provides a brief discussion of bother their historical development and their impact on contemporary, more European style theater in this region today. As such, the essay makes for interesting background to the discussion of drama in the module on Literature and Philosophy.


  • Life Stories of Female Entertainers
    Karin Van Nieuwkerk

    A Trade Like Any Other deals with the role of female singers and dancers in Egypt, based on the research conducted by Dutch anthropologist Karin van Nieuwkerk. In this chapter she presents, in some detail, the life stories of some of the women she knew best and, in particular, how they got started as entertainers. Their stories are an interesting exploration of the status of female singers and dancers in Egypt, and provide and interesting counterpoint to the lives of female singers from Algeria, as discussed in the article “Women and Rai Music”. The chapter discusses women who work in two major “circuits,” for lack of a better term: The professional clubs of Muhammad Ali Street, and the entertainers "mawâlid" (singular, mûlid) which are popular festivals held in honor of deceased Sufi holy men, or "Saints" as they are sometimes called in Western sources. The dancers and musicians are professional but, as the author points out earlier in the book, this has not necessarily increased their status. While professional actors and actresses have generally seen their social status rise with professionalization, singers became divided into two categories, "those with a certificate who worked in ensembles, orchestras, radio and TV, and those with lifelong experience but no formal training who work at weddings and nightclubs. It is the latter who are discussed here, as well as dancers, for whom the effect of professionalization has been largely negative. The government has generally patronized ballet and folk dance troupes, leaving "belly dancers with no formal schooling or recognition" (pp. 62-63). For examples of the kind of dancing to which this chapter refers see the AV section of this unit.


  • Egyptian Cinema
    Viola Shafik

    This unit’s audio and video component features brief clips of films Youssef Chaihine, not only the best know Arab Director, but also a giant of world cinema. But Chahine is only one of the major directors in Egyptian cinema. The Egyptian cinematographic industry is, by far, the most developed in the Arab World, but it is also one of the best known in the non-Western world. This essay provides a comprehensive survey of that Egyptian film from its origins at the end of the 19th century through the 1990s. Shafik places cinema squarely within its socio-politic, economic and artistic contexts, outlining the impact of government regulation and censorship, privatization and state control, etc. The article begins with a historical survey, tracing cinema through the satellite era, then discussing censorship and taboos, the role of women in cinematic production, the means of educating those involved in cinematic production from lighting to directors, the economics of movies and cinema audiences, and the star system of the Egyptian film industry. The essay then provides a classification of Egyptian cinema into genres, ranging from the musical and comedy, to realism, thrillers and literary adaptations.

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