Media of the Masses: Cassette Culture in Modern Egypt - Andrew Simon. Redwood City: Stanford University Press, 2022
by Søren Møller Sørensen
Andrew Simon’s Media of the Masses, Cassette Culture in Modern Egypt is a brilliant contribution to the study of Egyptian society’s recent history. The vehicle for this exploration is the cassette audiotape recorder. This readable book offers us a fascinating account of various chapters of Egypt’s history observed, so to speak, from the perspective of this device. Or rather, the author demonstrates how new aspects of this history surface when we analyze Egyptian society's appropriation of and reactions to this media “that empowered countless people to become active participants in the creation of culture and circulation of content” (p. 184).
Part 1 of the book deals with the infitah, the liberalization of Egypt’s economy in the mid-1970s under the reign of president Anwar Sadat. New shadings are added to our picture of this period as we follow the trajectories of the cassette recorder as a commodity in the new economy. One aspect of the period of liberalization in the 1970s was the fact that a large and growing number of Egyptians were working as foreign workers in neighboring countries. Many returning workers brought cassette tape recorders to Egyptian homes. Some entered the country as contraband, which, together with legitimately imported or locally produced devices, served to satisfy the demand for a commodity symbolizing “modern life.”
Part 2 is subtitled “The Social life of Audiocassette Technology.” The search light is now directed towards the effects of this technology in the field of cultural production. The tenet of the chapters “Censuring,” “Copying,” and “Subverting” is the commonplace notion of the audiocassette as a democratizing media technology, challenging the power, authority, and economic interests of official, commercial, or culture-elite gatekeepers. The book provides ample examples of the elite’s disdain for popular music, produced for and distributed via the audiocassette, with endless discussions on the alleged vulgarity of the music and its potential harmful effects. Simon does not avoid a certain redundancy in his demonstration of this elitist view. In my opinion, less documentation and more analysis of this classic high/low dichotomy discourse in a specifically Egyptian guise would have been beneficial to the reader. However, some flexibility in the discourse surfaces in the elaboration of two prominent and well-chosen cases of artists whose fame rested on audiocassette production and distribution: the shabi singer Ahmad 'Adawia and the satirical Sheik Imam, who, according to Simon, “subverted” Egypt’s official accounts of historical events, such as the American president Nixon’s visit to Egypt in 1974.
In the book’s last chapter, Simon turns to issues regarding the collection, archiving, and preservation of source material needed for the kind of history writing that he practices. Where, how, and guided by which ideological notions are cassette audiotapes preserved and made accessible for the historian? These questions – that pars pro toto address issues of obvious relevance for a broad spectrum of media and material culture historiography – are elaborated in three areas or domains. First, the largest and first official Egyptian multimedia archive is discussed, the Cairo Opera Library. Valuable information is given about the creation of this institution, about the nature of the collection and the origin of the materials, and especially about the official elitist view of culture that characterizes the institution and conditions its selection of materials. Next, informal, private collections are brought in focus. The main example is an accumulation of cassettes found in a shop belonging to the founder and former owner of the long defunct company Sharakat Egyptphone, one of the bottom-up businesses that emerged during the infitah period. Such informal collections play a role as “shadow archives” for Egypt’s recent history, and historical examination of their holdings sheds light on what was actually available on the audiocassette market as well as on the failure of the official gatekeepers’ attempts to control this. Finally, a brief but highly relevant discussion of the audiocassette and popular Islam is added. Again we see official gatekeepers – in this case a governmental censorship body – attempting to regulate the market of audiocassettes, this time with Islamic religious content and informal collections or shadow archives that reveal “a different, more decentralized story” (p. 168), thus bearing witness to the partial failure of the regulation and censorship.
This last chapter and the conclusion invite reflections on the book’s methodology and, particularly, its sources. “Turning through the pages of popular Egypt periodicals,” we read on page 184, “I frequently came across cassette technology in surprising places, from cartoons to crime reports to court cases. These serendipitous discoveries reshaped what I expected this study to be, the story of a single mass medium, and what it became, a history of modern Egypt.” These sentences point indirectly to this study’s dependence on Egyptian periodicals. Or rather, to its heavy dependence on the best known of these: Ruz al-Yusuf. This, however, does not constitute a problem in itself. The material from Ruz al-Yusuf often serves as a starting point for studies that also involve other sources and other types of sources, including interviews and material from the shadow archives such as cassettes and their covers, private photos, etc. Still, this dependency provides information when discussing what this book is and what it isn’t. The advertising text on the book's cover positions the study “in the productive crossroad of social history, cultural anthropology and media and sound studies.” And indeed, this is social history and historical media studies – and as such an awe-inspiring achievement. But is it sound studies? I am not sure. We look at the Egypt society through “the door” of the cassette recorder as a tool “infused with agency by people” (p. 184), and we trace its manifestations in social practices and in public discourse. The content that the audiotapes convey – primarily music – is of course addressed, but mainly through its social reverb rather than through any descriptions or analysis of the recordings themselves. The sound of the audiocassette technology – the particular acoustical quality of the sounds produced and distributed in this particular way – is outside this book’s field of study despite its obvious impact on the historical soundscapes to which the audiotape recorder once contributed. I write this, not as criticism but as consumer information for its future readers. The book's qualities speak for themselves, and what it does it does brilliantly! Simon’s Media of The Masses: Cassette Culture in Modern Egypt is an excellent book that demonstrates and conveys an impressive knowledge of Egyptian society. It deserves to become standard reading for anyone with an interest in media and Egypt's recent social and cultural history.